- Annemarie Friedli
Meja Mwangi was born in Nanyuki, Kenya, in 1948.
He was educated at Nanyuki Secondary School, Kenyatta College, and, much later, at Leeds University, leaving without graduating. He worked for French television in Nairobi and for the British Council. He was Fellow in Writing at Iowa University (1975-6). His work in the film industry includes writing, assistant directing, casting and location management. He worked on such films as Out of Africa (1985), Gorillas in the Mist (1985), White Mischief (1988), Kitchen Toto (1987), and Shadow On The Sun (1988). His first novel, Kill Me Quick, was published in 1973 and won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize (Kenya) in 1974, and his novel, Carcase for Hounds (1974), was made into a film - Cry Freedom. Meja's books for children include Little White Man (1990) and The Hunter's Dream (1993). Translated into several languages, Little White Man has won major awards in Germany and France, and in Canada and the US.
Meja Mwangi's novel, The Last Plague (2000), explores the AIDS pandemic and its effects on a small village. It won the 2001 Jomo Kenyatta Prize (Kenya) and was shortlisted for the 2002 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
His most recent books are Power (2009), an adaptation for the stage of his novel, The Big Chiefs (2007) and Blood Brothers (2009), a dramatic adaptation of Mama Dudu, the Insect Woman (2007).
Meja Mwangi initially made a huge impact on the literary world: his first novel, Kill Me Quick, was published in 1973 and received the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for literature the following year.
This was a decade after his fellow Kenyan, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, had published Weep Not, Child (1964), and critics placed Mwangi alongside Ngugi as part of a new wave of East African writers who were proving to the literary world that post-colonial African literature did not hail exclusively from West Africa. Mwangi’s first novel achieved both critical acclaim and high sales figures. Over the following few years, as he published a stream of regular novels, he maintained his popularity with the reading public, but critical acclaim declined to some extent. Since then he has not maintained the same level of literary acclaim as Ngugi, but nonetheless he has produced a substantial and significant contribution to East African literature (including children’s literature), along with his involvement in various film projects.
Simon Gikandi discusses the reasons for the critical neglect of Mwangi’s literature:
'His works are often praised for their sense of realism, but his novels suffer from a want of informing ideas. However, Mwangi’s rejection of ideological self-consciousness and methodological self-reflectiveness is compensated for by the experiences narrated in his novels […] [The] authority of Mwangi’s work is what the novelist has gone through or seen.' (Mwangi entry in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 125: 20th Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, 2nd series, 1993)
Consequently, Mwangi’s most well-known and admired works are his novels of urban life, dealing with the struggle to survive in post-Independence Kenya, based on the author’s own first-hand experience. In these works, particularly Kill Me Quick (1973), Going Down River Road (1976) and The Cockroach Dance (1979), Mwangi’s social commentary is poignant and penetrating and brought to life in vivid detail. He explores the rapid changes that have taken place in Kenya since 1963; the struggle between traditional life and the modern values imposed by European colonists; the gap between rich and poor; corruption among the African elite; and the dark, poverty-stricken underworld which exists in many African cities.
Kill Me Quick shows the way in which bright, intelligent and motivated young people can easily fall by the wayside. Meja and Maina are two young boys who have grown up in rural Kenya and worked hard for their high-school diplomas in the belief that modern-day, newly independent Kenya will offer them opportunities to prosper. However, when they move to the city they soon realise that their education is of no value, for the white rulers have been replaced by the new black middle class, and thus the prospects for two poor rural boys remain bleak. Kill Me Quick was one of the first novels to clearly identify the social and political problems which lead to despair and disillusionment and drive many young Africans into crime and delinquency, as they struggle to survive in a world which offers them no hope.
Going Down River Road continues in a similar vein, and is one of Mwangi’s most critically acclaimed works, winning the author his second Jomo Kenyatta Prize. It explores the life of Kenya’s disillusioned working classes, featuring a group of labourers hired to construct a 24-storey building that is ironically named ‘Development House’. The protagonist is Ben, who was expelled from the army after being tempted by a gangster’s deal. He thus finds himself struggling to survive along with many others in the underworld of Nairobi, and his personal story is set against the background of widespread social problems, presented in Mwangi’s understated but vivid style:
'The Karara Centre was still open. The barman could not close at the usual time. Never. The patrons would murder him, wreck the joint and set it on fire […] [The] whole town knew that the Centre and its crowd were lost to the Devil. A kind of emergency filling-station half-way between here and Hell.' (Going Down River Road)
Mwangi has also written two novels about the Mau Mau uprising against British rule: Carcase for Hounds (1974) (later made into a film, Cry Freedom) and Taste of Death (1975). These were inspired by Mwangi’s own personal experiences: the uprising took place during his childhood, and he and his mother were briefly imprisoned in a detention camp. Taste of Death, written when Mwangi was just a teenager (though not published until 1975) tells the story of a young teenage Kenyan boy who wishes to join the revolution but does not fully understand the implications of what it is all about. These two novels were praised for the way in which they brought to life this intense period in Kenya’s history.
