/ 9 April 2010

It’s not our turn to stock this book

It's Not Our Turn To Stock This Book

It was dusk in Garowe, Puntland in Northern Kenya. I was in an armed convoy listening to Somali poetry. I couldn’t understand a word of it, so I drifted into thoughts of where the day had begun in the early hours of the morning in Nairobi.

I had been spending far too much time in the Kenyan capital of late from where I’d been following Jacob Zuma’s private life more closely than what the Kibaki government has been up to. It was obviously a good time to read Michela Wrong’s book on that very subject.

It’s Our Turn to Eat is a detailed account of corruption at the highest levels of Kenyan government. In 2002 Mwai Kibaki, newly elected into the office of president after far too many years of Daniel arap Moi, went public with his war on corruption.

The head of the local branch of Transparency International, John Githongo, was brought in to lead the charge. Kibaki gave him a seat right next to his own office.

Githongo did a fabulous job. Among other things, he recorded senior Cabinet ministers implicating themselves in massive cash-for-favours deals.

To cut an extremely interesting story short the ministers threatened him and Kibaki moved his office out into the civil service equivalent of the suburbs. Githongo got the hint, fled to London with his notes and pitched up at Wrong’s carrying a box of all his findings. She wrote the book.

And so this book safari starts with a search for that book. Using Johannesburg research skills, I went to Nairobi’s largest mall — Westgate. It’s filled with lots of South African shops — even a Wimpy — as well as two bookshops. Both stock all Wrong’s books except the one on Kenyan corruption. And why not? A salesperson at Savani bookshop was blunt: “We’re afraid to … everyone’s afraid to .. you won’t find that book in Kenya.”

He was almost right. I tried bookshops at the other big malls — the Sarit Centre, Village Market and Nakumatt Ukay — and encountered the same story: “You’ll have to go overseas to find that one.”

But I didn’t. In rapid succession I found three rather discreet locations where It’s Our Turn to Eat could be found within walking distance of State House — Kibaki’s official residence:

  • Bookstop — probably Nairobi’s best bookshop, on the second floor of the Yaya Centre. But you have to know it’s there and ask for it (it’s kept under the counter). Surprisingly, it doesn’t come wrapped in a brown paper bag. Bookstop’s owner, an extremely knowledgeable man who carries one of the best selections of African books I’ve come across on this continent, says he “has no room left on his shelves” for the book.

  • At the magazine kiosk of the United Nations mega compound in Gigiri, where magazines of all types are displayed on a rack, Wrong’s book is kept under the counter.
  • And on the street. Every now and then, when you find yourself stuck in one of Nairobi’s infernal jams, if your window is open, some guy will shove the Economist, Drum magazine and a copy of It’s Our Turn to Eat in your face with an offer to “learn the truth” about the government.

It’s a fabulous book, a real page-turner and I couldn’t put it down.

But I have to come clean on something: Before finding Nairobi’s hidden stashes of It’s Our Turn to Eat I got frustrated and bought it … at Cresta in Jo’burg.

It’s Our Turn to Eat is available virtually everywhere in South Africa and the rest of the world, retailing at R190