In pursuit of some scriptwriter talent, Billy Kahora discovers that academic mantras, conservative world views and hand-me down observations stunt a rendering of the true grit that must be lived to be imagined in a Nairobi noir.
The cinema like the detective story, makes it possible to experience without danger all the excitement, passion and desirousness which must be repressed in a humanitarian ordering of life. – C.G. Jung
What I can’t get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz.– Norman Mailer on lawyer George V Higgins’ crime novel The Friends Of Eddie Coyle.
Way before I was asked to supervise a team of writers to script Nairobi Half Life, a film on the petty criminal ways of downtown Nairobi by German film director, Tom Tykver, I was tasked by a local publisher with finding the great unpublished Kenyan crime novels. This was the publisher’s second attempt, premised on an earlier failure, to build a crime novel series together with the best crime reporters in the country. Most of these reporters had not read much of the genre but they had a forensic knowledge of the Kenyan hustle, maintained a working knowledge of the latest cons and scams and knew the history of all the real-life ‘Wanted’ characters of contemporary Kenyan crime. They could also deliver a detailed account of police investigations and procedures, narrate from memory a full year’s roster of Nairobi’s numerous hijackings, drug busts, spare-parts car rings and credit card frauds, and had total recall of criminal executions by police frustrated with the justice system.
In what passed for editorial meetings, in downtown bars, over drinks, the reporters shared their war stories. These were older tales of the infamous CID boss, Mr Shaw, and his sidekick, Mr Patel, from the 1970s; the even more notorious Wakinyonga, Nairobi’s first star bank robber; and car spare-part magnates, Wanugu, Wacucu and Rasta – three of the most infamous newspaper cut-ups in 1990s Nairobi’s sitting rooms. The publisher and editor were curious why such vivid oral accounts never made the papers? Why were all newspaper crime reports by-lined by the men sitting with them invariably: ‘5 men were shot dead by police as they allegedly…’ – the standard four paragraphs and an added police sound-bite? Here, the reporters paused then all laughed knowingly and simultaneously.
‘This is Kenya,’ one muttered.
A month later only two of the original six reporters had submitted 1000 words each. The controlled experiment failed, the Nairobi Confidential Manuscript resulted in a few A4 sheaves. In follow-up phone conversations the reporters interrupted the publisher’s queries with newer accounts of more outrageous incidents. It became clear that the reporter’s addiction to their adrenaline-filled lives far surpassed any ambitions for the tedium of novel writing. It was then that I was brought in and the reporters were made sources and sounding boards for ideas for the crime-genre experiment. Thus began the first known attempt to create a Kenyan/East African crime genre, one that had floundered since the 1980s, with criminal novel accounts such as John Kiriamiti’s My Life In Crime.
The American noir origins of successful crime fiction evolved from the particular worldview of post-war society. A resultant jaded cynicism, coupled with the belief in the existence of pure evil, proved ideal in developing immediately successful nihilistic aesthetic, idiom and form. Kenya in the 1990s, with all its crime and corruption, instead produced a strong penchant for satire, realistic humour, self-mockery and Sheng-based hip hop. After 2002, the emergence of a new generation of writers working in different styles and voices promised the emergence of some form of genre writing. Combining these new voices with knowledge of Nairobi’s sociological criminal realities seemed a new way to start building a crime novel list.
But what kind of crime novel? The crime genre involves several sub-genres in the detective story, noir, and the general criminal story with criminal protagonists – Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard respectively being the best examples. When we decided to open it up to all the sub-genres, I held a workshop with some young and passably good writers whom I thought would take to genre writing pretty easily. From previous work with them at Kwani?, the Nairobi-based literary journal, I knew they were still some way from becoming sound fiction writers; it would prove a mistake to assume that genre writing requires less skill.
Crime fiction, like its literary counterpart, requires a grounded understanding of the special elements within the genre. I photocopied what I considered key excerpts from crime writers such as George V Higgins, Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley, Tony Hillerman and James Lee Burke, and handed them over to the writers in the workshop to illustrate some key elements of crime fiction: plot, stock characters, dialogue and setting. I mixed all this with local classics such as John Kiriamiti’s My Life In Crime, The Bushtrackers by Meja Mwangi, local magazine photo-comics from the 1970s – Big Ben In London, Samson and Spear and even Barbara Kimenye’s Moses series.
