Intimations of an ending—Carey Baraka on the unspoken demise of Kwani?, and the death of a dream

‘Still, there were dreams, and there were dreamers.’ Carey Baraka attempts to gather together the stories of Kwani?

1.

One evening late in 2019, after the launch of yet another media organisation sequestered in uptown Nairobi, Parselelo Kantai, a Kwani? founder member and a two-time Caine Prize shortlistee, Angela Wachuka, the immediate former Kwani? executive director, Isaac Otidi Amuke, a journalist who had been active in and around Kwani? circles, and I piled into Kantai’s car. 

It was around ten in the evening, and the night was before us. We were going down the road to an establishment Kantai liked, to listen to some live rhumba. As he pulled out of the underground parking lot, Kantai turned to Wachuka, seated next to him, shotgun. ‘End of the decade,’ he said. ‘What a year. First Binya dies, then Ali.’

In the ether between the two deaths, unspoken, was Kwani?’s own—and the death of the dream its founders had held.

The first issue of Kwani? featured an editorial by Binyavanga Wainaina, Mr Kwani? himself, in which he defined the nascent organisation’s ethos:

This is the Kenya that Kwani? is about. We are a magazine of ideas. We seek to entertain, provoke, and create. We are open to all Kenyans, wherever they may be, who want to say something new.

That is one way to begin our story, at least: by providing the intellectual basis that centred the exciting new literary and cultural period. Here it is, a magazine that seeks to entertain, provoke and create. With this method, our story acquires a central character, Binyavanga, and establishes for him and the other characters the motivational premise that stories of this sort need. Still, it is only one way. And it is an inaccurate way. For instance, obviously, Binyavanga is not Mr Kwani?. There is no such thing. Binyavanga is, at most, Mr Wainaina. 

Here is another way of starting the Kwani? story. A better way: one that involves grandiose descriptions of some of the principal characters, our opening salvo bulging at the seams with flowery image upon flowery image.

So: in the beginning was a house. A house in Karen, that Nairobi suburb named after Karen Blixen, the doyenne of aristocratic colonial nostalgia. The house was a green bungalow, and standing on a corner of the property one could see all the way down to Karen Shopping Centre. In this house, a two-bedroom bungalow standing on ten acres of property, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Atsango Chesoni ran an organisation, Ishara Trust, principally funded by Abubakar Zein, and they used the house as their office. There was a table in the corner of the main room, faux oak. Next to the table, a bookshelf, from which leered certain names: Naipaul, Woolf, Tolkien (a favourite of Owuor’s). Now and then Owuor, who was in the beginnings of her writer-ness, would retreat to the desk, earphones in her ears (Cesária Évora, who else?), sit down, and write. Later, after the organisation moved out, Parselelo Kantai moved into this same house, and he, unlike Owuor and Chesoni, used it as a house: there is his bed, and the sofas from his father’s house, and an antique clock left with him by an old girlfriend. The desk proved too cumbersome an obstacle when Owuor and Atsango moved out, so it’s there that Kantai does his writing. The desk that Owuor writes the first draft of her Caine Prize story is the same desk that Kantai writes his Caine Prize story. Baadaye, Binyavanga moves in next door, and when Binya goes, he goes wild. There’s whiskey, mshikaki, gin, mutura, wine, mahindi choma, everything. Some of the parties happen there, at Binya’s, or in Kantai’s house-née-Owuor-and-Atsango’s office, across the fence. In the afternoons, Binya is hammered as hell, but he drags himself from that big Lamu bed he had lugged across town to Kantai, his writing partner. There, the faux-oak desk beckons, and he too writes the first draft of his Caine Prize story on it. 

Now, this is a beautiful image. We see the idiosyncrasies of our principal characters, and are able to choose on whose side our loyalties lie. It is also an untrue image, plagued with inaccuracies. But were this a piece of fiction, perhaps I would retain this paragraph as my opening. It is beautiful. What does it matter if the house doesn’t look as I say it does, that the view from the house wasn’t what I say it was? What does it matter that there never was any desk? Maybe there was, I have no way of knowing. And the bookshelf, if it existed—how would I know what books were on it? And the parties, I don’t know what Binyavanga drank, or whether he ate mahindi choma, or even if Kantai was the writing partner with whom he wrote after his binges. But the image works. Part of the reason is because I am cunning enough to speckle the lie with enough truths to convince the reader: the house; it being two-bedroomed; Owuor and Atsango’s organisation; Owuor liking Cesária Évora (and Tolkien being a favourite); Owuor and Atsango moving out and Kantai moving in; Binya moving in; the parties; the Lamu bed. 

Now, the truth. There was a house. And there were parties. At Binya’s mostly, but also at Kantai’s. Of course, there are other centres: Ali and Irene’s in Spring Valley. Rasna Warah’s. Ann McCreath’s. Olivier Lechien’s. Ebba Kalondo’s. A community of writers, readers, thinkers, being together, distilling their various Nairobi existences. 

I have written about this before. I will quote myself now, because I can.

Kwani? started as a result of informal conversations that took place in Ali Zaidi and Irene Wanjiru’s house in Loresho. At the time, Zaidi, the editor of The East African, would throw parties to which members of Nairobi’s artistic communities were invited to sit and chill and eat and drink and reflect. These parties, however, were not Kwani? parties. At least not at the start. At the start, the parties were friends hanging out, people who, dear to Zaidi and Wanjiru, had been invited into their Loresho abode. As Wanjiru tells me, even when Kwani? was starting out she didn’t know about it, since these folks were her friends, hanging out. You know? She says, ‘I know nothing about Kwani … all I know is it started at our house.

Kwani?, as Tom Maliti writes, began with a question: ‘Are Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Meja Mwangi the only writers Kenyan publishers are interested in?’ An email chain was formed, moderated by filmmaker Wanjiru Kinyanjui, and the conversation grew.

In our story, it is 2003, and Moi is gone, and yote yawezekana bila Moi, and Binya has won the Caine Prize, and Maurice Odumbe and Steve Tikolo have led their squad to the semifinals of the Cricket World Cup, and, of course, there is writing being written, like Binya’s reflections on the cricket team’s heady success for The East African, Binya who prefers the steady grit of Tikolo to the undisciplined talents of Odumbe, said The East African, which is edited by Zaidi, the chainsmoking, Marxist intellectual whose parties are the main hub for a certain coterie of Nairobi thinkers and writers. Fun fact: the cover image of Kwani? 01 is a photograph of Collins Obuya. Not Collins Obuya the bowler whose leg-spin wowed at the 2003 World Cup, the one who eviscerated the Sri Lankans by taking five wickets off only twenty-four runs conceded, but still, a Collins Obuya. 

Here’s a scene. First, there’s Ali and Irene, and their little daughter Tara running around the house, Irene’s sculptures all over the place, a lot of food, and even more alcohol. Then there are the other folks: Rasna Warah, working at UN-Habitat, who in just over a decade would write a whistle-blowing book about the same organisation; Parselelo Kantai, young and brash and arrogant, taken by Tom Wolfe and the New Journalists, trying to interest his fellows in their glories; Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, who’s quieter than most, but whose pseudonymous writing on the platform these writers and friends share has been generating a buzz; Binyavanga Wainaina, who, having come back to Kenya from a failed degree in accounting was introduced to this crowd at a party held at Ann McCreath’s house; Muthoni Wanyeki, who had been appointed executive director of the African Women’s Development and Communication Network, Femnet, a powerful consortium of women’s non-governmental organisations from twenty countries on the continent at the ripe old age of twenty-seven; Muthoni Garland, and Martin Kimani, and Tom Maliti, and all the other names too numerous to enumerate.

