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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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The narrator dramatises his mistreatment at the hands of the provincial administration, turning the story into a hilarious yet hugely discomfiting drama. The police officers who confront the narrator are depicted as illiterate goons but also as ‘robots’ of the regime unable to question any orders from their masters. The excerpt narrates the gamut of the oppressive politics of the colonial administration but one whose continuum Mutahi sees in the postindependence administration. The new polity oppresses the Kenyan subject just like the colonial administration did with the native. The confrontation is narrated as a drama, which tells its own story. It betrays officialdom’s fear of popular theatre’s potential to unite publics around national issues and more so, popular theatre’s ability to explain these issues in the “language of the rural peasantry”, a language over which the government has no direct control. Meanwhile, District Officers, chiefs and the administration police are laughingly if tellingly depicted as “emperors”, indeed, very powerful actors in the village political economy but largely symbolic of the oppressive political system.15 The excerpt above also highlights some features that were characteristic of this column, the wit and satire, its narration of topical issues including the politically sensitive humorously, which deceptively made it look ‘harmless’ and irrelevant. The language he uses is characterised by complex code switching and code mixing as he appropriates registers commonly used by a cross section of the society yet which remain intelligible to an audience he anticipates.

After his brief stint as a District Officer, Mutahi enrolled for an MA in Literature at the University of Nairobi and reportedly even started working on his thesis on Indian literature, later writing a student’s guide to Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie. However, Mutahi cut short his studies when he was offered a job as a trainee sub-editor at the Nation newspapers. Interestingly, after only Officialdom’s fear of community theatre is a tradition best narrated by the tribulations of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Kamĩrĩĩthu theatre. Ngugi was jailed for nearly a year by the Moi government partly because of his involvement in the highly political Kamĩrĩĩthu theatre.

three months into the job, the then news editor Philip Ochieng’16 recommended Mutahi’s sacking describing him as “untrainable”. Ochieng’ was uncomfortable with Mutahi’s unconventional style of writing. In the Kenyan media, Ochieng’ was especially renowned for his impatience with budding journalists and especially those who attempted to ‘depart from the canon’. Mutahi admits he was lucky to have been retained at the Nation and only moved to a different desk—the features desk—where he later served both as a sub-editor as well as a features writer. Mutahi notes that at the time he joined the Nation, Ochieng’s word was ‘law’ in the Kenyan media and “to disregard his (Ochieng’s) opinion was to disregard journalistic wisdom having been an old hand at journalism in Kenya and helping train nearly all the leading journalists in the country at the time”.17 Two years later, Mutahi got a job at the Standard newspapers, a fierce competitor of the Nation as a full-time senior sub-editor. It is while at his new job “desk job” at the Standard that he started the column Whispers.

Apart from writing the column Whispers, Mutahi was also an accomplished novelist, playwright and essayist. At both the Nation and Standard newspapers, Mutahi wrote two regular political commentaries “Where it Matters” and “The Way I See it”. However, because of the (political) constraints on both the form and thematic options of the ‘news’ and ‘commentary’ sub-genres in the Kenyan newspapers, these columns were short-lived. More “editorial freedom” was to be found in fiction—Whispers.

Having already made a name in the mainstream press, Mutahi also ventured into the novel form.

Philip Ochieng’ is arguably one of the most experienced journalists in Kenya. His journalism career now spans over 30 years. He has edited nearly all the major daily newspapers and magazines published in Kenya. Incidentally, in the 1960s, Ochieng’ also wrote a column ‘Pengle Pengle’, which can also be located within the ‘popular’ tradition that he later found so ‘unconventional’.

