While publishers seem keen only on school books, the theatre scene has rebounded

Wednesday March 18 2020

Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu, and Kenyan actresses Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva pose on May 9, 2018 during a photocall for the film "Rafiki" at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France. PHOTO | FILE | AFP


As 2018 slips away and we prepare to welcome 2019, memories demand that we revisit our experiences of the past year as we make plans for the next one. It is human nature to remember the bigger events in life.

Considering how we are globally connected today, probably one of the biggest literary/cultural non-events in 2018 was the announcement by The Swedish Academy that it would not award the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2018! There was consternation in the literary and cultural circles, for this is not just another prize, the money aside, this is the Nobel.

The Swedish Academy explained: there had been allegations of serious indiscretions among members of the panel that chooses the literary winner. Given the near secretive nature of the deliberations of the committee, the matter was left at that and interested parties can only wait for 2019, having probably lost bets. Despite there being so many other significant literary awards, the Nobel Prize is still probably the major mark of literary attainment.

Locally no one seems to have noted that the Kenya Publishers Association did not award the Wahome Mutahi Prize for Literature for 2018. Apparently there were not enough entries to satisfy the demand that the books to be considered for this award be humorous or satirical! However, a Kenyan, Kinyanjui Kombani won the Regional CODE Burt Award for African Young Adult Literature. His book, Finding Colombia, which addresses the problem of drugs and juvenile delinquency topped other entries from Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and Ethiopia.

Yet another Kenyan won the Caine Prize for African Writing. Makena Onjerika’s story, Fanta Blackcurrant, topped the shortlist, which included three stories from Nigeria and one from South Africa. Makena’s story, like that of Kombani in Finding Colombia is about disadvantaged young girls trying to survive the hardships of street life in Nairobi. One would say that 2018 was a good year for children and young adults’ stories.


It is another young adult’s story that provided what would probably be considered the most contentious subject of the year. Rafiki isn’t a particularly controversial film. It is a simple love story, or of kindness, if you like. However, like many love stories, it is complex in the way it seeks to show that love can blossom between two young women in a pretentiously conservative society. Why this particular kind of love irks some people in this country only God knows. Is it the love that is the problem, or is it the people in love that annoys the morality police?

However, when the film was censored by the Kenya Film Classification Board apparently for its ‘homosexual theme’, it provoked interest in many young Kenyans who thronged to venues where it was shown after a court order allowed it. One wonders if the censors would ban Jambula Tree, the short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko from which it is adapted.

The September hiccups caused by the KFCB nearly spoiled what was a good year for Kenyan film enthusiasts, especially after Lupita Nyong’o put in another good show as Nakia in Black Panther. One hopes that as Netflix spreads in Kenya and Viusasa grows, the Kenyan film industry will finally take off.

As film struggles, theatre seems to be rebounding. The Kenya National Theatre has been considerably active in 2018, hosting several plays, throughout the year, especially by Millaz Production, directed by Xavier Nato, and directed by Senator Cleophas Malala.

The usual theatre avenues, especially Alliance Française continues to host several shows in the year. Theatre seems to be back on the menu of the universities with several of them hosting shows in 2018. But one hopes that Senator Malala will carry the spirit of the arts and culture into the National Assembly and challenge his colleagues to attend and watch the plays that he has been directing/producing as well as allocate more resources to the arts and culture in this country.

The government needs to invest in theatres and performing spaces as well as programs throughout the country. On the other hand, it is sad that Kenyan artistes are quite poorly compensated. They more or less enter penury when they retire and die poor. Joseph Kamaru and Gabriel Omolo easily come to mind as artistes who struggled with life in their last days before dying this year.

The literary scene in Kenya has remained active throughout the year. Many of the online magazines, including Kwani?, Jalada and Enkare have continued to publish quite good fiction and creative non-fiction as well as other forms of art. Unfortunately for Kwani? its last listed activity – Kwani? Open Mic session – was in February. The story in town is that Kwani? is as good as dead. Jalada is quite active with its latest issue being Jalada 06: Diaspora, which focuses on African writers and writing from the diaspora, wherever that is.

