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«Popular Fiction and the Popular Press in Kenya This chapter explores the emergence and growth of popular fiction in Kenya while examining the role of ...»

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Popular Fiction and the Popular Press in Kenya

This chapter explores the emergence and growth of popular fiction in Kenya

while examining the role of the popular press in this development. The

chapter begins with a discussion of the roles played by the Universities of

Nairobi, Makerere and Ibadan in the development of African literature. The

chapter then looks at the emergence of popular literature as a category of critical literary exegesis in the early 1970s with the rise of writers such as David Maillu and Charles Mangua. The discussion then focuses on the popular press as a space for apprenticeship for a number of these writers, and the emergence of popular fiction columns in the Kenyan popular press. I examine two representative samples, Joe and Drum magazines, arguably some of the most influential popular magazines in Kenya in the 1970s. I then locate Whispers within these traditions and give a brief overview of the column as an introduction to more detailed analysis. The chapter ends with a biography of Wahome Mutahi where I also examine his interests in the novel and theatre while teasing out some of the recurring features in his literary work in general.

In 1968, a group of university lecturers, among them Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Taban Lo Liyong, Owuor Anyumba and Okot p’ Bitek, from the University of Nairobi called for the transformation of the university’s English department.

The lecturers argued that there was a need for an “African narrative” to replace a syllabus they perceived as too European in orientation. They emphasised the need for a cultural reinvention and revival of Africa’s cultural past to help address some of the emerging challenges in independent Kenya (Odhiambo,T, 2004). This move, coupled at the time with the government’s desire to establish a cultural policy in the country was a defining moment in both the intellectual and literary traditions in Kenya. The Kenyan government was keen on establishing a cultural policy that would go hand in hand with its development programmes (Ogot, 1995). Accordingly, it established and promoted institutions such as the Kenya Cultural Centre, the Kenya Literature Bureau and later even created The Ministry for Culture and Social Services (Odhiambo, T, 2004). These institutions would celebrate Kenya’s cultural heritage but in a manner that was in fact intended to emphasise the need for ‘unity’ in post-independence Kenya, then a part of the government’s larger hegemonic project. Odhiambo (1987) argues that regimes that took over state power at independence were bound, at the beginning at least, to be responsive to the forces generated by the various peasantries that, presumably, were articulated at the level of contradictions which the state system and not in harmony with it, since peasants are guardians of their autonomy and therefore duty-bound to be wary of the state system. The state then had no choice but to create political structures capable of containing the divisive effects of these contradictions (191).

This argument may very well help us understand the Kenya government’s desire to establish a cultural policy in the country, indeed a policy that was later rejected by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, among other writers (See Ngugi, 1993;


Apart from the University of Nairobi, Makerere University also played a significant role in the development of African literature in the region. Scholars such as Simon Gikandi (2003) have underscored the influence of Makerere University in East Africa’s intellectual literary traditions especially in the nascent years of the Kenyan novel. Makerere had helped create a small but hugely influential literary elite in the region. This literary elite was heavily influenced by F. R Leavis’ ‘Great Tradition’ so that many pioneering works of writers in the region emerge from this tradition. Indeed, writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o have acknowledged the extent to which they were influenced by Western writers such as D.H Lawrence and Joseph Conrad, among others. Gikandi (2003) observes that it was from the ‘Great Tradition’ that East Africa’s pioneer writers first got their real literary models of what a poem, a novel or a play was.

Towards the end of the Sixties decade through the early 1970s, there was a deliberate attempt by most of these writers to break away from the imprisoning tethers of English writing traditions. This shift partly gestured towards the region’s oral traditions. Writers such as Ngugi began infusing in their work local oral traditions in search of an African literary aesthetic. But it was Okot p’Bitek who almost single-handedly took this new form to a new level, particularly revolutionising the use of the English language in the region’s literature with his poetry/songs Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol.