Years later, in the aftermath of Binyavanga’s death, Kantai would describe the scene: 

‘In the Age of Love, that first flush of infatuation that had Kwani as its centrepiece, a small group of budding artists gathers at Ali Zaidi’s Sunday afternoon open house events in the garden in Loresho in the northwestern suburbs. Ad-men and women, teachers at the GCSE schools, UN expats and in-pats, journalists, civil society types encounter Binyavanga and are duly transformed. Into writers, poets, thespians. So profound is the encounter, some of them actually give up their day jobs, leave their lives, start wearing dashikis, kitenges, akaras.’

Another Zaidi favourite, David Kaiza, was also present at some of these scenes:

It seemed that everybody was there. I recognised Lynn Muthoni Wanyeki from her mugshot in The East African. A young, energetically bouncing writer (he wore his credentials too well) introduced himself as Parselelo Ole Kantai […] 

But it was the sheer number of people in Ali Zaidi’s house that occupied my mind. From the sound of them (all eloquent), and the look of them (the tasteful but crumpled look of arty sorts) you could tell who the writer was, the filmmaker, the musician, the activist […] 

Back to the front garden, which was enormous and punctuated with Irene’s sculptures, there were more introductions, hands to grip, names to exchange: Betty Muragori (soon to be Sitawa Namwalie, who invited me to the opening of her poetry show, ‘Cut Off My Tongue’), Wanyeki, Rasna Warah, Shalini Gidoomal. I forget the rest. The talk was a high, theory-studded tenor. You turned here and caught a whiff of postmodernist extrapolations that had someone in deconstructionist pique [sic], and over there, postcolonial postulation. People held court, drew a circle, talked, then dispersed, sat by the fire, re-congregated around another forth-holder, filled glasses, opened another bottle. 

As I was quickly learning, in that circle, you did not simply say things. There had to be an intellectual filter, an optic, a politics via which you saw the world. It was like living inside the pages of The New Yorker, or the Times Literary Supplement, or the London Review of Books. Books, titles, verses, quotes and much else flew about to emphasise a point, a name invoked to shore up a position, wedge in a definition.

This, then, is another way to start this story: with the parties.

But there is yet another way, a way that takes us to just over a decade before these parties, to a school. A rugby school.

The history of Kenyan rugby begins with the rugby schools. First, there were the whites-only schools, and the whites-only rugby teams. Then there was Rift Valley Academy, the first school where African kids could play rugby; a school for the sons of the African elite. Next, the centre shifted, and in came two Nairobi Schools: the Prince of Wales School and the Duke of York School. In the euphoria of the years following Kenya’s independence from the British, these colonial names were discarded, and the schools were baptised with names that spoke to the country’s new authentic Africanness. The Prince of Wales School became Nairobi School, while the Duke of York School became Lenana School, named after Lenana, the last great Maasai Oloiboni.

Three of Kwani?’s founder members met in this setting: Binyavanga, Tom Maliti and Martin Kimani. The Lenana Boys. Binyavanga and Kimani were close friends, the former drawn to the social currency the latter possessed as one of the stars of the school rugby team. Binya, a poet, a writer, a nerd, like the rest of us unfortunate bookish kids, ended up spending time in the buzz of the rugby team, becoming almost cool, by virtue of his allyship with Kimani. On the other side of this was Maliti, the school captain, and the relationship between him and Binyavanga was so difficult that it was a surprise to some when, at the formation of Kwani?, Binyavanga became its editor and Maliti the chair of the board of trustees. People who had known the two of them for a long time struggled to understand it; the two of them allegedly despised each other. Maliti himself, however, has told me that this was not true, that their relationship was mostly a positive one.

In fact, their earliest collaboration was at Lenana. Maliti was one year ahead of Binyavanga, and both of them were French students at A-level. In Maliti’s final year, the two of them, plus Arthur Ogonji, a fellow student at the school, co-wrote a French play, which was submitted as one of the school’s entries to the Kenya National Drama Festival. After Maliti left the school the two lost contact, and only reconnected when Binyavanga came back to Kenya from South Africa.

Billy Kahora was also at Lenana School, but was two years behind this lot, so not quite in their circle. He and Binyavanga interacted with each other, though, a consequence of their being in the same house, Carey Francis House, and their shared love of books. In Binyavanga’s final two years at the school, he cast Kahora in the house play. In ‘Shiko’, a story in Kahora’s short story collection The Cape Cod Bicycle War, he offers an snapshot of a Lenana-esque rugby school:

Mappen used to be the King of Nairobi’s national schools. It did not have the dry swottiness of Bush. It was not as Catholic as Strath. It did not have the jock culture of Changes. It did not have the thuggery of Jamu. It did not have the ujinga of Patch. Highway and Eastleigh were not worth bringing up—they were oboho schools. And Mappen did not have the snobbery of Saints. It did not have the ugly uniforms of Starehe. With these advantages it set out to become a school between Strath and Changes.

Thus, Lenana School is another place to start the story of Kwani? So many different beginnings this story might have, each inadequate in itself but, considered together, bound like the pages of an atlas, they dare someone to complete it.

2.

In seeking to understand Kwani? and its death, one must also understand that there are, in essence, two Kwani?s. First, there is the 2003 Kwani?, with affectations of a utopian literary existence, and big, bold ideas of how to restore Kenyan writing to an imagined apex of excellence—this coming at a time during which, in Muthoni Garland’s words, ‘The only bits of creativity that flourished were daring election manipulations.’

Then there is the second Kwani?, a post-founders Kwani?, a Kwani? that was led by Kahora and Wachuka, who had been nowhere near its 2003 formation. 

It must be noted that this distinction is hardly a clean one; the two Kwani?s are intermeshed, their edges cleaving into each other. An example of this being the board of trustees, where Maliti remains the eternal chair. Nevertheless, the second Kwani? had at its helm two figures who hadn’t been part of the 2003 dreamers. 

Most of these dreamers are still around. They remember this period in different ways. For Muthoni Garland, it began at the tail-end of the millennium, when she was working in Cairo and having doubts about her writing. Then, on an online writers’ forum, she met Binyavanga. He was trying to make a living through writing, but it didn’t seem like a dream that was possible. In their little online enclaves there was all this work being written, but they didn’t know where it would be published. As Rasna Warah tells me, ‘The literary environment at this point was very university focused.’ 

This is the space into which Wanjiru Kinyanjui’s email chain entered. More writers were added to the chain, more voices sought. One of these voices, soon to become central to the planned endeavour, was Binyavanga’s.

Binyavanga was a character of awe. ‘We heard that there was this guy in South Africa with brilliant ideas,’ Warah says. When he came back to Kenya he was broke, his education in tatters, but he had reserves of energy. In Nairobi, he stayed with Muthoni Wanyeki, this after Maliti had introduced the two to each other, and it is from there that he was introduced to the literary space. Most met him at a party at Ann McCreath’s house, a party Owuor described to me as Binyavanga’s debut into the scene. But there were other introductions. Rasna met him at her house. The Lenana Boys had known him for longer.

With Binyavanga increasingly influential, the dream grew more deliberate. Wanyeki remembers: ‘As the group grew, the aim was really to inspire would-be writers to take writing seriously (and other artists and creatives to do the same), which somehow gained energy when he won the Caine Prize and the idea of a journal to showcase that writing came about.’

‘Energy’ is a word often used in descriptions of that time. Garland says, ‘We would meet and talk, an incredible energy in what was possible. Binya was like, have you seen this person’s work, and having discussions about other people’s work.’

It soon became clear that a journal was necessary. A name was proposed: Kwani?, Kiswahili for ‘So what?’ Maliti is credited with the idea on the Kwani? website, but Garland also lays claim. In the midst of all this, Binyavanga won the Caine Prize, Africa’s most influential writing award.

