Adventures of a Book in Africa

Michela Wrong's exposé of corruption in Kenya was suppressed, then pirated, and finally rescued by an unlikely combination of saviours.

Long before their official launch, most books detach themselves from their authors. An editor calls to say the text has gone to the printers and no further changes are possible. You feel a pang of regret, tinged with relief. Like any anxious parent, you will do what you can to ease your creation’s passage through a hostile world, granting interviews, giving the odd speech, but essentially it must now fend for itself. Your attention shifts to the next project.

That was certainly how it went with my first two. But my latest has broken with the pattern. Four-and-a-half months after publication, I am still as involved with It’s Our Turn to Eat as when I was drafting it, fighting for its right to exist in its natural marketplace. My struggle to deliver this awkward offspring has taught me a great deal about an African nation I thought I already knew. It has also highlighted the hurdles facing the publishing industry in the internet age. None of these lessons is particularly reassuring. 

It’s Our Turn to Eat is the story of John Githongo, who was appointed anti-corruption chief after President Mwai Kibaki swept to power in 2002, vowing to eliminate the sleaze that had become a feature of predecessor Daniel arap Moi’s regime. Githongo, an old friend, stumbled across a brand new government scandal, dubbed “Anglo Leasing”. On probing, he realised his closest ministerial colleagues were involved. They expected him to turn a blind eye for one simple reason: he hailed from the same ethnic community as the “Mount Kenya Mafia”, as Kibaki’s coterie was known. Instead, he fled Kenya, taking with him hundreds of hours of secretly taped conversations, and eventually went public with what he knew.

I always knew the story would cause a stir. But I thought the reaction would quickly blow over. The Anglo Leasing scandal, after all, had been amply covered in both the Kenyan and international press when it first surfaced back in 2004. Since late 2005, a leaked dossier drafted by Githongo and naming the same politicians and businessmen featuring in my book could be called up on the internet. Any Kenyan taxi driver can tell you who Anglo Leasing’s principals are. Why, the details are even splashed across Wikipedia.

My book’s aim was never to name names, a job Githongo had already achieved. For me, Anglo Leasing’s minutiae were of less interest than what the scandal revealed about a society I’d covered, on and off, for more than a decade. What fascinated me was the way ethnic rivalry — tribalism, to put it bluntly — was used to justify not only top-level looting by a ruling elite, but the sleaze tainting human interaction at every level of Kenyan society. It’s a problem common to many African states.

My confident assumption that the book would enjoy brisk trade in Nairobi’s bookshops was shared by the best-selling Kenyan newspaper, the Daily Nation, which agreed to serialise it. “Make sure your publisher gets plenty of copies out here,” a Nation editor warned me. “There’s going to be a rush of demand.”

Publication was in mid February. Kenyan reviewers, who I’d expected to be somewhat prickly, amazed me with their generosity. Far from taking offence at a white outsider’s take on their society, they thanked me for breaking a cultural taboo that kept too many Kenyans silent. “Michela Wrong has written a book that will change Kenyan history,” one even declared. “Nothing will ever be the same.” 

Appearing a year after the most violent elections in Kenyan history and coinciding with a mood of public fury at the continued looting of state coffers by a coalition government cobbled together to avert all-out civil war, It’s Our Turn to Eat had clearly hit a nerve. Discussing it was a way of wrestling with the nation’s problems, and desperately worried Kenyans did so, with passion, on letters pages and websites.

Music to my ears, but I noticed that most were clearly debating a work they had never read. Was the book actually selling? A few Kenyan newspapers reported that Nairobi’s booksellers had deemed the book too hot to handle. Hmm.

In the bad old Moi days, “controversial” books were routinely traded like hard-core pornography, slipped under the counter when no one was watching. It seemed the practice had returned. I felt flattered to be in the same company as John le Carré, whose The Constant Gardener was deemed too close to the bone. But the crude state censorship of that era had surely died with the arrival of the internet, mobile phone and private radio stations, I told myself. The government had taken no position on my book. The profit-hungry African nation I knew would surely prove unable to resist the opportunity to make a quick buck selling what Kenyan bloggers hailed as a “collector’s item”.

