Remembering Wanjala: The BBI report, our reading culture and literary salons

What you need to know:

  • The literary renaissance that Prof Wanjala longed for has not quite taken off in the country.

  • He dreamt of the time when Nairobi will relive the golden 1960s where the likes of John Ruganda, Okot p’Bitek and Taban Lo Liyong mingled with Kenyan writers and university students.

The National Book Development Council of Kenya advocates for the idea of reading as a lifelong skill that must be cultivated at childhood. It rallies together various stakeholders in the book industry in Kenya under their attempts to promote a reading culture in Kenya and beyond. In a country where literacy levels still need to be supported stoutly, this non-profit organisation made up of national and international networks places a key role in the education matrix of our country.


Until his death one year ago, the chairman of the NBDCK was Prof Chris Wanjala of the University of Nairobi, a leading academic, writer, editor and author of the novel Drums of Death (2005). He was a great teacher of literature and critic of East African literatures across five decades since independence.

His efforts to support the expansion of a robust reading and book culture in Kenya saw him use a retinue of strategies apart from heading councils such as NBDCK.

In the mid-2000s, we co-hosted the programme “The Literary Giant” on the English Service of the national radio service Kenya Broadcasting Corporation with Anthony Wasena. Among the many writers we interviewed were Binyavanga Wainaina, Stephen Derwent Partington and the internationally acclaimed, Kenyan-born writer from Canada, M. G. Vassanji.

Many times he appeared in government work as a champion of culture and the arts.


He represented the sector in the drafting of the new Constitution and was the head of the commission on culture for many years. His work life commenced in the 1970s as an avid print media columnist, combative debater on the emergent literary trends of post-coloniality and a junior stakeholder in the publishing industry.

In his later life, Prof Wanjala had changed tact and opened his own outfit on Mokhtar Dada Street in the city centre called Nakhatama Literary Agency. It is here that we had scintillating intellectual discourses on the state of the book sector in Kenya and the role of the artist. Emergent writers such as Onduko Bw’Atebe (Verdict of Death) and James Situma (Seizing the Night) shared their visions with Wanjala and his guests. He called these gatherings literary salon. Tea and coffee escorted literary criticism and theory.

He dreamt of the time when Nairobi will relive the golden 1960s where the likes of John Ruganda, Okot p’Bitek and Taban Lo Liyong mingled with Kenyan writers and university students in generating the versatile and volcanic literary energies associated with the 70s.


Our literary salon talks occurred in the wake of a resurgent Nairobi literary life just after the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc), an opposition alliance, uprooted the independence party and ushered in a new era of multiparty democracy in 2002. Binyavanga had just bagged the inaugural Caine Prize for African Writing in the same year. Kenya’s version of Chimamanda, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, would repeat the same feat in 2003.

Kwani?, a literary constellation of young writers, was on the rise in its Madonna House headquarters in the posh suburb of Westlands as Eastlands was exploding with generous Genge Hits from Calif Records. Wanjala’s dream of a renaissance of sorts appeared possible as the turn of the century gave the literary life of Nairobi a spark of sorts that could have well lit the rest of the land.

Literary radio talks, literary circles, literary salons, literary festivals to him offered an orchestra of chances that Kenyans could grab and use to enhance a reading culture. He was a frequent figure in the famous Kwani? Open Mic Night salon, where writers and musicians did their thing each Thursday on Kaunda Street in Club Soundd under the aegis of Binyavanga, Yvonne and many others.


Nostalgia abounds as we stand on the cusp of the end of the second decade of this young century. This moment of retrospection sets me to celebrate the launch of the Building Bridges Initiative national report with the rest of the country. The hope is here again of the great possibilities of a better future for the motherland and its citizens.

It is akin to reliving the year 2002 and dreaming of the Kenya we want again. And with this dream comes a clarion call from leaders for the report to be read before debate and consensus.

The culture of reading is once more in the limelight as it becomes clear that it surpasses the immediacy of literary cultivation to encompass the very civic life and acts of nation-building.

This week, a new literary salon has opened up in Parklands in Nairobi. It is the initiative of a visiting scholar from the USA, Bhakti Shringapure, who is the curator of the war literature magazine Warscapes. She has combined efforts with Hassan Ghedi Santur.


Hassan is the author of the new novel The Youth of God (2019). It is receiving rave plaudits from pundits across the region. The Monthly Literary Salon made its debut this week on Thursday at Coffee Casa, Doctor’s Park on Third Parklands Avenue.

The three pioneer writers who read their works and chatted with the audience on matters literary were Itoro Bassey, Abdul Dahir Adan and Lutivini Majanja.

The organisers intend this salon to be a monthly date and is open to the public and entrance is free. Their initiative is hereby saluted and supported. The theme this month was: Nairobi — Maps of Exile.

Dr JKS Makokha teaches literature and theatre at Kenyatta University.