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And in Kenya, an alternative to the Gospel of Greed

July 20, 2009

African journalist extraordinaire Michaela Wrong just released her new book, “It’s Our Turn to Eat,” about anti-corruption crusader John Githongo. He spent his life documenting sleaziness under several Kenyan leaders, then fled the country in fear of his life. He landed at Wrong’s apartment, and she turned his work into a book.

It’s a hot item on bookshelves at the moment–except in Kenya, where Scott Baldauf of the Christian Science Monitor says no bookseller will stock it. They’re afraid of lawsuits and of political reprisals.

But people are hearing The Good Word anyway, pretty much everywhere else:

Yet the anger of ordinary Kenyans has overcome fear. Today, one can buy the book on street corners at giveaway prices. Radio talk-show hosts excerpt it on the air, and church ministers read from it in services, paired with biblical parables about the importance of standing up for principle. It’s a grass-roots movement of people who know that corruption, in a poor country, can be as deadly as war.

The kicker? None of what’s in the book is news in Kenya. Githongo told Baldauf, “People already knew a lot of the stuff that was in the book, but it is because we put it together into a chronological order, with the background and the conversations of the people involved” that it became so sensitive.

Check out the full story.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2009 9:50 pm

    It has to be agreed that the largest consumers of ‘0ut of Africa’ books (as are their authors) are in Westerners. Michaela Wrong’s writing is great and her journalism remarkable but any Kenyan who reads newspapers, uses the internet, i.e., the kind that would buy the book would skim through large sections of it. Skim through in search of an aha moment that in the end proves elusive. As noted in your post the book offers nothing new to Kenyans.

    The biggest winner of the book’s so called ban is Michaela. It has given it cred, where it needs it most (in the West) as the book that was too hot for the government it talks about. And with every rant, in big media, the book begins to sell more and more by virtue of its own story rather than the story in it. Just not how the book, which is apparently based on Kenya, has grown to: (In Wrong’s words) the adventures of a book in AFRICA.

    Michaela Wrong does a good job of painting Kenya in broadstrokes for the non Kenyan, but for Kenyans she names names that have long been named and discusses tribal politics we fight over everyday.

    She should (the same way she has admitted to eating humble pie as USAID funds her books distribution even after trashing the Aid Industry in her book) begin to admit that the ‘ban’ has benefited in selling more books in the West where, in truth, her book is aimed.

    • July 22, 2009 9:58 am

      I’m inclined to agree with your generalities, Njoroge. I’m not a believer in the Out of Africa/Heart of Darkness genre, and I don’t think the world needs more adventure books about bazungu in Africa.

      But I think this might not be the right case to advance those general themes. First, there just ain’t that much Western coverage of the book ban. Second, Americans, at least, don’t care. We get hot and bothered when libraries try to ban books here, but–letting the cynic in me out for a minute–we really don’t care when they do it abroad. Some of us even assume that that’s how corrupt governments work, and so we don’t give it a second thought. It’s going to take much more than a controversy in Kenya to sell a book about Kenya in the US. I actually wish you were right on this; it would be a more flattering picture of my countrymen.

      I haven’t read Wrong’s book. Have you? Because my instinct, based on reading her other two books, is that she isn’t part of the Out of Africa genre. I think it’s a real danger, and very unfair, to label a white writer an “adventures of Africa” writer simply because she is white. There are some bazungu idiots who’ve written some idiot books. There are also some bazungu who have taken the time to understand something of the place and write complex, nuanced portraits. I recommend, as a case study of this, “The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Will Not Forget.” There are others.

      This relates to your point about her book being aimed at a Western audience. So what? If she had explicitly aimed it at a Kenyan audience, there would no doubt be critical outcries at the presumption of the mzungu woman trying to tell Kenyans they’ve got corruption. She knows, and her protagonist knows, that Kenyans know. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something to add by writing the book. (As a case study of this, I suggest “The Dark Side,” Jane Mayer’s book about the Bush Administration and torture. Not only did Americans know a lot of that stuff by the time the book came out, it was by the same writer! And yet, the book did something the previous articles hadn’t, by virtue of the writer’s argument.)

      The question about these books–about all books–isn’t who their written for. There’s nothing wrong with writing a book about Africa for the West. The question is how you do it: How careful are you to resist a century of stereotype, misunderstanding and bad judgment that came when books were written by people who didn’t think about those things? But it can be done. It’s too broad an indictment of the human imagination, and of human sympathy, to argue that it can’t.

      • July 23, 2009 7:30 am

        I recorded an event on It’s Our Turn to Eat at the National Theatre here in Nairobi last month that you might be interested in listening to. It’s up at:
        The take-away from the afternoon for me was not that there was anything new that anyone in the audience learnt from the book – as everyone has pointed out, this was all common knowledge anyway – but the fact that the existence of the book, and indeed the existence of the “informal ban” created some new public space in which to discuss the issues everyone knows are there . . .

  2. Michelle Faul permalink
    July 26, 2009 4:49 am

    Her name is Michela, not Michaela, and she is British, not African

    • Mimi permalink
      July 29, 2009 4:46 am

      She is European, not African. Or, she is British, not Kenyan.

      • July 29, 2009 10:00 am

        Thanks Mimi. Someone else also made this point. I’m not sure where the confusion keeps coming in, but yes, yes, she is a British European and neither African nor Kenyan.

  3. July 26, 2009 10:50 am

    Thanks, Michelle. I didn’t realize it wasn’t clear to anyone that Wrong is British, but I suppose not everyone who wanders over here already knows who she is.

  4. July 28, 2009 7:42 pm

    I typed a long response but internet being what it is here, it got swallowed… So quickly:

    You do not misread me, you put words in my mouth.

