Tribute to Kenyan columnists

I am addicted to newspaper columns. Columns are the intellectual nerve of any newspaper. You can judge the quality of a newspaper by the intellectual merit of its columnist.

You bet that I am so disappointed that there are no awards or special ways of recognizing our country’s top columnist. Elsewhere, they are greatly celebrated and always bag awards after awards for excellency in column writing. Columnist often reissue their columns in book version. I have 20 such volumes of some of the world’s best columnists and they are a great pleasure reading them.

I enjoy reading the embattled, suspended Top Gear man Jeremy Clarkson. That man has a wickedly mean wit that I deeply admire. He can turn phrase and every single column he has ever written is guaranteed to make you laugh out loudly as you read it privately. I watch the Top Gear, not for the cars (I have never been a car person-I just know when the right time will come I will just buy a German machine and I will be home. I have not even bothered knowing how to drive) but for the language and the wit in Clarkson’s lines. His books, mostly a collection of his columns from various British newspapers, are some of my most valuable treasures.
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I enjoy the journalism of Jimmy Breslin, the veteran New York based journalist who is not only a marvelous journalist and writer, but also tremendously gifted with an extra eye to go after the underdog in the news. He is mostly remembered for two columns on the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.Journalists have this misguided tendency of going after the top dogs, but Breslin made it his mission to always focus the ‘other people’. He wrote a column on the man who dug his grave and the poor doctor given the responsibility to attend to when he was wheeled in after Oswald who had a “scrambled egg of a mind” assassinated one of the most popular presidents America has ever had.

I liked the column he wrote when John Lenon was shot dead. Especially the last paragraph. Let me quote it:

“Tony Palma (one of the policemen who drove him to hospital when he was shot) said to himself, I don’t think so. Moran shook his head. He thought about two kids who know every one of Beatles’ big tunes. And Jimmy Moran and Tony Palma, older now, cops in a world with no fun, stood in the emergency room as John Lenon, whose music they knew, whose music was known everywhere on earth became another person who died after being shot with a gun on the streets of New York.”

Those who know anything about John Lenon, will agree he was the kind of person to be shot dead just like that. Just because the killer was envious of his fame. Breslin is one of the people largely opposed to gun violence and the easy access of guns in the States.

I have read other columns from UK, Australia, South Africa and I’m grateful that I have had access to them. I like peering into the mind of a columnist. Columnists’ minds are at times; eccentric, weird, controversial, brilliant, wise, enthralling and enriching.

Locally, I am equally addicted to columns. They are my favourite part of the newspaper. I’m not a big fun of reportage, mainly because ethical and editorial demands neutrality when reporting, yet it is practically impossible for an average journalist not to be biased. It is only human. But columnists are entitled to their opinion, at times uncensored. When you read a columnist, you are peeking into their mind and how it works. Columnist actually sells newspapers.

As a teenager, I grew up reading Wahome Mutahi. Wahome Mutahi was and will remain the funniest Kenyan who ever lived. His wit and humour will forever remain unmatched. Often I go to the library, fish a random column of his his Whispers column and savour it, as if it I’m reliving 1996, all over again. And shockingly, some of the things he wrote about, still pervade us, which bespeaks the prophetic role of writers in the world. Given the historical context of the columns, the humour might elude younger readers, but he was the greatest. If we ever had a Hall of Fame of journalism, Wahome Mutahi will be the first entrant.

When I was in high school, Wahome Mutaahi died, after slipping into a coma after he checked in for a minor surgery. The whole country was left poorer and he was truly irreplaceable.

Around that time, I remember bumping into my elder male cousins whom I looked up to discussing about women. Then my clever cousin Patrick, who had just finished high school referred to a column by Oyunga Pala. I liked the name. Oyunga Pala. I don’t remember the exact thing they were discussing, except that when I went to read the paper afterwards, Oyunga proved rather complex for me.

