«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 ...»
These included Drum, True Love, Men Only, Trust, Viva and Joe among others (See Kenya Times, January 15, 1989). For purposes of this discussion, I want to use Joe and Drum as representative samples of the popular magazines in Kenya being arguably the most popular of these magazines especially in the 1970s. Joe was published regularly between 1973 and 1979 and can be credited for exposing the works of a number of popular fiction writers in Kenya. The magazine was named after a character ‘Joe’ who had been popularised by writer/publisher Hillary Ng’weno in a satirical newspaper column With a Light Touch published in the Daily Nation. Ng'weno co-founded Joe with Terry Hirst, a former lecturer at Kenyatta University. Joe defined the place of popular fiction in the newspaper and magazine genres by moulding what one may call a narrative frame for this genre. According to Frederiksen (1991), Joe
served three main functions:
[I]t was a mouthpiece of the new African middle and lower classes, it acted as a socialising agent, educating people on how to be urban and it contributed to a fairly democratic public sphere in which issues of importance to the urban population of Kenya could be voiced and discussed (cited in Newell, 2002: 101-2).
Tawana Kupe (1997) provides a similar argument about the role of the popular magazine in Zimbabwe noting how it “seeks to create a public sphere that is in principle accessible to all who have basic literacy skills to read and write… reporting a wide variety of issues across multiple genres, they seek to appeal to everyone” (140). The fiction writing in Joe significantly influenced the popular novel in Kenya. For instance, in terms of thematic orientation, Joe’s major concerns revolved around the everyday problems of the urban population, told in a language that was equally ‘urbanised’. Both Maillu and Mangua’s work also reflect these features.
Joe was partly modelled on the successful South African magazine Drum, arguably the most successful popular magazine yet in Africa. Drum was established in the 1950s in South Africa to cater for the black urban population. In a foreword to Dorothy Woodson’s An Index to Africa’s Leading Magazine 1951-1965, Anthony Sampson, a former editor of the magazine, describes the 1950s in South Africa as a time when “the tensions and sufferings in townships pressed blacks both to laugh and protest at them”, a situation that naturally engendered the emergence and politicisation of various sites of cultural production including theatre, music, and fiction.
Historically, the 1950s saw the rigorous enforcement of the apartheid system in South Africa following National Party’s ascension to power in 1948. The period also coincided with the stepping up of the defiance against the apartheid regime by the African National Congress (ANC). The black popular media among several forms of popular arts gradually evolved into sites of popular protest. Founded by James Bailey, R. J. Stratford and R. J Crisp, Drum was edited over successive years by Anthony Sampson, Sylvester Stein and Tom Hopkinson. While originally published only in South Africa, the magazine later published separate editions for East, West and Central Africa.
Drum’s approach to social and political commentary was through investigative exposés, photography and fiction. The magazine also featured personality profiles, local news, gossip columns and literary essays. In its early years Drum’s writers included popular names such as Henry Nxumalo also known as “Mr. Drum”, Can Themba, Todd Matshikiza, Arthur Maimane, Casey Motsitsi and Nat Nakasa. Others who worked at the magazine but were already emerging literary names in the country included Ezekiel Mphahlele and Lewis Nkosi. Several contributors from other parts of Africa were also published in the magazine. Dorothy Woodson (1988) argues that individually and collectively, these writers developed a new form of journalism, which she has called the “Drum School”. It was a kind of writing that “had a certain immediacy and vibrancy to it… in spite of their own frustrations, the writers were capable of laughing at themselves and this gave a particular bittersweet ambiance to the magazine, at least through the 1950s” (4). Rabkin (1975) describes the fiction in Drum as having been marked with a “distinctive style and flavour of its own… so often unorthodox in its execution… it reflected both naiveté and sophistication to an unusual degree” (108). Today, Drum is considered the prototype of the popular magazine tradition in Africa and its influences were easily discernible in Joe magazine and later in fiction columns such as Whispers in the mainstream newspapers.
