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Tribute to editor who shaped African writers

Sunday January 13 2019


When Keith Sambrook was asked him to write something for the East African Educational Publishers' 50th anniversary magazine, he had great memories to recount. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Keith Sambrook, who passed away at the ripe age of 93, was the chairman of the East African Educational Publishers at the time we transitioned into a local majority-owned company in 1986.

He was the last of top management at HEB London with a human face. The process which he had started so amicably ended acrimoniously in 1992 when we bought out Heinemann UK stock.

Sambrook was Alan Hill's sidekick. He lived in Golders Green and would commute to work by train in the morning and take a ride in the evening with Hill, who lived in Hampstead.

Whenever I was in London, the chairman would sometimes invite me to his house for dinner.


With himself in the driving seat, I would take the front seat in the Jaguar, and Sambrook would take the back seat.

Hill would keep ranting, moving from one topic to another while Sambrook remained quiet, only fumbling with his pipe and muttering occasionally.

Sambrook was a cool, calm and calculating, soft-spoken gentleman, with a wry sense of humour.

I remember when he chaired a meeting in London with the accountant, the warehouse manager, the export manager and myself.

Using my connections at Central Bank of Kenya, I got a cheque for £56,000 on account of consignment stocks during those difficult days of exchange control restrictions and handed it to Sambrook first thing in the morning. He kept it in his small leather bag.

The morning meeting ended in a deadlock. The three did not want to supply me with more stocks whereas Sambrook argued that I should be given what I needed unconditionally.


At the end of the day, before the meeting ended, Keith unzipped his bag and put the cheque on the table, laughing.

Everyone was excited. One of them asked: “Keith, why didn't you tell us you had a cheque?”

“Well,” answered Sambrook, “You didn't ask me.” My order was immediately released for servicing.

Sambrook was the first editor of the African Writers Series that many of us grew up reading. He recruited James Currey to take over from him.

He is the one who procured the manuscript of the world-famous Things Fall Apart from Chinua Achebe, and had it edited in London.

But he was a self-effacing man and would rather have given the credit to Hill, the group chairman, who built up the Heinemann publishing empire.

Always with a pipe in his mouth, he reminded me of Sherlock Holmes playing the role of Watson.


Sambrook was a gentleman in the real sense of the word. He never had a trace of racism and treated overseas managing directors as his colleagues, even though he was our boss.

He visited Nairobi many times and was always a welcome guest by staff, authors and booksellers.

Not long ago, I asked him to write something for the EAEP 50th anniversary magazine and he had great memories to recount.

He leaves behind his wife Hannah and daughter Catherine. He lived a full life but we shall miss him dearly. Fare thee well.

Dr Chakava is the EAEP Group chairman