Then, one by one, Nairobi’s booksellers cancelled their orders. A panicky HarperCollins sales representative visiting the capital warned me that things were “very tense”. Something had spooked them. 

When quizzed by journalists, these men, almost all Kenyan Asians, claimed they were afraid of being sued for libel by those named in the book. The justification made little sense. Yes, Kenyans are famously litigious. Moi’s cronies certainly established a precedent of suing not just authors or publishers, but booksellers distributing the offending item. But the Kibaki administration’s failure to bring a single individual to court over Anglo Leasing, five years after the scandal broke, surely indicated the last thing the ruling elite wanted was a trial, with all the light it would shed on government’s darkest corners. Who, precisely, was going to sue? 

When I asked one shopseller what was going on, his answer was elliptical. “What would you say if I told you that strange men in suits, people who don’t even know the book’s title, are coming in saying, ‘Are you selling that book?”‘ He promised to explain in an email; it never arrived. 

“It smacks of an intimidation operation by National Intelligence,” a Kenyan journalist told me. “All it takes is a few phone calls and those guys run scared.” If he was right, this was censorship by the back door, with Nairobi’s booksellers doing the government’s job for it. Soon, not a single Kenyan bookshop was selling It’s Our Turn to Eat.

Like all those who celebrated Kibaki’s inauguration back in 2002, assuming it marked the dawn of a new era, I had misjudged the distance Kenya had travelled. March saw the gunning down in central Nairobi of two human rights activists who had — such irony — denounced extra-judicial killings by the police. Members of civil society, targeted by death threats, went underground. The cowed instincts of the past were making a vigorous return, sorely-won freedoms were being consigned to history.

On the websites and in email exchanges, I was stunned to see Kenyans worrying aloud about being spotted reading my book. When I suggested to a businesswoman friend she order a consignment of books direct from my publisher, she told me there was no point, it would only be confiscated at the post office. “I am aghast at the return of fear in our bookshops,” declared Philo Ikonya, head of PEN’s Kenya chapter. All this, for a book that had never been officially banned.

What I had not misjudged, however, was the impossibility, in the 21st century, of trying to dam the flow of information. While negotiating serialisation, I had sent a PDF of the manuscript to two Kenyan newspapers. It’s a sign of my advancing years that it never occurred to me that I was taking a stupid risk. Like most of my generation, I could think of few less enticing prospects than reading an entire book on a flickering screen.

Not so Kenya’s young, cybernet-savvy population. I began receiving Facebook messages from members of the Kenyan diaspora. A “massive file”, a bootleg copy of my PDF almost certainly stolen in some busy newsroom, was circulating. “You’ve gone viral!” warned a Kenyan activist based in South Africa. She had been separately sent three copies of the stolen PDF that day. To prove her point, she emailed me a copy of my own book. 

At first, I tried adopting a posture of Zen-like equanimity. If plagiarism is a compliment, mass piracy is surely the ultimate accolade. There was part of me that gloried in this cheeky demonstration of People Power. I was clearly going to make not a penny in royalties on the Kenyan market, but if this must be my contribution to Kenya’s oft-promised, much-touted political Second Liberation, then so be it. 

“You’re not losing any actual sales. The people who are stealing the PDF wouldn’t be able to afford to buy it anyway,” a Nairobi friend assured me. I conjured up a pleasing mental image of slum-dwelling students and unemployed workers — the great wananchi (ordinary folk) Kenyan presidents routinely address in their speeches — poring over samizdat versions of It’s Our Turn to Eat

My stance crumbled when I was sent the URL links to three websites offering my PDF for downloading. Each web page logged scores of successful downloads, and each of those, I knew, probably marked the start of a long chain of further copying. These Kenyans made the Somali crews prowling the Gulf of Aden look like amateurs. It’s Our Turn to Eat had become the most pirated book in Kenyan history.

