I got back home from losing, again, only to find the only trophy I had ever received, broken. That was in 2015 and of course when BAKE put me up against bikozulu, there was no way I was going to win. And you know, the truth is, while we do not write so that we can win awards, it still sucks to lose. Especially when you know it is going to happen and there is really nothing you can do about it. So imagine how it felt when I got home and found the only recognition I had ever gotten for my work split in two. It was made of thick glass with an East African emblem, and the base was made of something I think is brass. George Williams Magunga Oduor, Overall Top Blogger, it read.
When I found the plaque, the glass part and the base had been separated. Someone must have dropped it, either by accident or design. Then, almost apologetically, stacked the two parts neatly, one on top of the other. My housemate then, Oscar, swore by everything fresh university graduates swear by that it was not him who did it. Words were said. Mostly by me. Words that I regretted as soon as I said them. Then that story ended there. I made a mental note to have it fixed, and just like everything I ever make mental notes about, I forgot all about it.
These days, those two parts sit next to two Maasai awards from BAKE that I won in 2017 and 2018. Nobody ever notices it, or even knows its significance.
I was in Second Year, UoN Law School. The first year had been confusing because it is the year I badly wanted to be a lawyer, but also the one I failed the most. I did everything. Read handouts, made those handwritten notes when revising for papers, rarely missed a class, sat in the second row in the lecture theatre. Hell, I was even one of those guys in a study group!! Shit, during that kalong holiday season, I remember walking with my boy Jamo all over the city dropping CVs to law firms that would have us as interns, even for no pay. Nobody called back. So I went back to Kisumu to chill with Mother Karua.
Then during one of those days, someone sent me a link to bikozulu and I read all the stories in a single night, all the way back to his first blogpost. And I knew then that I also wanted a website like that. I had no idea what a blog was even. I just knew I wanted it. All this time I had been writing stories on our comp lab, printing them out, and sharing with akina Jamo. Whatever happened to them, I have no clue. Now here they were telling me I could own a website? Damn! I asked the first person I knew could help me and he opened one for me on a now defunct space called MyOpera, and the only people who read it were my five friends. I opened it simply because I could not afford printing stories all the damn time.
The long and short of it is this; the more time I spent in the computer lab banging out stories, the less time I spent in class. And the less time I spent in class, the more I knew I did not want to be a lawyer anymore. Then in 2012 I joined student politics and won the Vice Chairperson seat, Kenya Law Students Society. I kept writing. A fellow student leader, Nzilani Muia, approached me about this thing they were doing in conjunction with the Ministry of East Africa called Connect Vuka Border. The part that interested me was an inter-university blogging competition, where the winner was to get a laptop and a certificate.
I got in and won. The blogpost that won that award got lost when I was moving from MyOpera to WordPress. It was a travel piece about East Africa, that, to be honest, I pulled out of my ass. I wrote about place I saw on Google Images. I had only been to Uganda, but as a child. And even then, we only went to Busia Uganda. But together with the laptop and certificate, came the trophy that was I telling you about up there.
That laptop took me out of the comp lab. Now I could write in my room without haggling for spots. Lakini I would later sell that laptop because I needed money to campaign the next year for Chairperson of KLSS (which I won, thankfully). The plaque remained. A constant reminder of not just what I wanted to be, but also what I had fallen out of love with.
A month after winning, I would meet the Chair of the judging committee that crowned my win. We met at Java. Her name? Mrs. Pamella Sittoni. The Managing Editor of The East African Newspaper. It would occur to me much later that the reason they probably picked her to chair the judging panel was because she was the managing editor of the East African, and the competition was being organized by the Ministry of East Africa.
That afternoon in 2012 as we ate at Java, I remember she asked me to order for food and because I was brought up well, I ordered the cheapest thing I could see on the menu. And also because I did not know who was to pay for the meals. She was the elder one here, yes, but I am also my father’s son. I also remember telling her that I wanted to write for a living, and if possible, could she offer me a spot in her paper? I mean, I won the award, right?
She scoffed and said, “You children of these days. Kwanza you know my nephew is in your school? His name is…” I knew him, we were in siasa together, though he did not win the elections “…but you write very well. Your piece won unanimously. But finish school first then we’ll talk, sawa?”
She is the one who picked up the tab.
Even him, knowing me like he does, when he made that phone call, he knew very well that the only way that conversation would go was south. Yet – perhaps to his surprise – I did not say much. For the most part, I let the acid seep from the other side of the line and scald my ears. I was torn. Should I listen to my head or my chest?
Head: Let us be adults about this, OK? In any case, he is not really the problem here, he is just part of a system that is very problematic. Also, when you squint your eyes and really squint, he is basically your boss, see? If you go off like an alarm on him, he probably will not give you any more work. So just nod, even though he cannot see you from the other side of the line. Steady your voice, Magunga. Say yes. Say no. Say sorry even. Tell him to pass your apologies to the client. That this was an oversight on your part. That you won’t be greedy next time.
