Mwangi, Meja 1948–
Meja Mwangi 1948–
Meja Mwangi’s novels of Kenyan life depict its urban areas with a searing intensity. Oftentimes his characters struggle to come to terms with the rapid changes that took place in Kenya after its independence, and some of his best works contrast the once-idyllic traditional life in the countryside with the desperate squalor of Nairobi and other cities. One of the few successful modern African writers without a university education, “Mwangi has justifiably been compared to Charles Dickens in terms of both his career and literary method,” noted Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist Simon Gikandi. “Like the great Victorian novelist, Mwangi has staked his claim as the special correspondent of the metropolis who goes out of his way to probe the arteries that define and move the city, vividly dramatizing the lives of alienated and dehumanized characters.”
Mwangi was born on December 27, 1948, and grew up in Nanyuki, a town that housed a large number of military barracks for British soldiers. In nearby Nyeri, his mother was employed by British families as a domestic worker, and from these households came the first books—cast-off English children’s titles—that Mwangi owned. He attended Nanyuki Secondary School, and when he was 15, Kenya won its independence from Britain. It was a celebratory moment, but had been preceded by several years of violence. Kenyans had revolted in 1952, taking up arms against British rule in what became known as the Mau Mau uprising. The insurrection lasted four years, and colonial authorities took harsh measures in retaliation. Round-ups and detentions were common, and even the young Mwangi and his mother were incarcerated briefly. The camp conditions made a lasting impression on him, and he wrote a novel, Taste of Death, which contained vivid descriptions of such a place, when he was still in his teens.
Taste of Death, was Mwangi’s third novel, and it was not published until 1975. For a time, Mwangi studied science at Kenyatta College, but in 1972 he began working for a French television network as a sound technician, while writing in his spare time. His debut novel, 1973’s Kill Me Quick, was accepted for publication by the esteemed London publishing house of Heinemann, which was eager to publish up-and-coming African writers. The following year the book won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for literature, which further enhanced Mwangi’s literary reputation.
Kill Me Quick is the story of two boyhood friends in the Kenyan countryside who apply themselves at school, in the belief that education will be paramount to their success in a newly independent, modernized Kenya. After graduation they move to Nairobi, eager to find work, but realize that their education has been useless; a black middle class has replaced the white colonial rule, and discrimination and struggle are still the rule of the day. The young men “have woken up to the reality that the dream of prosperity and opportunity promised by the native elite is never going to be fulfilled,” wrote Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist Gikandi,
At a Glance…
Born David Dominic Mwangi on December 27, 1946, in Nyeri, Kenya. Education: Attended Kenyatta College; attended University of lowa, 1975.
Career: French television network ORTF in Nairobi, soundman, 1972-73; writer, 1973-; British Council, Nairobi, film librarian, 1974-75; assistant film director, 1985-88.
Awards: Jomo Kenyatta Prize, for Kill Me Quick, 1974; Commonwealth Writers Prize nomination, for Striving for the Wind, 1990; Deutscher Jugendliteratur Preis, for German-language edition of Little White Man, 1992.
Address: Office —c/o East African Educational Publishers Ltd., Mpaka Road/Woodvate Grove, P.O. Box 45314, Nairobi, Kenya.
“and that hope and determination must inevitably change to despair and acceptance.”
Mwangi worked for a time as a film librarian at the British Institute in Nairobi, and wrote his next work, Carcase for Hounds. Published in 1974, its story centers on two Mau Mau fighters who are stranded in the forest, surrounded by British forces. General Haraka, the commander, is seriously wounded, and his underling Kimamo must take over and care for him. Gikandi termed the novel “remarkable for the sheer amount of detail that Mwangi provides about the logistics and organization of the Mau Mau movement.”
Taste of Death was published in 1975, on the heels of the first two books. Its hero, Kariuki, is a teen who becomes swept up in the Mau Mau rebellion, though he does not grasp the complexities of its political origins nor its eventual goals. He simply likes the energy of the movement, but quickly realizes that he does not want to die for the cause. Gikandi called this work from Mwangi “an important crystallization of the political tensions in Kenya under the state of emergency.”