It is important to note that Kwani? was not Binyavanga. Maliti says, ‘A lot of writing about Kwani? has been about Binya, making it seem like he was the sole driver, and I’m not trying to take the credit away, because he did a lot of the lifting, but there were a lot of people willing it to go forward.’

In the dominant version of this story, Binyavanga wins the Caine Prize, then promptly uses his winnings to fund the Kwani? journal. The truth, however, is a bit more Gordian. Once it had become clear to Kinyanjui and her group that a journal was the next logical step, different people decided to chip in. Binyavanga was one of these people. He poured a huge chunk of winnings into the enterprise, this despite the expectation that having gone through a very lean period he would use the money for something more solid than a literary journal.

With time, however, it became clear that the money that had been contributed would not be enough to do what the dreamers aimed to do with Kwani? That’s when the Ford Foundation came into the picture.

Rob Burnet is the chief executive of Shujaaz Inc., a two-time Emmy Award-winning Kenyan communications research and production company. In 2003, he was the Ford Foundation’s first-ever programme officer for media, arts and culture for East Africa, responsible for a multi-million dollar grant portfolio. His job was to make recommendations to the higher-ups at Ford about which arts organisations deserved to be funded under its Special Initiatives for Africa programme. Wanyeki, already familiar with this world from her work with Femnet and other NGOs, wrote the proposal, and it found its way to Burnet. 

Reflecting on this moment years later, Burnet tells me, ‘These projects are only as good as the energy behind them.’ That word again. While Wanyeki had drafted the document, Binyavanga provided the energy. He became, to the Ford Foundation, the visible figure fronting this novel organisation. He was present at the foundation’s offices, chasing down meetings and writing emails. He was the guy Burnet dealt with. While, as Burnet acknowledges, they were aware that there were other people involved with the organisation, Binyavanga was the public face.

Burnet recommended Kwani? for funding alongside other projects. He had faith in the sincerity of the proposed outcomes of the projects, as well as the sincerity of the people involved. It is highly likely that Kwani? would have been awarded the grant money without the weight of the Caine Prize behind it. After all, Muthoni Wanyeki—wunderkind Muthoni Wanyeki!— had written the proposal. Still, the fact that the public face of this nascent organisation had won such an important prize, was, as Burnet informed me, a sign to the Ford Foundation that the people they were dealing with were serious, were people they could back. The proposal was approved, and Kwani? became a reality.

The maiden print issue of Kwani? landed in bookstores in October 2003. The goal, for Burnet, was for Kwani? to produce a journal in which more than just the founding members would be published. With time, they hoped that Kwani? would get more organised, grow an audience, and grow its practice. 

3.

Kwani? was, especially in its early days, a communal project. Various people contributed various things. Wanyeki, a member of the board in its early days, wrote the proposal; Kinyanjui organized the people involved; Zaidi did a lot of the editorial work for the first issue; Owuor and Chesoni’s Ishara Trust were given the seed money for Kwani? (since Ford couldn’t give funding to an amorphous group of people); etc., etc.

However, Binyavanga was a forceful personality, and he and his ideas came to be at the centre of Kwani? As Wanyeki tells me, ‘Binyavanga himself was very exercised by the stagnation in African writing, its limitation, in Kenya, to what was published for the textbook market, the sense of a real gap between the immediate post-independence writers who wrote about that reality and the lack of reflection of the more cosmopolitan—that’s questionable, obviously—current generation.’ 

In thinking about how Binyavanga’s Kwani? worked, it’s instructive to recall Jean Paul-Sartre’s Les Temps modernes. In its early days, it wasn’t Sartre’s journal. It was an example of collective editorship. In addition to Sartre, Les Temps modernes was run by an elite group of his contemporaries: Raymond Aron, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Leiris, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Ollivier and Jean Paulhan. However, from its very first edition, Sartre as author–editor presented himself as the dominant intellectual authority. (His introduction to the first issue, ‘The Case for a Responsible Literature’, can, though being of far greater ambition, be compared to Binyavanga’s introduction to Kwani? 01.) Regardless, the journal remained largely a collective effort until eight years in, when, in 1953, Merleau-Ponty joined his erstwhile colleagues in leaving it, with the result that Les Temps modernes, whatever its prior history, became Sartre’s alone—by reputation, at least. 

Similarly, Kwani? became Binyavanga’s journal by reputation. As figures who had been key to its formation were either pushed out or left on their own volition, power became wielded, increasingly, by Binyavanga, a coterie of his close friends and allies—among whom were his Lenana Boys, Maliti and Kimani, plus Kahora, who would join the organisation a few years in as Binyavanga’s assistant—and a number of trusted confidantes.

In the last chapter of his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, Binyavanga offers an aphorism: ‘We fail to trust that we knew ourselves to be possible from the very beginning.’ At the heart of Binyavanga’s Kwani? was this: a belief that whatever dreams were being built there were possible. It was a sentiment that was expressed by several writers after Binyavanga’s death in May 2019: that he, Binyavanga, had made their dreams possible. That Binyavanga’s Kwani? made dreams possible.

Listen, this is how Kwani? worked. First, there was Binyavanga, spiritual totem, overseeing everything, providing the drive that powered the collective forward. Around him, everything proceeded ad hoc, as the Kwani? dreams were being made possible. Friends worked together, thought together, created together. Some, like Binyavanga and Maliti, did this from the inside, while others cast their influence from the outside. 

Binyavanga, during his time at the helm of Kwani?, was famously laissez-faire about money. Wanyeki told me, ‘He didn’t really distinguish between his costs and Kwani? costs. Which was fine when we started but obviously not fine once there was a need for some sort of documentation of expenses and accounting for the same. When the Ford Foundation was putting money into bringing Ayi Kwei Armah into town for events and a writing course, we actually put the money through my own organisation, which had financial systems and annual audits and all those tedious but necessary things.’

However, with time there would be changes, attempts at professionalising the organisation. The first attempt came in 2006, and it was led by Owuor. Lutivini Majanja, one of the earliest Kwani? staffers, remembers this period: ‘Yvonne was never formally employed; she was almost like a consultant.’

Owuor came in like a burst of energy, frenetic in her passion, directing that this person was to do this, and this person to do that. Owuor had won the Caine Prize the year after Binyavanga, and this meant she was the only person among the original Kwani? group who could rival Binya’s literary chutzpah. It meant that she was the only person who could undertake the task of figuring out Kwani? as an organisation.

The Kwani? members of staff, then and to its very end, were divided into two sections: the admin staff, who were six; and the editorial side, which consisted of Binyavanga (though he was, obviously, more than just a member of staff), Kahora and Charles ‘Potash’ Matathia. As part of Owuor’s remit, she had the admin staff send her their resumes, had one-on-ones with each of them, and evaluated their suitability for the roles they occupied. This eventually led, for the first time, to the Kwani? employees having job descriptions.

Still, the founder members of Kwani? remained, while not directly involved in the organisation, figures of influence. Like Parselelo Kantai, for instance. Once, after his name had been misspelled in a Kwani? anthology, he stormed into the Kwani? offices and demanded to know who was responsible. That it had happened in two consecutive issues made his anger at the staff all the worse. Or, he would come into the office and demand to see Binyavanga, and a staffer, not knowing who he was, would ask for his name and whether he had made an appointment. Kantai would look at the person, a glint in his eyes, and walk right past to see Binyavanga. Or, after Tom Cholmondeley, farmer and heir to the Delamere title, killed a man on his property, Kantai walked in, saying that this here, this was the story, that he needed to write it, that he needed a Land Cruiser. Binyavanga called in the accountant, Erick Orende and, waving away his stammered protests about the state of Kwani?’s accounts, insisted that Kantai be given whatever it was he needed, that this story needed to be written. A few days later, Kantai drove back, handed over the keys, and said that there was no story. 

