Publishers have a key role in saving vernacular literature

Many people in Kenya do not know anything about Syokimau, other than the name Syokimau Estate and Syokimau Railway Station of the SGR. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Ndugu Maillu, please use your writing gift to write a book about the Akamba’s most famous and legendary prophetess, Syokimau.
  • There are so many of us who know nothing about this extraordinary spiritual woman. It is disastrous for us to let her be forgotten.

Some months ago, Eric Mutua, one of my Facebook friends, wrote to me saying: “Ndugu Maillu, please use your writing gift to write a book about the Akamba’s most famous and legendary prophetess, Syokimau. There are so many of us who know nothing about this extraordinary spiritual woman. It is disastrous for us to let her be forgotten.”

Many people in Kenya do not know anything about Syokimau, other than the name Syokimau Estate and Syokimau Railway Station of the SGR, although her predictions touched on the lives of every citizen.

She lived in 1800s, before the coming of the white man and predicted many things which would take place more than a century after her death.


The most glorious prediction was about the great “snake” she saw running from one sea to another (train from Mombasa to Lake Victoria) and she talked about cows without hair or tails running in open grounds mooing (motor cars).

In response to his request, I told Mr Mutua about my fears, that after writing the book I would have no publisher interested in it due to the economic constraints and financial returns based on the small targeted readership of the book.

However, he responded by assuring me that that shouldn’t bother me because "using the power of Facebook and WhatsApp media, we will raise the necessary funds for publishing the work".

So I took up the challenge and wrote the book in Kikamba, a novel based on her life that I have titled Wasya wa Syokimau (Syokimau’s Voice).

I wrote the book in Kikamba to benefit as many Akamba people as possible who cannot read in English and would love to read about the legendary woman.

After completing it, I reported the results to Mutua through Facebook. I was given an overwhelming credit for it by many people. Mutua and others reacted instantly by telling me to get an Paybill number for mobilising the resources for publishing the work.

I moved fast and got the account number “Wasya wa Syokimau, M-Pesa Paybill 845610.” The rest is still a work in progress.


However, that is not the main subject of this article. The elephant in the room is publishing literature in vernacular languages.

What is the future of literature in vernacular in Kenya when all the publishers have developed set minds that publishing in vernacular is not worth any commercial effort. Even the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation does not touch publishing in vernacular despite being a national cultural foundation.

Similarly, the Kenya Literature Bureau is allergic to it although it is a government institution. Only during colonial days did Kenya Literature Bureau publish some books in vernacular.

Only the Bible, supported by missionaries, has been translated and published in vernacular.

I have confronted leading publishers in Kenya, asking; “Aren’t you even worse than the colonial government in publishing anything worthwhile in our national languages?” Their answer has been the same; “That is a commercially unviable field.”

However, anyone who thinks vernacular languages are going to die soon is gravely mistaken. Those languages are here to stay for generations. The population of the speakers of those languages is increasing. Even if the languages will die, if they will ever die at all, they will die very slowly, but with devastating consequences.


Vernacular languages are the foundation of our culture. The philosophy of any civilisation is founded on the language of the people. Unfortunately, the killer of these languages is the so-called educated and governing class, which feels so proud that their children speak English and believe vernacular languages are becoming out-dated.

Yes, the white man went away, but his shadow darkens every corner of our homesteads. The educated and governing class does not worry when the television is dominated by white films.

Their children spend too much time glued at the television screen watching white faces but when they turn and look out of the screen they find only black people.

I remember the battle that the foresighted Ms Rose Kimotho fought when trying to establish Kameme radio station. The elite called her names and wondered, “Who the hell would be interested in Kikuyu broadcast in this time and age?” I do not know what magic she used to finally convince them to give her a licence to start the station. Years later, naysayers were dumbfounded by the reality that the station became a gold mine, pulling in millions of listeners. Nevertheless, her endeavour paved the way for the present-day vernacular stations that are nearly in every corner of the country where people are hearing information broadcast in their mother-tongues.

However, that mother-tongue development is addressing the nation’s problem only from the verbal angle. The dynamite buried in our cultural paths is the lack of publishing literature in these languages.

Books are the pillars of education and public information and are by far much more serious and effective than voices. Books make the world what it is today.

A reading culture is a progressive culture. Books are the custodians of cultural values. What would the world be today if the Bible, the Quran or other religious texts were not published?

Thank God that the less privileged class in education has a voice through the radio. But they have no privilege whatsoever through published works. There is the saying in the academic fraternity that you either publish or perish. One should say the same about vernacular languages. Publish them or they will perish.

So what is the problem and where do we go from here? My second published book was a Kikamba poetry collection, Ki Kyambonie, published in 1972.

It was based on my poetry which I read over the KBC radio for nearly three years. Since then I have not published a book in Kikamba, mainly because of the same problem in the vernacular book world. Nonetheless, that misfortune has not stopped me from writing in my mother tongue.

As of now, I have 17 Kikamba manuscripts and 16 in Kiswahili. I still live with the hope that one day they will be published even if it will be after my death.

I am better off with them written and unpublished than without having written them.

I have highlighted this problem in the past. Year in year out, we have a big population of primary school leavers who will never sit in a class again.

Poorly educated in their millions, they are the wretched of the community because they are armed with very little knowledge of the English language with which to consume literature in English. They are destined to live for the rest of their lives in a desert world devoid of vernacular literature.

Of course, they would want to read for all the many reasons that make reading important. Ask yourself, what are the consequences of this scenario?


Through books, you improve your social status, increase your knowledge and skills, entertain yourself, share cultural values, become a better citizen, continue being enlightened by the world and share with the world whatever there is for you to share.

However, since they must live and life must continue, their idle minds, of course, will turn to other avenues affordable to them.

They will seek entertainment and things to occupy their minds. But what are in those avenues to help them build their lives?

The most affordable and the only way out of their cultural prison is through living and fighting with their mouth, wallowing in vanity, drinking, sex, crimes, mental degeneration and drugs. The results? They become liabilities to the nation because an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.