Category Archives: Writing

HOW TO BE A SUCCESSFUL AFRICAN WRITER

I use Grammarly’s plagiarism checker because fakes are decidedly unsexy.

I always dream of becoming a published, award-winning author. My head is full of writing ideas, but as somebody once said, ideas are cheap, everyone (probably) has one. After careful study of successful African writers, I have realized there are a few things that they have in common. In summary, here is what you need to be a successful writer, bagging awards and giving speeches and speaking at conferences and getting publishing contracts and what not:

Writing
Image from http://rohan7things.wordpress.com
  1. Drop your English name. It’s colonial; a sign of colonial vestiges that still linger in our minds. Chinua Achebe was born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o was once James Ngugi, and Wangari Maathai was commonly known as Mary Josephine and so on.. okay, so Wangari wasn’t a writer but you get the point. She was an African intellectual. Chimamanda Adichie is another example of an author who is not using an English name, if she ever had one. So drop those Graces, and Johns, and Marys and use your authentic African names.
  2. Renounce Christianity and indeed all religion, and become an atheist. You need to be able to say, “there is no god” without blinking in the blinding lights of world cameras. If there was a god, you would have to agree that throughout history, he seems to have turned a blind eye on the ‘dark continent’. Wole Soyinka is a confessed atheist (although he makes a reference to a lot of -Yoruba- gods in his memoir that I am currently reading.)
  3. Wear colourful African print clothes. Wear your ‘Africanness’ like an armour. Grow your hair into an Afro, dreadlocks if possible. Defend your culture. Remember the good old times when you hunted in the forests and danced around the fire in the evening, even if you grew up in the city with no tree in sight. Write in your local language, if you can (Wizard of the Crow was originally published in Kikuyu).Binyavanga Wainaina, former winner of the Caine Prize, wearing African print and dreadlocks.
  4. Move to another country outside of Africa. Move to the US, UK or Scandinavian countries. After the independence era, many African authors left the continent fleeing from dictators who didn’t like what they wrote. Most, if not all, never came back. Not really. Sure, they come and do lectures, then go back to their permanent homes in the West and their teaching jobs as English professors, heading this or that Institute of Culture. New generation authors have spent some time abroad, if not living there permanently. So you want to be just as successful? Get yourself a one-way ticket to the West.
  5. So you’ve done all that, and still publishers are not chasing after you with contracts? Well, because the thing about successful writers it that they write. Good writing is actually the one important thing that successful authors have in common. Maybe in writing, they discover their African identity (hence the name change and African “look”), and maybe in writing they also ask questions without answers that lead them to conclude there is no god. They are the gods because they can create characters and kill them off in their books, and manipulate their created worlds, and determine the fate of the characters. Then they realize they are more appreciated elsewhere in countries that appreciate art and humanities; and not live in a nation where the Vice President once said that funding for arts and humanities in universities should be stopped. Ultimately, sitting down and penning that manuscript is what will make you a successful African writer.

Book Review: Recent Reads

In the recent past, I’ve hardly blogged and read any books but in the traffic to and from work, in the waiting rooms and in the evenings after supper, while waiting for friends at bus stops and restaurants, I’ve managed to read two books: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and Blue Mother Tongue by Ngwatilo. Two very different books.

 

The Tipping Point

Book-Cover-The-Tipping-Point
Book-Cover-The-Tipping-Point

While I generally don’t read books without story lines (I prefer fiction), I found The Tipping Point a fascinating read. It attempts, convincingly, to explain (social) epidemics and why/how they tip. The point at which something quite widespread becomes an epidemic and everyone is doing it. If you are a marketer, you might want to read it to find out why some products are a hit in the market while others are not.

The examples he examines and describes in the book include the fall of crime in New York in the early 90’s, the long-time show Sesame Street, the curious case of suicides in Micronesia, and how it could relate to the fight against cigarette smoking. If these are not enough to raise your curiosity, then you can still read the book for the three important factors that are of importance for epidemics: The Law of the Few (the particular set of socially gifted people who ‘sell’ the ideas to the rest of the population), The Stickiness Factor and The Power of Context.

He gives some fascinating examples and case studies that should be interesting to read even if you are not into marketing. It’s an entertaining read and I’d recommend it to anyone, even if it’s written more for the American audience if you ask me.

 

Blue Mothertongue by Ngwatilo

I have to thank Wamathai for this lovely poetry book.

