About a year ago, Oxford University Press asked award-winning Kenyan author Kinyanjui Kombani to pen another book.
The brief required Kombani, popularly known as “the banker who writes,” to come up with a humorous story for young adults.
The result is Of Pawns and Players. A 185-page, pocket-sized, easy to read (maybe too easy) work of fiction set in Nairobi.
In this book, Kombani takes on the issue of gambling—a craze that has recently taken over the youth as a way of making quick money.
Of Pawns and Players starts with a punch, literally. A man in a white Mercedes accosts a mutura (African sausage) vendor based in Gardenia Estate.
The story then goes into the underground world of sports betting, exposing the corruption that riddles government agencies, the police, politicians and social media influencers.
It lifts the veil that hides the sham about the winners of the jackpots. It makes you question why the winners are always poor people, and are never seen after they collect their winnings.
Well, for me, this book comes as little surprise. It tells a version of a story that I witnessed first-hand when a close family member went on TV claiming to have won Ksh150,000 ($1,500), when the truth was that he had been paid Ksh20,000 ($200) to pretend to be the lucky winner of the competition.
In telling a contemporary urban story that reflects recent times and the issues affecting young adults, Of Pawns and Players scores highly.
Other themes in the book include family drama, which plays out when a daughter who disagrees with her father’s business ethics decides to get back at him by using a man’s affection to get rich.
The good old “rich girl-poor boy” relationship drama also unfolds, but at least in Of Pawns and Players, the romance does not conclude with lovers riding off into the sunset, hand in hand, having conquered all the world’s trials. The twist at the end of the tale is rather refreshing.
However, according to the author, the book targets 16-year olds and above, yet the writing is rather simplistic.
A 16-year-old is in high school, studying literature like Shakespeare, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe. So I wonder why Kombani (and Oxford University Press) feels the need to oversimplify his story.
It is perhaps an indication of how little credit we give to young adults. I would say the target market for this book should be 10- to 13-year olds.
There is an ongoing discussion on the African literary scene about the use of local languages in storytelling, championed by Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
While Ngugi’s argument centres around telling stories in mother tongue, mine is about the infusion of African languages on stories told in English. In many cases, African words and sentences are italicised.
Words like mutura and sufuria (cooking pot) are italicised throughout the book. Maybe we need treating local words as equals in works of literature, as opposed to something that is intruding the perfection of Western languages.
It has been 15 years since Kombani wrote his first book Last Villains of Molo.
In this time, he has written six books (four children’s and young adult books and two novels) and won accolades, the most recent being the Burt Award for Young Adult Literature in Accra, Ghana last year, for Finding Colombia.
He is certainly one of the most hard-working Kenyan authors and Word on the street says he is working on another book already.