Kenya: it’s our turn to read

About the author
Michela Wrong has worked for the Reuters news agency, the BBC and the Financial Times, and is now a columnist for the New Statesman. She is the author of In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo (Harper Collins, 2002) and I Didn't Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation (Harper Collins, 2004).

This week a long-mulled distribution project goes into action in Kenya, a country which has seen more than its fair share of humanitarian operations. The items handed out this time will be neither mosquito-nets, condoms, nor oral rehydration salts. They are copies of my book, It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower. The aim is to get them into the hands of Kenyans who have so far been unable to locate a much talked-about item.

Michela Wrong is a journalist, and the author of It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower (HarperCollins, 2009)

Her previous books include In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz (HarperCollins, 2001) and I Didn't Do It For You: How The World Abused a Small African Nation (HarperCollins, 2005)

Also by Michela Wrong in openDemocracy:

"The G8 summit: good for Africans?" (11 July 2005) - part of a symposium with Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie, Michael Holman and Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe

Until recently I sincerely doubted the project - embracing local churches, media outlets, Kenyan branches of PEN and the Open Society Institute, and pulled together by the American development agency USAID - would ever see the light of day. I feared the very same forces that had originally prevented my book selling in Kenya would sabotage it. Then came a text message from Galeeb Kachra, the project's 36-year-old originator. "Books safe", it read. The first part of the consignment had cleared Kenyan customs and was securely in USAID's hands.

Now, with the first of what will eventually be 5,100 copies being either distributed for free or at discount prices, I feel a combination of gratitude and wonder. Gratitude to those who decided to help an author reach her natural readers, wonder that this was ever necessary in the first place. Books, after all, are normally sold in bookshops, not distributed like a polio vaccine.

In late 2008, when I delivered the manuscript for It's Our Turn to Eat to my publishers, I expected a brief flurry of headlines, nothing more. The book tells the story of John Githongo, a former anti-corruption chief and old friend who fled Kenya on discovering that his ministerial colleagues were implicated in a £750 million corruption-scam known as Anglo Leasing. The details of this scam were already familiar to Kenyans, thanks to a dossier penned by John himself, published on the internet in 2006. Hence my sang-froid.

I had misjudged the mood of the times. Although a Kenyan government spokesman declared that the book was not banned, no domestic bookseller dared touch it. When quizzed, they said they were terrified of being sued by businessmen and politicians named in its pages. Kenyan VIPs are certainly quick to sue, and the country's libel laws are heavily weighted in favour of litigants. But I suspected something more sinister explained this blanket retail boycott: a quiet intimidation campaign by the regime that Githongo had exposed.

Whatever its cause, the boycott has not prevented well-off Kenyans reading It's Our Turn to Eat, now on its third reprint. They pick it up abroad - sales are booming in Johannesburg, Kampala and Dar es Salaam; use their international credit-cards to buy it off Amazon; download the e-book off Harper Collins's website. To my frustration, a pirated electronic copy of the manuscript has also been circulating amongst those with computer access.

But ordinary Kenyans remain excluded, and they are the ones the organisations and individuals involved in this project now hope to reach. They are not doing this to humiliate those named in my book. They see the book as playing a key part in a long overdue public debate on the state of modern Kenya.

A Kenyan's right

What makes It's Our Turn to Eat interesting are not the stale details of Anglo Leasing, but its exploration of the poisonous interplay between ethnicity, corruption and power, blight of so many African societies. The perception that a ruling tribe wins exclusive right to gorge on state assets - consigning less fortunate tribes to obscurity and neglect - fuelled an anger that nearly destroyed Kenya following the December 2007 polls. "The Kenyan public knows all about the post-election violence, but they don't see the link between that and corruption", says Kachra. "What you have done in your book is to connect up the dots."

Kenya's Protestant and Catholic churches, who have always played key roles in the country's troubled reform process, plan to debate the book's arguments at discussion-groups across the country. The writers' organisation PEN is organising readings in Mombasa, Kisumu and Nairobi. Caroline Mutoko, a feisty radio presenter, will debate the issues on Kiss FM's popular breakfast show. The Nairobi Star will offer readers five free copies of the book a day, and its vendors will sell it at traffic-lights alongside the newspaper. All this has been made possible by grants from the Kenyan branch of George Soros's Open Society Institute, USAID, and an anonymous British investor with a liking for iconoclastic gestures.

Litigation is still always possible. But a court case over Anglo Leasing, which has somehow always managed to fall between cracks opened up by the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC) and the attorney-general, could only be a welcome development, and would certainly be to the benefit of the Kenyan people. And the number of distributors and sellers involved in this project raises an obvious question for anyone itching for a legal fight - who to sue?

I'm not so naïve, or so arrogant, as to expect every Kenyan to like It's Our Turn to Eat. On publication, Kenyan newspaper reviewers greeted it more warmly than I had ever dared hope, but the discussions on Kenyan websites leave me in no doubt that many - particularly members of the president's Kikuyu ethnic group - fiercely reject its findings. Any western outsider foolhardy enough to pass judgment on an African society expects to be slapped around the face now and then. Like it or loathe it, however, Kenyans surely have the right to read it. And now, I hope, they can.


Also in openDemocracy on Kenya's crisis after the December 2007 elections:

Peter Kimani, "A past of power more than tribe in Kenya's turmoil" (2 January 2008)

Michael Holman, "Kenya: chaos and responsibility" (3 January 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Kenya: roots of crisis" (7 January 2008)

Roger Southall, "South African lessons for Kenya" (8 January 2008)

Wanyama Masinde, "Kenya's trauma, and how to end it" (9 January 2008)

John Lonsdale, "Ethnicity, tribe, and state in Kenya" (17 January 2008)

Angelique Haugerud, "Kenya: spaces of hope" (23 January 2008)

Anna Husarska, "Kenya's displaced people: a photo-essay" (5 February 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "The Kenya we want" (3 February 2009)