Two of Kenya’s most read books were authored by a man described on Wikipedia as an author, playwright, script writer, and literature critic/activist. Most publications call him “The Banker Who Writes”.
But Kinyanjui Kombani is more of a jack of all trades. He’s not just a banker who writes. He’s more specifically a learning facilitator who is an acclaimed author, a former comic strip artist and a professional traveller.
A self-confessed Twitter addict, he comes across as the kind of author who is heavily invested in his work and with 3 of his books scheduled for release in 2018, he has done a lot of work. One is a young adult novella called Finding Columbia. The other two are full length adult novels Hawkers Pokers- which was inspired by a lyric from a Mashifta song and OffalMan.
Hunters and Gatherers, influenced by Sam Kahiga’s Paradise Farm is tentatively expected this year.
Kombani is not genre-specific. For instance his most acclaimed novel The Last Villains of Molo is a revenge thriller set in the 1991 tribal clashes of Molo, Kenya. His other flagship novel Den of Iniquities is a crime novel partly inspired by Professor Philip Alston’s 2009 report on police extrajudicial killings in Kenya during the 2007-08 post-election violence.
“I think about the idea. The idea is what drives me,” he explained, “I write until the story ends. A book about common principles, easy to read and simple.”
Writing was always a part of Kombani. Growing up, he wanted to be a pilot, a driver and a musician. While in high school, he had a comic strip about an action hero inspired by Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo and Jackie Chan. Before venturing into literature and banking, Kombani worked as a window decorator, painting Santa Claus pictures on shop windows during the holidays.
As a novelist, the question about his future in the industry has often come up. Would he ever give up banking to start writing full time?
“I’m a poor full time writer. In November I was alone for 8 days but I did not write a single word,” Kombani confessed..
“I was once on a 7 hour flight and I wrote nothing. But then once I was on a one hour flight from Nairobi to Mombasa and I wrote 1, 000 words.”
Kombani demurely refers to his writing as a “passive income” admitting that he would probably only be serious about it if he lost his job.
The publishing industry in Kenya is one that has been kind to Kombani. However, not many authors can boast of similar success. He believes that fiction writers are less likely to succeed in the Kenyan market.
“Kenyans don’t buy enough fiction books that could enable a writer to survive,” he said.
The Kenyans who have experienced this level of success have had their books distributed as set books. Den of Iniquities and The Last Villains of Molo have been used as set books with the latter being a study text at undergraduate level in universities in Kenya & Germany. It has also been mentioned in postgraduate work at Harvard, USA and University of Sussex, UK.
The problem with the system is that Kenyan publishers have a marketing budget and strategy that isn’t in line with the market. Perhaps that is what contributes to the low rate at which Kenyans invest in local fiction.
Kombani who was inspired by pioneer Kenyan writers such as Sam Kahiga and Meja Mwangi, has also given back to the new generation of authors. More of a mentor than just a source of inspiration, he ran a 14-week publishing workshop with Daystar University.
With a burgeoning reputation outside of Kenya as well, the next phase for Kombani is to see his work on the silver screen.
“I optioned the Last Villains of Molo to a film company,” he said. Unfortunately, filming constraints such as funding and piracy have momentarily hampered the project. The projected cost of filming the novel would be Sh50 million.
Kombani is definitely a role model to established, and upcoming authors. His words of wisdom are simple but impactful.
“Just keep writing,” he advises, “If you keep writing you will improve.”