Writers emerging in the early to mid 1970s pushed the limits of this ‘literary revolution to the extreme. Charles Mangua and David Maillu not only introduced a new literature directly sourcing its register and temper from its readership, they also moved away from the highly ideological writing of the 1960s, instead interrogating more immediate social issues that had been pushed to the periphery by the 1960s writers.

It is important however that one also looks at the several intellectual and cultural magazines that were part of this “literary revolution”. Black Orpheus and Transition1 were influential African literary magazines linked to Makerere University in Uganda (Transition) and University of Ibadan in Nigeria (Black Orpheus) and played a significant role in the emergence of a new African narrative. Ulli Beir edited Black Orpheus while Rajat Neogy published Transition. These two journals encouraged the development of an African 1 Examples of other cultural and intellectual magazines that also promoted the growth of African literature included Busara in Kenya, Nat Nakasa and Lewis Nkosi’s The Classic in South Africa, Okyeane by Ghana Society of Writers, Nigerian Magazine among others. Earlier on there was the influential Parisian cultural review Presence Africaine of Alione Diop although this mainly featured Negritude writers (Benson, 1986).

literature that was markedly different from its earlier European references.

John Thompson thus says of Ulli Beir of Black Orpheus:

He… operated in a special field. He was a border operator—on the border between the European and the local, the traditional. And he could cross back and forth from one border to another and find things they had in common. Ulli was able to go back and forth like a smuggler… from avant-garde European art and avant-garde European literature, which at the time were still interested in myth and symbol, to modern traditional African art and literature. Thus seemed like a common meeting ground. For a time just as it had been in Europe, this was a tremendous fertile field for painters and writers (cited in Benson, 1986: 17).

Neogy’s Transition also attempted these “border operations”. According to Benson (1986), Transition’s first issues were “egregiously arty, bohemian, meant to challenge conventional sensibilities” but also provided “a medium for the editors’ own feelings of alienation” (107). Clearly, although these two magazines were both interested in a new African literary aesthetic, their intellectual leanings meant that popular literature was still significantly muted in their pages. Several contributions from outside the academy barely made the pages of the magazines although a few emerging writers were published. Benson (1986) has noted that there was a “deliberate effort to reserve domination of the new African literature for a group of writers…” (10). Similarly, commenting on Transition, Abiola Irele notes, “one sensed the pull towards a restricted university periodical that the Makerere lecturers, thrilled with the appearance of an intellectual magazine at their doorstep, were exerting on those early numbers” (103).2 While it is important that we acknowledge the role played by these magazines in the development of African literature, we should at the same time take of the fact that they

Journal of African Studies 5, no. 3 (Spring 1967) pg 444 (cited in Benson, 1986: 113).

created a small intellectual elite who excluded the popular fiction writer.

Benson thus notes that instead of nurturing new talent, it was Rajat Neogy, Gerald Moore, Jahnheinz Jahn, Wole Soyinka, Abiola Irele, Ali Mazrui, Es’Kia Mphalele, Paul Theroux, and Christopher Okigbo who dominated the pages of Transition. Neogy’s taste for the avant-garde literature, Benson argues, was curiously selective. Beier was not any different. Although he gave space to emerging literatures such as the widely popular Onitsha Market literature, he is said to have been interested in this literature mainly for anthropological

reasons—“its vast reservoir of untrained but creative talent” (Benson, 1986:


In effect then, although Transition published new writers from East Africa, it cannot be credited with having produced the region’s ‘popular’ writer. The ‘popular’ writer in Kenya was therefore neither directly fathered by the university nor mothered by the elite cultural magazines such as Transition, he was, in my opinion, the bastard child of a literary revolution.