17 Personal interview with Mutahi, February, 2003.

As a novelist, Bardolph (1998) has compared Mutahi to renowned South African writers Peter Abrahams and Alex La Guma. Although Bardolph does not explain the similarities between these writers, she hints at the writer’s aesthetic which is underlined by what Njabulo Ndebele describes as a sense of “recognition, understanding, historical documentation and indictment” (cited in Newell, 2001:5). These features are to be found in a number of Mutahi’s novels which include The House of Doom published posthumously and later serialised by the Nation newspapers, The Miracle Merchants (2003), Doomsday (1999), Jail Bugs (1996) and Three Days on the Cross (1991). He also published a collection of humorous anecdotes How to be a Kenyan (1996), which was reprinted four times in as many years. Mutahi’s most celebrated novel however was Three Days on the Cross. In 1992, he received the Jomo Kenyatta Award for Literature, the highest literary award in Kenya for the novel. Bardolph (1998) describes this novel as “an angry account of the failure of democracy… in an imaginary country where journalists are brutalised when they try to expose the truth about mismanagement and fraud in high places” (123). The novel prominently features important markers to Mutahi’s narrative style, his interests in both documentation and indictment, his merging of fact and fiction into a powerful hyperbole which readers are then forced to confront, the pervasiveness of wit and irony, among others.





Although fictitious, Three Days on the Cross combines reality with dramatised versions of Mutahi’s real-life experiences. Working as a journalist, Mutahi was brutalised by agents of the Moi regime in the 1980s during a crackdown on perceived dissident voices in the country. In 1986 together with his brother Njuguna Mutahi, they were arrested and later jailed for 15 months after pleading guilty under duress to ‘Mwakenya-related’ charges. The two brothers pleaded “guilty” to “neglecting to report the existence of an anti-government organisation Mwakenya” (See Kenya Taking Liberties, 1991). Mwakenya is an acronym for “Muungano wa Wazalendo wa Kuikomboa Kenya”, loosely translated as “The Progressive Movement to Liberate Kenya” (Maina wa Kinyatti, 1996). This was an underground movement that was formed in the 1970s. The Moi government accused the movement of clandestine activities.

Critics have noted however that this movement gave the Moi administration a convenient excuse to persecute its political opponents. Consequently, many government critics including political activists, academics and writers were arbitrarily linked to the organisation and promptly incarcerated. Others were forced into exile. Mutahi later “fictionalised” his jail term in the novel Jail Bugs. The last novel he published before his death Miracle Merchants interrogates one of his pet topics, religion, looking at the Pentecostalism movement in Kenya and how it feeds on the material and spiritual desperation of most Kenyans. He also shows the scam that is hidden under the rubric of latter day evangelism. He discusses how the new evangelists engage in corruption, smuggling and other murky deals under the cover of religion.

It is however in theatre that Mutahi found his metier in later life. Theatre was one of the most covert sites of cultural production in the repressive years of the Moi administration. With the reintroduction of multi-party politics in Kenya in 1992, popular arts in Kenya in general began to experience a rebirth.

Stand-up comedy popularised by street comedians in Nairobi became hugely popular while thespians began taking their work to audiences rather than only stage them in the major theatre halls in Nairobi. Mutahi was among those who inspired this ‘revival’ and especially the rediscovery of vernacular theatre in Kenya.18 Mutahi’s interest in theatre can be traced to his days at the University of Nairobi where he was a member of the university’s ‘Free Travelling Theatre’. He later joined a popular Nairobi theatre group Sarakasi Productions and produced and acted in several plays including Ciaigana ni Ciaigana (A remake of Protais Asseng’s Enough is Enough) and Wangu wa Makeri, a play about the mythical woman who ruled the Agikuyu community.

In 1995, Mutahi formed Igiza [Kiswahili for Imitate] Productions, a group that was to follow closely in the footsteps of Ngugi’s Kamĩrĩĩthu theatre.

