The man with the golden pen - Daily Nation

The teacher who became Kenya’s highest earning author

Saturday March 23 2013

Author Wallah Bin Wallah in his home at Kiserian. Photo/Emma Nzioka

Author Wallah Bin Wallah in his home at Kiserian. Photo/Emma Nzioka  NATION MEDIA GROUP

By EUGENE MBUGUA [email protected]

In Kajiado North Constituency, there is a place where the Ngong Hills casts its shadows on a small town called Matasia. In the town is found the home of probably its most illustrious resident.

Sitting on an eight-acre compound is the sanctuary of Kenya’s best-selling and best paid creative author.

This is the home of Wallah bin Wallah, who has revolutionised the study and teaching of Kiswahili in Kenyan schools.

Once inside the compound, you are greeted by a towering four-storey green building with a blue finishing. At the entrance is a life-size giraffe statue, next to a six-space car shed. Among the cars parked here are a Mercedes Benz, a Lexus, and a Land Cruiser VX, cars that are driven by people with means.

Wallah says the giraffe statue has great symbolism to his life. “I was brought up in Tanzania and their animal symbol is the giraffe, just like the lion is Kenya’s. The giraffe is my favourite animal because with its height, it sees further than any other animal.

“When I was growing up, they would tell us Kiswahili language was worthless, but I saw far, like the giraffe. See how far Kiswahili has taken me.”

For his mastery of the Swahili language, some call him ‘Ustadh’, which translates to professor, and his way with words has earned him the title ‘Malenga,’ meaning master poet. Some of his friends, students and peers also call him Guru.

In a simple polo T-shirt and matching dress trousers, the tall and slender Wallah has no airs around him. Nothing about him screams wealth. Always in a cheerful, upbeat mood and in fluent Swahili expected of a man of his towering stature, he explains the origin of his name.

“My father was called Wallah, and I took up his name. One time someone asked me whose son I was and I answered Wallah’s. The name Wallah bin Wallah was born,” he says, revealing that he had been born Ndedah.

But pressed further, he explains that in 1970 — sadly only seven years after Kenya’s independence — there was intense tribalism and attendant discrimination in the country, which forced him to take on a “non-polarising name.”

“In the shops here in Nairobi, you were always asked what your surname was and it was really depressing. I wanted a way out,” says the son of Wallah Reuben, an East African Railways Corporation worker who hailed from Nyakach in Kisumu County.

He explains that the name Wallah, if separated, means son of God.

“Most of my life I wasn’t taken care of by my parents and the name has always kept me close to my God. When I converted to Islam, the name was entrenched in me and I was accepted everywhere I went. The name is now a trademark.”

Wallah, or Mwalimu, as many now call him, was born in Lamadi Village, Mwanza, Tanzania, in 1956, and spent his early childhood in Lukungu Village, also in Mwanza.

He attended Lukungu Primary School from class one to four between 1965 and 1969 and, after sitting his common entrance examination, proceeded to Bukumbi Primary School in Shinyanga, where he studied from class five to seven.

“After I finished my class seven exam, I was unable to proceed to high school due to lack of fees. Church missionaries took me in in 1972 and enrolled me at the Nyegezi Seminary School for one and-a-half years,” he says.

But, increasingly, getting immersed into Kiswahili, he felt his advancement in the language would be best advanced through Islam, and not Christianity.  

And he was ready to pay the price. He quit midstream and got into business, selling fish between Mwanza and Kisumu.

He sold fish for three years until the Muslim Youth League sponsored him to study at Ravals Secondary School in Nairobi. “By the time I got to Form Two and Three, those who were sponsoring me could not afford to do it anymore,” he says.

But Wallah was not one to shy away from work. “I started selling peanuts and vegetables in the streets. I would wake up at 3am, go to Marikiti, buy vegetables, keep them in my house and then rush to school. After school, I would pack the vegetables and sell them. Other times I would sell peanuts at the railway station.”

Through his small enterprises, Wallah managed to finish Form Four in 1974 and, already outstanding in his mastery of Kiswahili, he was hired as a Kiswahili teacher. “They told me to start teaching immediately. The pay was Sh300 per month. This was a lot of money then.”

It was while teaching here that he also attended classes for his A-levels between 1975 and 1976.

After completing Form Six, he joined Morogoro Teachers Training College, where he earned a Diploma in Education in 1978. “After my diploma, I came back to Kenya and was posted to Misiani Girls’ Secondary School in Kang’undo in 1981, where I taught for three years.”

But burning to further his grasp of Kiswahili, Wallah proceeded to Zanzibar Campus in 1984, then a constituent college of the University of Dar es Salaam, where he spent two years specialising in Kiswahili and Arabic.

He then returned to Kenya once again, this time getting a teaching job at Moi Girls, Isinya. While teaching there, he continued studying for a Master’s degree at Dar es Salaam University through correspondence.

From here, he was posted to Mbita High School. “While at Mbita, I wrote my first book, Malenga wa Ziwa Kuu, and it was a success. It was well-embraced in schools and was even used as a course text in teacher training colleges,” says the admirer of Shaaban Bin Robert of the Kusadikika and Wasifu wa Siti Binti Saad fame.

In 1994, Wallah resigned from the Teacher’s Service Commission and joined Makini School. “In 1996, I wrote my second book, Taswira Ya KCPE Kiswahili, and after that Longhorn Publishers approached me to write Kiswahili teaching books. They gave me the syllabus and told me to come up with the first and second book.”

In this way, Wallah’s biggest success, Kiswahili Mufti, was born. “They were very pleased with how I interpreted the syllabus. I even introduced my own noun classification from the usual ji-ma to li-ya.”

Initially, he faced a lot of opposition, with some scholars complaining he was ruining the language.