I also included a travelogue by a British writer named John Williams titled Into the Badlands, an account of Williams’ travels all over the US talking to crime writers to prove that the best crime fiction was as good as any American literary fiction, possibly even better when it came to capturing contemporary social conditions. I wanted the writers in the workshop to understand that good crime fiction could also have serious literary credentials. But more importantly, Williams illustrated how crime writers styled the very essence of their craft, language, dialogue and voice to what they perceived the surroundings to be. How the chaotic register of James Ellroy reflected his angsty experience of downtown Los Angeles; how Tony Hillerman appropriated Navajo traditions in New Mexico to produce cop detective novels that were unique in setting and execution; and how they were all different and adapted to how crime writers perceived their settings.
I set up a discussion to test the writers’ knowledge of their settings. I wanted to find out how well they knew the criminal milieu of the different places they hailed from and where they planned to set up their stories: downtown Nairobi, old Mombasa town, slum Nakuru by the lake, Homa Bay. What did they know about Kenyan style ngeta muggings, karaus, obohos cons, shit-throwing chokoras – the origins of Kenya’s criminal class, wagondis and their relation to class hierarchies? Did they understand the symbiotic nature of police kitu kidogo corruption and the existence of organised crime in Kenya? I asked all the writers to identify a crime they were interested in to serve as a contextual tableau within which they could write a crime story, with emphasis on the elements mentioned and some research on their settings.
Most of the first draft submissions were passably good literary novellas with a convenient crime as the centre-piece of the story. There was a piece about a bank robbery, whose drama was the internal life of a hand-wringing character’s moral dilemmas. Another used the recently concluded post-elections violence to frame a rape narrative. One older female writer who worked for an international anti-drugs organisation wanted to recreate an environmental crime that had political overtones and which allegedly occurred in Nyanza province in the 1960s. Clearly, the writers had not internalised the idea of a formula – they lacked bold protagonists, such as Chandler’s Marlowe, or mysterious dames who intrigued, or stupid overbearing cops who were recognisable as part of our reality, their settings. Characters were drawn on clearly literary frames – there was a sense of the bildungsroman in most of them. There was invariably the good boy/girl who falls into temptation through bad company or circumstances, but eventually finds their way back.
I realised that the worlds the writers inadvertently depicted were framed within their world experience – the conservative worlds imbibed through a mix of tradition and mainstream Christianity in school, family and mtaa spaces. These world views seemed completely entrenched – immune to a complete suspension of disbelief into other more unsavoury universes that the crime genre delved in. More ominous seemed an internalisation of what writing should be, as pressed upon many a young writer at school, university and by literary critics, mostly academic – oft-repeated mantras that can lead to the death of the freedom of the imagination.
For the second draft, I stressed the need for a clearly drawn protagonist, an antagonist – a River Road gumshoe detective, a Wakinyonga with a good heart, a class conflicted Wacucu who had had to come through the skids. I asked for mtaa street language that encompassed whole worlds. I crossed out huge swathes of text learnt from literary fiction mulling over the human condition, characters’ deeper motives. After a third rewrite, the polished versions remained narratives that read like first fiction – they still failed to submerge themselves in particularly criminal or police worlds. Even when we tried the old tricks – changing point of view, narrator, imagining new voices – the manuscripts were still unable to capture unique, distinct aspects of the crime genre.
Half of the stories I have published since my first story in Kwani? have involved some crime or other as a sub-plot and moral corruption has always served as a context. I remain fascinated by aspects of Kenyan society that require general dishonesty, especially in official and public spaces; how bribes or ethnic reinforcing serve as necessary shortcuts for basic services in government offices and what that means for individuals in the larger questions of life, good and bad; and what the blatant systemic pursuit and respect of money, rather than the search for quality in one’s work, mean in the drama of our lives. All this is great fodder for crime writing. Of course, in practice, especially in something as direct as the criminal genre, this kind of writing requires a severe suspension of disbelief on the part of the writer. A complete immersion into a different point of view, possibly never experienced, is required, along with the technical tools and skills to pull this off. Well-meaning young writers, well-schooled in the mores of good Kenyan society, with all its conservatism, know and understand crime but mostly through third-hand reports, faraway anecdotes, bland news reports. Ultimately, the great crime writer is one who can embrace and understand the criminal soul, undo all he has been taught from the other side of ‘good society,’ to write properly about crime in its many facets. Those with first-hand knowledge of these worlds are either deeply immersed in observation of it, like the reporters, or are too busy doing what writers perpetually avoid, living life. Criminals live by crime. Writers write about it. Kenya’s most successful criminal novel, My Life In Crime, is a straight bildungsroman written as a simple memoir. Rather than an overt sense of style, its shock value and its immediate knowledge of the subject of armed robbery are what sells.
