Meja Mwangi is a Kenyan writer who began his writing career in the 1970s, a decade after compatriots Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Grace Ogot had already published. Born in Nanyuki, Kenya, in 1948, Mwangi initially made a huge impact on the literary world with his first novel, Kill Me Quick which was published in 1973 and received the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for literature in 1974.
Mwangi was hailed in various quarters as a rising star in the East African literary constellation for helping to disprove Taban lo Liyong’s oft-cited claim that East Africa was a literary desert.
Since then, Meja Mwangi has gone on to establish himself as one of the most prolific Kenyan writers, publishing eleven novels in 17 years in addition to short stories, children’s books and working with a variety of projects in film. Mwangi’s works have received awards in Kenya and abroad, have been translated into six languages, and there are film versions of two of his novels.
While Mwangi has touched on all of these concerns, we might divide his work into three major categories. The first comprises his Mau Mau novels. For many Kenyan writers, the armed resistance to British colonialism, which came to be known as the Mau Mau revolt and reached its height in the 1950s, was a far-reaching experience.
Although “Carcase for Hounds” was Mwangi’s first novel, it was his second to be published, as well as the second to be filmed. The book has much in common with Mwangi’s other Mau Mau novel, Taste of Death. Both feature the typical Mwangian style of fast-paced action and snappy dialogue.
Both novels use an omniscient narrator who presents the film version of the book Carcase for Hounds. a Nigerian production directed by Ola Balogun under the title Cry Freedom, is a fairly loose adaption of Mwangi’s original story. The setting is generically African, not specific to Kenya or the Mau Mau. Balogun also included a number of romantic entanglements not found in Mwangi’s original.
The second category is for young adult reading and his first novel, “Kill me quick”, displays Mwangi’s talent for writing lively stories depicting rural youth and societal problems in Kenya. It narrates the experiences of Meja and Maina, two youths who have come to the city with the hope of bettering their lives, confident that their high school diplomas will lead to success.
Half Education Is Madness
However, they are unable to compete for jobs in the city and, ultimately, they resort to petty theft and crime, and being exploited by employers. Vivian Yenika-Agbaw, in her article ‘Half Education Is Madness!’: Mwangi’s Teenage Characters Battle Poverty in a Post colonial African City, states that the novel shows the failure of the educational curriculum in post colonial Africa.
She writes that it is “a typical story of a dream deferred because each pays the price of daring to hope for a better life”. Kill Me Quick was also made into a stage play.
Asked on why he writes, Mwangi replied, “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”.
With a lot of books to his name and more than twelve awards, Mwanga said he cannot give a specific reason why he writes because he is what he does and that is all that matters.
“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.”
“A writer writes because he is a writer.”
Some of his publication includes Power, Blood brothers, Crossroads, Mama Dudu, The boy gift, The Big chiefs, The Mzungu Boy, Weapon of hunger, and The Cockroach Dance among others. Mwangi’s keen eye for the drama and humour in everyday rural life in Kenya shines throughout his work. Striving for the Wind, set in the drought years of the 1980s, contrasts a traditional farmer, who is dependent on oxen for ploughing, with a wealthy neighbour whose imported tractor is incapacitated during a global petrol crisis.
While this novel is suitable for young adults, it does not shy away from some painful realities. It includes the seduction of a young schoolgirl by a rich old man, and when the young girl becomes pregnant; his son says that he will marry her in his father’s place.
Another category in his works are the difficulties young educated Kenyans face when trying to return to their rural homes to apply their learning and the impact of corrupt officials on the lives of the poor.
Kenyatta Prize for Literature
The young adult novel The Last Plague, which won Mwangi his third Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2001, offers a seldom-heard African male perspective on the impact of HIV/Aids in rural areas. Again, it features a well-educated, well-meaning young man facing many obstacles as he tries to set up his veterinary practice in a small, dying town. Mwangi’s tremendous concern for the poor and disadvantaged — and his prescriptions for how they could really be helped — resonate throughout the novel.
Mwangi continues to be a prolific writer. His latest novel, The Boy Gift is suitable for adults and young adults alike, it is about the confusion caused by the birth of a light-skinned, green-eyed baby in the Bush Hospital.
While political aspirations and intrigue surround the birth of the boy, at the emotional and psychological levels the author explores a community’s reaction to the strange and inexplicable.
Readers interested in fast-paced stories that impart considerable information on contemporary obstacles to rural development and healthcare are encouraged to continue reading the impressive list of novels published by Mwangi.
Original Source: AllAfrica
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