- Kenya takes pride in Ngugi, Muthoni Garland, Grace Ogot, Binyavanga and others.
Taban lo Liyong did Kenyans a backhanded favour when he called East Africa a ‘literary wasteland.’ His words have successfully served as a spur in the hearts, minds and pens of Kenyan writers whose works have proliferated since the 1960s when the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Grace Ogot and even Jomo Kenyatta were first published.
Since the 1970s we have seen street writers like David Maillu (After 4:30), Meja Mwangi (Kill me Quick), and Charles Mangua (Son of Woman) telling stories and often self-publishing because their works were not necessarily taken seriously as good literature.
That evaluation has changed over the years, but to date, Ngugi has been the benchmark and the way for young aspiring Kenyan writers.
Women writers like Asenath Odaga, Pamela Kola and Muthoni Muchemi, again, have, since the 1980s, often specialised in writing children’s literature and drawing on indigenous oral traditions to remind Kenyans of their grandparents’ wonderful stories, many of which would otherwise have been lost.
Important poets have also been writing since the Seventies and Eighties, such as Jared Angira, Jonathan Kariara, John Mbiti, Micere Mugo, and Okello Oculi; so when Taban’s words re-echo in Kenyans’ hearts and minds, it may be because his vitriol was so mean, not because of the verity of his literary vision.
Kenya’s literary world was given a shot in the arm in the early 21st century after Binyavanga Wainaina won the Caine Prize and went on to launch Kwani?, the local literary journal with funding from the Ford Foundation. Kwani? has proved to be an important platform for aspiring young poets, painters, cartoonists and short story writers.
But somehow we still seem to hear Taban’s words reverberate in the Kenyan media where too often we hear that “Kenyans don’t read” even though we know this is not really true.
Illiteracy is still too high in the country; that is true. But what is also the case is that people readily gobble up local newspapers and magazines. If it weren’t so, all the second hand book and magazine vendors wouldn’t be so visible in Nairobi streets and walkways.