4.

At the end of 2006, in December, Kwani? held a literary festival. Binyavanga reached out to founding members of the group, demanding that they pitch in, telling them they owed Kwani? that much. Among those who were directly involved were Owuor and Shalini Gidoomal. Owuor was in charge of the Nairobi part of the festival, serving as a conduit between the dreamers who talked about the festival, concerning themselves with big picture stuff, and the admin group who did on-the-ground work. Gidoomal coordinated the Lamu section of the festival.

In 2008, writing about her experiences, Gidoomal observed:

There were 100 little adventures to be had at Kwani? Litfest 2006. From swimming across the Lamu to Manda channel, to getting lost somewhere in the middle of the island, to eye-popping visits in Dandora and incredible poetry performances that are still talked about today—those many little organisational glitches, turned quickly into many, many triumphs. The Nigerian Litmag Farafina was born at a Litfest, as was the Pan African Literary Forum. Watch this space for the advent of an exciting international literary archive project called Goonj. All these created the many narratives that made up the Kwani? Litfest 2005 and 2006.

Soon, however, the triumphs turned sour. The 2006 festival marked the start of a bitter break between Gidoomal and Kwani? During the event, the fourth issue of Kwani?’s flagship journal was launched. The issue suffered a series of mishaps, including, among other things, editorial errors in the publishing of a short story by Gidoomal.

When the festival began, the issue wasn’t yet available, a monsoon having trapped the books that were being shipped in from India. One of the Kwani? staffers flew to India and back to Kenya with a batch of copies that were made available to festival attendees. When the writers whose work had editorial mistakes read through the issue, they erupted. Binyavanga quickly shifted the blame to Charles Matathia, who had done a lot of editorial work on the issue. Majanja says, ‘I remember Binya saying something like it’s Potash’s fault to cover his ass.’ The copies that had been printed ended up being recalled, and a new edition issued, where the mistakes were either corrected, or, in the case of Gidoomal, the work removed completely. Matathia was removed from the editorial team.

This was the first part of the rift between Gidoomal and Kwani? The second happened two years later, during the 2008 Litfest. While in 2006 Gidoomal had been a member of the organising committee for the festival, in 2008 she was in charge—she was the director. Here, the bottlenecks she would encounter would bring a permanent end to the relationship between her and Kwani? First, to outsiders it looked as if she had been left to do all the heavy lifting for the festival by herself, and to solve the problems she encountered on her own. For instance, while she had expected that she could use the Kwani? mailing list to spread word about the festival, she quickly discovered that the list was full of Kwani? Open Mic fans, who couldn’t afford tickets. Then there was the pay. There was a misunderstanding about how much Gidoomal was supposed to earn in her role as director, and the standoff ended with her pursuing Kwani? for lost payments. [Editor’s note: see Gidoomal’s comment on Kwani?’s finances—and this piece—below.] But at the core of the rift was Gidoomal’s misgivings about the amount of backing and assistance given to her by Binyavanga and Kahora. As Majanja says, ‘It’s not just about pay; it’s also the kind of support you want an organisation to give you.’

5.

In the years post-2003, Parselelo Kantai packaged himself into a sort of proto-propagandist for the Kwani? group. Here he is, for instance, declaring that Kwani? had sparked off a literary renaissance, and that the larger idea behind it was to explore the different ways of being Kenyan. Here he is, in conversation with Grace A Musila, reiterating his conviction that, despite the delay, the Kwani? generation would still produce ‘The Great Kenyan Novel’, and that his own book would be ready in a little more than a year. Nevertheless, the further away from 2002 it got, as it became clearer to him and a few other writers that Kwani? had changed, Kantai began to question the direction it was taking, its increasing cliquishness, its preoccupation with elitist pursuits.  

In a conversation at his house in 2018, Binyavanga dismissed Kantai. Parselelo, he said, had never been interested in running Kwani? Binyavanga was ailing, and finding speech difficult, but he was resolute on this point. Kantai had not wanted to be involved in the running of Kwani?, so his criticism of the group was, in Binyavanga’s view, hardly valid.

Still, Kantai’s views about Kwani?, especially about how its founders had failed to reckon with their own vagaries of class, are hardly particular to him. To some, while Binyavanga did try to reach beyond the class divide of Uhuru Highway, especially with writers who wrote and thought in Sheng’, the principal remit of Kwani? remained a need to affirm to the West their group’s and country’s validity, that away from the traditional tropes of poverty and HIV/Aids and a lack of water there was more, that there was a middle class too—that, as Warah puts it, ‘We are not all poor. We play rugby, and go on picnics.’ The group seemed to be unable to examine Kenyan society beyond this, and Warah argues, ‘We didn’t examine that Kenya’s middle-class is a result of dysfunction. There wasn’t introspection.’

The Reddykulass Generation, remember, were, as Kantai wrote, ‘the sons and daughters of the nationalist elite’, and they, ‘sat behind dark and heavy wooden desks wounded with the insignia of those other children—the white kids of colonial bureaucrats.’

Wanyeki thinks differently, telling me:

But there were real efforts to reach out to potential writers from all over the place, and of different class backgrounds. As well as to ensure that the writing included in Kwani? reflected many different Kenyan lives, the many worlds we have that coexist and remain hidden from each other. One example: Jackie Lebo may well be middle class but her research into and writing about the Kenyan running community in the Rift, how it worked, what running meant to the lives of those involved, the whole economy of running. The Kwani? events (open mic sessions, writing workshops, etc) were also attended by somewhat of a mix.

In addition to the difficulties of class, there was Politics, with a capital P. Kwani? exists in relation to the shadowy presence of three general elections in Kenya: those of 2002, 2007 and 2013. Kwani? was formed amid the euphoria of the 2002 elections, in which a dictatorship that had ruled the country for twenty-four years (thirty-nine by some counts) was voted out of office. It is hardly surprising, then, that most of the work put out by people in the group—a lot of it esoteric by nature—attempted to come to terms with the idea of the nation-state of Kenya in its post-2002 existence, and that differing ideas about what the idea of Kenya was led to a schism among the dreamers.

Tom Odhiambo, a Kenyan academic, performs an analytic look at this nationalistic bent in his paper ‘Kwani? and the Imaginations around Re-invention of Art and Culture in Kenya: Rethinking Eastern African Literary and Intellectual Landscapes’. Kwani 01, according to Odhiambo, drew largely from history, ‘was irreverent, flamboyant, and breached artistic and genre boundaries and indeed seemed to suggest a literary revolution’. Kwani 02 was ‘unwilling to localise itself too much’, meanwhile, while still drawing inspiration from the Mau Mau/Bob Marley in a way that sustained its apparent revolutionary zeal’. Kwani 03, the Sheng’ edition, was an attempt at bridging the English-Sheng’ divide by ‘broadening the range of audiences for the publication’. Kwani 04, the Kikuyu edition, veered around ‘a sense of Kikuyu isolation’ following the collapse of ‘the post-Moi dream of a corruption free and inclusive Kenya’. And Kwani 05 was a reckoning with the 2007 post-electoral violence. 

It was this election that would lead to a permanent break between Wanyeki and Kwani?. Wanyeki told me that:

I think the ideological differences within Kwani? came later […] for me, decisively, over how Binyavanga positioned himself vis-à-vis the devastation of the 2007 elections and the political violence that followed. I was heading the KHRC [Kenya Human Rights Commission] at the time and part of the civil society coalition that had an extremely strong position on truth and justice for both the elections and the violence (and knew, from our monitoring work, the different forms of violence that had occurred). Binyavanga, maybe because of his background (in the Rift Valley), maybe because he didn’t have clear politics, ended up on the part of civil society that was for peace (and didn’t really recognise state complicity in some forms of the violence). And Kwani? was in the peace crowd too (Concerned Kenyan Writers). Some of what they did was important, even just for the historical record.  But, as a whole, I lost interest in them. And my politics, work, played out elsewhere.