Mwangi’s first film project was writing the novelisation of the film The Bushtrackers in 1979. The storyline is a thriller about game poaching, and Mwangi followed this with several thriller novels: Bread of Sorrow (1987), The Return of Shaka (1989) and Weapon of Hunger (1989). Throughout the 1980s he also worked as an assistant director on several prominent Hollywood films: the epic Out of Africa; Gorillas in the Mist, which tells the story of Dian Fossey, and White Mischief, about the murder of a British aristocrat in Kenya.
Mwangi returned to insightful social commentary with the novel Striving For the Wind in 1990. The publisher’s cover blurb describes it as ‘a hilarious allegory of neo-colonial decadence’, and Mwangi uses a father-son relationship to depict the tension between tradition and modernity. However, it is the father, a wealthy landowner, who advocates the modern capitalist stance: he has named himself ‘Father of Money’ and tries to bully his poverty-stricken neighbours into parting with their small, traditionally-farmed plots of land. His challenge comes in the form of his son, a college drop-out who takes up the cause of the underdog. Kenya’s past, present and future are thus analysed through debates between father and son.
Mwangi won his third Jomo Kenyatta Prize with The Last Plague (2000), a moving account of the devastation caused by the spread of HIV and AIDS throughout Africa, particularly in poor rural areas. Despite the serious subject matter, Mwangi skilfully incorporates humour as he depicts the frustrations of trying to change deep-rooted attitudes:
'Giving vent to the anger and fury she had endured since Broker told Don Donovan about the clinic, [Janet] responded by giving the old men a tongue-lashing the likes of which they had never had before […]
She insulted them for a full ten minutes and no-one dared answer back, but, when she was done, they grumbled some more […] They were not fools, they said, they were total men and they had not come all the way out here to be insulted by a woman, not even one with elephantine testicles.' (The Last Plague)
The Boy Gift (2006) has a different subject matter, but also examines deep-rooted traditions and cultural attitudes. Toma Tomei longs to fulfil his ambition to become the chief of his clan, but he cannot receive the honour unless he has fathered a son. After nine daughters, Tomei’s wife finally gives birth to a boy, but the baby is a ‘throw-back’ with light skin and green eyes. Despite scientific explanations, the whole community is shaken by fear of magic and witchcraft as life presents them with something which is outside their usual realm of experience.
Mwangi has also written some remarkable children’s books, particularly the award-winning Little White Man (1990) which was re-issued as The Mzungu Boy in 2005. Set in the build-up to the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, this story offers a poignant depiction of a friendship between a local African boy, Kariuki, and Nigel, the English grandson of the colonial landowner who owns the local farm. The innocence and warmth of the boys’ friendship is set against the growing unrest and violence of Kenya’s struggle for independence.
Elizabeth O’Reilly, 2008
Why do I write? I rake my brain for the answer, something to justify my spending days and months in isolation with only words and ideas for company. As anyone who has tried it knows, writing is a hard and lonely occupation; often without reward or gratification, critical or otherwise.
Why do I do it? Only career thieves get asked that question as often. Granted, a fool might ask a labourer why he labours, a baker why he bakes, a doctor why he doctors, a farmer why he farms or a teacher why he teaches, but most of us know why we do what we do. Thieves and writers, however, must justify or be damned, tell a good story to explain why they spend their lives in dark, lonely places when they could be out in sunshine and freedom. They can make it short and truthful, admit they don’t really know why and trust their fate to the court’s mercy, or they can spin an impressive yarn full of good intention, humanitarian objectives or spiritual significance. The truth, however, is mundane and it is this - just as a baker bakes because he is a baker, and a farmer farms because he is a farmer, a thief steals because he is a thief, and a writer writes.