Q&A Words on the Times, Outriders Africa: Wanjiru Koinange

Today, we have the pleasure of sharing a Words on the Times, Outriders Africa with Kenyan writer Wanjiru Koinange, with an excerpt from her novel The Havoc of Choice. Wanjiru was raised on a farm on the outskirts of Nairobi, and is now restoring iconic public libraries in the same city through Book Bunk, which she co-founded with Angela Wachuka in 2017. She is also a publisher at Bunk Books, an imprint of Book Bunk Limited, which translated and published Academy Award-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o’s children’s book Sulwe.   

AiW note: Outriders Africa, a project announced at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2019, builds on the existing ambitious Outriders concept, exploring “the idea that in shifting, disorienting times, a writer can make a unique contribution to our understanding of the world, giving voice to untold stories and providing new insights on contemporary geopolitical contexts”.

Ten writers paired up – Kayus Bankole & Kei Miller, Nadine Aisha Jassat & Tsitsi Dangarembga, Donna Obaseki-Ogunnaike & Wanjiru Koinange, Amanda Thomson & Sabrina Mahfouz, and Eliza Anyangwe & Emmanuel Iduma – to together conceive of and embark on “an international journey through Africa, meeting writers and communities along their way and engaging in discussions around migration, colonial legacies, inequalities and the impact of globalisation and environmental change.” 

Each of the writers were to create a new work in response to their journey for an Outriders Africa anthology, published by Cassava Republic Press, for the Book Festival this year. Intro vids to their pairings, meetings and plannings ahead, showing both excitement and the creative freedom of the project, were filmed at the Festival in 2019 before their journeys began.

But then came the year that was 2020…

With the restrictions and interruptions imposed at the onset of the pandemic – to both travel and being together, let alone being either “out” or “riding” internationally – the writers presented their journeys in the virtual edition of the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2020. The Outriders Africa anthology is forthcoming in 2021, to be presented at next year’s festival. 

Bridging then and now, with thanks to the Book Festival and the writers, we have been able to catch some of the Outriders for their Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A set initiated to connect up in the wake of the early lockdown measures and resulting #COVOID for books, continuing on now to share our experiences and ways of working in the changing times of our nows.

Wanjiru’s Outriders journey was launched and made with Donna Obaseki-Ogunnaike – an Energy Law expert, speaker, humanivist ©, poet, writer and theatre practitioner, previously dubbed the ‘queen of spoken word poetry in Nigeria.’

Outriders Africa – Sub-Saharan Swiping.
[Donna and Wanjiru journeyed to] The Gambia and Senegal, where, like everywhere else, a maelstrom of taps and swipes has seen modern dating change beyond recognition. Seeking to decode where love lies for women in modern Africa…during surprising, funny and moving conversations, they quizzed a vast array of women across the West African region about hookup culture, how their cities inspire companionship, and whether romance really is dead.

If you haven’t already, read Donna Obaseki-Ogunnaike’s Words on the Times and videos of her poetry in performance from her YouTube channel, shared as part of our Outriders Africa series.

And see the first in the series from Nadine Aisha Jassat  poet, writer, and creative practitioner – with an excerpt from her work, a poem, ‘Auntie’ (a figure who features in her Outriders journeying and her Words on the Times) here

Words on the Times, Outriders Africa – Wanjiru Koinange

AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your own work and involvement with the Outriders Africa project?

Wanjiru Koinange: I am a writer and restorer of libraries and most recently also a publisher from Nairobi, Kenya. When I’m not writing or publishing, I am obsessing about public libraries with Angela Wachuka and the rest of our magical team at Book Bunk. Your readers may already be familiar with us from this Q&A piece with Wachuka.

For the Outriders Africa project, I had travelled to Gambia, Senegal, Nigeria with Donna Obaseki-Ogunnaike, a poet from Nigeria. My area of interest was modern African romance. I was (and still am) curious about if and how the internet has changed the way we find love on the continent and spent just over a month travelling to these countries having a conversation with the most incredibly diverse group of women, artists, lovers and friends. It was refreshing to see that people are indeed hooking up online, but a little disappointing that the goal of these hook-ups still revolved around unions whose parameters are still fairly rigid – heavily influenced by tradition and religion. I also went to Botswana and the goal here was to explore some of the same themes but this was unfortunately interrupted by the pandemic.

You can listen to Donna and I, along with our friends Renee and Efua, in conversation about our experience here.