Cover of Blue Mothertongue by Ngwatilo
Cover of Blue Mothertongue by Ngwatilo. Image from kwani.org

This is a contemporary poetry book. It’s not bogged down by the rules of poetry and meaningless vocabulary for the rhyme factor. It’s poems that tell of life in Nairobi, growing up in happy neighbourhoods and living abroad in recent times. Will your children know your mothertongue? They are poems that stem from the author’s experiences in life and I enjoyed them very much. I have reread some of the poems from time to time, and there are some that you have to read at least twice to truly get the message. It’s not a book that you hurry to finish, rather one that you savor every poem as you sit in the bus home after work, surrounded by tired faces anxious to get home.

Text Book Centre, Bookstop, Bookpoint, Prestige Booksellers – all in Nairobi, and at Moi University Bookshop, Eldoret.

Read about Ngwatilo here.

P.S. I didn’t have blue mothertongue with me at the time I was writing this review so will edit it to add quotes of my favorite poems.

Update

Below is a poem I like, Spring in Nairobi

Spring in Nairobi

is Jacaranda trees in bloom
is blissful blue, bold, edging
toward lavender gladness

When rain pours or commands
the winds to boast that it can, the flowers
fall in a flurry of whispers, which caress
like sudden sunlight, like the warm touch

left by your fleeting love. It is not tragic,
the romp we make on Kenyatta Ave,
it is at once delicate and joyful. We hope
the ritual will make us blissful
while blue, free, decidedly bold even

What Savvy Reads

Okay, this post is not really about me, I just thought I would share with you what’s on my reading list, and also give some sort of review/preview of the books I have read recently. Between school, work, traveling to watch AFC Leopards play, attending tech events and social events, I sometimes squeeze in time to read a book or two.

That Kenyans do not read is a fallacy, I agree with @Aka3CB in this Diasporadical post. We Kenyans read a lot; from facebook statuses, tweets, blogs, newspapers, drug prescriptions, novels from the street, tattered magazines in salons; to those mganga wa kesi za koti, mapenzi notices, manhood enlargement on signposts; to stickers in matatus, banners on the back of lorries and buses, quotes on pimped matatus, and the Bible that is read to us in the bus, on the radio, on TV..

bookshelf
Someone get me a nice bookshelf like this one for my-soon-to-be-tastefully-decorated-crib! Image from ericadunham.com

Here’s what is currently on my reading list:

  • The Art of Seduction by Robert Green (ebook): I’m yet to finish the first chapter but I’m told I’ll become the perfect seducer after I read that book, he he
  • Love in a Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (ebook). After reading 100 years of solitude, which my bro claimed to have no end in sight, but which I enjoyed very much, I decided to read this one too.
  • The Caine Prize for African Literature 2012 shortlist: these are the stories shortlisted this year. You can download the stories in pdf from the website. Short stories are easier to read because they only need an hour of your time, unlike an involving novel that takes days to complete.
  • The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Green (hardcopy). I started reading this book last year, it was my graduation present from my uncle (first class honours bragging rights, I’m allowed to mention it here!). Anyway, I seem to have misplaced the book but if I find it, I intend to finish reading it.
  • The Hunger Games (ebook)- a fantasy collection that I can’t wait to start reading. I love books like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones (A Song of Fire and Ice) and other non-famous fantasy/SciFi kind of books. This one is big though, they’ve made the movie which I won’t watch until I finish the books. Movies rarely ever live up to their books anyway.

Recently Read: Brief Reviews

The Jesus Papers by Michael Baigent

The Jesus Papers
The Jesus Papers

In a summary, this book seeks to discredit Jesus Christ. It concludes that his crucifixion never happened or if it happened, then Jesus must have survived the crucifixion. The author starts by taking us back to the context of Jesus’ story. Jesus was born in modern day Palestine, so that image of a blonde Jesus that Christians spread around is not accurate. The author explores the culture, beliefs, lifestyle, wars, politics surrounding the region Jesus grew up in. He (the author) uses research from historians around the time Jesus was alive, before and after, some artifacts found in museums around the world, including the Dead Sea Scrolls that were found in the late 1940’s.

The author uses gaps in the Bible (like where on earth did Jesus go between ages 12 and baptism (30-33)?), inconsistencies in the books of the Bible, the history of WHO compiled the Bible, the (very) violent history of the Catholic Church (like when they were burning “witches” in Europe) to draw the conclusion that Jesus Christ was not divine after all, that he (Jesus) was just a man whom some very powerful people in history used to create a religion for their own power-hungry reasons. However, the author goes on to praise ancient religions like the Egyptian one, where he says someone just feels “overcome by emotion” when they visit the pyramids and other religious sites.