Drum featured a number of genres; poetry, short fiction, cartoons, gossip columns, letters column, among others. Some of the columns which were to have a lasting influence in the magazine tradition in Africa included, “Speak up man” (letters to the editor), “Ask Dolly”, a column that handled readers’ personal problems, often of a sexual nature. This has turned out to be one of the most enduring columns in the popular magazine and newspaper in Africa. The fiction columns, also known as the “thematic columns” included Todd Matshikitza’s “With the Lid Off” described by Woodson (1988) as a “kind of social work type column specialising in tough luck stories” (5); Casey Motsisi’s “On the Beat” which was part factual, part fictional and featured the writer’s escapades in and around shebeens in Sophiatown (ibid.). Motsitsi also wrote “If Bugs Were Men”, a highly satirical condemnation of apartheid.
Among the columns written by foreign contributors was “West African Whispers” by Nelson Ottah who wrote under the pseudonym Coz Idapo for the magazine’s West African edition, but also featured in the Johannesburg edition (ibid.).
The Kenyan popular magazine and especially Joe featured an array of genres similar to those published in Drum, among them, and perhaps the most popular, the fiction stories and thematic columns. It is especially the thematic columns that Frederiksen finds definitive of Joe’s “excellence”. Joe carried an original short story in every issue, a number of part fiction, part factual columns, and a letters column similar to Drum’s “Speak up Man”. The letters column in Joe was titled “Dear Joe”. To encourage dialogue and discussion, readers were encouraged to join in debates, and responses were often solicited. Joe would ask readers to “drop me a letter expressing your feelings about things – even about me? I might print it—and then again I might not” (Frederiksen, 1991, cited in Newell, 2002: 98). Joe also featured plenty of visuals but more particularly graphics. Where Drum used photographs, Joe used graphics perhaps owing to its comparatively modest economic base.
Graphics in Joe appeared in many forms including satirical drawings, comic scripts and illustrated jokes. Most stories were also illustrated, another lasting feature in the popular press’ visual culture in Kenya. Some of the most featured cartoon strips included City Life by Edward Gitau, which comprised tales of the “ruralites” in Nairobi. Gitau was also the creator of Kalulu a popular cartoon strip in Taifa Leo and Taifa. Others included O.K, Sue!’ A CityGirl’s View by Kimani Gathingiri and Terry Hirst’s Daddy Wasiwasi & Co and The Good, the Bed and the Ugali, a bastardisation of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (Frederiksen, 1991 cited in Newell, 2002: 101). Most of the fiction was illustrated mainly to amplify narrative meanings and assist in decipherment.
In subsequent years especially in the newspapers, illustrations were to become permanent features in the Kenyan newspapers’ visual culture.
Among the thematic columns in Joe was Hillary Ng’weno’s My Friend Joe, a column that interrogated social and political issues much like Matshikitza’s “With the Lid Off”, Nelson Ottah’s “West African Whispers” and Casey Motsitsi’s “On the Beat”. My Friend Joe inspired similar columns, both in Kiswahili and English language newspapers in subsequent years. For instance, we see the column’s influence in the early issues of Whispers. Below
is an excerpt of My Friend Joe:
Wait a minute. Drinking is the most African problem thing God created after creating the African race. Look around you. What do you see?
Drunks. African drunks. I tell you that’s the most African thing on earth, drinking’ (Joe, November 1974, cited in Newell, 2002: 97-98).
Addressing a social problem, just like Ng’weno above, Mutahi writes in
If you are like other many strong-willed men who constantly defy an animal called the ‘annual budget’ and his son called ‘price increases’ and insists on having a pint regularly, you must have an acquaintance with charming Virtue, Mapenzi. You see, Mapenzi is a master illusionist.
However, she is not a witch. Even the worst of whisper-mongers credit her with at least one virtue – comforting lonely hearts and making sure that your pocket remains balanced towards a deficit (East African Standard, May 14, 1983).
