Writer Christopher Morley once observed that “when you sell a man a book, you don’t sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book”.
That saying may be true for many a book, but Morley could as well have been describing Henry Wanyoike’s Victory Despite Blindness, the junior biography of the blind world champion who has overcome great odds to become one of Kenya’s most successful and inspiring athletes.
One would be tempted to highlight some of the humorous, heart-wrenching or even edifying episodes which make the book an emotional see-saw. But that would not do justice to the 135-page story authored by Sunday Nation’s arts journalist Joseph Ngunjiri and the Henry Wanyoike Foundation.
In her biography of British writer and politician Benjamin Disraeli, Jane Ridley said that her subject was “an extra-ordinary man; and the more that becomes known about him, the more remarkable he appears.” Ngunjiri would not be too off the mark were he to use the same words to describe his subject.
At the age of 21, the young and athletic Wanyoike suffered a stroke. And not so long after, he lost his sight. It is not that his eyes failed him. That is a condition that doctors and technology could have corrected many years ago. The nerves that served Wanyoike’s otherwise good eyes simply failed ... and transformed his life for the better.
At the time, he was working as a cobbler and a mole hunter. In the part of Kiambu where he grew up, mole-hunting is a byword for ridicule and debilitating poverty; the kind that tends to run through several generations like sickle cell anaemia. And if Wanyoike had not lost his sight; and if he had not found the ridicule too much to bear, he would be just another mole hunter in Shauri Yako slum.
When he lost his sight, he could have chosen to sink deeper into the mire of self-pity. He could have taken a blue or red plastic bowl and stood at the intersections of roads to beg from motorists trapped in heavy traffic, but a series of happy events – and a determination to be his own man – were to transform his life from a nobody to a celebrity.
Before he lost his sight, he had seen famous people sign autographs for fans on TV. When he became blind, he joined the ranks of the famous. In the course of about 15 years, he not only became a world champion and serial record-breaker, he exceeded his wildest hopes and aspirations. And, today, his charity work has helped over one million blind people to regain their sight.
To relish the succulent details of Wanyoike’s inspiring, humorous, captivating and sometimes tumultuous life, one has to get hold of the freshly-minted book, in much the same way a hungry man grabs a burger and bites off mouth-watering chunks; for the book is as tantalising to the emotional taste buds as it is challenging to our commonly held beliefs that disability invariably opens the doors for misery, self-loathing and ignominy.
When Lila Luce, the founding editor of the Lion Book series, first conceived the idea of junior biographies, she had hoped that the stories would provide role models to inspire young readers to become achievers. May be she was aware, as Malcom Gladwell noted in his book Outliers, that communities with more role models have fewer school drop-out, early marriage and youth crime rates.
But, as invariably happens in Kenya, where politicians hog public space, the early Lion Books featured politicians. There were, of course, a few exceptions, such as Dedan Kimathi’s Leader of Mau Mau by David Njeng’ere and Jeevanjee’s Rebel of the Empire by Zarina Patel.
It is only in later years that other worthy individuals outside the realm of politics started making their appearance on the covers of Lion Books. These included books like Mohamed Amin’s The Eyes of Africa, Catherine Ndereba’s The Marathon Queen and James Mwangi’s The People’s Banker.
Ngunjiri’s book, however, is distinguished by the fact that he is among the authors in the series who wrote his book with the full co-operation of their subjects, which cannot be said of some of the earlier biographies. And for that, the book is rich with insights that would otherwise have never made it to the public domain.
In his book, The Art of Writing, French literary critic Andre Maurois argued that “a well written biography should resemble a novel”. He also said that the biographer has only two duties: he must be a portrait painter and an historian. Ngunjiri has, in my view, lived up to this billing. He has authored a book that, though targeted at youthful readers, can be enjoyed by anyone anywhere.
And, by a happy coincidence, his subject, Henry Wanyoike, will today be joined by thousands of runners for the Nairobi International Marathon, through which he partners with the Standard Chartered Bank, to raise money for the ‘‘Seeing Is Believing’’ campaign that helps to restore sight to countless people.
Copies of the book available during the Standard Chartered Nairobi International Marathon on Sunday and online on www.enrakenya.com