And thus Wanyeki left the organisation she’d helped birth. Later that same year Gidoomal broke with the group, too. 

And soon after, Binyavanga left Kwani? There are differing accounts as to why. Maliti says it was because the arrival and prominence of Wachuka and Kahora had made him superfluous, and so he went off to pursue other things. However, multiple sources I spoke to allege that his exit from Kwani? was driven by the Ford Foundation, who vowed not to deal with Kwani? as long as Binyavanga remained a signatory on the accounts, as his financial irresponsibility (which had led to a friend of his losing his job in a bid to cover a shortfall on the books) meant that they couldn’t trust him any longer. Maliti disputes this. He tells me, ‘At the board level, we never saw any official communication from Ford saying Binyavanga can’t be involved with Kwani?’

Kahora adds, ‘Binyavanga left Kwani? to take a position at Bard and remained on Kwani?’s board—who were the ultimate decision makers on Kwani?’s finances, which Binya was part of. Did Ford ask for systems to be set up, yes. Managerial and financial systems? As any good donor would do. But to highlight this at Binyavanga would be unfair. You must also understand the landscape at the time. All these organisations that had a charismatic founder were trying to transition from an individual to systems-based spaces.’

Whatever the reason for Binyavanga’s departure, he was gone, and thus began the second iteration of Kwani?: Wachuka and Kahora’s Kwani?

6.

On the evening of 1 August, 2019, Billy Kahora stood on the rooftop of the building housing Nairobi’s arts and activism organisation, Pawa254. His short story collection, The Cape Cod Bicycle War And Other Stories, had just been launched, and after the launch attendees had moved upstairs to the rooftop for an impromptu party. At the bar, drinks were sold, meagre as they were, as well as hot beverages. Present was a glitterati of younger writers, huddled in small groups, sometimes engaging with Kahora, at other times retreating back into their cocoons. Kahora was wearing blue trousers, a white button-down shirt, and his famous hat, grey on this night. 

Soon, rhumba, the go-to music of Nairobi writers, was suggested. Which place was hot? The Blues, in tao, was suggested. Kahora chimed in: ‘Sippers?’ he asked. Around him, silence. Sippers is a popular affectation among Nairobi writers of a certain age, and glancing at Kahora one could sense him coming to the realisation that the writers present at his launch were not the Sippers-going crowd, that none of the Nairobi writers of his generation had bothered to attend the launch of his book. 

Matthew Philpotts, writing about editorial plurality, observes, ‘One striking feature in a number of editorships is the manner in which editorial practice shifts towards a more charismatic and singular mode over time.’ Offering the examples of the Times Literary Supplement’s Bruce Richmond, Jean Paulhan at the Nouvelle Revue Française and Peter Suhrkamp at the Neue Rundschau, Philpotts argues that while initially all three were individuals subordinate to their publications, in time the three became author–editors—combining the traditional reputational trappings of the author with the gravitas of being editors at their publications—with the result that they developed formidable reputations that ended up transcending their publications. Philpotts writes, 

‘These three editors achieved a degree of self-actualisation through their work as editors that they had not previously achieved in their careers, and it was that identification with the symbolic capital attached to the habitus of editor-in-chief that shaped their increasingly singular practice.’

It is easy to borrow this lens and focus it on Kwani? and its editors: Binyavanga, Ebba Kalondo and Kahora. Kahora particularly, by dint of his long stay at the helm of Kwani?, achieved a degree of self-actualisation and social capital that, while not quite superseding Kwani?’s reputation, comes close. However, such an extrapolation ignores the fact that his role was not the all-powerful one that the three aforementioned editors occupied. Rather, with Kwani?, there was also Angela Wachuka.

Wachuka joined Kwani? in 2008. Kwani?, in its search for someone who would streamline operations further than Owuor had, initially offered the job to Jackie Lebo. She turned them down. That’s when the gaze turned to Wachuka, who had been suggested to Binyavanga by Martin Kimani. Wachuka had spent the previous two years working for the BBC World Service in London, and her lack of prior publishing experience caused friction among Kwani? insiders.

Nevertheless, her arrival at Kwani?, together with that of Grace Thuku as an administrator, in March 2008, marked Kwani?’s evolution into a corporate entity. With their arrival, Kwani? acquired several traits it hadn’t had before. For instance, it acquired a formal structure, and started to have a proper filing system. Wachuka turned her attention to Kwani?’s finances which, because of a combination of an accountant’s malfeasance and Binyavanga’s financial irresponsibility, were a mess. The accountant was fired for financial impropriety. 

However, all wasn’t rosy in the office. There was an unhappiness among the staff that someone (in some cases) younger than them had been hired to supervise them. Furthermore, Wachuka acquired a reputation as being something of a bully. As Lutivini Majanja told me, ‘I never understood it. She just had a thing against us.’

At the centre of Kwani?’s literary output at this time was Kahora. He had first interacted with Kwani? as a writer, having sent a short story to Binyavanga, which the latter loved. On Kahora’s return to Kenya from South Africa where he was studying, the two met up and talked about Kwani? Kahora writes, ‘I blurted out that it was great, but it needed to capture the post-2002 moment that had voted out a twenty-four-year political regime more. I was fresh from journalism school and obsessed with creative non-fiction.’

At their next meeting, Binyavanga asked Kahora to write about David Munyakei, the Central Bank of Kenya whistleblower who had informed the country about the Goldenberg scandal. Then Binyavanga invited him to edit the next issue of the journal, Kwani? 03. After the issue, Kahora received a contract from Binyavanga to join Kwani? formally. The two of them worked on Kwani? 04 together, and when, after that issue, Binyavanga left the organisation, Kahora became the editor.

From the start, Kahora’s ethos in running Kwani? was different from Binyavanga’s. Parselelo Kantai, writing about the halcyon period that was the start of Kwani?, has described it as the ‘Age of Love’. It was marked by community, by people working together ad hoc, giving to the common project what each had. To Kahora and Wachuka, this way of working was anathema. They need to set up a proper system, and move away from ‘fly-by-night’ informality. He told me:

‘We also realised that Kwani? could only function if it moved away from that informal urafiki stuff. And the key pillars were the Kwani? community (basically writers and poets), Kwani?’s donor partners, Kwani?’s management and staff and then the Kwani? board. We had to find a way of working so that all these pillars would coexist. In some ways to move away from the so-called “Age of Love” to the “Age of Work”.’

He added, ‘We felt that this so-called “Age of Love” had not produced much in terms of work. It had been great in bringing things together but it was time to seriously get to work.’    

Some of the original dreamers didn’t like this shift. To Rasna Warah, for instance, Kahora killed the spirit of Kwani? She says, ‘It became very bureaucratic. Billy was arrogant. He didn’t listen to us.’

Regardless, Kwani? powered on. Workshops were organised. Journals were published. More Litfests were held. A Manuscript Prize was organised—a prize from which Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, Saah Millimono and Nikhil Singh’s debut novels were published. Out of a Kwani? workshop a new publishing behemoth, Jalada Africa, emerged. Literary production was happening. 

Speaking about how this literary production worked, Otieno Owino, the assistant editor at Kwani? during its last days, said to me, ‘If Billy likes your work, then he likes your work.’