Quite apart from the fact that thematically both columns are addressing a social problem, there are other notable similarities. The truth is served with a smile, but in a way that demands self-reflection and calls for positive remedial action. The ironic mode intensifies the problem. The columns are also conversational almost as though the writers are “conversing” with people they know. Ng’weno converses with his readers; “Look around. What do you see?” Mutahi does the same; “You see, Mapenzi is a master illusionist”. Both writers also use the third-person voice, assuming the roles of “teacher”. Later however, Mutahi’s Whispers would drift away from the “third person” to “first person”, where the narrator occupies the same position as his readers, speaking not for them but “with them”.
Ng’weno left Joe magazine in 1974 to set up the Weekly Review, arguably the most successful political magazine yet in Kenya’s history. In an interview with Berth Lindfors cited by Frederiksen in her discussion of Joe, Ng’weno claimed that one of his reasons for leaving Joe was because “he felt it was important to tell people what was happening before making fun of what was happening” (cited in Newell, 2002: 94). Although it appears Ng’weno was dissatisfied with the effectiveness of humour as a way of making significant social and political statements, this is not to suggest it was necessarily ineffective. Ng’weno’s departure did not significantly affect Joe. By using articles and graphics from contributors, Joe had helped nurture a corps of emerging talent, among them Sam Kahiga and Meja Mwangi, while writers like Ngugi also occasionally contributed to the magazine. Some of these writers such as Kahiga were particularly popular with readers. Joe’s cofounder Terry Hirst called Kahiga “the representative Joe writer” (Frederiksen 1991, cited in Newell, 2002: 100). Hirst describes Kahiga’s style as a “touch lighter than Ngugi’s and Mwangi’s even though these two helped set the standard of high quality, which most stories at least approach” (ibid.). Kahiga found his metier in the short story. While at Joe, he was particularly notable for his capacity to “turn any topic into a pointed humorous narrative, with a human angle” (ibid.). Kahiga would, in Frederiksen’s parlance, often use “an autobiographical form, making available his own fictive experience with matatus (commuter taxis), secretaries of the law, and in brief sketches and description bring to life the quick and hard qualities of urban existence” (cited in Newell, 2002: 100). This autobiographical type of writing also featured prominently in Drum and especially in Casey Motsitsi’s “On the Beat”. For
instance, in “The Beedee Stuff”, Motsitsi writes:
I have been running into dead ends since last month that I am beginning to have a lot of worriation. Spells of bad luck… Only three days ago some wise guys got my absence and made off with all the stuff I cover myself with when coming town – two shirts and a pair of trousers I bought in a jumble sale. They also guzzled the bottle of hooch I always keep for medicinal purposes…(Drum, November 1958: 73).
Motsitsi always combined fiction with fact and wrote from sometimes “imagined” personal experiences. With little variation, the autobiographical style was adopted by Kahiga and several other writers of popular fiction in the Kenyan popular press who were to emerge in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Kahiga later wrote the fiction column Kibao in the Standard while other writers such as Kenneth Watene wrote Masharubu’s World in the Sunday Nation, Benson Riungu started Life on the Low and later Off the Wall, a column which was originally written by Brian Tetley. Riungu later wrote Benson’s World, which survives today. Those who broke into the mainstream newspaper in the 1980s included Wahome Mutahi writing Whispers, Yusuf Dawood who still writes Surgeon’s Diary, and Gakiha Weru who wrote Urbanite. There were several other short-lived experiments in the late 1980s through the 1990s.
In July 1983, Whispers, a small column barely occupying a quarter of a page was created in the humour pages of the East African Standard to run alongside John Macklin’s column “Stranger than Fiction”. The name Whispers loosely reflected what the writer believed would be the column’s main preoccupation—discussing “things that Kenyans did but were only comfortable acknowledging privately”.3 Another strange influence in the choice of the name according to the writer of the column was a shebeen called Mihehu (Whispers in Gikuyu) in Mutahi’s village in Nyeri. A notice pinned on the door allegedly read: “when you come in, do not raise your voice”.