Last year, I wrote about a new book on a Kenyan whistleblower, written by a British journalist. A reader pointed me to Kenyan writer Billy Kahora, who’d also just published a book, locally, about a Kenyan whistleblower — in fact, the man who, as Kahora tells it, exposed Kenya’s biggest-ever corruption scandal. It’s also one of the few creative nonfiction books in Kenya, where media is driven by profit and investigative space hardly exists. Hmm…starting to sound familiar?
Kahora is a driver of Kenya’s literary scene. He’s the managing editor of Kwani?, home to fabulous work by African writers, and wrote the script for Soul Boy, a new film by Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer. He has degrees in journalism and was a 2007 Chevening Scholar at the University of Edinburgh.
I did a Q&A with Kahora, which got lost in the bowels of my inbox. I’ve just re-discovered it — and just in time to tell those of you near Minnesota (or willing to buy a plane ticket) that you can meet Kahora and other African writers on October 8 and 9 in Minneapolis. Books for Africa is having a terrific conference featuring Kahora, Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan (Say You’re One of Them, Somali writer Nuruddin Farah (Sweet and Sour Milk), and Alexandra Fuller (Scribbling the Cat), who grew up in Rhodesia (though I’m told we call it Zimbabwe now).
The conference is free. (Yeah, that’s right. The conference is free.) If you’re feeling flush, you can donate to Books for Africa and rub elbows with these writers and hear Fuller keynote at a cocktail reception in the evening.
Okay, back to Kahora.
JM: Who is David Munyakei, and how did you discover his story? Why is he considered Kenya’s “biggest” whistleblower, and why did he die in obscurity?
BK: I suppose that’s why the book was written. To deconstruct the complexity of the character. Anyway, just to give a very brief bio, Munyakei was a Central Bank Of Kenya clerk who found himself right in the middle of the largest financial scandal in Kenya and decided to tell the world about it. The best way to know who he is, is to read the book. It’s a bit too complex to give a soundbite.
He won an award and was invited by Transparency International to Nairobi to receive it – and at the same time, they decided to do a documentary of his amazing story; I was also asked to do an extended feature on the guy. I had been trying to sell him the idea of creative non-fiction, which one rarely saw in Kenya at the time and this turned out to be the perfetct story for the form.
Munyakei is Kenya’s biggest whistleblower because the scandal was worth a billion USD, the biggest even now, 15 years later, in a space of many a scandal. Nobody wants to touch a whistleblower – they are seen as an anathema to the system. Munyakei died in obscurity because we live in a society where men who do the right thing are a challenge to the status quo — a system that, in its inherent corruption, is controlled by politicians who know that things cannot stay the way they are, undemocratic and without value, if men like Munyakei are held in high esteem and recognised as heroes. This is also the case with men who fought for Kenya’s freedom, and others who have been honest in government.
You first published what is now your book as a feature for Kwani?. What was the reaction to the original feature, from your readers and from the government?
BK: The reaction was overwhelming – this was a long extended feature that had a compelling character at the center of it. It had all the elements of a good story. And anywhere politicians’ soundbites are what feeds the media mill, something different and rigorous will get accolades in many a place — because there are people who are good citizens and who care about their country
Where can people buy the book? Is its availability limited or controversial in any way?
BK:You can buy it at all major bookshops in Nairobi and in one or two places in Mombasa. Availability is only limited to our own ability to market and distribute it.
My readers may be familiar with Michaela Wrong, a British journalist who also wrote about a Kenyan whistleblower. What are the comparative advantages and disadvantages of your experience being a native Kenyan and still living and working in the country whose corruption you exposed?
BK: Advantages: You can get a lot more info as a local. People are not as guarded when talking to you. Also, there are networks that are open to you that are not necessarily of a professional nature that can be very key in this business. An outsider always has to work within a professional purview. There is just so much info that one can get in informal circles. And through friendships and other relationships, and those are better open to the local.
Disadvantages. As a local one takes a lot for granted. And you assume and omit things that you might think as general info. One weakness I hear a lot from foreigners, is that the book does not give a proper contextual description of Goldenberg itself. There is an assumption in the book that every reader knows what it is and was all about. Also, a lot of subliminal and subconscious bias can creep in – there is a lot of anthropological comment that I would now like to do away with because I have traveled more widely in Kenya. An outsider, as long as they are professional, turns up every rock … and this helps in other ways. Because of these two things the book, I can now see, has weaknesses.
What’s the investigative journalism scene like in Kenya? And what’s going on that no one’s yet able to dig into?
BK: There is little investigative journalism in Kenya in the proper sense of the word. Media here is first and foremost commercial – and even if there are no underhand things going on, its imperatives are not that of an investigative space. Investigative journalism thrives where long hours, complex narratives, 50-50 outcomes, the high risk of being sued, highly paid professional journalists are the MO – all these things that are key for a vibrant investigative space are not conducive for profit-oriented media. Media here is about soundbites for higher circulation, and chasing advertising which impacts on content, and is run by marketing types. Newsroom are about circulation and bottom line profits, not Fourth Estate stuff that pushes invetsigative journalism.
What’s the narrative journalism scene like in Kenya, and in the other
places you’ve worked? How does the style differ from what you saw in the
UK, or what you’ve seen of American newspapers?
BK: There is really no narrative journalism in Kenya, and when it happens, only in token spaces like Kwani and like-minded institutions. I became enamoured of the form in South Africa when I read amazing writers like Jonny Steinberg and read weekly newspapers, magazines and saw T.V shows that tried to put this kind of thing together. I am a big fan of Tom Wolfe and all the new journalists from the 60s and the 70s I,e Rolling Stone. So, even before talking of style, one must ask where it is in Kenya … I just wish that we could publish two books a year because the stories are there … myriads of them …
What’s your next project?
I am editing Kwani, working on a collaborative graphic novel and trying to jumpstart my novel which I started 3 years ago but haven’t looked at for almost a year …