But later, he would become my best writer from that decade (2003-10). More about him later. Over time, I discovered other brilliant writers. Barack Muluka, the evergreen Kwamtchesi Makokha, Mutuma Mathiu, Sunny Bindra, Mutahi Ngunyi, Gitau Warigi, Kipkoech Tanui among others. I remember Waithaka Waihenya’s Sunday Essays in the Standard, where we went to be humbled by his mastery of the Queen’s language. Throw in Philip Ochieng as well. Prof Mazrui’s column in the Sunday Standard became my weekly source knowledge.

Female columnist are a hard to come by. But Kate Getao had an unusual humour for a Kenyan woman. She still dazzles me, with her with and sardonic observations and refreshing wit. Betty Caplan (who died last year in Turkey) was a brilliant writer and always had something to say. And said it more powerfully. I always regret never having met her. She was one of my idols, even though she might not necessarily have approved the things I have written about women.

Rasnah Warah does a superb job. So does Nancy Roxanne, who writes for the Nairobian. I like opinionated people. And Roxanne has a razor sharp wit that can scare some men away, but she is intelligent, all the same. Julie Masiga, who lately shares a page with me is an equally talented writer, perhaps one of the best in the country. But the country can do with more no-nonsense female writers to moderate some of these male writers.

So what do I like most about the columns? Three things: The quality of the language, the quality of the prose and the quality of the thought process when writing. I do not have to agree with what the writer says, as long I enjoy reading them. I like moments of brilliance, that new phrase, that revealing thing that I learn every day. Above all, I like it when such writers adopt a philosophical attitude and say something profound. Something original.

So who are my best columnists? Those that I must read their columns every week? Well, in no specific order, here I go.

1. Tony Mochama

No doubt, one of a kind in our generation. I don’t think there is anyone more prodigious than him. He is proficient and gifted with spontaneous wit. He is also extraordinarily consistent. I envy him for that. Tony has three columns, ‘The Wannabes’ in The Nairobian (one of the best columns in the country), ‘Men Only’, in the Eve Woman (Saturday Standard) and Smitta Smitten in the Friday’s Standard’s Pulse. I enjoy reading his columns, if not for nothing, then their sheer poetic brilliance. Something that seems to come naturally for him.

Tony also is a man I owe a lot, for where I am today. He is also my clansman. A good one, while at it.

2. Clay Muganda

I recently read about his life in India on bikozulu.co.ke and wow! Does he write? Clay is not only intelligent, he has a tremendous ability of satire and a wit that is startling. He suffers no fools and a true curmudgeon. Add to this his superb writing skills and you become grateful that we have him in our country. Clay wrote for the Daily Nation on Fridays before being transferred to Tuesdays and now Clay Court is perched somewhere in in the Sunday Standard. He has retained the keen eye on the idiosyncrasies that define Kenyans. Give it up to him.

3. Waga Odongo

I can only imagine what went on in the mind of the editor who saw Waga Odongo’s first submission. Waga looks the type of a writer the editor calls immediately when they receive his piece, hoping that he is an expert locked in some corner office.

Waga writes intelligently. While I differ with his religious beliefs, I admire the sheer amount of Knowledge he possesses. I go to his pieces for knowledge, but while at it, I get tremendously thrilled by his opinionated mind and it is a treasure to have people like him around.

4. Ted Malanda

Presently, I rank him as the funniest writer in the country. But there is more to him than just humour. If you read his Monday column in the Crazy Monday, his Snapshots column in the Nairobian and his bizarre Facebook posts you will notice someone gifted with an eye to observe the unusual in the country. He is in that category of men who do not necessarily believe or subscribe to conventional knowledge. Some of the things he has said or written are unorthodox. The better that he uses humour to drive some of his crazy (but by no means dismissible) ideas. It is true he is deeply inspired by the wisdom and ways of his Royal Wanga clan.