There’s something about seeing three years of hard grind being offered free to all and sundry — offered, what’s more, with an air of triumphant self-congratulation, as though the perpetrator has pulled off an ingenious feat of political subversion rather than resorting to the laziest conceivable act of intellectual thievery — that curdles magnanimity. Your heart pounds. Your nostrils flare. You want to rip out the heart of those responsible with your teeth, spit the half-chewed morsels in their face and dance on their corpses. 

And calling up the web pages from my London study had brought home an obvious fact. In the process of cocking a snook at the Mount Kenya Mafia, these bootleggers were not only violating my copyright in Kenya. They were robbing me of royalties across the globe. China, Korea, Nigeria…the piracy potential was unlimited. Would I ever sell another book again?

Any hope that this act of mass theft was, at least, benefiting Kenya’s humblest was also wavering. A friend in Nairobi told me someone had just sent the stolen PDF file to every member of his mailing list. “Are these ordinary Kenyans, or are we talking about UN staff, aid agency officials and expatriates?” I asked. “More the latter than the former,” he admitted. It belatedly struck me that any Kenyan who belonged to a book club, enjoyed debating topical issues on a favourite website and spoke good enough English not to be fazed by a 340-page manuscript was exactly the kind of middle-class citizen who could afford to buy the book on Amazon in any case. 

I sent begging emails to the websites, asking them to take down the PDF, urging readers to taste instead the delights of They might not realise it, but the pirates were discouraging investigative journalism in Kenya, I argued. Any future journalist hoping to tackle similar “hot” topics would struggle to find a publisher, as editors would know the domestic market was lost to them.

The striking characteristic of the replies was their self-righteousness. Wikileaks, a website dedicated to the publication of classified documents, told me it was “fanciful” to expect poor Kenyans, who did not own international credit cards, to use Amazon. Before removing the PDF link, it wanted evidence I had taken concrete steps to “inject” my work into Kenya. “The importance of the work in Kenya as an instrument of political struggle eclipses your individual involvement,” I was told. “It is your baby…But it is also its own adult and Kenya’s son.” As a novelist friend chortled when I relayed this bizarre exchange: “Congratulations. You’ve just been nationalised!” 

Another unapologetic pirate told me I was sadly out of date, a dinosaur: “These debates on copyright are so 20th century. Look what’s happening in the music industry, or in the film industry.” I was coming up against a problem with which the Madonnas and Coldplays of this world are wearily familiar: a generation of consumers who expect their entertainment to be delivered free of charge. But there was a key difference between me and Madonna, I said, and it went beyond upper arm muscle tone. She could make up for lost royalties by charging loyal fans hundreds of dollars for concerts that filled stadiums. I was rarely paid more than £50 a speech. In a world stripped of copyright — so old-fashioned — how was an author supposed to eat?

I rang HarperCollins, begging them to combat this pirated PDF with a legitimate electronic version. Even this, I discovered, was not exactly straightforward in Africa. First-generation e-books are designed to be downloaded on to Kindle-style readers, gadgets unknown in Kenya. HarperCollins was going to have to come up with something new: a PDF that could be downloaded, just the once, on to a laptop or computer screen, without the use of a reader. 

While arguing with websites, I was using the simplest of methods — the personalised courier service — to try and undermine the boycott. Facebook came into its own. Appealing for anyone flying to Nairobi to get in touch, I loaded roller cases with signed copies of the book, wrapped in concealing newspaper, and met my mules in central London. Discreet pick-ups in Nairobi were arranged with impatient Facebook users. I felt like a Colombian drugs baron. 

Sadly, books are somewhat heftier than cocaine. The mules were game, but the numbers I was shifting were tiny. And some of the routes these books traced were ridiculously circuitous. One consignment flew in a journalist’s suitcase from London to Kinshasa, where the plan was to place it on a domestic flight to the eastern Congolese town of Goma and then, via an aid worker, to Burundi and on to Kenya. My books were notching up enough air miles to buy a romantic weekend for two in Paris.

There was movement on other fronts. HarperCollins reported that sales of It’s Our Turn to Eat were booming in bookshops in South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Kenyan travellers were hoovering up extra copies and taking them into the country in their luggage. One banker friend proudly told me he had bought ten copies transiting through Johannesburg airport, and would be collecting another ten on his next trip.

