A Kenyan Writer Blossoms From A Nairobi Slum

Every day, men and women pour out of Nairobi slums in Kenya to become the guards, housekeepers and gardeners at the gated houses of people with money.

Stanley Gazemba is one of them. He's a gardener. He's also a prize-winning novelist — and one of Kenya's young literary lights.

In a little garage in one of Nairobi's lush green suburbs, Gazemba writes at a tiny wooden desk that has a laptop and a dictionary.

"This is my old dictionary," Gazemba says. "I borrowed it from my elder brother and I never returned it. So I guess I owe him."

Gazemba has written five novels — one that was published — two collections of short stories and six published children's books. He writes next to the garden he tends: eggplant, lettuce and zinnias. This compact man with dreadlocks and chocolate-cherry skin has always done manual work: He's picked tea, laid bricks, worked steel and dug ditches.

Between and around the day jobs, Gazemba was always writing. He feels like he's part of a new literary scene in Kenya.

"Things are changing," he says. "People, especially young Kenyans, are becoming much more conscious of who they are. And they also know there is a need to define themselves."

'The Stone Hills Of Maragoli'

The garage where Gazemba writes belongs to American Susan Linnee. In 1996, she hired Gazemba to be her gardener. At the time, Linnee was the East Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press. One day, she noticed Gazemba was writing in her garage — in longhand.

"I have this old Olivetti 32 portable typewriter my former husband and I must have pawned 20 times when we lived in Germany, and I still carried it around," she says.

So Linnee did what an editor does: She gave him a way to write faster.

Gazemba used the Olivetti to pound out his first novel, The Stone Hills of Maragoli. It's set in the western Kenyan village where Gazemba grew up.

The story turns on the relationship between a rich man and a poor man. It has rich scenes of everyday life: tea picking, pay day, the funeral night dance. Think Thomas Hardy in rural Kenya.

In 2003, it won the nation's top literary prize — the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. Gazemba was 29 years old.

Now, he's 36. He's still working in the garden and writing in the garage. And he still lives in a slum of Nairobi called Kangemi.

'You Have The Rich And You Have The Poor'

Gazemba lives with his wife, Joyce, and their two children in one room on the second floor of a row of shacks in the slum. Gazemba finds some of his best characters in the neighborhood.

There are knife grinders and chemists, barbers and car mechanics, carpenters and bicycle repairmen. There are goats and bottles of kerosene for sale. A real economy is pulsing along this wide tongue of dirt road with tin shacks on either side.

Every day, Gazemba moves from this world — where electricity and water get doled out like rations — to the world of flower beds and electric refrigerators and the garage.

But he is reminded always of the wall between them.

"We know there is a world between us and them, so we cannot cross over to that end. You have the rich, and you have the poor," he says.

'These Things Cannot Die'

Much of the violence after the elections of 2007 happened in the slums. In a literary journal, Gazemba wrote about holding his young son in the dark, surrounded by gunshots.

"I expected anytime for a stray bullet to punch through my paper-thin mabati wall and blow me away into kingdom come," he wrote. "For the first time, I hated being born in Kenya."

Billy Kahora, who edits Kenya's best-known literary journal Kwani?, says with Gazemba there is always the intermingling of the old with the new.

"He's part of a younger generation ... but at the same time, he's part of an older tradition," Kahora says.

But good luck finding The Stone Hills of Maragoli. The publisher printed so few copies, that one university leases its copies to students.

So now Kahora is publishing a reissue of the book. He says it's not just a business decision. There's a sense of mission for Kenya's literary life.

"We think that the novel is important," Kahora says. "So these things cannot die."

In his most recent stories, Gazemba has been writing about a way of life in the slums: with moonshiners, highwaymen and pygmies who demand respect. He dreams them up in the other world — while he tends the eggplant, the lettuce and the zinnias.

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