By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 3 February 2020)
‘Nairobi noir’ is the anthology of 14 short stories about the city by Kenyan writers who were selected and edited by Dr Peter Kimani. It was launched last Thursday night at Alliance Francaise.
Missing just four writers of the 14, the rest shared short readings from their stories on a panel moderated by Dr Mshai Mwangola-Githongo.
Dr Mshai drew out the writers with salient questions, stating her goal in so doing was to whet the public’s appetite for reading and buying the book.
If that was truly what Mshai sought, then her wish came true. Nairobi Noir sold out ten minutes after the event ended and a full house of literary fans streams out of the Wangari Maathai auditorium, intent on procuring the limited copies brought for sale that night.
The most provocative question that Mshai asked of Dr Kimani was ‘Why use an American publisher when the book is about Kenya’ where we have plenty of local publishers?
Kimani quickly clarified it was because the Akashic Books had contacted him since they have a series of urban noir anthologies and wanted to include Nairobi, making it the first city in the series from Africa. All the rest are either set in Europe, Australia, US or Israel. They wanted him to edit it.
Being a close friend of fellow author and literary mentor, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, it was he who Kimani approached first. Ngugi’s short story, an amusing allegory entitled ‘The Hermit in the Helmet’ is set in colonial Kawangware. Other authors in the book picked various Nairobi suburbs, from Kilimani, Kariobangi and Karen to Parklands, Mathare and Mukuru kwa Njenga. That diversity of location is just one aspect of the amazing range of Nairobi life that is featured within the pages of Kimani’s book.
Reflecting on various characters, conditions and circumstances, the one profession that often appears in the stories is the Kenya police.
Nairobi Noir couldn’t be more timely given the rapid transformation of the city’s landscape and lifestyles. From week to week and day to day, the visible manifestations of the city change. The one exception that Kimani observes is in Gikomba where jua kali workers continue to toil, unsheltered under the scorching hot sun.
The other frequent features that appear in the book are the poverty and gross inequality that exist in the city. But since the writers explore their suburbs as insiders, not foreign voyeurs, the poverty they observe isn’t as overwhelming as their tales about the police. Their presence lends a touch of foreboding; nonetheless it doesn’t kill the energy, drama and vitality of Nairobi’s ‘hustler’ culture.
Among the authors who contributed to the anthology besides Ngugi and Kimani are writers classified as either Hunters, Hunted or Herders.
Among the Hunters, Kimani includes Kevin Mwachiro, Kinyanjui Kombani, Winfred Kiunga, Makena Onjerika and Troy Onyango. Among the Hunted are himself, Faith Oneya, Wanjiku wa Ngugi, Caroline Mose and Rasna Warah. And among the Herders are John Sibi Okumu, Stanley Gazemba Ngumi Kibera and Ngugi.