    I opened my comment noting the quality of Wrong’s writing and her journalism.

    My point though was on the intricacies of book publishing and marketing whereby, in this case, a ban increases sales for even the most remotely controversial book.

    The biggest losers in the purported ban of Wrong’s book are the government of Kenya because they have fuelled debate in Kenya for a book that would likely not have raised the levels of attention that is has now.

    Kenyan’s have gained, because as Bec has noted, the interventions that have sprung up to push the book have created forums.. that would otherwise not have existed… where they can discuss issues relevant to them. But the big winner has been Wrong because the ‘ban’ has kept a conversation going on about the book and also given it the allure of notoreity. It means that significantly more people get to hear about it than normally would have. From a kenyan perspective, where book buying is remarkably low, a lot more people have bought the book because it is ‘so’ talked about. If there had been no ban, this book would have been forgotten as quickly as Githongo was.

    You put words in my mouth by talking about mzungu adventure books a thing I do not mention or allude to. From where I sit, this book, even when Wrong’s opinions do creep in, is not about her… not in the Karen Blixen sort of way!

    If I said anything abot adventure, then it was: “Just not how the book, which is apparently based on Kenya, has grown to: (In Wrong’s words) the adventures of a book in AFRICA.” And, note, I was qouting Wrong and I said as much. And that is the title of her article, here:

    As for audiences, I was pointing out the obvious, not saying I have a problem with it. As a writer, why would I, I have written (and spoken) about Kenya for foreign audiences and taken flak from Kenyan readers for glossing over things and such…

    And yes I have read the book and went to the Nairobi forum Bec talks about and agrees with her sentiments as it can be seen above.


    • July 28, 2009 8:00 pm

      Thanks, Njoroge. As I mentioned, I haven’t read the book, so my ability to engage on this is limited. Interesting point that the biggest losers of the ban are the government…oh, unintended consequences. One follow-up on that: you say if it hadn’t been for the ban “this book would have been forgotten as quickly as Githongo was.” He says in the article I linked to that putting all these things in chronological order drew all the attention. Do you think that if he had written the book himself, without Wrong, the attention level would be the same?

      And sorry if you felt I put words in your mouth. It wasn’t “Africa adventure book” that suggested mzungu lit to me as much as the opening phrase, “out of Africa books,” which is as you point out a Western genre. And until I read the book I can’t say for sure, but it doesn’t seem to me that category quite fits this book.

  5. July 29, 2009 10:51 am

    Instead of engaging in a ‘what if’, how about I suggest something more fun:

    Last week on Thursday, a Kenyan publishing house, Kwani Trust, launched a couple of books. Among them:

    ‘The True Story of David Munyakei; Goldenberg Whistleblower’ by Billy Kahora

    “In April 1992, David Sadera Munyakei, a newly employed clerk at the Central Bank of Kenya started noticing irregularities in the export compensation claims he was processing. On July 31st 2006, Kenya’s biggest whistleblower passed away in rural obscurity, 14 years after exposing the Goldenberg scandal, Kenya’s biggest economic scandal to date, estimated at over USD 1 billion. Billy Kahora recounts his story.”

    A Kenyan writer, a Whistleblower story. Beautifully written.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to return to this conversation a few months later and evaluate Kahora’s press and Kenyan booksales against Wrong’s?

    I wouldn’t want to have achieved anything more than getting, at least the followers of this blog to have read both books for what they are worth.


  6. Michela Wrong permalink
    September 13, 2009 6:07 am

    I’ve been reading this thread with obvious interest (!). Hope you won’t mind me butting in.

    Just a few things: I am indeed British. Not a Brit with family ties to Africa, just a Brit who started working there as a reporter in the 1990s because her company (Reuters) sent her there.

    I write all my books – this is the third – with three audiences in mind, which is probably two too many. Westerners who know absolutely nothing about Africa, who I hope to persuade to take an interest in the continent; Westerners who set policies in Africa (World Bank, IMF, diplomats, aid officials) and too often make a hash of things; and Africans who may or not know their own countries’ politics. You can’t straddle those three audiences and please all of them at the same time, but you’d be surprised how often members of the last category – Africans reading about their own countries – tell me that they have learnt things about their own societies they never knew. Sometimes, as John Githongo said, it’s just a matter of putting already-known facts together and pointing out the connections and sequence of events. As it happens, there actually ARE new elements in the book that were never reported before – quite a few of them – but my aim was not to do a piece of investigative reporting and uncover hidden bank accounts and shell companies. It’s up to the KACC and Amos Wako to find out where the Anglo Leasing money went – a journalist cannot do that job for them (ever tried getting a bank to give you a stranger’s bank account details?). My aim was different, it was to set the story in its context, to try and tease out the ingredients in a society that foster corruption and examine what leads individuals – and John is obviously not the only one – to reject that system. So I wasn’t actually aiming for massive scoops, and yes, those who read the book looking only for them will be disappointed. They are coming at it with the wrong expectations.

    One of the most interesting questions about this book is raised in your thread. Why, indeed, did this book have to be written by a non-Kenyan? It should, clearly, have been written by a Kenyan, so what is it about Kenyan society at the moment that means the brightest and the best aren’t, on the whole, telling these stories? God knows that Kenya has the writing talent. I think that silence speaks legions. There will be a role for outside commentators like me as long as it endures.

    I am, by the way, a great admirer of Billy Kahora’s poignant telling of the Munyakei story – a rare exception to the phenomenon mentioned above. An early version of this story was published a few years ago, in one of the Kwani editions – I have it on my shelves – so has been available to those who are interested for quite some time. I’m glad to see it reissued and hope it sells well. Billy is a very talented writer.

    Michela Wrong

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