My conclusion: there’s simply not enough evidence to support his theories. Most of his evidence is circumstantial and it’s a good book for anyone objective enough to read it. What the author forgets is that FAITH is not something based on FACTS. People are searching for something to believe in, and Christianity has got some rationality in it. It does not matter how Jesus looked like or how the Bible was compiled, it’s about what people choose to believe. I think Christianity lets people interpret the Bible their own way, thus is a popular religion. The book is an involving read though sometimes it could drag on and on trying to prove a point!

One Day I will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina

One Day I Will Write About This Place
One Day I Will Write About This Place

In the words of Chimamanda Adichie (this is the point where you Google her), this book is a tender memoir about growing up in middle class Kenya. I first learned of Binyavanga Wainaina from his famous essay, “How Not To Write About Africa.” He won the Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story, Discovering Home, in 2002, the first Kenyan to win it.

Binyavanga has always been in my reading radar because he’s among the guys who started Kwani? Organization, where I’ve met many writers and bought a number of books they’ve published. His book was launched in Kenya recently, and I’m lucky I got a signed copy “To Harriet, with my love, Binyavanga”. He has a terrible handwriting but I’m sure that’s what he wrote!

I don’t want to give away what’s in the book, but it’s certainly worth reading. The language flows, twists this way to fit the story-line, cynical sometimes (like when he talks of Kenya’s politics), tender (when he talks of his family), funny and quirky (I love the part he talks about the new job of convincing farmers to plant cotton, and his encounter with the beaming chief of the area), and he talks of how he somehow got through what I’d call the “quarter-life” crisis, a time when you are in your 20’s, just lost, drifting, living one day at a time, isolated in your own world(room).

Here’s to a happy reading!

Now off to write my short story that might just one day win me a Caine Prize and a publishing contract! #Dreams

P.S.

Sorry you can’t borrow my hard copy books, but I can share the soft copy ones. Email me if you need one.

Over the 100K views mark!!

The stats as of today

When I started this blog at the beginning of the year, my aim was to reach 100,000 page views by the end of the year! Looks like I’ve already hit my goal!

These are actual page views, and most likely not unique as most of my blog readers are regulars. Thanks for reading! Here’s to a million hits someday.

I Love Kenyans

This ramble was inspired recently as I waited for the matatu to fill up one afternoon.

I love the guy that passes by, wearily dragging his cart but with a look of determination;

I love the teenagers leaving against the wall, two boys full of swagger probably waiting for their friend;

I love the woman who passes by, she looks like she could do with some fashion tips;

I love the young lady that struts after her, heels clacking on the pavement and white underwear showing;

I love the conductor with his self confidence and sexual appeal as he tries to persuade the pretty girls to board his matatu;

I love the man in official clothes who looks like he’s headed for a lunch meeting;

I love the Indian Kenyan guy who settles in beside me, his sleeves folded to reveal hairy arms and his eyes glued to his phone;

I love the couple in front of me, they’re whispering into each other’s ears and look like they need a room;

I love the girl that has just come into the matatu, weave on her head swinging from side to side;

I love the driver with his toothpick, he has just switched on the engine.

I love Kenyans, that’s all I meant to say.

Blogging 101: A Guide to Successful Blogging

Blogging 101… Blogging for Dummies

 

blogging-101
blogging-101

Image copy-pasted from myfhamortgageblog.com

A number of readers have emailed me over time, asking me questions like, what inspires you? Well, life does. Wherever I go, there is always something worth blogging about. Whatever happens in my life can always be put into a certain way so that it’s interesting to read. As you should already know: it’s not the story, it’s how the story is told.

That being said, most of the emailers (if I may call them so) wanted advice on how to blog, what to blog, and such like tips. I’ve decided to compile my top ten blogging rules:

1. Passion

Blog about something you are passionate about. Be it sports, the weather, your wife and kids, your job, your life. That way, you won’t run out of steam over time, you can write for years and years about your subject/main theme. Sometimes you may want to blog about an event/show/elections or anything temporary. That is also okay, some blogs are only relevant for a time. I choose to write about my life because as long as am alive, there will always be something to write about.

2. Regular Updates

Make sure you update your blog frequently, either weekly or bi-weekly. Unless you are very very interesting, no one is going to come back more than twice if they come and find the same stuff they left. Also, ensure there is a subscription button on the blog so people don’t have to come to your site to check for updates. Blog updates will be sent directly to their mail.

3. Writer’s Block: What to Do

I just talked about regular updates above. So what do you do when you have a writer’s block or you’re too busy to sit down to write a proper post? Well, wordpress helps. Google too. Just search these two sites and you’ll get tones of advice.

Personally, I like to get a captivating picture, like the one below, or I copy-paste an interesting email forward, such as this or this.