Jalada is probably the most active, consistent and creative of the online literary publications from Kenya today, although it seems to be driven by a desire to be continental, if not global, rather than local or regional. Still, these magazines have to find a means to support their activities. Donor dependence means that when the funds dry up the venture folds up.


Enkare Review, the youngest of these magazines, says the following about its ambition, “Founded in 2016, Enkare Review is a literary magazine that aims to discover new, vibrant voices in the literary landscape and give these creatives a platform to showcase their talent. Based in Nairobi, but accepting submissions from all over the world, we hope to be the home your brilliant short story, poetry, essay, review or art deserve.” A bold claim indeed. At the beginning it had all the signs of the new kid on the block. Enthusiastic, adventurous and all-embracing. But infighting among the founder members has stifled its growth in 2018.

These publications have done more than just publish local stories. They have also created a transnational connection that makes one dream of the Pan-African impulse of the 1960s and 1970s. However, one hopes that unlike Kwani?, which promised a lot, did significantly well, and represented more than hope, these two literary seedlings, among many others, will grow into mature platforms for Kenyan/African creativity.

The mainstream publishers continue to release new titles in the market. However, the demands of the new school curriculum seem to have driven any interest in publishing non-school material away from the editors and their managers. There are tens, if not hundreds, of titles for children and young readers. Set-books are thriving. However, adult fiction in English and local languages is only a trickle.

New titles in English are hard to come by. Even auto/biographies are in short supply. There are Kenyans publishing short stories all over the place, in local and international magazines, but even these don’t seem to interest any major local publisher to make an anthology. Poetry, though, is doing better – not in terms of being regularly published. But in the form of open mic competitions and sessions.

The death of Chris Wanjala in October was one of the saddest moments for the world of literature in Kenya. Prof Wanjala had taught literature at the University of Nairobi for many years, then moved to Egerton University where he founded the department of literature and came back to Nairobi.

He was one of the most consistent critics of East African literature. But he was also actively involved in the development and promotion of books through the National Book Development Council of Kenya, which he chaired at the time of his death. NBDCK develops and promotes reading material for young adults. Which is why it is the local partner for CODE Burt Award for African Young Adult Literature.


Although the usual talk in these pages from the pessimists is that Kenyans don’t read, the common retort from the optimists is that they indeed read – they may not read books but they read other ‘texts’ – and write. Actually Kenyans do write a lot – evidenced by the number of short stories that young Kenyans are publishing (mostly as they chase global recognition and awards) and the number of novels, plays and collections of short stories and anthologies of poetry in Kiswahili.

Kiswahili is the most fertile growth area for writing in Kenya and East Africa today. One of the causes for this growth is the reward from the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature. For instance, this prize attracted 116 entries from East Africa (really Kenya and Tanzania) for 2018 – with two Kenyans shortlisted in the novel and poetry categories, Shisia Wasilwa for Makovu ya Uhai and Jacob Ngumbau Julius for Moto wa Kifuu, respectively. The winning prize is US$5000 for the first prize for fiction and first poetry each, with the 2nd prize taking home US$3000 and 3rd prize US$2000.

So, what can one say about 2018? It probably was a good year for some people in the arts, culture and literature; it may have disappointed others. For instance, the hiccups and confusion over the implementation of the news school syllabus was good news to many people in the arts – it reinstates the creative and performing arts in the curriculum – and writers of children’s books and publishers. But because it isn’t clear how literature and the arts will be promoted throughout the system, it leaves a lot to be desired.

For the general reader there were several new titles from Kenya and other parts of the world – as always, there are thousands of novels, travelogues, history, economics, psychology, motivational, religious books, among other titles. I would recommend Guru: A Walk to Success by Narendra Raval and It Is Possible: An African Woman Speaks by Phoebe Asiyo, the two most recent non-fiction Kenyan books. From America Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff and Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward are worth your break during this break. Michelle Obama’s memoirs Becoming has been the ‘must read’ for many Kenyans, and therefore worth adding to one’s reading table or bookshelf.

One can only pray for good things and times in 2019, as it behooves human beings. For it is the arts and culture, the stories that we make, tell, retell, hear, relive and live – as poetry, drama, music, dance, song, painting, carving etc. – that make us human.


The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]