Celebrating East African Writing!

The Writing Life – Kinyanjui Kombani

1.  How and when did you start writing?

I actually started off as a cartoonist. Inspired by the works of Frank Odoi and Paul ‘Maddo’ Kelemba, I had a running comic strip with a main character-detective called Jokie. That explains my nickname – Jokin. I had a stint as a calligrapher in Standard 8 (doing calligraphic envelopes was good money then!) and then I moved to writing in secondary school. I wrote a novel which was stolen in Form 2.

Later on, when I joined Kenyatta University, I wrote a short story for a competition and gave it to my lecturer Gachanja Kiai to review. To my surprise, he shared the story in class, saying he has never read such a great story. He was to later introduce me to my first publisher.

2. Tell us about your writing routine?

My writing routine depends on the particular project and deadlines at hand. Unless I have a tight deadline I will write for about two hours a day (mostly early morning from 4 am). In 2012, I wrote all through the Easter weekend and almost went mad  – I swore never to do that sort of thing again.

To make it easier, I break down my writing into manageable pieces e.g. if I am writing a 40,000 word novel within a month, I will purpose to write 1,500 words per day. By the time the month is over, I will see the speed move to 3,000-4,000 words.

I want to partner with other writers to a 1 year writing project. “A million words a year”.  I figure that if you wrote only 3,000 words per day you would make a million every year! All we need are accountability partners.

3. How has writing affected your life in general?

Writing has affected my life a lot. As you know, I wear different hats. I am a banker and learning facilitator in an international bank. I am also an entrepreneur and business mentor. In all these other aspects of my life, I have found it easier to communicate with stakeholders and clients. I partnered with my alma mater, Kenyatta University, on the KU Alumni Card Project. My writing skills came in handy when doing the communication briefs, partner proposals and contracts.

I also have a different outlook on life. I see life from different angles. For instance, last year I was stuck in traffic at Globe Cinema roundabout and suddenly there was a fight between hawkers and city county askaris. In the middle of that hullabaloo, a novel was formed!

Writing has also given me an opportunity to build my personal brand and to network with people I would never have had a chance to. Through initiatives like Authors Buffet and Creatives Academy, I have rubbed shoulders with, among others, John Sibi-Okumu, Binyavanga Wainaina, Ken Walibora, Yvonne Owuor, Yvonne Okwara, Sophia Wanuna, Bonnie Kim, Terryanne Chebet, Zukiswa Wanner and Tony Mochama, Tonnie Mello (most of whom I only saw on TV or read from).

4. Tell us about your books.

I have been lucky to publish 6 books (my new novel Den of Inequities has just been printed – you can pre-order it here).

Each of my books is a story by itself. I could actually write another novel about the making of the books! ‘The Last Villains of Molo’ has become one of the most critically acclaimed books of modern times. It has been studied in universities in Kenya and Germany. At postgraduate level, it has been part of theses at University of Sussex and Harvard. Yet, the book almost never saw the light of day.

When the manuscript was accepted by the publisher in 2003, the publisher wanted me to change about a third of the story, yet I did not have access to a computer – the manuscript itself was typed at the goodwill of my friends’, the Mudolas, at their typing bureau in Langata. I would save money for fare to Langata for a week or so hoping there weren’t too many customers else I would do nothing the whole day.

My university could not help much – there was only one computer at the Literature Department in KU and it was used by the secretary. I was almost losing hope.

It was Prof. Eshiwani, the feared administrator who was then Vice Chancellor, who ironically came to my rescue. One day, desperate, I broke through his security cordon and told him my predicament, expecting a harsh rebuttal. To my surprise, he turned to his PA and asked her to help me. “This is the next Ngugi wa Thiongo,” he said.

From that day, I had three secretaries at my disposal! I would write at night on foolscap and deliver to the secretaries. The manuscript was ready in a week! And that is how ‘The Last Villains of Molo’ came to be.

Later on, I was sitting at the KU Culture Week office with my friends Prof. Mbogo and ‘Shibi’, and on the table was a Sasa Sema Publications brochure. I wondered aloud why there was no book on the ‘Lion’s Series’ about Wangari Maathai. “Why don’t you write it?” The professor challenged me. He did not give me any peace until I had done a rough synopsis and sent it to the publisher. By the time the publisher got back to me two weeks later, Prof. Mbogo had harassed me enough to wrench a story out of me.

The publisher said they loved the synopsis and wanted to know when I could submit the story. I was ready with the story, thanks to the prodding by the good professor. ‘Wangari Maathai: Mother of Trees’ has been approved by KIE for use in Kenyan schools.

I have had the luck of being commissioned by my publisher to write stories for new series. I wrote ‘We Can Be Friends’ under great duress. One week after my wedding, my sister passed away. I had to write the story on the journey back to Nairobi because it was due a day after the burial! The children’s book is also KIE approved.

Writing ‘Lost But Found’, another commissioned work, was also very challenging because I had to bring myself to the level of a five year old. I rewrote the manuscript twelve times before the publisher accepted it!

My new novel, ‘Den of Iniquities’ was conceptualised a week during which my uncle was hospitalised. His neighbours from Dandora kept talking about their friends and kin who had been killed in cold blood by police. The book is about extrajudicial killings.

5. What is the one piece of advice you would give to any writer?

I would give the same advice I was given by my mentor David Mulwa: Keep Writing!

The more you write, the more you become better at it.


Kinyanjui Kombani is a creative writer, banker, trainer, award-winning entrepreneur & certified business mentor:



This entry was posted on February 24, 2014 by in Writer's Blog.
%d bloggers like this: