Supporting the Next Generation: An Interview with Wairimu Mwangi

wairimuWairimu Mwangi is a writer and founder of the Literature Africa Foundation. Her educational textbooks are used in schools across Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Ghana. She is passionate about quality education for all and believes that without books or material to read, literacy suffers and when literacy suffers, opportunities decline. She enjoys mentoring youth, storytelling, travelling, reading and meditating.

Screen Shot 2018-07-03 at 9.19.39 AMAgatha Wanjiru seeks to impact people’s lives through making quality education accessible. She is actively engaged in civic leadership and believes in giving back to the community through Fly Sister Fly Foundation–a community based organization that works with girls in Samburu, Kenya, to improve the literacy levels of girls and discourage female genital mutilation and child marriage.

Agatha Wainjiru: How did you discover that you could write?
Wairimu Mwangi: My English teacher, Mrs Rosemary W. Muchemi, made me realize that I could write back then in primary school. In a bid to promote literary knowledge in Kenya, children both in primary and secondary school write compositions as part of the English curriculum. Mrs Muchemi would always make me read my compositions out loud for my classmates and sometimes even in other classes. Through this she nurtured my writing, built my confidence and made me realize my passion as a child. That was way back in 1995.

AW: You never miss to mention your parents when you talk about your writing career…
WM: Yes. Apart from Mrs Muchemi, my parents were the other big players in my writing career. My dad owned several copies of Reader’s Digest Magazines which I read over and over. For my love for reading, he bought me a book that would help sharpen my writing skills when I was in Class 5. This book became my most valuable possession at the time; Writing School Compositions by Mutahi Miricho–I still have a copy on my bookshelf. It became my inspiration behind me becoming a published writer.

AW: That’s a very unique story since that was a course book. From all the stories of writers I have read before, none has ever cited a course book to be their reason for writing. It is always a book they read during their leisure time. Maybe that goes to show that aspiring writers should pay attention to all the signs around them. Did you carry the skill to writing good compositions with you when you proceeded to high school?
WM: My life in high school revolved around reading story books, novels and the dictionary. My best friend was the Oxford Dictionary that my parents bought me when I joined secondary school. I would write down new words and interesting phrases that I came across and felt that I could use in my pieces in future.

AW: Did this habit affect your grades in other subjects? If yes, any regrets?
WM: Not to a large extent since from a young age, I knew that my career would revolve around literature. These habits also led me to write my first story titled ‘Disability is not Inability’ when I was in form 2. That was in year 2002 though the book got published in 2008.

AW: Why that title?
WM: As a writer, inspiration for me strikes from various things; what goes on around me, photos, conversations I have had, etc. The story was inspired by a blind man who lived in my village, but was totally dependent on his other senses for survival. I wrote this story to encourage every child that they had the potential to succeed despite any challenges that they face.

AW: Four years is a long time to wait for a book to be published! Is that a common challenge in Kenya?
WM: Publishing a book is not easy. Growing up in a small village in the slopes of Mount Kenya meant that I had never met somebody who has published a book before. And this is where my favourite book in primary school came to the rescue. Since I did not know how to go about getting “Disability is Not Inability” published, I felt this great conviction within me that I had to meet the inspirational author. My father became my destiny connector- he searched for Mr. Mutahi Miricho and 2 years later, I finally got to meet him. I sought guidance from him about the publishing world since by then I had already decided that I wanted a career in writing children’s books.

AW: You got mentorship from him since he had already gone through the process of publishing. Is this something you would encourage young writers to do?
WM: Yes. You do not want to miss an opportunity to bless the world with your gift just because you do not have the money or knowledge. Through his mentorship, I took my first manuscript to Jomo Kenyatta Foundation in 2005. Three months later, I received a letter from the publishing house informing me that they would publish my book. The publishing didn’t happen until 2008 as I mentioned earlier though. The saddest thing about this wait was that my father never got to see me become a published writer; he passed on in 2007.

AW: He was a great man for supporting your gift! Talk to us about what you did within the many years of waiting for your manuscript to be published.
WM: I decided to further my writing skills in 2006 by undertaking a diploma course in Journalism and Mass Communication at Consolata Institute of Communication and Technology in Nyeri, where I took a special interest in news and feature writing. This enabled me to secure an internship with the Kenya News Agency which was a big boost to my ambitions.
I also continued writing and submitting my manuscripts to other publishing houses which is how I came to know of a Longhorn Publisher’s call for stories on HIV/AIDs, targeting children in primary school. I submitted three manuscripts for this in the various categories that they had stipulated which goes to show that writing too, is hard work.

AW: Please tell us that this did not take you another 4 years of waiting to get published!
WM: Haha! No, this time it took two years. Two manuscripts were rejected but I was more than elated to have one published. The book entitled “Helping Nafula’s Mother” was published in 2008. It targets children between the ages of 5 and 7 teaching them about HIV/AIDs, how it is spread and taking care of the infected and affected.

AW: What other challenges are Kenyan writers facing?
WM: I think local publishers concentrate a bit too much on production of textbooks as compared to fiction. This is a discouragement to many fiction writers out here since their work is not prioritized. Most of them opt for self-publishing or publishing their work abroad, which can be quite expensive.