The two crime experiments echo the dilemma of how to produce successful crime fiction on the continent. Firstly, all first-hand knowledge on crime and its sociology can only be mostly acquired second-hand – the material for research open to crime writers in the West is hardly available. Also, most young writers on the continent learn their trade from reading literary fiction in school. The dearth of good crime writing means that those who pick it up come to it without internalising its unique criteria and technique.
When director Tom Tykver asked me to suggest writers for Nairobi Half Life, I asked him what the general premise of the film was. He wanted to do something on Nairobi’s sense of the hustle in which crime and survival in the city were part of the context. As we inadvertently developed the concept, I gave him some broad scenarios on rural/peri-urban migration, city survival, modern aspiration – and slowly we talked the central figure of the film, Mwas, into being. After a series of creative sessions we came up with a general storyline that included Mwas’s origins, his arrival in the city, his immediate introduction into the spare-part crime world.
I’d long been fascinated with accounts of criminal life and the sociology of Nairobi’s surrounding danger zones: Wangige, Kinoo, Uthiru, Lari, Riruta, Kangemi, Ruiru, Kiambu town, Gachie, Mucatha, Kikuyu. Some of the older spaces had been the first sites of pre-independence Central Province urbanisation and later became home to Nairobi’s middle-class citizens. Ultimately, population explosions, failing agro-economies and changing sociological conditions created informal settlements side by side and in between upper middle-class homes. At first these areas provided informal labour and eventually raw material for organised crime in the city. The peri-urban areas became the openly criminal retreats that eventually turned on the more affluent and respectable citizens, who also became victims of armed robbery. Ultimately, these areas became informally controlled by criminal overlords, who used their new wealth to buy or forcefully occupy the old middle-class homes. The context from which Mwas came from in Nairobi Half Life was as a result of this evolution.
From the second failed crime workshop experiment I knew what was required was a writer who had both a working sociological knowledge and the language and voice of the contemporary peri-urban space. I introduced Potash, a writer and blogger I had worked with, to Tykver. And though Tykver originally wanted one writer to work on the whole film, I convinced him that he required different skills and knowledge for the scenes set in Nairobi. I had long been fascinated by the crazy stories one heard from Kirinyaga Road, otherwise known as Grogan (after a colonial Colonel Grogan) and the thieving capital of spare parts in Nairobi. A frequently told story was how motorists who had parked there to buy a spare part would meet up with a street vendor as they returned to their vehicles. This vendor would offer a wheel cap, a front light, petrol cap or side mirror. The hapless motorist would brush away this street creature, only to later discover that they were being asked to buy their own car parts. The next day they would fork over cash for what had once been legitimately theirs. These tales of Grogan included renditions of a criminal spare-part economy of millions of shillings. There were accounts how one could order a part and receive it in an hour. One of the young writers that I had worked with for the crime writing series, Sam Munene, understood the day to day nature of Nairobi street life. His manuscript for the crime writing workshop showed an instinctive understanding of Nairobi’s underworld. I asked Sam to re-adapt some of the sections of Nairobi Half Life to include the spare-parts syndicate on Kirinyaga Road.
I told both Sam and Potash to take these particular worlds on their own cultural terms and languages – to envisage Wangige in Kikuyu and downtown Nairobi in Sheng, before rewriting in English, as best as possible. I also asked both to retain elements of both languages where English failed to explain the circumstances. The believability of the Wangige and Kirinyaga Road scenes come from these processes.
I also told Tom that we would need someone else to reformat the material into a script as both writers worked in standard longhand prose. Actress Sarah Mwihaki joined the team and brought with her a working knowledge of Nairobi’s theatre world that also helped shape how Mwas could become an actor in the city.