The people Kahora liked, they got into Kwani?, and the spaces he had access to (which is not to say they didn’t deserve this access). There was Dalle Abraham, travelling over five hundred kilometres south from Marsabit to Nairobi for a Kwani? workshop, for whom Kahora had a Kwani? staffer put copies of the Kwani? anthologies and old issues of Chimurenga Chronic into a gift bag for him to go back home with. Later, Kahora would help an essay Abraham had been working on get published in Chimurenga. Or Clifton Gachagua, to whom Kahora extended his favour by not only gifting him copies of Kwani? and Chimurenga Chronic (like Abraham his introduction to these two platforms), but also hiring him as an assistant editor at Kwani Trust—a job he, Gachagua, described as ‘the best job in Kenya’. 

Yet it was Gachagua who, in June 2018, from the sidelines of a Kwani? workshop, through a series of tweets, highlighted to the outside world that all was not well at Kwani?

‘i don’t trust the people doing the kwani trust workshop. they have been lying to a lot of people,’ he tweeted. 

Another tweet read, ‘@kwanitrust cannot claim to do any kind of imaginative work, & this is a big failure to the people we have trusted as custodians. & they still hold the keys. that needs to change. Billy should be irrelevant.’

At the core of some of Gachagua’s tweets, which were public at the time (the account is now protected), was an allegation that he had not been paid for months. He tweeted, ‘@kwanitrust’s Billy just wrote to me after months, not offering me months of pay, but as a hello. i published poems in the last issue of kwani. yet to be paid for that.’ Sources at Kwani? who I spoke to indicated to me that Gachagua’s account was correct, that the staff at Kwani? had not been paid in months at the time of his tweets.

Kahora was incensed. During the workshop, I asked him about the tweets. 

‘Clifton is acting as if Billy is Kwani?,’ he said. ‘I have also not been paid for this period he is talking about.’

In the background, attempts were made to reach out to Gachagua, with several figures uncomfortable with his decision to lay things out in the open. He reacted to this by adding, ‘so don’t insult me, Billy and @kwanitrust & all these people who keep supporting you, by writing to me after i’ve been getting eviction notices for months.’

In his view, ‘So @kwanitrust is not to be trusted. billy kahora is not to be trusted. the entire system around him is not to be trusted.’

At the heart of questions about the status of Kwani? are two matters. First, that of the unpaid salaries owed to Kwani? staffers (at this stage, perhaps Kwani? ex-staffers is more accurate); and second, that of the status of Kwani? 09: Your Country Needs You, which was meant to be the next issue of the journal. 

In 2014, Kwani? had held a workshop at Tafaria Castle and Country Lodge, a lush lodge in the foothills of the Aberdares Range that overlooks the Laikipia Plains. Work from the participants was meant to be included in issue 09, in addition to work from attendees at future Kwani? workshops in Isiolo and Mombasa in 2015. The status of Kwani? 09 was the subject of another of Gachagua’s tweets: ‘@kwanitrust & Billy Kahora have done so many workshops in the last few years. there’s loads of work & people waiting to be paid. why this new workshop? do not give your work to him,’ he said.

I asked Kahora about the status of the issue. ‘Kwani? was run on a complex mix of different kinds of funding,’ he said. ‘We had money for project activities for Kwani? 09. Suddenly, we didn’t have money to run an office, but had money to run activities—but not for production, so we couldn’t print because we didn’t even have money for that. We have the content but Kwani? offices could not remain open and so production had to halt. The writers and editors were paid for their work on the project but now money would need to be raised to fund the design, layout and printing. I’m still talking to collaborators about how we might find a way to share this material.’

Writers I have talked to whose work was supposed to be featured in the issue give me a different account. None of the writers I talked to have ever been paid for the work that was supposed to be in the issue. In fact, some of the participants at the Tafaria workshop indicated to me that their agreement with Kwani? meant that they weren’t meant to be paid for their work. ‘So, they had paid for this fancy workshop at Tafaria Castle. Not sure that we ought to be paid,’ one of them told me. When I asked Kahora about this, he changed his answer. The only writers who had been paid, he told me, were those ‘who were directly commissioned and whose work we formally accepted’.

To several figures, however, the problems in Kwani? began earlier, in 2013, with the ascension of Uhuru Kenyatta to the presidency in Kenya. On 4 March, 2013, the Jubilee Coalition, fielding Uhuru Kenyatta as its candidate with William Ruto as his running mate, won the elections in Kenya. The two of them were, at the time, indictees at the International Criminal Court, and they had packaged their candidature as a rebellion against the imperialism of the West. In the wake of their electoral win, Binyavanga, in a piece for The Guardian titled ‘Kenyans had elected a president we felt could bring peace’, declared: ‘We look forward to being no longer the nice beach-and-safari kind of country we have allowed ourselves to be for too long. The west should expect more defiance from an Uhuru government—and more muscular engagement.’ This statement was alarming in how close it sounded to what Jubilee party propagandists had said about Kenyatta and Ruto in the run-up to the election.

Binyavanga’s words were not taken kindly within the circles in which he and Kwani? existed. As Isaac Amuke notes, ‘It seemed there had been an expectation that those invited to the party somewhat shared the “Kenyan liberal” view, which at the time meant supporting the prosecution’s cases at The Hague. How could Binyavanga, a celebrated Kenyan intellectual, be the one appearing to defend the two elected suspects?’

Tom Maliti, on the other hand, resented the insinuation that Binyavanga’s political stance was an exemplar of Kwani?’s own political position. He said, ‘There’s one thing that Kwani? has faced over the years: Binya and Kwani? Whatever he said, the assumption a lot of people made was that Binya is Kwani? and Kwani? is Binya.’ In addition, ‘At no point has Kwani? ever held the official position that we support either the Kenyan government or the opposition.’

Others didn’t buy this. Owuor, one of the facilitators of the 2018 workshop, talking about what led to her self-exile from the organisation, told me, ‘The worst thing that happened to Kwani? was the installation of the Jubilee government.’

Writing about the 2013 election, Kantai observes, ‘The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) numbers did not add up. The figures being beamed from the IEBC’s national tallying centre through the media houses showed a yawning discrepancy amounting to about 1,8 million votes between the total presidential vote tallies and the tallies of votes for the other five elective seats up for grabs—the senate, the gubernatorial, parliamentary, and women and county representatives. The question of those numbers would haunt the IEBC for many months after the elections.’

That Kwani? made no attempt to speak out against the electoral theft angered several figures. Warah said, ‘Uhuru’s was an illegitimate presidency. Kwani? should have spoken out against it … It was almost as if there had been no crimes against humanity. People should have been ashamed. There was a feeling of bravado by people in Kwani?, as if nothing had happened.’

7.

In addition, there was the Martin Kimani factor. Kimani had been a founder member of Kwani? He and Binyavanga were friends, their friendship having been fostered in the hallways of Lenana School. Just over two years after Kenyatta’s ascension to power, he was appointed to the Directorship of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre. One person who has interacted with Kimani at close quarters described him to me as ‘Kenya’s top counter-terrorism spy’. 

In the editorial to the first issue of the Kwani? journal, Binyavanga declared, of its artistic principles, ‘Such an aesthetic shall not be donated to us from the corridors of a university, or from the Ministry of Culture. It will come from the individual creations of thousands of creative people.’ Yet there were fears among observers of Kwani?’s output that Kimani had become increasingly influential. Before 2013, there were indications that organisations in which he was involved had been funders of Kwani? activities—in particular, Kwani? Litfests. Kimani’s presence around Kwani? circles led to unease among several figures who were on the scene. As Warah told me, ‘There were stilted conversations. You couldn’t really talk about politics.’ 

A few months after the 2018 Kwani? workshop, Ngala Chome, the associate editor of Kwani? 09, shared a document with me. In the document, a call was made for:

three highly-skilled and motivated young Kenyans to work as consultants for the CSM (Citizen Support Mechanism) through an intensive and competitive 4-day workshop of 25 Kenyans under the age of 25. During this “ideathon”, teams of five, with members revolving, will compete with one another to develop communication campaigns and content to educate sections of the Kenyan public on extremism, radicalization into extremism, violent extremism and terrorism.