AW: Tell us about your journey with Kahini.
WM: My journey with Kahini started in 2015 October when I got selected to attend the Kampala Writers Conference. This was a great platform where I was able to learn more about the art of writing as well as meet and connect with some of Kahini’s founding members, Jordan Hartt and Ronald Ssekandi. Of particular interest to them was the work I am currently doing to promote literacy in Kenya through Literature Africa Foundation (LAF), an organization I founded in 2015. LAF is a registered non-governmental organization with a mission to advance access to education and employment opportunities for vulnerable young people living in rural areas and urban informal settlement of Kenya through a long-term holistic approach which includes academic and literacy support, skills training and mentorship. We run three programs in line with this, The Book A Child Campaign through which we seek to donate textbooks and storybooks to school going children in order to promote a reading culture. In the year 2016/2017, we managed to collect and donate 2,500 books and other learning material to children in our partner schools. These are books which we acquire through donations and support from well wishers and our partners who are passionate about promoting literacy. In addition, through our ILead Program and Somo2Kazi Programs, we offer support, training and mentorship to students aged 6-19 years, both in primary schools and high schools on life skills, social skills, talent growth, education, entrepreneurship and leadership skills

AW: In what unique way have you as a creative artist used literary arts to impact the lives of these children and youths?
WM: In school, I never was a fan of mathematics and science subjects but I was an A student in languages. Starting out my career as a writer got me thinking what if my not so favourite subjects were done in form of stories; how would that have affected my grades in school? Most definitely positively! I started wondering how many children out there are like me; poor at sciences but with the help of creativity, their grades could improve. This in mind, in 2013, I approached my previous publishers with the idea of redoing the science syllabus for Kenyan schools in form of stories but they did not buy it. I then decided to talk to East African Educational Publishers (EAPP), and they agreed that they would look into the idea. As luck would have it, three months post my meeting with Madam Irene Ogur, the then English Editor at EAPP, I received a call that the publishing house was soliciting for manuscripts in line with the idea I had presented to them. This was a contract coming from Uganda and I was elated to be signed up to produce content. This saw the birth of my 3 Science Readers; Bogere and His Unhealthy Children, The Necklace Beads and Binaisa and His Friends – which are currently approved for use in schools in Uganda by The National Curriculum Development Center and The Ministry of Education in Uganda.

AW: How do you ensure that your children read and how can other mothers help their children cultivate a reading culture?
WM: The one thing that I have learnt as a parent is not to force anything on my children. Just because I am a writer does not mean my two children should follow the same path. However, reading increases your child’s creativity and fosters better imagination. I read them bedtime stories which they enjoy and sometimes cannot sleep without. My daughter is, however, more enthusiastic about reading while my son enjoys mathematics. Parents should inculcate the reading culture in their kids at a young age by setting an example for them. Children pick up behaviours from their parents. If they see you reading a lot and especially sparing some time to do it daily, they will value books and learning which will ultimately make it easier for them to pick up and sustain the habit.

AW: You are also a poet and have written some unconventional poetry pieces. Talk to us about this new breed of poetry and breaking the conventional poetry rules.
WM: Poetry is part of literature class in Kenyan high schools. However, a lot of children don’t end up appreciating the value of poetry due to the many rules that they are taught that poets should adhere to. Such rules include rhyme schemes, the length of the lines, etc. However, there is a new breed of poets that do not adhere to such rules and they have done some phenomenal work. Some of these poets are Nayyirah Waheed, Rupi Kaur and Warsan Shire.

AW: The one book that you read and you felt that you should have been the one to write it.
WM: Nayyirah Waheed’s poetry book Salt. Her poetry represents the stories of so many women and she tells the story in few and raw words I’m almost jealous. I have reread the book 5 times and every time I feel like we are seated together at a cafe’ and she’s talking about my life. It’s my all time poetry book recommendation.

AW: The one book that you feel has not yet been written and that you should be the one to write.
WM: Haha tough one; especially since I am yet to read all the books in the world.

AW: Do Kenyan schools teach literature? Is it given enough time and depth?
WM: Yes they do. High school students are given literature books that are tested as set books. My wish would be to find a better way of approaching these classes so that children can sustain the reading culture many years after high school.

AW: The place of local Kenyan languages in literature? Do you write in Kikuyu?
WM: I am yet to write a book in my native language. I probably will in future. Years back when I was in primary school, native languages were taught and we spoke the languages with a lot of pride. It was part of our identity. That is no longer the case which means the younger generation struggles with speaking the language and understanding the pride that comes with it. Maybe it is time we thought about bringing the languages back in our schools.

AW: When do you write? Does writing come easy to you?
WM: I write anytime inspiration strikes! Well, I wouldn’t call it writing, I scribble down little notes which I later develop into stories at my convenient time. See, it is quite a task balancing between being a career woman, a creative artist, an awesome mom to two children, and a wife.

AW: Where do you look for writing inspiration?
WM (laughing): I actually don’t go out looking for inspiration to write and most authors don’t. This is because I believe inspiration can come from anywhere including my own life story and experiences. I believe the most important bit when it comes to writing inspiration is to always have a pen and paper with you to write down ideas that come to your mind. They’re very unpredictable and I guess that’s why they say the most awesome ideas strike you at three am.