What a difference a week can make. Two Saturdays ago, Nairobi witnessed the most heinous terrorist attack ever seen in our fair city; but this past weekend, Westlands was abuzz with brilliant energy and intellectual activity as the second Authors Buffet took off at the Sarit Centre.
There had been concern that the turnout would be sparse since Sarit is a stone’s throw from the Westgate Mall. But on the contrary, the 16th Nairobi International Book Fair was full to overflowing with book publishers, as well as book lovers who roamed all round the first floor of the mall.
For me the place to be was the Authors Buffet where 25 published writers were expected to be on hand and seven new books were to be launched.
Last year, more than a dozen local authors arrived to transform what had initially begun as a book signing for a single author — Kinyanjui Kombani — into a major literary event. And last Saturday, the event was even more of an inspiration as nearly three times that number arrived at the second Authors Buffet.
That initial conversation between Mr Kombani (author of Wangari Maathai: Mother of Trees and The Last Villains of Molo) and Textbook Centre generated so much interest among local authors that the turnout far exceeded organisers’ expectations. But it also revealed just how much the literary landscape of Kenya has changed in the last few years.
Mr Kombani moderated the programme, which involved the launching of books by David Mulwa, Muroni Kiunga, Ephantus Achebi, Patricia Ojiambo and Bonnie Kim, all of whom were on hand for book signings and sharing a few words.
At the same time, Mr Kombani took time to introduce all authors present (as well as those who came trickling in unannounced), which offered a stunning sampling of our expanding literary scene.
Those who arrived after the first 25 included Elizabeth Orchardson Mazrui and Arwings Otieno, who in addition to being a newly published author is also the recipient of the Burt Award for his new book, A Taste of Fame.
“William Burt is a Canadian philanthropist who wants to promote Kenyan writers as well as the Kenyan reading culture, which is why the award includes a Sh1 million prize,” said Mr Otieno, a full time language instructor at Pwani University in Kilifi, who received the Burt Award together with his cash prize the night before at the Hotel Intercontinental.
Mr Otieno says he saw the call to submit manuscripts online and he applied.
The most positive feature of the event was seeing so many emerging and established- authors writing in a multitude of literary genres. There were non-fiction children’s books like Sibi-Okumu’s on Tom Mboya and David Mulwa’s We Come in Peace.
There were autobiographical books by Muthoni Likimani and Churchill Winstone.
There was also a good deal of fiction addressing issues pertinent to Kenyans’, including stories related to environmental concerns, HIV-Aids, abortion, ethnic clashes and even the shallow nature of celebrity success.
Striking also was the number of motivational books written by Kenyans like Bonnie Kim, Winnie Thuku and Anthony Gitonga among others.
The other surprising aspect was the discovery of how many Kenyans are currently writing full time or at least devoting themselves to advancing Kenya’s literary culture. Among them were Mr Thuku and Mr Gitonga, both of whom are motivational speakers as well as authors, who specialise in coaching aspiring writers.
“Get together with a dozen of your like-minded friends and start your own book club,” said Mr Gitonga while sharing ideas on how one can personally advance the reading culture.
David Mulwa, a Kenyatta University lecturer in literature and theatre arts — who may be better known as an actor on stage in multiple TV series and films — was also overwhelmingly acknowledged for his role in advancing the country’s literary scene and his inspired approach teaching on writing.
But for a man who has more than 30 published titles to his name, including plays, novels and novelettes, Mr Mulwa has yet to receive a lifetime achievement award for his immense contribution to culture and the arts. Undoubtedly he will.
The Authors Buffet went on non-stop throughout the day as the reading public appreciated the opportunity it gave them to get their books signed.
Just as the event was ending, the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation book award was about to be given. The field had been quite competitive this year as Mbugua Ng’ang’a, Henry ole Kulet and Waithaka Waihenya were all in the running to win.
As it turned out, this year’s winner was Ole Kulet for Vanishing Herds, with Mbugua’s Different Colours coming in second and Waihenya’s The Vendor coming third. The cash prizes were not nearly the size of the Burt Award but the prestige of winning is increasing year by year.