One of the requirements listed was that the participant be, ‘Patriotic, highly-motivated, honest and emotionally intelligent.’ 

Chome, in sharing this document, disclosed that it was from his source at Kenya’s State House. I asked him if what he was sharing was effectively a call for people to put out government propaganda. ‘Basically,’ he texted. 

A few weeks later, in a cab on our way to Kwani?’s offices, Kahora made a similar pitch to me, and asked me to recommend writers who would be good for this project. I asked him if this call came from Kimani. It was, he said.

Later, when I asked him whether this was Kimani asking his old Lenana friend to do him a favour, or if it was Kimani asking the Kwani? editor to help him get writers for what was, at best, effectively a propaganda campaign for the government, he told me that, ‘Kwani? was a recognized literary institution and when there were opportunities we became a channel for this. A lot of stuff came to us through these kinds of things—from all sorts of people. He sent me a WhatsApp message and asked whether I knew anyone who would be interested in this. I saw it had some good money and thought some of the young writers I had been working with might be interested.’ 

It is easy to extrapolate what Kimani asked of Kahora and Chome in 2018, and link it to the project he is currently involved in, a barely-veiled attempt to rewrite Kenya’s history as the Joint Secretary of the Building Bridges Initiative.

The easy relationship Kimani enjoyed with both Kahora and Wachuka, who had been appointed to Kwani? on his recommendation, alarmed several figures who had been involved in the formation of Kwani? It had become clear to a number of the original dreamers that the credo of Kwani? had become increasingly similar to that of the Kikuyu supremacy project. Writers whose political beliefs were at loggerheads with this way of thinking found themselves pushed out of Kwani? As Kantai told me:

‘The tragedy of Kwani? and therefore the tragedy of my generation of writers was that we set off on a quest to invent Kenya by discovering it, and ended up being marooned, as had that earlier generation of post-independence intellectuals, on the banks of a Kikuyu elite imaginary of Kenya in which we “others” found ourselves ordered, arranged and prioritised across the very restricted horizons of this fantasy. But even that could have been rectified. That, after all, is the whole point of debate, contestation. Of writing. The real failure was when we got sucked into the banalities of “Kikuyu Power” and its version of Kenya. How it narrowed and squeezed the life out of the possibilities of anything else, anybody else. When some of my siblings stopped imagining for themselves and accepted, again like many from that earlier generation, that we could not change things, we could only fit into what already was.’ 

Similarly, Owuor told me, ‘If you wish to know, soon after, with the sullying of our original dream by the compromises, that was when I turned distant.’ 

Later on, there was a suspicion that this unease led to the Ford Foundation pulling its funding from Kwani? Isaac Otidi Amuke writes:

‘According to someone in the know, Kwani? became targeted by later-day detractors over allegations that individuals within it were leaking sensitive donor and other information collected from within the Kenyan civil society to proxies of hostile state agencies. A source who was present when the Kwani? matter was discussed at a high-level donor meeting told me there was no way Kwani? could have survived the onslaught; those making the accusations were considered eminent persons within the East African civil society.’

Both Maliti and Kahora dispute this account. They argue that Ford changed its funding model in East Africa for reasons that had nothing to do with the political positions of the organisations they funded. To Maliti, the fact that around the time Binyavanga’s article in The Guardian was published Ford was funding programmes around peace that strongly echoed the government’s own messaging meant that being pro-government couldn’t have led to a funding cut anyway.

Still, there is a consensus that this shift in Ford’s funding model led to the demise of Kwani? Between 2014 and 2015, Ford ended the programmes that funded the arts and the media, without any public announcement about why they had made this change, and organisations like Kwani? were left in a lurch. To Kahora, ‘Kwani? “died” because its donor funding dried up. And maybe the funding dried up because Kwani? had done its work. Kwani? “died” because of a shift in literary production on the continent that did not play to its strengths. Or a combination of these things and many others.’

8.

In thinking about the demise of Kwani?—it is merely dormant, Maliti insists to me—it is critical, too, to consider the work that it published. As Gachagua pointed out to me earlier this year, what often gets ignored is the sheer number of people who were published by Kwani?, often before they attained big-name status. Alison Ojany and David Kaiza and Keguro Macharia and Mahmood Mamdani. Martin Kimani. Betty Muragori, both before she became Sitawa Namwalie and after. Neema Mawiyoo, both before she became Ngwatilo Mawiyoo and after. Boniface Mwangi, and Patrick Gathara. Petina Gappah, Uwem Akpan, MG Vassanji, Beverley Nambozo and Kalundi Serumaga. Abdul Adan and Mehul Gohil and H Nanjala Nyabola, back when she wrote fiction. A Igoni Barrett and Irenosen Okojie and Okwiri Oduor. Novuyo Rosa Tshuma. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. K’naan. Eva Kasaya, a househelp whose autobiography Kwani? published. 

Perhaps it shouldn’t matter what the current state of Kwani? is, given the work it did in re-elevating Kenyan writing. After all, as Rob Burnet told me, ‘Sad it’s no longer flourishing, but that’s okay; it served its purpose. Something else can come along; it wasn’t supposed to last forever’. Perhaps we obsess too much about the longevity of things, and assume that our institutions are meant to aspire to permanence. Sometimes they do, and that’s fine, but sometimes they don’t. And that’s fine too. In any case, Kwani? was a writers’ institution, despite Binyavanga’s pretensions that it was something more, and despite the fact that it was never able to move beyond this. Perhaps its short lifespan was set from the start. As Shalini Gidoomal, in the time before her fissure from Kwani?, once wrote

‘Despite all this hard evidence, it seems we are still viewed as a specialist esoteric group of individuals, not relevant enough to shaping this country’s ideas to be taken too seriously. It’s enough to make you whip out your dictionaries of Korean characters (purchased in Paju Book City, and printed on thick luscious hibiscus flower paper), and start learning the language of a nation so as to move to a place where the critical importance of writers shaping a citizenry’s thought has been understood.’

Or as Douglas Macharia Mwangi, a Kenyan academic, pointed out

One doubts whether Kwani? came anywhere close to creating a new literary canon in the region in Kwani? 05. What remained consistent is its obsession with the Kenyan (nationalist) narrative that this time edged even more closer to newspapers reporting than the creative-non-fiction of earlier editions, complete with journalistic interviews, essays, analyses, photographs, short text messages, cartoons, illustrations and posters.

Still, there were dreams, and there were dreamers. Remembering those early days, Maliti told me: ‘We were conscious that we were different, but the significance of the outcome of our actions we weren’t clear about, because we were focusing on the idea of what we were doing.’

For Warah, Kwani? was important towards shaping the idea of herself as a writer. She says, ‘It was unprecedented in Kenya, to have a journal open to people, published regularly, that you were excited to read. Before Kwani? I didn’t think I was a writer. I still hesitate to call myself one. Because I haven’t written a novel. But Kwani? gave me confidence.’

Wanyeki adds, ‘Kwani? did become a reality, a platform. In hard copy as well as, as it continued, through its many public events. And it did draw writers out of the closet, so to speak, from lots of different corners of Kenya (geographically and in terms of class).’

Kantai, one night in pre-pandemic Nairobi, remembered above all the long nights spent thinking about books, arguing about writers, all those years ago. ‘We were manic about literature, insane about literature. Books brought us together,’ he said.

Is Kwani? dead? Finished? Maliti, still the chair of the board all these years later, says, in response to my question: ‘We are looking for funding to help us complete projects, but are also alive to the fact that funding for the arts is not what it was when we started.’