By the early 1970s, a number of local publishers had warmed up to popular literature having realised that there was a market for this kind of work. The rapid growth of urban centres such as Nairobi had created a modest but vibrant working class that was not only literate but also had disposable income. Urbanisation had intensified social problems and this group found popular literature capable of responding to their popular concerns besides being a source of leisure. With a ready market for the literature, multinational publishers launched local imprints to produce work by popular writers while a group of local publishers also emerged. Henry Chakava, one of the most influential editors at Heinemann Kenya at the time has noted that in the early 1970s, he was receiving manuscripts mainly on romance, crime and adventure. He recommended to his employers in London that they should start a new series for leisure reading and was allowed to start ‘Spear Books’, which became a huge success. His idea was soon picked up by Macmillan who came up with their ‘Pacesetter Series’ also achieving instant success (Chakava, 1996: 51). Other publishing houses such as The East African Publishing House (EAPH) introduced the ‘Modern African Library’ which published Okot p’ Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol as well as Charles Mangua’s popular Son of Woman, while Longman launched ‘Drumbeat Series’. Oxford University Press (OUP) established ‘New drama from Africa’ and ‘New Fiction from Africa Series’. Writers such as David Maillu also launched their own series. Maillu launched ‘Comb Books’ after having his manuscripts rejected by the major publishing houses. He self-published popular titles such as After 4.30, My Dear Bottle, Unfit for Human Consumption and Diary of a Prostitute among others. Foundation Books, TransAfrica, Bookwise among many other small publishers also rolled out thrillers, romance fiction and crime series. Although prior to this ‘boom’ several works of fiction had been published in the country, the developments in the early 1970s marked the beginnings of popular fiction in the modern publishing industry in Kenya.

The “fat years” of publishing, as Chakava described the 1970s in Kenya, did not however go down well with a number of critics. A debate over quality ensued and some scholars, notably Chris Wanjala as I argued in my Introduction, criticised popular literature for being aesthetically wanting and incapable of “commitment” required of Third World literature. Wanjala (1978) accused writers of popular literature of merely seeking to “please the audience” (18). He described Maillu’s writing, which was seen to be representative of popular writing in Kenya, as “… a trashy and scabrous imitation of brothel and low life especially yarned for the low-brow reader in this country” (136). Maillu had especially popularised this emergent literature, writing about what had previously been considered taboo topics.

To Maillu, sex, for instance, was literary fodder and a number of his books including After 4.30 (1974), Unfit for Human Consumption (1973) and My Dear Bottle (1973) contained lurid accounts of sexual encounters in a language that Lindfors (1991) contemptuously describes as “presenting zesty love scenes with enthusiastic attention to extra-ordinary anatomical particularities” (56).

Yet Maillu’s books were easily best sellers. Lindfors (1991) notes that Maillu sold between 10,000 to 50,000 books in a year or two (55). Maillu’s popularity crossed borders and in Tanzania he sold over 10,000 copies within six months before his books were banned in 1976.

Although Lindfors in hyperbolic overkill calls Maillu a “primitive pioneer and intrepid trailblazer” he acknowledges that Maillu helped release “an embryonic literary culture from the confining sac of taste and judgement” (99). Maillu and other writers notably Charles Mangua, Mwangi Ruheni, Meja Mwangi, Sam Kahiga among others popularised a genre that had for many years operated in the shadows of canonical writings. Although this group is by no means a discrete category, their distinctive style of writing signified an important shift in direction in the development of Kenyan literature.

I want to argue however that the popular press played a very significant role in the growth of popular literature in Kenya. Almost all the notable Kenyan writers who emerged in the 1970s began their writing careers and were nurtured within the Kenyan newspapers and popular magazines. The popular press provided a useful space for apprenticeship. It is in the popular press that many writers first published their work while others had their fiction serialised, a tradition that had been especially popular in Europe and in South Africa. Writers such as Sam Kahiga, Meja Mwangi, Sam Akare, Wahome Mutahi, David Maillu, even Ngugi wa Thiong’o were partly shaped either by the Kenyan newspaper or popular magazine.

Henry Chakava has noted that in the 1970s and particularly in 1976, there were on average thirty-six periodicals that were published regularly in Kenya.

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