Together we thrashed out Mwas’s trajectory, a schizophrenic existence that said a lot of about Nairobi living – a way of life that involves constantly moving through completely different universes and inter-linked languages in a quest to survive one of the continent’s harshest and most expensive cities. Working on Nairobi Half Life, we were all too aware how most fictional depictions of Nairobi render it in compartmented extremes, either through developmental accounts of terrible slum conditions with insistent macro-narratives of crime, inequality and injustice, or glossy economic advisories that talk up tourism, wildlife, upmarket hotels, hourly access to beaches, mountains, forests, latte cafés and business brochures that boast of infrastructure, professionalism, upmarket neighbourhoods, technological advancement, cocktail bars and adult entertainment. Nairobi Half Life was an opportunity to produce a narrative that showed how all these were symbiotic to each other.
The success of Nairobi Half Life was however cemented by the skills brought by a larger team of specialists who do some of the work required by the individual writer in producing a novel. The omniscient presence of the camera, the actors’ talents and the technical prowess of the cameraman are to film narrative what style, voice and idiom are to writing. On a practical level, the larger film production machine has in-built research mechanisms and budgets from larger audiences, economies and markets that confound any publisher. Tosh Gitonga’s camera work reproduced many of the downtown scenes with an immediacy that even the best writing would have struggled to. The oral improvisation of the actors in catching the right strains of Sheng overcame the in-built weakness of text to reproduce the same language on the page.
With the emergence of a great Nairobi crime film, the possibilities for a contemporary great Nairobi crime novel abound. And this, like the film, requires a crime reporters’ encyclopaedic knowledge of crime and its ways in Nairobi; the sociologist’s penchant for research and conceptual understanding of how different societal spaces are inter-connected and how all these are related to crime; an ear for the oral in these different societies; a theoretical understanding of the crime genre in all its manifestations; the storyteller’s understanding of how all these can be brought to bear as entertainment; and the writer’s feel for the written word, stylistics, voice and point of view.
Recently I watched the film Viva Riva, another successful account of criminal life in this part of the world, and was struck by some similarities to Nairobi Half Life that would be good criteria for future crime writing on the continent: first, the careful selection of a specific criminal world that is well researched and articulated, such as the petrol racket in Kinshasha or the spare-part scam in Nairobi; second, an immediate use of language natural to the setting; and third, a conceptual understanding of organised criminal spaces and their complex relationship to mainstream society.
One useful narrative mechanism from both films is the consistent play between the normal and the deviant: love and friendship in criminal gangs and strange oddities in the ‘normal’ mainstream. Both films have crucial topographical compasses and settings. The river is a metaphorical guide in Viva Riva; Nairobi’s ugly brown and grey concretes, paper structures, mabati surfaces and stone exteriors serve as a great canvas for Nairobi Half Life’s plot.
Yet, one major difference can be observed in both films that underscores my earlier point: that the failure of the crime writing experiment with contemporary Kenyan writers lies in a failure of the imagination based on deeply held and imbibed value systems that curtail the writers’ honesty and ability to really see their society. And from that, Viva Riva trumps Nairobi Half Life in one particular aspect – intimacy and sex. Viva Riva does not shy away from sex and its relation to the public. It recognises that the very nature of the intimacy is crucial to both societal and criminal spaces. Sex in both films is rightfully a commodity, a central aspect to aspiration, ownership and manifestation of power relations in criminal spaces. But in its depiction of the act, Nairobi Half Life carries over the failures from the crime writing exercise – the writer’s conservative hangover from well-oiled social mores, from tradition and Christianity, and from a consistent mantra on what writing should be.
Nairobi Half Life attempts the coy – it does not fully integrate sex in all its manifestations in Mwas’s experiences of Nairobi. And that is a serious cop-out in a city in which sex is regularly deployed as a mainstream commodity, where the criminal world is firmly interlinked with prostitution and where informal commercial arrangements and sex are key motivators in criminal life. Viva Riva captures this in a severely adult and worldly Congo, while Nairobi Half Life stutters, choosing rather to explain away the world of sex through Mwas’s boyish sexual reticence as young romantic love. Contemporary Nairobi writers will only find the proper voice and idiom required for the crime genre, whether in film or the novel, by being bold about sex and its role in society.
This article is also available in Chronic 1, published August 2013. To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop. Copies coming to your nearest dealer now-now. Access to the whole issue and Chronic online archives is available for $28 for one year or $7 for a month.