Perhaps it is Jonas Kilimani’s choice of alias that makes things go so badly wrong in Mbogo sub-location. Or maybe he’s just not cut out to be a sleuth. Or it could even be his bad choice in suits. But whatever the cause, everyone is running rings round ‘Joe Sabuni’, and it all starts when his Uncle Micah sends him upcountry to track down a man who owes him money. It’s not much of a job, but Jonas is desperate to impress. He has college loans to pay back, and rich girlfriend, Keziah, to keep happy. And if he pleases Uncle Micah, maybe the man will give him a real job, as he’d long ago promised…
Cover artwork: Bob Harvey
Okay, I am taking advantage of Frizztext’s JJJ-challenge for another piece of self-publicity. Also I think Jonas Kilimani deserves to be better known. He’s a really nice guy, and I’m glad I created him. He actually began life as a tiny notion while I was out on Kenya’s farms surveying smut-infected grass with the Team Leader. (For more about smut see earlier post HERE). It’s amazing how one thing leads to another, and all apparently unrelated. There is no smut in Joe Sabuni by the way. Or maybe just a smidgeon – involving the dreadful Keziah of course.
I began writing stories for the African children’s literature market while we were living in Kenya in the 1990s. I think it was fury that started me off. There had been an article in the local press about children’s books, and the lack of locally written ones. It included a quote from a school girl saying she did not know there were stories with African heroes and heroines.
My first reaction was bewilderment. (The fury came later.) I began to look along the shelves of Nairobi’s bookshops. I could see that the girl had a point. Most of the locally produced fiction comprised folk tales, which I, as an outsider, had until then been more than happy to see and buy.
Now I began to regard them with fresh eyes. If I were six or nine or thirteen years old what would I think about such books? The design was often minimal, the paper quality poor, the stories wholly unrelated to modern day living, since the texts had mostly remained frozen in some colonial time when an avid ethnographer had recorded them. And so by comparison with these dry looking tales, would not the imported British and American paperbacks seem infinitely more glamorous and slick?
And yes, for sure, there would be no African kids featured in the rows of Enid Blytons or the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, or in the Ladybird versions of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. For these, I discovered, were at that time the mainstay of the children’s section. Even the school curriculum English literature texts were books like Gogol’s Government Inspector or Dickens.
In fact, given the era when all these books were written, there would be no dark faces in them at all. That the stories were written in times long past would not necessarily be apparent to young Kenyan readers. I remember a ten-year old girl telling me that her dream was to ride her bicycle on country lanes and go wherever she pleased just as the Famous Five did. It was hard to know what to say to this. It seemed such a lovely dream.
Anyway, all this started me wondering what it might be like to only read books about children who were nothing like me AT ALL. How would that make me feel about myself: that I wasn’t cut out for hero-dom?
Of course the reason for all the imported revamped titles was because they were far cheaper than mainstream market books, and parents were more likely to be able to afford them. There is anyway a resistance to buying fiction, since stories are considered an unnecessary luxury when parents have to spend so much on school textbooks every year.
And so we start getting to the heart of the problem. Kenyan publishers, like many others across the continent, struggle along producing textbooks, often in collaboration with British publishers like Oxford University Press, Macmillan and Longman. They can’t afford to produce much fiction, and that means there are not many local fiction writers. Classic authors like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Meja Mwangi are few and far between, and Ngugi has anyway long lived abroad in America. The best Kenyan writing, then, is mostly to be found in the country’s excellent newspapers, and they are aimed at adults not children.
As a writer, though, I learned a lot from the late Wahome Mutahi and his hilarious Whispers column, and also from the trenchant political analysis of John Githongo. The end result was Joe Sabuni P.I., a humorous teen short novel set in the fictitious city of Greenvale, somewhere in East Africa. It is published in the Heinemann Junior African Writers Series, now a Pearson imprint.
One of my best moments came a few years ago when I learned that the book was also to be used in Zambian schools, and not only in English, but translated into 6 Zambian languages. This I gather was funded by the World Bank. Someone had the surprising idea that people learn to read best in their own language. I wonder how they came to think such a breath-taking thought.
Because that’s another thing, most African children who go to school do not learn in their vernacular, but in the language of whichever colonial power once ruled them. In Kenya the curriculum is conducted in English and the East African lingua franca, Ki-Swahili, although the vernacular may appear in the study of arcane oral literature texts.
I think this is what Ngugi wa Thiong’o means by ‘colonization of the mind.’
Of course you could say what on earth is an English woman doing writing for African kids in their second or third language? It’s a good question. As I said it was fury that drove me. I wanted to tell contemporary stories that showed Kenyan kids their own wonderful selves, and in situations they might recognize. That these stories have also proved popular in other English-speaking countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe is a bonus. A couple have won prizes of which I am inordinately proud.
You can read a sample of Joe Sabuni P.I. on Google HERE. Please forgive the fact that Google copywriters can’t spell the word ‘rotten’. And nor can Amazon.
© 2013 Tish Farrell