Tiger Woods stars in Broke Black Golfer

4. Patience

So you start a blog and you expect to get 1000 hits per minute. It’s not gonna happen that way. Unless you’re Paris Hilton posting a sex tape. Don’t worry if at first, there is no traffic to your blog. It takes time (even a whole year) to build traffic to sustainable levels. Do not give up if you find no one visited your blog for a week. As I said, it’s all about passion. If you’re passionate about something, you’ll continue writing about it even if no one is reading.

5. Motivation: Reason for blogging

If you’re looking to make money from blogging, I think you’re choosing the wrong hobby. If making money from your blog is your main reason for blogging… I don’t have words for you. Honestly, I blog because I just have to write, and right now, I wouldn’t dream of putting up ads on my blog.

However, I’m not saying you can’t make money from blogging. I’m just saying that’s like a side benefit, a byproduct of good blogging. I know money makes the world go round, so find a day job.

6. Publicity

The main challenge in blogging is generating traffic. First you let your friends know, then they’ll tell their friends who’ll tell their friends. There is also facebook and twitter, which are very important in generating publicity to your blog. You can have facebook automatically import your new posts as you publish them. Share the link on twitter and tag people if you have to.

Reading other people’s blogs and leaving comments on the posts you read together with a link back to your blog is also a good idea, kind of like a network of blogs, you know? My earliest readers were other bloggers.

7. Response

When your readers leave comments, it’s only fair to respond to them. That way, they feel appreciated and loved. Okay, maybe just appreciated. Even the haters, I think the moment you have your first hate comment, that’s when you know you’re becoming a successful blogger. Provide an email address so that readers who want to say something to you can do so.

8. Originality

Do not take credit for something you did not write. If you copy-paste from someone else, or lift photographs from a certain site, please give credit to the original authors/creators. Do not copy the format or the way some other blogger does their writing, bring something fresh and new to the blogging scene and we’ll keep reading your work.

9. Platform/Theme/ Layout

Choose a blogging platform that’s awesome, like wordpress. Or blogger. Or I don’t know what else. Choose a short but memorable URL- that’s the address of the blog.

When picking a theme, find one that’s easy to read. One that matches your theme. If you’re doing gothic poems, perhaps a dark theme would be suitable. If you’re writing about sunshine and sugar and spice, choose something nice and bright.

The layout should encourage readers to explore your blog more. Have a calendar with recent posts, and an archive/tags/categories so readers can find something else to read apart from the main page. Experiment with the widgets and pick those that work best for you.

10. Be interesting

I saved the best for last. Ultimately, the only reason people will keep reading your work is because you are interesting. There are so many boring bloggers out there… I feel like shooting myself every time I have to force myself to even go past the first paragraph. Keep your posts short if you can’t be interesting. Longer posts can only be read if there is enough suspense/good flow. Your friends will lie to you, saying you’re a wonderful writer but you can tell the truth with time. Someone out of nowhere, someone you don’t know, will email you/leave a comment telling you they enjoy reading your working. If it happens more than 5 times, you can be convinced you’re interesting. Use pictures to add flavor to your posts.

That being said, I’d appreciate your feedback on this. If you have any more blogging rules/tips, you can leave a comment. Here’s to happy blogging.

Rwanda: Comparison with Kenya

It’s been a week since I got here. It’s only natural I compare Rwanda and Kenya in almost every conversation I have. In Kenya this would never happen, in Kenya this is how we do it, in Kenya we do this, we do that, we hate this, we love that…. I hope my workmates are not tired of me yapping all day. I try to keep it to a minimum and to avoid saying just how better we are than them, because we are not. Our technology may be better, the education system may be way ahead, but in the end we’re all just people. Equal yet not equal.

Three things bother me, actually, four things bother me about this country. I love Rwanda so far, but it has a long way to go. Eric, a colleague of mine, told me he listens to East Africa Radio and they always ask, “Rwanda mtaweza kweli?”

The first thing that disturbs me is people’s reaction to white people. Don’t get me wrong, if a white person goes to a remote village in Kenya, everyone is bound to get curious and a little excited. It’s allowed. But here, it’s a little too much. My host (the guest house owner) told me sometimes when she opens the gate, she may find adult women who stop walking to just stare at her. One time they even formed a semi-circle and just stared until she’d closed the gate.

When Julie and the rest of the team, I included, drove up to Rushubi Primary School to prepare the classroom for lessons this year, all the kids in the playground stopped what they were doing to run to her. They had surrounded her so much she could hardly take a step. Some of the little kids were falling over and getting stepped on; it was almost a stampede. Whenever she’s driving, kids who know her shout her name, which is great, and she honks at them. Those who don’t know also call out, mzungu, mzungu and ask for something. Most kids almost always wave, at first I also waved back till I realized, oh, I’m not included in the waves. So now I don’t wave back.

