On a crisp night in early 2018, a man stood in front of a bonfire. The only light was coming from the pit, illuminating his sad face, you would imagine him teary-eyed. The kindling for the fire was not wood however, it was books. About 180 of them. And he tossed them in one at a time until none were left, only a feeling of ‘I should have done better.’
As he talks about this experience among others, Jacob Aliet sits in his office, high up in a tower in downtown Nairobi overlooking Haile Selassie Avenue. He works there as an IT Project Manager. He has been in IT for virtually all of his employment career but when he is not solving code, if that is an aspect of it, he is writing and selling books, his greatest passion, he says.
Mr Aliet is the author of Unplugged.
Before all the hype, controversy, and vitriol that has followed Unplugged since its release in March 2022, way before that, Mr Aliet was a young boy with an always curious mind. He was born in a polygamous home, the seventh of 11 children.
The Aliets called Eastleigh Section III home, just next to the Airforce Base. His was a beautiful as well as tragic childhood. He recalls, “My father was a violent man, an abusive man to all around him!”
“The beatings became like rain. You knew they were coming but there isn’t much you could do about it.”
The old man died when the younger Aliet was only 12 leaving his mother with not much of an option but to move her brood back to their rural home. There, the children faced an even tougher life and rebelled against their mother’s authority.
She was the polar opposite of their strict father. Mr Aliet relays, sadly, how they would not listen to her. They remedied this years later at a children’s baraza.
“This is our mother, we have to show her some respect,” was the consensus. And they did. Hard times saw the Aliet boys steal from people’s shambas to have something to fill their stomachs. He surprisingly describes these years, in retrospect, as some of the most ‘beautiful’ of his life.
He did not like school much but in his final year, he exerted himself, he says, “so that nobody would tell me to repeat the class.”
In Form Three, he started keeping a journal as he had read somewhere that all writers do. Mundane entries about what he ate for breakfast or how severely he was punished would follow – and daily at that.
Later, the internet opened his eyes to a treasure trove of information. He even joined a group on Yahoo Messenger aptly called infidels.org – always beating down a different path.
The infidels, he found out, were independent thinkers and would respond to conversations with a level of information he could only dream of obtaining. He dove into books to educate himself. He went through everything from existentialism to Islam and all forms of religion, to philosophy, to Quantum Physics.
“I tried to construct a belief system from scratch with my thoughts on Christianity, objectivism, liberalism and all sorts of dogma,” he says.
The advent of Facebook saw Mr Aliet begin to amass a following with his thoughts on all he was learning on his quest. He even tackled, Why Do Men Have Nipples Yet They Do Not Breastfeed! as one of his topics. He wrote for journals as far as Turkey and kept a blog about his training regimen in preparation for a half marathon.
He holds a passion for fitness to this day and will change out of his work clothes and walk from his office in town to his home after a day’s work.
His confidence was growing so much that he even thought himself capable of writing a response to Prof Ali Mazrui, the great scholar’s article on intellectualism in post-colonial Africa.
His radical thoughts led to his followers assuring him of how good a writer he was. “They said they would buy anything I wrote and told me to hurry up with it, in their words, ‘before someone steals and copyrights your work.’” With this kind of validation, a fire was lit under him but, “What was I going to write about?”
In his quest for knowledge, he had abandoned his first love of the written word – fiction. He went back and was gladly swept back into the fictional realm and in no time at all, he came up with Strange Encounters, a collection of fictional short stories. His fans were already pestering him and some had even paid for their copies.
Ever the businessman and seeker of knowledge, Mr Aliet turned to Google and armed with little else than “a childlike excitement”, he sought out a woman on Kirinyaga Road who was his printer for other matters. He designed the cover himself.
A book is however a whole different animal from receipt books. When the copies came out, they were ‘horrible.’ “The book was really small and the work was shoddy at best. I felt ashamed charging someone Sh1,000 for such work.”
He ended up delivering 120 copies of Strange Encounters to those that insisted before his shame overtook him.
That is how he found himself in front of a night fire outside his house, warming himself off a book barbeque – all remaining 180 copies.
“I read that the best way to sell a book is to write another one,” Mr Aliet reminisces. He jumped in a second time but his inexperience again cost him. He hired two editors, an Indian friend who was a novice editor at the time and a now magistrate acquaintance who thinks the world of his writing. Big mistake.
He did not know that at the time and went on to host a book launch at a city hotel where his family christened him – You are now a writer our son! He sold three hundred copies of Shoreline, his second book.
Evelyne Ongogo, a renowned poet, was one of the 300. She made some notes in her copy and in a conversation with Mr Aliet told him about it.
He asked for the copy to be sent to him and on going through Ongogo’s notes, he again stood at the fire, this time beating his previous record to set aflame almost two hundred books. A woman who saw him do it begged him to donate them to a Children’s Home and upon his wife’s begging, a few copies were saved.
Seated at his office presently, Aliet is quick to admit, “I am not the best writer but I work everyday to become better. He quotes Stephen King, “Good writing comes from a lot of bad writing.” Every day without fail, he is up at 3am to try again.
When asked whether he writes to music or not, he is vehement, “No music!” He likes the quiet when not a soul is stirring. A pastor who is an admirer of his said something which he liked about his ungodly hours, “Anyone who rules the darkness will always succeed in the light.”
For his resilience, Mr Aliet now boasts seven books to his name. He also lays claim to four e-books available online.
His latest work is all the rave. In Unplugged, he writes about men reclaiming their masculinity, which he believes has been lost to a femicentric modern society. He writes, “Why are women being told to ‘act like a lady and think like a man’ if masculinity is harmful?”
Granted, it is a controversial subject in today’s ‘woke’ society and even Mr Aliet himself thought it would be a non-starter.
Scathing reviews from one end of the spectrum coupled with an equally aggressive defense from his corner has seen Unplugged surprise many – himself included.
He can’t churn copies out quickly enough and is in the process of merchandising, creating a website, and opening Tik-Tok, YouTube and Facebook accounts. Every other writing project is on hold. He will also begin to call himself…you guessed it.
“It’s bigger than I thought,” and he would like to ‘evangelise’ on the concepts held as gospel truth in the pages of Unplugged.