Eventually in 2002, the Kenya Institute of Education adopted his classification “because it was easier and more practical.”

In 2004, Wallah quit teaching to become a full time writer. By then, he had already completed the Kiswahili Mufti series all the way to class eight. “After Kiswahili Mufti, I wrote Insha Mufti, which is a guide to composition writing in Kiswahili and then followed that up with Chemsha Bongo, a book that prepares pupils in class 6, 7 and 8 for the Kiswahili exam.”

Other than books, in 1982, Wallah took part in translating the Tanzanian revised Constitution and in 2005. Together with Professor Kimani Njogu and Nuhu Bakari, he translated the Bomas Constitution to Kiswahili.

Recently, Wallah, now 56, has embarked on writing novellas. The books are mostly motivational. “I have already published a number of them including Zawadi ya Sanda, Mbwa wa Majini, Sitaki Simu, Kicheko cha Maiti and Tumgidie Bwege. There are over 19 books in the series,” he says.

Wallah admits the Kiswahili language is under threat in Kenya despite being a compulsory in schools. Most students only study it to pass examinations, he says.

The problem, he believes, is three-pronged. Historically, he says, people do not value Kiswahili.

“Secondly, leaders, some of who are responsible for planning the school curriculum, do not know, and are not interested in, Kiswahili. The third problem is tribalism. People love their local dialects and they view the next best option as English. This is evident in the number of vernacular stations opening every day as compared to Kiswahili ones,” he says.

Wallah believes the solution lies in encouraging the general public to embrace it as a national and unifying language.

The unifying power

“People need to learn the unifying power of a common language. Countries like Tanzania, China and Germany have been unified by the power of their own language,” he says.

The guru of Kiswahili is not all talk, though. Other than hosting a Kiswahili radio show on Radio Waumini every Saturday, he has built a hall in his expansive home which he uses to teach Kiswahili.

“My centre is open to schools that want to bring their students. When they come, I teach them and encourage them to embrace the language. Sometimes I have pupils coming in every day from Monday to Saturday.”

At last year’s event, Professor Ken Walibora, another trail-blazer in his field, Professor Said Ahmed Mohammed of Germany and journalists Hassan Ali and Nuhu Bakari were among those honoured.

Wallah says that the secret to his success is discipline and originality. “If you want to succeed, you must find out what people have done and strive to do it differently and better. Don’t be a copycat. Develop your own style that stands out.

“Another thing is discipline. As a writer, especially, there are many comforts you have to forego. Personally, I don’t smoke or drink. I lock myself up and stay away from people. Don’t let people always see you. Let them see you through your work.”

One of his publishers, Simon Sossion, attests to this.

“Since I started editing Wallah Bin Wallah’s manuscripts in the 1990s, he has always impressed me as a very disciplined, organised and meticulous author,” says Mr Sossion, the managing director of Target Publications, which publishes Taswira ya KCPE Kiswahili.

When the issue of being the richest author comes up, Wallah laughs and admits it could be true.

“As a writer, you do not earn a salary, so I am not the highest earning writer as such. Writers get royalties, which is only 10 per cent of the sales. I can say that I have been lucky because my books are used in most, if not all schools in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda, so I get a very good sum in royalties.”

Wallah believes that it is best to strive in your youth and enjoy life in your old age. And he does exactly that.

“My favorite thing to do is travel with my family. All my children are adults now, my lastborn just completed Form Four. Whenever we get the chance, I like to travel with them, visiting parks and other attractions.”

While he appreciates his financial success in a country where authors complain there is little money in writing, Wallah says his biggest satisfaction is in seeing his former students succeed.

“The first woman to be elected MP from the Maasai community, Peris Tobiko, for instance, was my student.”


I really hate tribalism, says Wallah

What are you writing now?

Two short stories, Kifo cha Wema and Kitanzi Cha Utandawizi

What are you reading now?

Paul Arden’s Whatever You Think Think the Opposite and You Can Win by Shiv Khera.

Who is your favourite writer?

I have several. When I was younger, my favourite writers were David Maillu and Charles Mangua. Zacharia Zani also made a great impact on me because I used his books to study. Currently, Ken Walibora’s novels and Tanzanian writers like Mohammed Said Abduallah are also among my favourites.

When do you write?

I write every time I get an idea. But I like to seclude myself when writing because writing is like dreaming, if someone wakes you up the dream is gone. I lock myself up or wait until everyone is asleep.

Sometimes, I go to a hotel and write there. Kiswahili Mufti 1 to 5 were written at the Hilton, while my latest short stories were written at a beach hotel in Mombasa.

Wanjala or Maillu?

I will have to say Maillu because I read his books in my youth and I found the naughtiness and bluntness in his books like After 4.30 entertaining. His books have the ability to intrigue while educating and entertaining.
What do you hate most in life?

I hate tribalism. Part of the reason I use the name Wallah bin Wallah is because then you cannot tell what tribe I am. Another thing I hate is when people are discriminated (against) based on educational level. Education is only earned but everyone is born with wisdom.

What leaders do you look up to in life?

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. I keep a Tanzanian flag in my house in his honour. He managed to unite his people and completely eradicate tribalism. Another great leader I look up to is Mao Tse-tung of China because he taught his people independence.

I only have one. I am not able to help all the people who cannot help themselves. If I could, I would help everyone in need.

If you were not a writer or teacher what would you be?

I would be a religious leader. I would be a priest or an Imam.

Cord or jubilee?

I don’t support any. I will be loyal to whoever emerges top as long as they leave the country better than they found it.

What is the highest you have earned in a year from royalties?

Not less than Sh20 million. I cannot tell you exact amounts but Sh20 million is the least I earn annually.