Reflections on a fertile desert, thanks to literary icon Chakava

By: CIUGU MWAGIRU

One cool evening in the early Nineties, a happy group gathered at the then Kijabe Street premises of the East African Educational Publishers (EAEP), with Mr Henry Chakava as the host.

Chakava had guests from England, stakeholders in the firm he headed. The gathering was rather informal — mainly cocktails.

My first association with Chakava had come years earlier when he had asked me to develop an English course for Kenyan secondary schools. This was after I had assessed a similar course, already published, that had been in use in Nigeria for some years.

My report on it had not been very positive, as I had categorically dismissed it as utterly unsuitable for Kenyan schools. The Kijabe cocktails came not long after my report and Chakava’s invitation to develop an authentic Kenyan course.

Part of Chakava’s agenda during the cocktails was to introduce me to the visitors from Britain, who were rather sceptical about whether I could see the project through. It was a tall order, they warned, whereupon Chakava, a smile on his face, brushed their doubts aside while reciting my (rather undeserved) credentials.

As he would write later in his 1996 book, Publishing in Africa: One Man’s Perspective, he had had run-ins with his superiors in London when he had opposed the publication of a similar course written by the then [UK] English Language Inspector in Nairobi.

“You cannot publish an English course for African pupils based on material that is out of their cultural, social and philosophical content,” he had argued, and I think that was why he had commissioned me to initiate a hopefully authentic course for the Kenyan market.

By that time, Chakava was at the helm of one of the leading publishing companies in Kenya. His vantage point made it possible to leave an indelible mark in general educational publishing, with EAEP titles taking the lion’s share of the market from pre-school to tertiary education levels.

The company was also prominent on the Kenyan creative writing scene, publishing some of the country’s top authors and others from elsewhere. Specifically, Chakava had made a mark by bringing out locally published editions of the works of top authors in the then popular African Writers Series (AWS), including Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe and Peter Abrahams — who this time were published in EAEP’s Peak Series.

Apart from reissuing the AWS books, Chakava had also taken it upon himself to identify new talent. It was thus that books by Kenyan writers like Meja Mwangi and Mwangi Ruheni saw the light of day. The Peak Series became very important for serious aspiring authors. The list of writers eventually accommodated top names like Grace Ogot, Marjorie O MacGoye, Yusuf Dawood and Wahome Mutahi.

LIGHTER READING

Still going strong to this day, the series has recently published two titles, The Stillborn by Nigerian writer Diekoye Oyeyinka, and The Curse of Somaal by up-and-coming Kenyan writer Paul Mwangi.

To cater for readers who prefer lighter reading materials, Chakava and his EAEP team developed the now famous Spear Books, whose success was phenomenal.

Flag bearers included writers like John Kiriamiti, whose titles sold like hot cakes. Others include Charles Mangua, David Maillu, Yusuf Dawood, Sam Kahiga, Mwangi Ruheni and Mwangi Gicheru.

There are two new books in the series by veterans Meja Mwangi — with his latest title, Rafiki Man Guitar, published elsewhere earlier — and John Kiriamiti, whose The Abduction Squad is bound to cause ripples. Also making its appearance is The American Dream by new writer Samuel Wachira.

From the creative Ngugi wa Thiong’o family, the series has welcomed son Mukuma wa Ngugi with his Nairobi Heat. This year he was joined by his siblings Nduchu and Wanjiku wa Ngugi, respectively, with their titles City Murders and The Fall of Saints.

Part of Chakava’s legacy was the launching of the EAEP drama series and the Poets from Africa.

The former saw the emergence into prominence of thespians like John Ruganda and Francis Imbuga, who EAEP inherited from the collapsed East African Publishing House. Also published in the series were works by Alamin Mazrui, Okoiti O. Omtata, Joe de Graft and others.

The poetry imprint became home to famous names like Okot p’Bitek, Okello Oculi, Taban lo Liyong, Micere Githae Mugo, Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye and Jared Angira, whose last offering was a collection titled Lament of the Silent and Other Poems.

A particularly impressive collection in the series was When Bullets Begin to Flower, an anthology of poems from Portuguese-speaking Africa edited by Margaret Dickson — also inherited from East African Publishing House.

There, too, were general interest books, including autobiographical works by Valerie Cuthbert, Susan Wood, Michael Blundell, Joseph Maina Mungai and Njenga Karume, Annabel Maule, Madatally Manji, G.G Kariuki and Jeremiah Kiereini. The latest in the series is the forthcoming title, My Journey Through African Heritage by Allan Donovan.

These joined autobiographical works by the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Yusuf Dawood.

As for the course Mr Chakava commissioned me to initiate, the first two books eventually came out after being delayed by the vagaries of co-authorship, among other things. Regarding the third book, I still have the typescript somewhere in my lair near the Indian Ocean.