When I decided to do a Twitter thread to give a behind-the-scenes look at my writing and publishing journey, I was unprepared for the reaction it would create. I am answering to the many requests to do a prose edition of the story, uninhibited by the 140-character limitation.
What do you know about ‘The Last Villains of Molo’? Probably what you have read in the media: that it is one of the most critically acclaimed novels in modern times, and that it has been studied in universities in Kenya and Germany. You may also have heard that it has been mentioned in postgraduate work at local and international universities (Harvard and University of Sussex). John Mwazemba in 2008, wrote that Villains predicted the post-election violence. It’s also been featured amongst the top 50 Kenyan books by Wamathai.
What many don’t know is that Villains was never going to be published. It was rejected thrice. And it was accepted for publication by sheer coincidence, or miracle, depending on your religious inclination.
How it all began
Flashback 2001. I was a student at Kenyatta University studying (English and Literature). In retrospect, I was not the brightest literature student. In fact, I remember getting a D score in the unit ‘Stylistics and Literary Aesthetics’, which is the biggest irony because my novels have later come to be used in the same unit!
One day, I saw a newspaper advertisement for a for a short story competition. The prize money was 5,000 shillings. Five thousand was a lot of money in 2001 – we used 20 shillings a day on vegetables back at the hostel.
I decided to enter two stories to increase my chances.
I don’t remember the first story, but the second one was titled ‘Innocent Bystander’ and was set in a slum (If you have read my next novel ‘Den of Inequities’ you may recognise the storyline).
It was easy for me to write about the ghetto. I lived in one – Ngando on Ngong Road near the Ngong Racecourse. Later, this place would be the setting for ‘Villains’.
Just before submitting, I gave the two stories to my lecturer, Gachanja Kiai, to have a look. To my disbelief, he came to class the next day and without saying a thing to me, asked one of my classmates to read it.
There was pin drop silence.
“I had to have it read in class because I didn’t believe what I was reading,” Gachanja told the class to loud applause. “It’s the most brilliant work I have seen.”
That affirmation marked my entry into the world of professional writing. I felt like a super hero.
Gachanja Kiai didn’t stop there. He gave me a publisher’s business card.
Mr. Jimmi Makotsi,
Acacia Stantex Publishers.
Jimmi Makotsi was a writer and publisher. He’d written “She ate the female cassava”. At East African Educational Publishers, he’d helped birth John Kiriamiti’s ‘My Life in Crime’. I heard that he was a heavyweight.
So I visited him one morning and triumphantly passed over the short stories.
He was a tall, light skinned man with well combed hair. His face betrayed no emotion as he read through the short stories. It was hard to know if he liked them or not.
Once he finished, he told me the sad news: he was not keen on short stories. They don’t sell. “Can you do a novel?”
(I think he was just trying to shoo me away)
“Yes” I blurted out. “I have this idea for a novel on clashes in Molo, but I am afraid of the government.”
It was the Moi era. People who have been anti-government have had it rough. The torture chambers of Nyayo House flashed through my mind. Gitobu Imanyara. Koigi Wamwere. Willy Mutunga.
“Just write,” he told me. “It is my role as the editor to remove the parts that will get you in trouble.”
The truth was that I did not have an idea for the novel.
During the holidays, I had visited our Njoro home and had a chat with Mzee Joseph Mbure, a Molo clashes victim. Over lunch, Mbure had told me about the very first day the clashes happened. That story had intrigued me so much I had planned to do a short story for my second-year Creative Writing class.
Mbure’s family had been evicted from Molo in 1997. He grew up together with my grandmother in Marioshoni Forest in pre-independent Kenya. When my grandmother heard that Mbure had been evicted, she offered a piece of land and house at our home in Njoro. Mbure and family would stay with us for more than five years. He passed on a few years ago.
At the time I was telling Jimmi about the idea, I hadn’t written a word.
“How soon can we see it?” Jimmi asked. He had piercing eyes that looked right through you and I could almost feel that he was seeing through the lies.
“Three months,” I blurted out.
I say 3 months. “Okay. See you in three.”
I went to work. To make Villains longer, I have to do more research. I spent days at Nation Centre library and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) offices at Gitanga Road.
At KHRC I was given tons of material. I remember working from a certain office with a sign on the door that read: Dr. Willy Mutunga, Executive Director.
Mzee Mbure’s testimony would form the backbone of Villains. His story checked out with newspaper reports about the Molo clashes. It also helped that Peter, my campus roommate was a Molo Clashes victim. I later spoke to a man called Kip with whom I sadly lost contact.
I was told about the Kalenjin man whose wife was raped by his Kikuyu neighbours and who later went mad. This was one of the toughest parts of the book
My roommate was permanently scarred by the clashes. For a long time, we had been fighting because he always insisted on leaving the lights on at night. I learnt that during the clashes, his family spent the nights in their napier grass farm. His family disintegrated. He lost his sister. War is terrible
The Molo clashes were worse than the 2008 Post Election Violence. Over 2,000 people died and over 500,000 displaced. What prevented it from becoming an international news item was that the government of the day had limited so many freedoms. Of course, social media was not a thing.
We are a nation that has embraced the ‘accept and move on’ philosophy. But we cannot accept and move on from reconciling Molo. As I write this, a cloud of suspicion and tension hangs over Molo. Once in a while, it flares up especially after a robbery or stock theft.
And the scariest thing is that those people who were children victims in 1992 have seen violence during election time every five years: 1997, 2002 and 2007. Not only can they defend themselves, they are not capable of arming themselves.
Read part 2 here.