Chest: Oh hell no, he didn’t! What the actual fuck is this shit? Tell that lady…uhm…what did you say her name was again? Yeah. Tell her that she perhaps needs to do a bit of homework before sending you to me. It is not true that I have never been paid that much for a single job because I have, and here are the invoices to prove it. And that figure has not changed for the past, what, 4 years? If anything, it has even gone lower because y’all became regulars. Surely, if they used to pay me this much in 2015, how much are they supposed to pay me now? Even you, do you still earn as much as you did 3-4 years ago? Ati they now have a standard rate for all bloggers? Wow. That’s rich. So much for individuality. All those concerts they hold, do they also have a standard rate for the musicians they hire? I mean, I already have to beg for my cheques to come out before the next general election. I have only ever been paid on time once, and that was in January. Now I have to deal with this too? Exactly much more do I need to shrink myself to fit into the idea of how small these people think I am?
I did not say much on that phone call. Because I could not trust myself to make the right decision to not speak from my heart. I merely sent an email later. And that is basically how I handle fury. I walk away, because I know just how fast and short my temper burns. At the drop of a hat, bridges will be in ashes.
If you are an artist, there are things you do not expect clients to understand. I mean, it would be nice if they did, but they are under no obligation to care about how you ended up where you are. They do not need to know that for almost a year you did not speak to your mother because she could not understand why you’d quit a career as lucrative as law to be a writer. Even when she reads that piece about your father and cries and marvels at how good you are. A client does not need to care that your own mother did not attend your graduation because you would not be what she wanted you to be. That these days, even though you’re cool, when you’re together and someone asks you what you do for a living, she will promptly say, “This one went to law school.” She still hasn’t accepted you.
They do not have to understand that there are days when words refuse to come. When you open a page and try to write and nothing comes. So sometimes you get other people to write on your website so that it does not go quiet for too long. The words that you love so much have rejected you. The colours of your canvas are running and everything you paint looks like the face of a crying woman wearing very badly done makeup.
They need not give two flying shits that there was that one time when you had not written something in months. The blog was quiet. Someone whose number you don’t even have sent you a message wondering what was going on. Then you meet someone whose story you so badly want to tell. You tell yourself, the next story I will write will be hers. A meaningful story that is even supposed to be shared on a meaningful date. This is the story that gets your juices flowing again. You write it like your life depends on it…you write it because your life kinda depends on it, but on the eve of going live, she pulls the plug. Your brain gets a blackout.
Your client does not need to care about those times you write and it is terrible, and even when you share it you hate yourself so much because now what are these? You had imagined that by now you’d be much further with this gig. People confess just how good you are at it, but in your head, you’re wondering kwani how bad are their taste for reading? There was a time you used to be good at it, but these days you’re just a fraud.
You watch people who came after you rise and pass you by. And you know you’re supposed to be happy for them, and part of you is, truly. But that is a small part. And it stabs you that this is the person you have become. The jealousy stinks from your pores and you spend a lot of time in the shower. It is also funny how long before you chose to be a writer, you used to think showers were built for bathing.
Some people notice the sadness. Some ask after it. When they do, however, you say you are fine because how are you? is a greeting, not an inquisition of concern. Melancholy soon meets a new best friend. So does alcohol. You become a cliché. Another alcoholic writer that wears smiles as a mask. Pathetic.
Though, as we said, these are not things a client is obligated to care about. That is TMI, really. You should not expect them to. What you expect, however, is respect. And if you could not make yourself smaller for your own mother, then what the fuck is a client to you?
The text came in on one of those days when all I was doing was waking up, pouring myself a drink and watching Netflix in my underwear. It was after that nasty phone call, and I did not know how I was ever going to make it to the next month now that I had potentially pissed on my main gig.
Good afternoon, Magunga. I am with The East African. I got your number from my boss, Mrs. Pamella Sitonni, and we’d like to have a conversation about you contributing to our Magazine. When do you think you would be free to talk?
That is not exactly what the message said, but I was free to talk the next Monday. I had not seen or spoken to Pamella since that Java date in 2012, and what stunned me more than anything is that she still had my number six years later. I have to confess that I was a little flattered.
When I finally sat down to sign that contract with them on the sixth floor of the Nation Media Group building, I could not help but wonder how this woman has swept in to save my ass at very important moments of my writing life. The first time was with my first ever laptop, and this time it was with my first ever writing gig on contract.
I guess what I have been trying to say for the past 2300 words is that I am sorry the blog has been quiet, and I cannot promise that I will be writing here as much as I used to. But if you miss me, you can always grab a copy of The East African. Sometimes, I light a campfire on that side and beat stories about books and travel. It is not the same as beating stories here. I have to remember my manners on the other side and speak like someone who went to school. Not like the madness we have here. But it is a new spot and fun and maybe if I behave myself, I can build something over there just like we did here.
“I already told you, six years ago, that you write very well. I am not going to say it again now,” she said. “Now I need you to write consistently. Can you do that?”
I can, but first, I need to fix that plaque from six years ago.