I ask Kahora about this, and he tells me: ‘All this said, there are still ongoing internal conversations going on with Kwani? principals. I would still be interested in reviving aspects of Kwani but not [until] after completing two manuscripts that I’ve been working on for awhile.’

Ah, the manuscripts. What became of all the novels that the Kwani? generation promised itself? Muthoni Garland, a 2004 Caine Prize shortlistee and the chair of the Miles Morland Scholarship (awarded to Kantai last year for what would be his first book, in place of a much-hyped novel about the killing of Tom Mboya), was frank about the reasons for her failure to produce her book. ‘Not everyone is like Yvonne,’ she said to me. ‘I have the talent, but there are other things that go into writing a novel. People assume that for a novel only an environment like Kwani? is needed, but other things are needed too. Very few people have that thing of, I can produce in a vacuum.’

She adds that, ‘Kwani will have an effect, despite the lack of novels, because it normalised writing, and then from there you’ll see novels.’

Warah, thinking about the difficulties of novel-making, says, ‘It is very difficult to be a writer in this country. There are no government grants; you can’t take two years off from your job to write a novel. I edit for The Elephant and I know that there are brilliant writers in this country, but you can’t tell people to take a year off to write, because they need to make rent, buy food.’

Moreover, in any case, Garland argues, a lot of the Kwani? people became producers, which is the opposite of writing. ‘A talented writer like Billy Kahora becomes managing editor, and it becomes difficult, because you have to do so much. I think the more you edit, the worse a writer you become. I think writers should read other people, but not edit.’

Kahora agrees, saying that, ‘There was never a great balance—my own writing career suffered. I started writing a novel in 2013 that I am only finishing now. I only released a collection of stories that I’d barely managed to write a while back.’

Garland herself did start a publishing firm, Storymoja Publishers, that was one of many Kenyan literary institutions that piggybacked on Kwani?’s presence. ‘Storymoja began on my feeling, and it was very naive, and later I laughed with Binyavanga about it, that we would publish work in small books, and then sell them to support the publisher. He was right; there was no infrastructure to support sales. He felt that the only way a journal can survive, especially one publishing experimental work, was by getting funding, which was mostly international.’

Kwani? was heavily funded by Ford, but there is a feeling that more of the money could have gone towards putting out more work. The remuneration of the top brass at Kwani? was endemic of what one person described to me as ‘the Ford Foundation lifestyle’, whereby the administrators of Ford grantees were heavily remunerated, and the Binyavanga culture of wanton spending was never done away with completely. Amuke argues that, ‘It may be more basic than such chicanery. Others, including some who worked at Kwani?, blame extravagance at the top, a governance bankruptcy which saw the leadership pamper itself at Kwani?’s expense, and a lack of prioritisation of The Writer—Kwani?’s primary concern.’ 

Gachagua told me that one of his gripes about the pending salaries at Kwani? was his knowledge of what Wachuka and Kahora were getting, and how much it dwarfed what other members of staff were earning. ‘@kwanitrust should fire Billy Kahora. get someone who can actually be a managing editor. someone who does not take cabs to Rhapta Road from Chiromo but cannot sign a 8k cheque for a writer,’ he’d tweeted in 2018. 

Someone else who worked under Kahora told me that he felt that Kahora used Kwani?’s status to garner clout for himself, and the bigger he got the more interested he got at advancing his own career rather than Kwani? ‘Billy was flying all over the place. Going to festivals here and there because of Kwani?’

It is unclear whether any of this contributed to the end of Kwani?—again, Maliti insists to me that it is merely dormant, not dead, and that, ‘If and when that happens then we have to individually reach out to all of those who were involved and tell them that this is done.’ What is clear, however, is that, at some point, as Warah puts it, ‘A moment was lost and it was never recovered.’

I asked Majanja what it was like being an early staffer at Kwani? ‘It was really exciting. I didn’t even fully understand what I was doing, but I believed in the vision. It looked so good that I was willing to overlook obvious faults with the organisation. I was so excited even though I was working in an office without furniture, and I was being paid from the petty cash. I would be in the office and writers who I had read would come in, and I’d look at submissions, trying to sort them out, and I’d read really great stuff. And I’d be like, yo, Kenya is amazing! And even writers based abroad would send stuff, and it made you feel like you’re part of this great community.’

9.

The first time I ever interacted with Kwani? was in 2015. I was on campus, living in the University of Nairobi’s halls of residence, when, between 1 and 6 December, Kwani? hosted what would turn out to be their last ever literary festival. The theme of the festival was ‘Beyond the Map of English: Writers in Conversation on Language’. A lot of the events were held near me—inside my school, in the theatre down the road from the school, and at the Kwani? gardens. On the last evening of the festival, I walked down to the gardens. There, I found all these writers whose writing I admired, and whose faces I recognised off their profiles on Facebook. I remember seeing Kahora, and there was a girl next to him, and there was a shisha bong on the table in front of them, and he was in his hat, and I remember thinking, ‘Man, he’s so cool.’ I knew no one, and so, as I sipped my coffee, all I could do was glance around at the faces talking animatedly around me. Later, when I went back to school, I found a few friends smoking and drinking in my room. ‘How was it?’ they asked me. I paused, not knowing what to say, because how could I communicate to them the simple fact that I was better than them, that I had just spent the evening in the company of the most important writers in the country, that I had just spent the evening at Kwani?

  • Carey Baraka is a writer from Kisumu, Kenya. He sings for a secret choir in Nairobi. He is working on a novel.
Header image: Kwani Trust

8 thoughts on “Intimations of an ending—Carey Baraka on the unspoken demise of Kwani?, and the death of a dream”

  1. (Fun fact: the Obuya on Kwani? 01 and 02 is *Charles Obuya, a percussionist. Binya saw him perform at Carnivore and approached him about the cover photo. He tracked him down at KNT and got his Kwani? covers!) Thanks for this excellent read!

  2. Good job Carey! I love the confluence of time, place, events and people..particularly because I witnessed Kwani? at it’s peak.. read a piece at Open Mic, attended Binya’s ‘One Day..’ book launch at the Railway Museum – a most significant and inspiring moment for this literary dreamer. We’re grateful for those who came before us, paved the way.

  3. Very interesting read and captures much of the essence, but not all the facts. I should say that my falling out with Kwani? was not to do with my payment as the Litfest director, but due to the financial irregularities prevalent at the time, which meant that money fundraised for the Kwani? Litfest disappeared well before most people were paid. I didn’t sue Kwani? but certainly pursued the lost payment, which led down many of the less salubrious alleyways that underpinned the constructs of the organisation, and ultimately contributed to its downfall. I have all this information, and when writing such a piece, Baraka, it would have been useful to make direct contact to fact check rather than relying on secondary (and in this case inaccurate) sources.

  4. I participated at the very first reading at Yaya Center (in 2002) right up to the August of 2014 at IMAX cinema (when I put up a cash prize for the Open Mic, then hang out with my late friend Binya, and a bunch of creative hangers-on, and a white installment lady artist from the UK, till sunrise). I recall the Ali Zaidi garden parties on sunny Saturdays, the Sunday salons at Kengeles, Lavington, the Tuesday poetry nights at Club Soundd, the Kwani workshop at Crater Lake, the UoN Kwani event with Chima, Kwanites in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Lamu Kwani lit fest, and other random memories from those twelve years. This is an excellently done piece – and though Kwani? for me ended about six years ago as a creative crowd place (even as we’ve moved on into other creative spaces and multi-media ventures), like all Once-Upon-a-Time magical stories, we’ll remember it as a time of whimsy, whiskey and wry – and I sincerely thank CB for this beautiful eulogy of something strange that happened, Once Upon a Time in our literary country.

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