AiW: How are things on the ground with you, where you find yourself now? (And would this have been somewhere in your mind as a potential ‘landing spot’ in the relative stillness of our times?)
Wanjiru Koinange: I have tonnes to be grateful for, more so in 2020. After three years of planning and fundraising, Book Bunk has been able to complete its first library restoration and we’re working on the second one which should be complete in a few months.

And after 8 years of work, my debut novel The Havoc of Choice, is now out! The response to both my library work and my fiction has been the source of all my joy in this season of uncertain stillness.

There’s been lots of pain as well and loss which for me often breeds imbalance. And like in many other countries, the pandemic has exposed more flaws in our leadership here in Kenya and that’s always heartbreaking.

AiW: How/has the pandemic affected your thinking about travel?

Wanjiru Koinange: This was supposed to be the year that I racked up all my miles, but the pandemic has certainly taught me that all travel isn’t essential. Before the pandemic, all work travel was essential travel and vacation travel was a bonus. I’d like to flip that around because this year, the work has continued despite the lack of travel…

I’d love to travel internationally again soon but first I’d like to spend more time seeing my country; the pandemic allowed(s) me to do that. And I want to see more of Africa; Outriders planted that seed.

AiW: How can our blog communities best support you? 
Wanjiru Koinange: This platform is already such a staple part of my literary life, so first off thank you for feeding us! To your readers: please visit http://www.bookbunk.org for information on how to donate to or support our work. You can also read about Bunk Books and our hopes for the region’s literary landscape. And, if you can, please buy, read, recommend and review my book! It is available in the UK, East Africa and India – and hopefully in other regions soon!

Wanjiru Koinange is a writer, restorer of libraries and entrepreneur from Nairobi, Kenya. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Literature from Nairobi’s United States International University and a Masters in Creative Writing from the University in Cape Town. She has worked as a talent manager for some of East Africa’s most renowned artists and musicians and has also served on the editorial team of Chimurenga. 

Her writing has been published in several journals and magazines across the continent including Chimurenga, SlipNet and Commonwealth Writers, where she served as a cultural correspondent for East and Southern Africa in 2015. During this stint, she published a piece about the McMillan Memorial Library, Kenya’s second oldest library, which was the major inspiration for the formation of Book Bunk, an independent non-profit that renovates and manages some of Nairobi’s most iconic public libraries. The McMillan Memorial Library and two of its smaller branches in Kaloleni and Makadara are Book Bunk’s flagship projects.

Wanjiru is also a publisher at Bunk Books, an imprint of Book Bunk Limited which is the commercial arm of Book Bunk Trust.

You can still catch Donna and Wanjiru’s reflection on their Outriders Africa journey (recorded on Friday 21st August), available for free on the Book Festival website: “Wanjiru Koinange & Donna Obaseki-Ogunnaike: Outriders Africa – Sub-Saharan Swiping” 

Joined by writers Renee Akitelek Mboya and Efua Oyofo, two of the women they met along the way, Obaseki-Ogunnaike and Koinange today share their responses from these unforgettable interviews.

With a special introduction by Kenyan feminist, storyteller, writer and performer Aleya Kassam, who reads M Neelika Jayawardane’s The Sportsman. In partnership with pan-African writers collective Jalada Africa, the place to discover specially curated new writers and voices.

Browse the event’s Edinburgh International Book Festival online Bookshop page for links to purchase Donna’s book, details of Wanjiru’s book, The Havoc of Choice, and to sign up to register interest and keep informed about the forthcoming Outriders publication from Cassava Republic.

And where it all began…see this short introduction video filmed at the Book Festival in 2019 for the genesis of the journey at the start of the project.

With thanks to Edinburgh International Book Festival –  to Siobhan Clark and Frances Sutton – and to the Outriders for sharing their experiences and work.

Check out this link for Outriders Africa Words on Times…and watch this space for more to come.
– the previous in the series and another perspective on their journey is from Koinange’s Outriders partner, performance poet Donna Ogunaike
and the first in the series is from Nadine Aisha Jassatpoet, writer, and creative practitioner – with her poem, ‘Auntie’, a figure who features in her Q&A responses and across Jassat’s work. 

For more Words on the Times – to hear from other makers, thinkers, producers, agitators & activists, platforms & supporters and their experiences of working as we move through the pandemic – see the blog category here

Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A, Words on the Times

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