Saturday, 3 October 2015

Saturday, October 3, 2015 Humble teacher who never gave up his literary dream

CORD Leader Raila Odinga awards the 1st 
CORD Leader Raila Odinga awards the 1st position winner, author Christopher Okemwa at hotel Kempiski ,Nairobi where he was the guest of honour at the BURT award for african literature on 25th September 2015. PHOTO| ANNE KAMONI  

By Enock Matundura
More by this Author
On Friday and Saturday last week, two major literary prizes were up for grabs. These are the biannual Jomo Kenyatta Literature Prize (renamed Text Book Centre Jomo Kenyatta Literature Prize) and the annual Burt Award for African Literature. The former has been around for some time while the latter is in its third edition since inception.
One writer whose works and writing career I have been following keenly, Christopher Okemwa, won this year’s the top prize of the Burt Award for African Literature with his book Sabina and the Ogre. He was followed by  Mark Chetambe and Charles Okoth, respectively.
The three pocketed Sh765,000, Sh595,000 and Sh425,000 in that order.
One would wonder why I have taken keen interest in Okemwa and his literary works and why I celebrate his success. Here is why.
I met Okemwa in 2000 in Kisii town, soon after completing my undergraduate studies at Maseno University. I was then working as a correspondent for The Standard newspaper.
We met at a kiosk where we had gone to buy chapati dengu for a meal. Although we were strangers to each other, we struck some rapport as we did justice to our meal. It was then we discovered that both of us were writers and had similar interests. My book, Mkasa wa Shujaa Liyongo (Phoenix, 2001) and Okemwa’s Toxic Love (Watermark, USA) had just rolled off the press.
Since then, our paths have kept crossing. I have learnt a lot from him. A creative writer, he once told me, has to develop a thick skin. He also told me that when you see a cock crowing, you should remember that once it was an egg.
Indeed Okemwa’s success has not come easy. It is Okemwa who helped me find a publisher in Canada — Nsemia Publishers Inc. — who published my book, Kivuli cha Sakawa (2010), after local publishers rejected the manuscript for over 15 years. The book has since been translated into English by Prof Kefa Otiso of Bowling Green, USA, and is being adapted into a film.
Unknown to many, Okemwa is a poet, playwright, story-teller, short-story and children’s writer.
His other works include The Gong (Nsemia Inc. Publishers, Canada 2009), and a bilingual (French/English) poetry collection Purgatorius Ignis ( Poesie Premiere-Online 2015). He has also authored three collections of children’s stories: The Village Queen, The Visitor at the Gate, and Let Us Keep Tiger (2010, Paulines Africa). The latter was nominated for Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2011.
Okemwa has also published a collection of adult short-stories, Chubot, the Cursed One and Other Stories. His oral literature text include Riddles of the Abagusii People of Kenya: Gems of Wisdom from the African Continent (2011), and The Proverbs of the Abagusii of Kenya: Meaning & Application (2012).
Just like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Okemwa is an advocate of local languages. In 2014, he rolled out a series of 12 titles of Abagusii folktales.
The titles include Ogasusu na Oganchogu (Hare and the Elephant), Ogasusu na Okanyang’au (Hare and the Hyena), Ogasusu na Okanyambu (Hare and the Chameleon), Ogasusu na Egetondo (Hare and the Corpse) and Okabaki na Okanyambobe (The Eagle and the Spider).
He has also scripted and presented award winning plays and poems at the Kenya Schools and Colleges Drama Festivals. Okemwa is also the founder and current director of Kistrech International Poetry Festival in Kenya, whose inaugural edition was in 2013.
Okemwa’s resilience has seen him rise from being a primary school teacher to a university don.
He holds bachelors and Masters degree in literature from the University of Nairobi. Currently, he is pursuing a doctorate at Moi University, writing a thesis on the ‘Literary-Gangster Performance Poetry in Kenya’. He currently teaches Creative Writing at Kisii University.

Enock Matundura, translator of Barbara Kimenye’s Moses series, teaches Kiswahili literature at Chuka University

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