Mukoma Wa Ngugi is a novelist and poet. He was short listed for the Caine Prize for African writing in 2009 and for the 2010 Penguin Prize for African Writing. In his latest book, two cops—one American, one Kenyan—team up to track down a deadly terrorist.
In 2004, I was in Kenya, attending the trial of those
accused of brutally attacking both my father, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and my stepmother,
Njeri Wa Ngugi, on their return to the country after twenty years of forced
political exile. One of the detectives
assigned to protect them was driving us to court. As he wove in and out of
Limuru Road traffic at high speed, he was telling us war stories about car-jackings
in Nairobi: “I was driving my friend’s Mercedes, some thugs tried to take
it.” He glanced to where his shoulder
holster lay, underneath his jacket. “I
spoke up for myself,” he added and moved on to something else.
The Kiswahili phrase he used—“alafu nika jitetea”—is an understatement that is virtually
impossible to translate, and in the context of that conversation, it was
somewhere between cool and sinister.
Without spending enormous amounts of time with detectives like
this one, detectives who casually carried their AK-47’s in and out of the car in
a sack, I couldn’t have come up with Odhiambo, Black Star Nairobi’s Kenyan counterpart to the black American
detective Ishmael. And without hearing
an understatement like “alafu nika
jitetea,” both Nairobi Heat, the
first book in the series, and Black Star Nairobiwouldn’t have been
I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between Africans
and African-Americans, especially the stories of Black Panthers who settled in
Tanzania and elsewhere. So when I came to write Black Star Nairobi, I had my American character, Ishmael, move to
Kenya, following a Rwandan woman he’d fallen in love with in the first book, and
experience some of the pleasures and problems of being an African-American in
Africa. I also picked an interesting
time period: Ishmael and Odhiambo’s investigation involves a murder and a hotel
bombing against the backdrop of 2007 post-election Kenya, the racial tensions
around Obama’s first presidential campaign, and the war on terror. I mean, who could resist writing about that?
At the same time, I enjoy listening to stories, and
certainly my friends can testify that I enjoy telling stories. So Black Star Nairobiis just as much about characters in extreme circumstances who enjoy each
other’s company, drinking beer and eating roast goat after the not-so-occasional
joint. In the course of their adventures,
they also meet some surprising individuals: a wise barfly nicknamed M.C. Hammer
who dresses in the rapper’s signature gold pants, an Afro-Mexican drug dealer
in Tijuana who sneaks the detectives into the US, and a CIA agent who really
just wants to party. I wanted to create a story that would at times be knee-slappingly
funny, in spite of the discomforting violence.
Finally, there is a question I have yet to be asked, but that
is behind most of my introductions at readings and talks. Why do you, a literary scholar and a professor
of English, write popular fiction? Why, I
will answer, because it’s popular!
Because ultimately literature is an exploration of human nature, an imagining
of how we interact with others and our environment, and the things we do to
each other in the name of protecting our own.
And what better way to get to this than by holding a gun to a fictional character’s