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 (NHL), 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ways of downtown Nairobi by German film director, Tom Tykver, I was tasked by a local publisher with finding the great unpublished Kenyan crime novels.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 ‘Wanted’ real-life 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, 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 A-4 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.
Rakesh Khanna explores the web of Indian-language crime fiction publishing, in which colonial legacies and twisted plots in realms of sorcery and subterfuge are not limited to the page. He discovers that the tricks of the trade make the international marketing of original and prolific voices near impossible.
Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and quite a few other Indian languages have long traditions of crime fiction, yet very little of it has ever been translated or read outside of South Asia. This is partly economics – translation is expensive business, but there’s also a lingering colonial snobbery favouring English, and a different kind of snobbery within regional language literary circles that considers crime fiction déclassé.
And then there’s the shadowy world of pulp publishing: a world where the true identities of the creators are often concealed or faked, and one that frequently operates on the outer fringes of the law. In this world, there are no book fairs or launches, fancy wine and cheese events celebrating authors. The books are commissioned in dingy head offices nestled in crumbling buildings in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, and sold on paan-stained sidewalks, crowded bus stops, and six thousand small-town railway platforms stretching from the deserts of Rajasthan to the jungles of West Bengal.
It’s the sprawling world of Indian-language publishing today, but its roots are older, embedded in 19th century North India, where popular fiction was dominated by epic fantasies known as dastangoi. In both Hindi and Urdu, these lush, expansive romantic adventures often had plots centred on a tilism, a sort of enchanted puzzle created by a sorcerer. A tilism might be an object, or a palace, or an entire realm infused with astrological power. Like today’s detective novels, it is the task of the hero of the book to solve, or conquer, the tilism.
The hero of a tilism story is often accompanied by a trickster sidekick known as an ayyar. Part ninja, part illusionist, part spy, and part master-of-disguise, ayyars are typically more mischievous, typically more compelling than the nominal leading characters. They elaborately fake their own deaths, only to re-appear later. Another trick is to drug an enemy ayyar, stash her unconscious body, and then impersonate her by means of a magical disguise in order to infiltrate the enemy camp. As this game of false identities escalates and the ayyars go deeper and deeper undercover in the mysterious landscape of the tilism, the reader becomes less and less sure who is who, who is still alive, and who can be trusted.
Around the turn of the century the tilism novel was rivalled by the crime novel, which arrived from Britain in the form of the penny dreadful and quickly spawned local knockoff industries in a dozen or more Indian languages. These versions are line-for-line translations of the originals, but have undergone what modern business-speak terms content localisation. Richard is renamed as Rahul; a bowler hat becomes a turban; fish and chips are transformed into a masala dosa; a creepy Italian vivisectionist becomes a creepy Punjabi vivisectionist. Pseudonyms of the translators – or rather transplanters – grace the covers. The original author is uncredited.
Akin Adesokan confronts the ‘real world of Nigerian politics’ – a garden in bloom in the predator’s republic – and comes to grips with the ‘universal seductions of authoritarian power’ that make for ever-thickening plots.
Two-point-eight billion naira,
Oil money issy missing
Dem set up enkwayary
Dem say money no loss-y o…
Money no loss, dem shout again
Enkwayary come close o.
E no finish? E no finish? E no finish….?
Fela Anikulapo Kuti, “Army Arrangement”
Oyinbo ko k’ole, afara ni ko fe.
[The white officer does not mind robbery, he only abhors tardiness.]
My first major publication was an Op-ed article titled ‘Not Unknown, But Unmentionable’, which ran in The Guardian (Lagos) sometime in 1989. It was a rejoinder to another piece, which sought to explain the October 1986 murder of the journalist Dele Giwa as a mystery, an ‘unknown’. Giwa was a flamboyant US-trained magazine journalist, who had been blasted to death upon opening a parcel that he believed came from the President. After nearly three years his killers had not been discovered, much less prosecuted. No one in Nigeria had ever died from parcel bomb; only the truly well-informed knew of what the apartheid murderers used to eliminate Ruth First.
