Now is the time to write to the heart of the country

With his latest book, Run Cheche Run, shortlisted for the 2016 Burt Award, Tony Mochama has added yet another feather to his cap. This, the Moorland scholarship and the Leapfrog Press Global Award he has bagged, make him arguably the most awarded Kenyan writer of the under 40 generation.

I met up with him to chat about books, politics, the contemporary Kenyan literary scene and peculiar Kenyan habits.

What is your take on the ministry of Education’s decision to overhaul the 8-4-4 system of education?

The overhaul is a wonderful thing, even though it has been done 30 years late. 8-4-4 was a crammer system which failed because it made students run away from books.

Its greatest malfunction was that it was unable to inculcate the love for reading, which is sad because there are certain depths of spirituality, life’s tragedies and ecstasies which one can only understand by reading.

It is to be hoped that the new system will encourage young readership. Moreover, today’s generation-X youth need books that are engaging and relatable and which carry contemporary themes.

We are competing with machines and video games for their attention and as such we must ensure that literature tackles themes like drugs, sexuality and terrorism. A new curriculum is our chance to hook these youth at their level.

What of the role of publishers and other education stakeholders?

Publishers must move away from ancient thinking and embrace this change. It is because of a progressive publisher, John Mwazemba, that I have experimented with a new form of writing in my new poetry book 21st Century Poetry for Secondary Schools. 

Open-minded Stakeholders like Alice Kairichi at KICDC have come to realise that it is time to hook up quality literature with relevant themes within contemporary times. That alone, is the salvation for an ailing literature.   

How did your upbringing contribute to your love for literature? 

I studied at Catholic Parochial Priamry School in Nairobi city and my mum worked at KCB Kencom. Every day after school, I would pass by Book Centre and Prestige Bookshops on Mama Ngina street. Mum also deliberately didn’t have a TV at home and so there was nothing else to do but read.

Interestingly, even in the middle of the month when there was no money for meat in the house, mum made sure there was instant money for buying story books. I can thus confidently say that from class three until now, I’ve had an unending stream of books and so as a child, I was lucky to climb mountains of adventures with the Famous Five, be part of Secret Seven clubs and disappear into C.S. Lewis’s magical world.

I went to Starehe Boys for high school, and that is when I discovered T.S. Elliot’s poetry. Before that, I had been writing poems adding up juvenile metaphysical poetry and teenage philosophies. Griffins himself admitted that I was the best student of English he had ever seen.

Tell us about your favourite authors

Arudhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is mind-blowing at sentence level. In terms of pure storyline, the best book I have ever read is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and the most wonderful collection of short stories is When the Nines Roll Over by David Benioff.

What is your take on the threat of terrorism and radicalization which seems to get more rampant among the young?

The true terrorists, the masterminds, never die because they are here to propagate their warped philosophy. All they need are people who are disillusioned, hopeless and still young enough not to know better. They thus turn youngsters into grenades because they can’t give up their own lives.

Literature can come in at a basic level because no one who is widely read is naïve because literature creates self-awareness, empathy for another and an understanding of narratives. There is a reason why terrorists’ followers are only allowed to read selected verses from one book.

In fact, they burn books because books give a person a holistic bigger view of the universe, yet a fanatic needs only a very narrow angle to life. Churchill summed it up excellently when he said a fanatic is somebody who will not change his minds and will not change his subject.

What is your take on literary prizes in Africa

I appreciate the competitive nature of literary prizes anywhere. In fact, the Kenyan government should consider sponsoring such a prize, after all, there is so much money disappearing in different scams and scandals.

In this country, everyone who is at the cooking place is busy eating. Yet no self respecting government, especially one calling itself digital, should let its contemporary storytellers starve. Who will tell the white man how we think and correct existing stereotypes?

The government ought to set aside a billion shillings a year for the arts, grants and prizes to enable its penmen craft the national narratives adequately. Brand Kenya, too, can benefit if it gives talented writers money to go to, say Serengeti, and write about the Kenyan encounter. 

That is what civilised countries do. May I ask why is it that the biggest literary prize in Africa is given by mzungus and why the biggest fighters of Malaria are not African governments but Bill and Melinda Gates?

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a very contemporary Kenyan novel titled the Big Bad Bet. It explores the gambling mentality and bad bets Kenyans have made right from political bets to national ones. It will seize everyone.

Kenya has become a gamble, from religion and false prophets who run their spiritual casinos, to the political priests and all the youth with pipe dreams. I believe now is the time to write to the heart of the country and to the mind of the people who are building this nation in a way that engages them.

I write the book in elegant eloquent prose that is still accessible and humorous and I’m ready to bet that the Big Bad Bet is a masterpiece. Let us see the impotent contemporary critiques like Evan Mwangi shut this one down.

Tell us a little about your other works

Road to Eldoret is a necessary read because Kenya’s national hobby is collective amnesia and the book will help us take some time off the hobby to try remember what led up to the 2007/8 post election violence so that we don’t repeat our mistakes. It is sad to see that the barbarians have succeeded in polarising Kenyans, even the young who now use technology as an instrument of war and discrimination instead of cleaving into the Kenyan nation.

Another of our peculiar Kenyan habits is blowing things out of proportion. Kenyans tend never to have any idea and if one plants a simple idea like having separate nations, they create a mountain out of it.

Yes David Ndii is one of the country’s greatest intellectual theorists yet to begin to imagine that he is a secessionist simply because he said parting ways is an option is to flatter him too much. When you look at his argument with dispassion, there’s nothing new Ndii is saying, because the 2010 Constitution clearly suggests creating devolved units which are autonomous.

What are the challenges facing contemporary Kenyan writers?

Every writer must be ready to meet great people and useless entitled Kenyan writers especially academic returnees from abroad who are disconnected from the common Kenyans and are used to lecturing and hectoring. But such people fail because the Kenyan spirit always moves. The modern writer must guard themselves from such people’s angry and toxic ways.

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