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How obsession with ‘big’ names chokes literary growth in Kenya
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Home / News / How obsession with ‘big’ names chokes literary growth in Kenya

How obsession with ‘big’ names chokes literary growth in Kenya


Growing up in the heart of Kiambu District exposed him to numerous books sold along the streets of Nairobi. They were mostly adventure stories and they must have drove this management academic into fiction writing.

Prof Ken Kamoche How obsession with ‘big’ names chokes literary growth in Kenya How obsession with ‘big’ names chokes literary growth in Kenya Prof Ken Kamoche

Prof Ken Kamoche

But Prof Ken Kamoche, now on his fourth fictional book (the first was a collection of short stories), regrets that the current atmosphere in Kenya is too choking to be conducive for literary growth.

He blames publishers and literary critics for creating the impression that writing belongs only to a few selected names, which have been in existence “since time immemorial”.

Prof Kamoche says, “You get agitated when these critics begin to churn out those same old names. As an author, you are often driven into asking yourself: ‘Don’t these repetitive people know I also write and write well?’”

His novels Black Ghosts (2013) and True Warrior (2011) betray his love for adventure literature that lined the city in his youth.

He confirms: “We used to read a lot in our youth. In my case it was adventure novels from Europe and America. The late Ugandan author Barbara Kimenye was one of my favourites. The stories she wove were hilarious.”

In Black Ghosts, a young Zimbabwean student Dan Chiponda leaves his native country to pursue a scholarship in China. Chege plays Chiponda’s role in True Warrior as he leaves Kenya to take up a scholarship in the UK during the late 1980s of the Kanu regime.

“I try to inject certain aspects of life in Africa, such as how African students abroad try to study while at the same time managing pressures and expectations from home. Any Kenyan who studied abroad will confirm to you that dealing with family expectations while you are away from home is not a small challenge.”

The author should know. Though he may not be well known to many Kenyan readers (at least as an author), Kamoche was born and brought up in Lower Kabete. He attended Lower Kabete Primary School, proceeded to Nairobi School, then the University of Nairobi for Bachelor of Commerce degree. He quit his job at the PricewaterhouseCoopers in 1988 and left for the UK after winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in the UK to study Management.

“It was never a bad job,” he recalls. “In the UK, I continued to write as I studied. Writing was inside me.”

Kamoche currently teaches Management at the University of Nottingham. He says the Kenyan book sector could learn from Britain where people read a lot, writing festivals thrive, dynamic publishing exists, and writing communities and agents abound.

“The book world is strongly supported by the British establishment,” he says. “British universities succeeded in encouraging the impression that books are read for both enjoyment and learning”.



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He says although the stories he weaves are personal, they do not have anything to do with him. He says African students face the same racism and culture shock which his protagonists in the two books confront in the course of their lives abroad. Some even lead the wild lives of his Dan and Chege characters.

True Warrior is also particularly important in understanding the goings-on in Kenya’s economic politics of the 1990s. It draws from the same pool of characters the late East African playwright Francis Imbuga depicts in Betrayal in The City.

But it transcends mere portrayal to the actual presentation of how the Kanu regime laundered money and ripped off the Central Bank of Kenya in those years.

The novel also explores the political psychology of a Kenyan community. Muga’s mother clings to the old view that “After Kenyatta died, these small tribes from I-don’t-know-where, they’re taking over everything. Bless us with wisdom, Jesu Christo.”

Black Ghosts Ken Kamoche How obsession with ‘big’ names chokes literary growth in Kenya How obsession with ‘big’ names chokes literary growth in Kenya Black Ghosts Ken KamocheAnd Baba Muga fully agrees with his wife’s position. However, the conservative view is quickly rebutted by Muga, a nationalist who observes: “Father, you talk about the house of Mumbi, but what have our rich tribesmen ever done for us poor village people?”

Kamoche says he chose to explore the political psychology of his people in the novel because, as far as he is aware, the view of Muga’s parents is still much alive.

“From what I always hear, I know many Kikuyu deeply loved – and still love – Mzee Jomo Kenyatta”, he says. “But just as many felt – and still feel – that he betrayed them. How does a writer deal with such an ethnic conundrum?”

The writer hopes his fourth novel will be out early next year. He calls it “a new Kenyan novel with a historical twist” in which he explores relationships between whites and blacks in colonial Kenya.

His collection of short stories, A Fragile Hope, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Best First Book Award. “A Glimpse of Life”, one of the stories in the collection, won second prize in the Oladuah Equiano Prize for Fiction.

The author’s other stories have appeared in various anthologies around the world.

By Abenea Ndago, The Standard

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