 

Children from Rushubi Primary School when we visited
Children from Rushubi Primary School when we visited

There is always an association in people’s minds of white people and an unlimited amount of money, which is common all over the world and more so here.

The second thing that bothers me is the newness of things. When I first came here, I was so excited to see almost everything looks new. The roads, the buildings, the fences… when we drove through the countryside, the farms looked like they hadn’t been around for long, the houses looked like people had just begun to live in them. It’s been only 15 years since the genocide so this should not surprise me, the country is still rebuilding. At first it was exciting to see how new and organized everything looks, but now it just makes me a little sad. I like the way there is a permanence to old things. An assurance that since these buildings have been here for so long, they’ll still be here many years to come. If you go to our home in the village, where my grandmother still lives, there’s a feeling that we’re all totally settled and the place has been and will always be there. With new things, you can only hope that they’ll last, that just maybe this is the last time they’ll have to rebuild.

 

A view of the volcanoes (can you see them in the distance) from the appropriately named Volcana Lounge where we sometimes hang out in the evenings
A view of the volcanoes (can you see them in the distance) from the appropriately named Volcana Lounge where we sometimes hang out in the evenings

The third thing that has me sleepless at night (let’s just say it’s not the source of the sleepless but I think about it whenever am awake) is the education system in Rwanda. This is the third week of January and schools have not yet opened officially. Can you imagine that? While in Kenya, it takes two days for kids to settle in school and learning to start, in Rwanda, schools don’t even open on the first week of January but on the second, and even then kids may not turn up for school for almost two weeks. The primary 8 results are not yet out (by the time am typing this they’re already a week late) and like Kenya they determine which secondary school you go to. The laxity with which they are taking their education is just disturbing.

The standard of education needs a lot of improvement. Rwanda switched to English as its official language but hardly anyone speaks it. The teachers themselves don’t know it very well, so sometimes they teach in Kinyarwanda. Kids in primary five can hardly understand what you’re telling them in English, let alone express themselves beyond, “my name is….” and good morning, good night and bye.

The teachers looked like a sad lot to me. Okay, maybe not sad but there is no enthusiasm in them. If you’re teaching kids, you have to be motivated. They’re paid so poorly ( I don’t know the exact amount, will try to find out) and there may be salary delays. Teachers all over the world may be underpaid, but any government that knows the importance of education should realize that a motivated teaching workforce is the key.

The last thing that bothers me is lack of openness. The fear of the police. The way there are some things you can’t talk about. The way you can’t criticize Kagame. He’s a great man but he’s not perfect. But these things take time.

 

A message in Kinyarwanda that is displayed in front of all classrooms. I'll get the translation to English later.
A message in Kinyarwanda that is displayed in front of all classrooms. I’ll get the translation to English later.

I just hope there is some way I can contribute towards Rwanda’s development. It needs the support of the rest of East Africa.

Onto Lighter Matters:

I have had some good times here. Remember the cute guy who came to stay at this guest house with his parents? Well, he came with his American girlfriend who’s of Chinese/Japanese origin. Sad, right? I don’t think the gf considered me a threat so we spent the second night chatting with him before dinner. He has the heaviest American accent I’ve ever heard, it’s like he swallows all his words. He was reading some book about Rwanda in ’94 and he’d put a thumb we he’d stopped so I told him I’d give him my bookmark.

At dinner time, we sat next to each other and I noticed how well toned he looked ;-) and his hair is like golden (it’s some shade of brown, I think). After dinner, his parents retired for the night and they live in Kigali. They offered me a place to crash if am ever in town, they’re sweet people.

Then we also left to go to bed and since our rooms are next door, cute guy (his name’s Matt) came into my room and I searched among my books for the bookmark I had. It was written something like: from someone who loves you or crap like that and I thought it’d give a strong hint. I couldn’t find the damn thing!

Rwanda Room
Rwanda Room

Anyway, he said it’s the thought that really matters and thanks and then he gave me his card with his number and email. I asked him what he does for a living and he said he’s a personal trainer and massage expert. I told him if am ever in Oregon I’d give him a call. I’d certainly do with a massage, LOL. Then he gave me a long goodnight hug, sad I may never see him again.

The following day, as they were leaving early in the morning, I woke up to say bye and gave Matt a bookmark I had improvised. You know those decoration cards you find in new wallets? I never threw mine away so I scribbled my number at the back and gave him the bookmark.

Time will tell.