15 Jun ‘Turn culture into a story’, a writer’s musings on penning
By William Dekker
“When I worked in Mombasa, everybody had a personal witchdoctor who determined a lot of things, including whether or not they should come to work. That is the truth and truth is not a scandal! I was the head of the Standard newspaper bureau at the coast. I recall a day when one of our senior reporters failed to show up at work even though she had the lead story for the day. This is simply because Akiba Bakari – her witchdoctor – had advised her not to. Believe it or not, we had to seek witchdoctor’s permission to access her computer so as to edit and submit the story for publication. Anyway, that is culture and culture sells!”
Well, that should serve as an ideal introduction for our professor-to-be, rather than referring to her as a Kenyan-political refugee in the US (since 2012) who at one point was locked in solitude for a year; with no phone, no computer nor internet connection – nothing else but food for the whole year (food is a good thing though). With just a pen, paper (especially tissue paper), and imminent death, she began writing her story, reminiscing about the day unidentified men wielding walkie-talkies came looking for her at her house in the middle of the night. That very day, she had received a direct call from Donata*(not real name) -ICC Chief Prosecutor asking her to become a witness against the perpetrators Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence. That was her life’s turning point.
Ms. Omwa Ombara was our trainer in the second episode of the Writers Guild Kenya‘Write Your Passion’ class(June 2020 Intake). She fears injections and laughs loudly from the liver every 13 minutes. I think she can predict the humour in her thoughts knowing too well the audience won’t see them. Anyway, you know how the author’s jokes are – they are not for everyone – unless your life itself is a joke! Ms. Omwa is historical, chronological, and descriptive. She still remembers the Akamba Bus and its associated accidents in Kericho. And now she insists that if she never died on that ‘dangerous’ Awasi-Nandi Hills road, she continues to write, despite the challenges she has met. Again, she laughs from the liver! And then we laugh at her way of laughing. Laugher was galore!
“If someone’s head is the size of a melon, you have to measure the size of that head and be sure it equates to the melon in question. There is no room for exaggeration. That is what it means writing a non-fiction story”, insisted our Pre-Professor, laughing hysterically. Taking us through the basic principles of book writing, Ms. Omwa proceeded to spell out the do’s and don’ts when penning fiction and non-fiction work.
“Non-fiction stories must be factual and accurate, even if you need to alter the names of places and characters for their safety and yours too. Strive to create solutions based on your experiences. Did you know that a skill you learnt from your grandfather, could make for a good story title? For example: How to Roast Groundnuts, how to avoid madness, or how to stop dating a married man.” Again, we laughed behind our muted microphones, but then she had hammered the point home.
At 2.00 am in Philadelphia, Ms. Omwa was wide awake, cheerful, and spilling knowledge at the rate of ten new points per paragraph. Of course, some high-pitched ear-piercing laughter coming along. I am told she had not slept the previous evening. She didn’t want jachien mar nindo (the sleep devil) to catch her.
“Love Words. Do not waste Words. Word is dollar – word is money! Use words resourcefully, not for complaining about other people’s posts on Facebook and Twitter. On the converse, be an ear-hustler. Observation makes you a good writer. To be a good writer you must be good at hearing things. Everything you hear around you is fodder.”
She went ahead to tell us about Anyango Nyaloka who saw a tortoise carrying away her aunt’s bag. Using Nyaloka’s tale, she insisted on the importance of being observant and conscience of one’s environment. She laid emphasis on the need to be conscious and alert of changing culture as that provides a chance to reframe stories.
Taking about culture-conscious, the session allowed us to revisit the story of sadaka and tithe. Honourable Gulleid’s account of zaka in the Islamic context was refreshing. How does it sound when your payable tithe is capped at only 2% of your annual income? And’s what’s more refreshing is that you get to choose who to give that tithe to– especially the vulnerable society. Very reasonable, don’t you think?