Mwangi spent some time at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in the mid-1970s, and followed that experience with what would become a favorite of literary critics, Going Down River Road. This 1976 novel recounts the life of Ben, a construction worker who has been cashiered from the army for selling weapons illegally. He settles in Nairobi to find work, and the novel depicts the squalid alleys, flophouses, and bars where men and women in similar situations struggle to survive. Gikandi felt it was similar to Mwangi’s previous works in its theme, but felt that “what is remarkable about Going Down River Road is the stark, detailed images with which Mwangi represents the vital and volatile clandestine culture of the Nairobi underworld. Nobody else has captured this subculture with as much understanding and empathy.”
Involved in Hollywood Projects
In 1979 Mwangi was involved in a film project called The Bushtrackers, one of the first screen works to emerge from Africa with the aim of capturing a Western audience. Its director, Gordon Parks Jr., died in a plane crash in Kenya in April of that year. Mwangi’s role was to adapt the screenplay into novel form. His fifth novel, The Cockroach Dance, appeared that same year. It featured another anti-hero, a water meter-reader named Dusman Gonzanga, whose daily rounds make him a witness to terrible suffering and squalor, which drives him to madness. Gikandi maintained that “by leading readers into the stressful lives of urbanites and by providing commentary on this scene, [Gonzanga] becomes the articulator of a world dominated by the acquisitive desire of the African ruling class, which has turned the city into a constellation of bars and brothels.”
Mwangi found work in the 1980s as an assistant director on three notable Hollywood productions shot in Africa over the decade: Out of Africa, the screen adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s tale, the Dian Fossey biopic Gorillas in the Mist, and White Mischief, the salacious account of dissolute white settlers in colonial Kenya. Around this time Mwangi began writing less literary works, thrillers such as 1987’s Bread of Sorrow, whose plot involved South African apartheid, secret arms deals, a stolen diamond cache, betrayals, and romance. The Return of Shaka, published in 1989, is set in the United States and follows a prince from a South African tribe who is traveling crosscountry aboard a Greyhound bus while being hunted by hitmen.
Weapon of Hunger, also published in 1989, takes place in a fictional nation called Borku. Civil war has brought much suffering and well-publicized famine to the country, and an American pop star tries to help and finds himself drawn into its dangers. Striving for the Wind, Mwangi’s 1992 novel, was a marked change from these action-packed stories. The work is set in the countryside and involves only a conversation between a father and his son. The younger man has abandoned his university education, and the two debate Kenya’s history as well as its future.
In the 1990s Mwangi began writing children’s books. Jimi the Dog is set in the 1950s and features a young boy named Kariuki and his little puppy. In Little White Man, Kariuki befriends Nigel, the son of a white planter, and tries to save him when he is kidnapped by Mau Mau forces. Mwangi also penned a novel, The Last Plague, about Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in Africa.
Out of Africa, 1985.
Gorillas in the Mist, 1985.
White Mischief, 1988.
Kill Me Quick, Heinemann Educational (London, England), 1973.
Carcase for Hounds, Heinemann Educational (London, England), 1974.
Taste of Death, East African Publishing House (Nairobi, Kenya), 1975.
Going Down River Road, Heinemann Educational (London, England), 1976.
The Bushtrackers (adapted from a screenplay by Gary Strieker), Longman Drumbeat (Nairobi, Kenya), 1979.
The Cockroach Dance, Longman Kenya (Nairobi, Kenya), 1979.
Bread of Sorrow, Longman Kenya (Nairobi, Kenya), 1987.
The Return of Shaka, Longman Kenya (Nairobi, Kenya), 1989.
Weapon of Hunger, Longman Kenya (Nairobi, Kenya), 1989.
Striving for the Wind, Heinemann Kenya, 1990, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1992.
Jimi the Dog (children’s story), Longman Kenya (Nairobi, Kenya), 1990.
Little White Man (children’s story), Longman Kenya (Nairobi, Kenya), 1990.
The Hunter’s Dream (children’s story), Macmillan (London, England), 1993.
The Last Plague, East African Educational Publishers (Nairobi, Kenya), 2000.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 125: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers: Second Series, Gale, 1993.
“Meja Mwangi,” Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (April 11, 2003).
“Meja Mwangi (Kenya),” African Writers Series, www.africanwriters.com/Writers/WriterTop.asp?cPK=MwangiMeja (April 11, 2003).
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