Nearly a month after broaching the idea, Harper Collins’s e-book was ready. Thanks to my weeks of email exchanges, I now knew most of the Kenyan websites, and was touched by the speed with which they agreed to post the necessary link. Several offending websites, including Wikileaks, agreed to remove the PDF.

The booksellers’ boycott had at least generated a flurry of international media coverage highlighting my strange predicament. A British entrepreneur with a rebel streak offered me £10,000 to get copies to Kenyan schools, universities, libraries and students’ groups. “I relish the prospect of putting two fingers up to Mr Kibaki.” A fantastically generous offer, but who was going to collect the relevant addresses, organise shipping, apply for a Kenyan import licence and warehouse the books? I was out of my league.

Then, miraculously, a deus ex machina emerged in the form of Galeeb Kachra, a dynamic young American working for the Office of Transition Initiatives. OTI, he explained in a call from Nairobi, was a branch of the USAID development agency specialising in rapid initiatives promoting change in countries moving from authoritarianism to democracy. Getting copies of my book to ordinary Kenyans was exactly the kind of project OTI relished. He was already hard at work, pulling together a multi-pronged distribution operation to bypass a gagged retail industry.

By the time you read this, that project will be under way. Africa’s clergy has a proud tradition of taking on repressive government and Kenya is no exception. The National Council of Churches of Kenya and the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission plan to debate my book alongside passages from the Bible. Church groups across the country will draw parallels between episodes of It’s Our Turn to Eat and Noah’s rejection of earthly corruption, Nehemiah’s refusal to accept defeat and Jesus’s sermons about egalitarianism and brotherhood.

PEN, the writer’s body, is due to hold readings in Kisumu, Mombasa and Nairobi. My private benefactor has thrown his funds into the pot, the Kenyan branch of George Soros’s Open Society Institutes is contributing $10,000, and USAID is adding a grant. Three radio stations, including the hugely popular Kiss-FM, will read excerpts over the airwaves and the Nairobi Star newspaper will hand out five books a day, using its network of street vendors to sell another 1,200. 

As a devout atheist and hardened aid sceptic, I’m aware of the acute irony of being thus beholden both to the churches of Kenya and a US development agency. But I’m happy to eat crow. My critics will no doubt mutter darkly about CIA plots, but I wouldn’t mind if the Devil himself wanted to distribute It’s Our Turn to Eat. I am rather more concerned about the agenda of those who were determined to ensure no Kenyan ever got to read a book on sale across the globe. Galeeb hopes the project will demystify a text whose supposed revelations have now acquired fantastical status, shattering the bookseller boycott for ever. I’m not so sure. But knowing that 5,200 copies of my book — for that is what it will be — have reached the wananchi will allow me to let go. The umbilical cord connecting me to this troublesome third child is finally being cut, not before time. The whole process has been strangely stressful and, to be honest, I’ve grown rather sick of the thing. 

The convoluted saga has been an eye-opener. I always knew the gap between Kenya’s giraffe-and-G&T image and the gritty reality was vast, but now it yawns as wide as the Rift Valley itself. The home of Obama’s forefathers, for so long considered the “safe” destination in a traumatised region, is today a very frightened and frightening country. Western development ministers may continue to trumpet the fall of the one-party state and the planting of multiparty democracy in African soil. But the ease with which Nairobi’s jittery booksellers were muffled, and the speed with which ordinary Kenyans internalised a new state of repression, show how shallow the roots of democracy are.

As for the fight for intellectual copyright, it is being swiftly lost to the internet’s greedy hydra mouths. My book is into its third reprint, and is outselling both my previous two. But I can only guess how many copies I would have sold had it not been for the double whammy of boycott and piracy. An old-fashioned publishing industry lacks the swiftness of response and imagination to keep one step ahead of the relentless pirating. And while rock stars and filmmakers may find ways of weathering the financial assault by a generation which somehow feels entitled to the creative contents of their minds, lowly authors risk being obliterated. In future, expect a lot fewer books like It’s Our Turn to Eat.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"