Famous Lagos lawyer and human rights activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, had tried to bring charges against two officials of Nigeria’s intelligence agency, and had experienced long spells of imprisonment for his trouble. (At the time my article appeared, Fawehinmi was in preventive detention, a victim of the iniquitous Decree Two, which empowered the military regime to detain indefinitely anyone considered a security threat. He eventually published a book, The Murder of Dele Giwa: The Rights of a Private Prosecutor, documenting his argument.)
My point in the article was that Giwa’s killers were not unknown, but that they were so highly placed in society that no one dared mention their names. As illustration I drew upon a story in Igbi Aye Nyi (1978), a Yoruba novel with its theme the advent of colonialism, in which the absolute ruler of a town turns himself into a sheep at midnight to carry out burglaries.
This example of the-sovereign-as-criminal appealed to me at the time because it was so spectacular. With a more complex understanding of the nature of power and powerlessness, other kinds of stories now seem more compelling. In Babatunde Olatunji’s Egbinrin Ote (1979), a set drama text for the West African School Certificate examination, the most visible characters are Ogaalu (Boss of the City) and Obakole (The King Does Not Frown Upon Stealing), both very powerful leaders of a Mafia-like group the king himself fears to hate. If I recall well, their group gets to decide who becomes king (a king in Yoruba literature is like the sheriff in the literature of the southern US – less powerful but just as ubiquitous).
Now, step back into the real world of Nigerian politics, colourful as a flower garden in bloom. Whether by the scent or by the colour, I’m drawn like a bumble-bee to the Ibadan-based godfather-kingmaker, Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu (d. 2008). This man caused the sitting governor of Oyo State to be impeached in 2006 because the governor would not let him go directly to Abuja, the capital, to collect the state’s monthly ‘allocation’. As soon as the impeachment procedures were concluded in the house of assembly, the former deputy-governor, now elevated to governor, took his retinue and a television crew to Adedibu’s house to thank him for putting him in office.
The following week, when the list of new commissioners was released, it emerged that Adedibu had handpicked fifteen out of the eighteen officials. All were swiftly confirmed by the state legislature which, the previous week, had voted 18 to 12 for impeachment. Adedibu patronised motor-park thugs, and broke up their unions – or widened the break already in place – as he searched for foot-soldiers in his campaigns.
10 Questions For Mukoma Wa Ngugi
A Beautiful Blonde is Dead. This image is the spark that ignites the international crime drama Nairobi Heat, the debut novel by acclaimed Kenyan writer Mukoma wa Ngugi. From the evocative title of the first chapter to the last line readers are forced to grapple with the touchy subjects of race, class, and the sometimes relative concept of justice. Jennifer Bryant spoke to Mukoma about his first novel, his thoughts on writing, and his plans for the future.
1. You’ve already established yourself as a poet, essayist, and political theorist. What pushed you to write your first novel?
I have actually written another novel (unpublished and from which I culled my Caine Prize shortlisted story), but Nairobi Heat won the race to publication. With that said though, I have always admired musicians who can play multiple instruments – certain emotions are better carried by the harmonica or saxophone than by a guitar for example. There is a relationship between form and content, and thus there are things that only poetry can carry, or direct political commentary, or fiction. So I want to be able to express myself in multiple genres.
2. In Nairobi Heat a dead white girl is found on the doorstep of a prominent African professor’s home. Can you talk a little about the interracial and intraracial dynamics that are at the core of the novel?
It’s important to note that the white girl is American, found on the doorstep of an African living in the US, but that the investigation is carried out primarily in Kenya, by an African American and a Kenyan detective working together. The case gets so much national and international attention because the victim is white and the suspect is an African. We see this in the US in instances where violent crimes against whites get more publicity than violent crimes against blacks, but we also see it in Kenya. The murder of a white tourist will move the government into action, whereas the murders of Kenyans do not. So there is a high premium on whiteness. This is the contradiction for Ishmael, the African American detective, and the only way he can evade the racial minefields is to single-mindedly pursue the killer, so to him, her race does not matter. In this sense, a crime has been committed, and the only thing that matters to the detectives is bringing the perpetrator to justice. But since race matters to everyone else, including the people in Madison Wisconsin where black and white people each have their version of what justice demands, it does in the end affect his case. But there is also Ishmael in Africa, where the Africans, instead of seeing Ishmael as a fellow black person as he would have expected, see a foreigner whom they call a Mzungu – a white person – which eventually leads him to explode violently.