For a detailed reading on Mutahi’s theatre, see Outa, 2002

Kamĩrĩĩthu theatre is a term now used to refer to the drama that was staged at the beginning of the 1980s by the peasants of Kamĩrĩĩthu. Bjorkman (1989) notes that the villagers had built a cultural centre in their village to further adult education and the arts by staging traditional plays in their own language. By using material recognised and understood by the people, this theatre “explained to them facets of society that had become unintelligible” (Bjorkman 1989: viii). According to Ndigirigi Gichingiri (1999), while with Kamĩrĩĩthu, Ngugi had ‘discovered’ that good productions could be staged outside the confines of the Kenya National Theatre (KNT), Kenya’s most famous theatre hall. At the same time theatre was regarded “not as a physical building but a space in which there were performers, actors and an audience” (See Outa, 1999; Ndigirigi, 1999). It is after the famed Kamĩrĩĩthu theatre that artistes began performing outside ‘conventional’ theatre halls, some out of experiment, others because they could not afford to pay for halls such as the KNT. Bars became one of the most popular alternative venues for theatre productions. It is Sarakasi Productions that can be credited with the emergence of what has now become known as “Bar Theatre”. The group staged most of its plays in bars and hotels around Kenya. “Bar theatre” was further popularised with the formation of Mutahi’s Igiza Productions. Already a household name because of Whispers, Mutahi played to full houses. Mbugua wa Mungai (2003) notes that people would attend Mutahi’s productions to see “Whispers” or ‘Son of the Soil’ as he was now popularly known because of his newspaper column Whispers. The bar also became a popular space for expression in his column Whispers. Most of Mutahi’s plays were written in his native Gikuyu language and performed mostly in bars, venues he considered “close to the people”.

But the academy was particularly hostile to this “innovation”. Critics and academics saw profits as this theatre’s motivation. Ndigirigi (1999), among others, complained about the scripts and the acting being “generally poor… (t)he audience (which drinks beer during the performance, with waiters moving in between seats to take orders) is normally looking for entertaining diversion and not a quality performance. The bawdier the performances the merrier the audiences” (19). The criticism notwithstanding, the ‘popular’ nature of “Bar theatre”, its ability speak to peoples immediate concerns and in a language they understand best has established it as artistic phenomenon in Kenya.

Some of Igiza’s most popular productions included Mugaathe Mubogothi, (His Excellency the Hallucinating leader), which Mutahi co-authored with Wahome Karengo, Mugaathe Ndotono, Professa Nyoori, Igooti ria Muingi (The People’s court) and Makaririra Kioro (They will cry in the toilet). These plays were indictments of the political regime in Kenya and one notes parallel themes and styles in Whispers. In one of the play’s premier opening, Mutahi later said of the audiences: “ … fear was etched in their faces as they watched it. As soon as it was over they would put on caps or goggles to disguise their identity and then literally flee fearing arrest and detention".19 Mutahi’s theatre productions were highly political, perhaps an influence of Ngugi’s Kamĩrĩĩthu Theatre. But it is also necessary to bear in mind that Mutahi published and wrote his fiction and plays at a time when it was impossible to mute the political, for this realm was inescapably linked with the everyday.

Conclusion This chapter has given a general background to Mutahi’s work and to the emergence of popular fiction in the Kenyan popular press. The chapter attempted to locate Mutahi’s fiction and especially Whispers within the broader intellectual, historical and literary traditions in Kenya. I have noted the role of the academy, particularly the University of Nairobi, Makerere and Ibadan universities, and of the intellectual and cultural magazines Black Orpheus and Transition in shaping East African literatures. But I have also demonstrated how pioneering works emerging from the university, which hesitantly engaged in “border operations”, were later radically revised by an Interview with Art Matters posted at www.artmatters.info emergent group of writers. I have argued that these writers were not entirely fathered by the ‘Makerereans’ or mothered by the University of Nairobi;

instead they were exposed and nurtured by the Kenyan popular press. The chapter has argued that the popular press played an important role as a space for apprenticeship for many writers. I have discussed the influences of Joe and Drum magazines as well as various elements of New Journalism in fiction writing in the popular press in Kenya. I have also very tentatively looked at some of the important markers of Mutahi’s work. In the concluding parts of this chapter, I have looked at Mutahi’s involvement in his other interests, the novel, and theatre. One notes considerable parallels between his theatre and novels, and his newspaper column Whispers particularly at the level of style and themes. This chapter should however be read as an introductory overview to more detailed discussions on Mutahi and his work in the subsequent chapters.



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