In late January I arrived for my ﬁrst day at the ofﬁces of Kenya’s Kwani Trust, the publisher of Kwani? (“So what?” in Swahili), the most renowned literary journal in sub-Saharan Africa. Just a handful of people work in the bright-yellow, two-story duplex near downtown Nairobi, circled by a grassy yard with eucalyptus, bamboo, and pineapple and palm trees.
Founded in 2003 by writers frustrated at the limited possibilities for circulating their work—among them was Binyavanga Wainaina, who had just won the Caine Prize for African Writing—Kwani is a literary agitator without peer. In addition to the journal, it publishes a host of novels, nonfiction books, and poetry collections and will soon be adding graphic novels.
It organizes monthly open mics, Sunday salons, and story competitions, and it sells an affordable series of pocket-sized books, known as Kwanini?, somewhat like the City Lights Pocket Poets Series. (Not only implying a diminutive of “Kwani,” “Kwanini” means “Because.”) While Kwani publishes almost entirely in English, it also offers texts in Swahili, and is considering a book in Sheng, the hybridic street language of Nairobi that, so far as anyone can tell, has never appeared in print.
I went to Nairobi on a Fulbright fellowship to explore, among other things, how literary culture develops in young nations. Kenya, founded fewer than fifty years ago, had only months before passed a new constitution. Newspapers were already debating next year’s presidential election, the first since the 2007 contest between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga that erupted in violence.
After introductions with the staff, we gathered around a picnic table shaded by a fantastically gnarled tree. We sipped sugared Kericho Gold tea, grown in the volcanic highlands not four hours from Nairobi, and set about the day’s agenda. How would we archive materials from Kwani’s LitFest—a series of lectures, panels, readings, and workshops held in December and headlined by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s leading author? What was the status of the manuscript being ghostwritten in the voice of Kenyan hip-hop artist Daddy?
Sales manager Mike Mburu wondered whether Kwani should purchase a motorcycle for deliveries. With no book-distribution system in Kenya, Mike personally drives to all of Nairobi’s bookshops and supermarkets every Friday to restock titles, greeting owners with his gap-toothed smile. During the course of the meeting, we were disturbed now and again by sonorous wails coming from the mortuary next door.
I learned more about Kwani’s books by editing draft manuscripts. I read about Daddy’s childhood in a Kenyan orphanage run by an overbearing Japanese man. Daddy wasn’t actually an orphan, but his grandmother, seeking to shelter him from a violent neighborhood, forged documents saying his parents had been killed in a road accident. I read about a Mau Mau freedom fighter who was betrayed by a British settler just hours before the fighter’s own planned betrayal.
I felt a bit apprehensive at passing judgment on what I read—Kwani’s most popular book is a Kwanini by Wainaina called How to Write About Africa, a satire of Westerners, especially white ones, such as me. But I thought the quality of Kwani’s publications was rather mixed. The attempt to capture every facet of Kenyan literature ensures that the best of its publications are drowned out by the flood of copy.
Yet I admire Kwani’s willingness to take risks. It takes time for a literary culture to take root. Without Kwani, the silence would be deafening.