5. XN Iraki

In my book, I have classified him as a thinker. I regret that he never taught me at the University of Nairobi-he teaches at the school of Business. My aforesaid cousin Patrick, who was at Lower Kabete is full of praise for Iraki. My missus who also attended his MBA class is full of praise for his progressive ideas. Iraki writes for the Business Beat and I think his column is one of the best in the country. He has occasionally chastised me for writing things that are not based on research or facts. I agree, if only data on some of the sociological issues that I write about was readily available in Kenya?

6. David Ndii

His column in the Saturday Nation has become the talking point in the country. He is equally a thinker. While I do not agree with everything he writes, I like the volume of knowledge he possesses and his readiness to share with us. I know many otherwise bright lecturers who are not interested in sharing their knowledge. This is a typically African problem. Knowledge is only useful when it is shared. And thanks to people like Ndii, the common man can get to understand some of the complex issues in the field of economics.

7. Bitange Ndemo

He is my grandfather. Cousin to my grand dad-also called Bitange, but that is neither here nor there. Bitange’s recent writings in the Nation Blogs and the Business Daily have revealed that as a country we have the right brains to take us forward. But it hurts to here his name mentioned in corruption scandals. Which is another of Africa’s biggest undoing. But he is great, one of those people you read for knowledge.

8. Jackson Biko

When I was first published, I was an avid reader of Oyunga Pala. Women always interested me. I would go around looking for men who wrote about women. Some time in 2009, I stumbled upon a copy of True Love in my sister’s handbag. Don’t ask me, what I was doing there. On getting to the end, I saw his Last Word column and I instantly fell in love.

Biko’s writing was crisp, clean and witty. His sentences, snapped away with admirable brevity, measured and delivered with a punch. I thought he was South African, given back then True Love was owned or co-owned by some South African Media magnet, or the other. When I later learnt that he is Kenyan, I was a little disappointed. But I have retained immense respect for him. He also deserves an honour at Hall of Fame, should we ever establish one.

9. Stephen Partington

Stephen is a great contemporary poet. I had read his literary criticism in the local dailies but I never knew that he one of the best satirical writers in the country. His ‘Random Blues’ column in The Nairobian ranks as one of my best reads. The column reeks of certain degree of honesty but also the best social critique on the Kenyan way of doing things from an outsider’s point of view.

10. Oyunga Pala

Oyunga Pala. His Man Talk column was like a church. Everyone checked in Saturday to read his absolute last word on virtually everything. I still believed when he walked away, five years ago, he should have done a collection of columns and autographed for a legion of his fans who would have readily bought it.

I have enjoyed reading Oyunga, to date. Mainly I admire him because of his ability to say things truthfully (truth being relative) but most of the time, I tend to agree with his observations. In other parts of the world, Oyunga would make a good teacher at university, teaching not just Writing, but also dispensing knowledge based on what he has observed or learned in his career spanning more than 15 years.

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9 thoughts on “Tribute to Kenyan columnists

  1. Good read. But where is my controversial guy Makau Mutua, the witty man Peter Kimani, Liz Mulundi, Yusuf Dawood, Mutahi Ngunyi, Gitau Warigi, Kwendo Opanga, Murithi Mutiga, Lucy Oriang’, Ambrose Murunga….etc

  2. Nice Piece Silas. You forgot to mention Carol Musyoka on BD and Biko on ManTalk who are equally good wordsmiths. That is if you ever love their art of penning words and their perspective on societal issues. And your blog too is a must read for me it is ‘my column’. The diction, it being realistic, hilarious and also quite authoritative. Saying it as it is. Could you lend me the volume of the columnists you have?

  3. uuumh….ok….eer njoki chege should be somewhere on that list.
    we are yet to hold a collection of your columns silas…..or maybe its just a handfull

  4. Great piece…reminds me of a writing by Clay Muganda on bikozulu.co.ke “India Too Many Deaths” boy these guys have seen it all, happy that they finally on same page here.

  5. There are other great writers like JM Baraza,Chris Hart,Yusuf K Dawood, Joachim Osur,Nyambega Gisesa,Emeka Mayaka, Waceke Nduati,Makau Mutua,Elias Makori and Robin Toskin just but to mention a few.

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