Post by Evelyn Owen
Owaahh has been online for seven years, and is known for covering history, current affairs, investigations and travel with a contemporary voice. The blog began as an attempt to change the form through which Kenyan and African histories are told, using strategies such as listicles to show patterns and links.
It has since grown into a “campfire” around which stories are told, providing context for current affairs. Importantly, it provides an alternative source of information and ideas for readers who may also consume mainstream Kenyan media.
We spoke with the writer behind Owaahh to find out more…
The Africa Center: Who is your main audience? Do you write mostly for Kenyans, or do you have a wider readership in mind?
Owaahh: I primarily write for Kenyans, because I believe great art needs a home, both in direction and voice. Once it is authentic at home then its possible for it to grow beyond borders. As such, 80 percent of my readers are Kenyan, but this tends to vary across topics.
Where do your ideas come from? What kinds of resources do you use for research?
Everywhere! I keep notes on all my devices, I take photos of pages of books if I can’t find a pen fast enough, and sometimes I even text them to myself. I approach every interaction with a book or a person as a potential source of ideas, and make the effort to record it and work on it.
Since my ideas need time and research to flesh out, they can sometimes take years to work on. The problem has never been research, in my view, but delivery. I try to combine great research with great writing, which is easier said than done. I don’t want to bore or awe my readers with the depth of information I’m giving them, The way not to do that is to make sure it’s readable, and its language is simple and beautiful.
I research in books, archives, interviews, and pretty much everything else. Every story is unique in the kind of sources it requires, and the trick is to identify where you need to look early enough and work from there.
“To invent the future, you must understand the past”: this quote takes pride of place in your blog’s “About” section. Can you elaborate on why this important to you, and how you use this idea to guide your writing?
Even when I’m working on current affairs and investigations, I go to pains to explain the history of things. I’ve always been fascinated with how things are interconnected over time, how one small act 40 years ago affects things today, for example. My focus on providing a historical background is partly because we don’t need new solutions, just the confidence to execute the ones we’ve always had. It is also partly to show the learning process, what mistakes lead things to be as they are, and then avoid such mistakes.
You have written a lot about the history of Nairobi, taking in a broad sweep from its unlikely swampy origins to the lives of individuals, like Pakistani immigrant and entrepreneur A. M. Jeevanjee, who shaped it into the metropolis it is today. How do you see Nairobi changing in the next 100 years?
I read this quote in a story a while back: “Great cities are like any other living organisms.” Meaning that they are born, they grow, they thrive, they make mistakes, they age, and they die. Nairobi is still a young city in its first century, a city with a throb that only seeks to grow. I am fascinated with its first two decades of life because of how small decisions have affected what the city has become. It is also a reminder that the decisions being made today will matter 100 years from now, in serious ways.
Several of your posts dig into the “true crime” tales of fraudsters, gangsters, and other shady characters. You wrote about Ibrahim Akasha, for example, whom you describe as “Kenya’s first true crime don.” What draws you to this kind of story? And more generally, do you think that bloggers play an important role in sharing stories that might go unreported by other media?
Perhaps a morbidity? There’s an element of morbidity to a writer who’s drawn to flawed figures such as criminals. Mine probably comes from the idea that while we all have the potential to do bad, there are those who choose to do so. There’s a massive interest in such kind of content in Kenya, as such stories tend to either get buried or reported purely through a policing/moralistic perspective.
I think the role of bloggers here is to provide a more nuanced perspective. For example, Owaahh’s post on Nicodemus Arudhi looks at how this man turned out for the Kenyan national football team during the day, while robbing people at night.
I’ve also done a stories on an attempted assassination, Betty Tett and the Hitman, and on fraud within a bank, The Sack of Imperial Bank. Both shone a spotlight on the crimes of the upper-class. The latter also showed how people had robbed a bank blind, in a country where stories of failures in the financial sector are all too common. The bank story had real-life implications because people’s money was (and still is) held in the bank under receivership. The story wasn’t meant to solve this, but to give people the information they needed to demand justice. None of this was being properly done by the media.
Your feature on photographer Osborne Macharia discusses “Mengo,” his series of images of people of short stature who are members of an imaginary underground fight club in Nairobi. Macharia’s work puts minority groups center-stage, raising questions about where common ideals of beauty and normalcy come from. Is such work well-received by Kenyan audiences? What kind of role do the arts play in addressing these issues in Kenya?
Osborne Macharia is an enigma. His work is daring and forward-thinking, and he finds ways to challenge how his audience accepts what is normal and what isn’t. At the end of the piece about him I write about getting home and finding that the picture in that month’s calendar on my wall was also his work, and featured a guy living with albinism carrying his girlfriend on the jetty. It was a profound moment.
The acceptance of Osborne Macharia’s work has been subtle, because its true effect is in the long-term. We need and are creating more work that does that because the open, brazen approach is not a very Kenyan thing (despite what our politics might suggest.) Art allows us to address these issues at both the brazen and subliminal levels, balancing them out to both entertain and inspire.
You have suggested that “the mind of the forward-looking artist has to be eccentric and revolutionary. It is tapping into the primary role of an artist in society: as a cultural intermediary.” Do you see yourself and other writers in this role? If so, how do you cultivate these qualities in your writing?
I believe that it is the work of the artist to translate to society what is happening to it, and what it means in the long run. Art in all its forms allows us to communicate cultural trends, which are the bedrock of any social unit. I think we writers are there, but not where we need to be. We are not daring enough; not anymore at least. We’ve gotten stuck in form and content, and the revolutionary bit, where we seek to inspire, entertain and provoke, has largely been blunted.
I tend to focus on form. The ever-present question in my work is how to tell old stories afresh: how to speak them to the current reading generation in such a way that they are not just shareable, but they have meaning. Writing non-fiction creatively tends to be hard because it is at times impossible to separate it from fiction, at least for the reader. So great and provocative stories might just get chalked up to “it reads like a movie” and you know you might have dropped the ball somewhere.
You worked on a story about four Kenyans imprisoned in South Sudan, Blood, Money, and Prison. What was your motivation, and what kind of effect did the story have?
I often say that the Juba story is perhaps my most important story so far because its victims are real human beings. I sat across from their mums and sisters in coffee shops and watched the damage of neglect to the families of those four Kenyans. It was a lesson in how state relations and diplomatic haggling affects the common person on the ground.
I was drawn to the story because of the utter misuse of power, and the seeming blindness of the Kenyan state to the plight of its own citizens. They actually weren’t the only four in jails in Juba, but I focused on the story because it provided the best context for the situation. It also had real-life implications, as it explained what had happened and how, and perhaps why, giving details that some people involved didn’t even have.