Ms. Omwa further implored us not to ‘behave like ushers’ in a church. They often seem active during church services, but in reality, they are the most passive. They are happy to escort people to give their offerings but they rarely give their offerings (at least in the public eye)
“Did you know that most of these ushers who pass the offertory bag around do not actually put in their money in those bags? Once the collection is done, they match to the altar singing praise and carrying the money boxes knowing too well hawajatoa chochote.”
She likened the church ushers to Arsenal fans who always criticize players in the middle of football matches, yet they themselves know so little about the practical act of playing football. (well she mentioned Manchester United fans too – but that is quite personal for me, I had to omit). With these examples, she called for a proactive rather than a passive approach to writing. “Write, don’t talk about writing.” She insisted. On this, she picked on those people who call themselves writers yet you have never seen any written piece from them. I hope you are not one of them.
“If you don’t tell your story, somebody else will. And when you allow someone else to tell your story, they take your power to control the narrative,” she said. “There’s no story in history that has not been told before. You will not be writing anything new. The difference will be in your execution and how you tell it. They will most definitely misrepresent your story”, she added.
Our trainer, in her witty examples, called for professionalism, self-motivation, and the habit of working ahead when writing.
“As you have always heard before, you may think your mother’s food is best, only to realize someone else’s cooks better. You may think your writing is perfect until an editor or a publisher see’s it. Make it a habit to let other people revise your work. Above all, remember that editors and publishers are trained to make your writing palatable to the readers. Consult them.”
Ms Omwa disdained the so-called mental or writers’ block as a reality check on a writer’s creative temperature. She alluded to the fact that a writer needs to write whether he or she is inspired or not.
“Whether you are a doctor, nurse, lawyer, or priest who is writing, you can’t wait to remember paragraphs along the way.”
She advised writers not to use other people’s stories of rejections and failures to measure their own chances of success in writing. This standpoint was further strengthened by Caroline who is a fellow student in the class.
“My experience when I wrote my first book was surprising. I did not think I could write anything that is publishable. Surprisingly, the editor was shocked! Her first remark was ‘Your book is so intense’. She couldn’t edit it at first. Do not judge yourself by other people’s experiences” said Caroline Wairimu, one of my classmates in this class.
Let me remind you by the time we went for the first break, we had laughed about 13 times, while our trainer had let out 36 or more giggles. I am not sure if hers was the same coffee we take here at home. All I know is it elevated her sense of humour.
Well, did you know that the stone-throwing culture among the Luo was a skill professionally learnt for the purposes of hunting? Or did you know that removal of the six lower teeth was not just a rite of passage in the same community, but also a clinical process meant to treat the temporomandibular (TMJ) disorder (locking of the jaws, making it difficult to open or close your mouth)? Well, this new insight was shared by MS. Omwa as she shed light on the importance of sharing new knowledge in non-fictional writing.
We also talked about fictional writing and the art of creating conflicts and stumbling blocks for book characters. We revisited the tale of a monkey that incited other animals to overthrow the lion’s kingship, only to reign with monkey-business…haha! (sounds like the things we see in contemporary African politics). We also recounted the story of Okuna Komware, PhD – whose children often sang about their father’s drinking prowess. I am told that whenever Professor Okuna Komware had his bottle, he became exquisite at quoting big philosophers to his children. So, they adored and praised him.
Ms Omwa, stressed on the importance of having not only a writing buddy but also a ‘nonsense friend’ that you can call any time of the day and night (to talk about nonsense for the sake of your mental health).
“Please, make some real-world friends. Do not be addicted to writing alone. Why should you write 50 best-seller books only to hang yourself out of loneliness?”
I could talk about everything that went down in those 3 hours, but then I would be short of space. I am not even sure if you are reading to this point. Therefore, I will close with some extracts from her parting shot.
“Life is a hit and miss, so take the risks.”
Oh and “every writer has some degree of madness” and that’s my mad account of last class dose of madness.
Dekker William is a Communication Specialist. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org