Muthoni Garland comes closest to my notion of the ideal ‘Renaissance Woman’. She is not only a published author of novels and children’s books, a patron of the arts and an actress who’s performed at venues in Kenya and the United Kingdom.
She has also been a market researcher, advertising executive [with the Steadman Research Group], and founder-publisher of StoryMoja, the innovative, indigenous Kenyan publishing house that in two short years has energized the local literary scene in ways that can only be compared to the launching of the experimental Kenyan literary journal Kwani! several years before.
But as if all this were not enough, Muthoni is also the initiator and key organizer of the recent and highly successful Storymoja Hay Festival, which was inaugurated July 31 and held over three days at the Impala Sports Grounds under a myriad of tents similarly to the original Hay Fete held annually in Wales.
Like its British counterpart, the Storymoja Hay Festival featured published authors from Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and India, including one of the leading novelists writing in English today, Vikram Seth, who engaged local Kenyans in lively debate. But it also featured local filmmakers, visual and performing artists, academics, economists, environmentalists, and entrepreneurs who deliberated on everything from climate change to the impact of globalization on the Kenyan economy to the state of publishing in Africa currently.
Explaining that the Storymoja Hay Festival was actually part of a larger business plan and strategy that her team of twelve had devised at Storymoja to stimulate interest in a plethora of potent issues and relevant ideas, Muthoni is not shy to admit that the Storymoja Hay Festival also afforded a great opportunity for publishers like her to display and sell their books!
“We started Storymoja in August 2007 and for the first six months, there were practically no sales, in part because of the post-election violence,” said Muthoni who was a marketing major at Ohio University in the U.S. before returning home to Kenya to become a marketing researcher and then an advertising executive.
“So the idea was to devise new strategies that generate book sales,” said Muthoni who has already assembled a corral of promising authors including Sitawa Namwalie, Al Kags, Sunny Binda and of course, herself.
“We decided to bring our books to the people by creating events of interest to specific constituencies – for women, men, children, working women and others,” said Muthoni whose monthly “Women in Leadership” Forums have been especially successful in attracting interest and book sales among working women.
For men, Storymoja has organized workshops on the changing role of men in Kenyan society, led by Kenyan writer Oyunga Pala, which has also roused widespread interest among both women and men. The Nation newspaper’s “Mantalk” columnist discussed the same topic at Hay earlier this month, calling the theme of his workshop “Men Under Attack” and generating lively debate.
“For children, we have been running Storytelling competitions that have involved some 47 colleges and secondary schools,” said Muthoni, noting that the winner of the Nairobi Hay Spelling Bee, Joan Karimi from Precious Blood Secondary would be flown very soon to the U.K. to take part in an international spelling competition.
Storymoja also organizes storytelling session every week in order to promote children’s love for literature and for reading, as well as to stimulate book sales in local schools.
It was within the context of organizing cultural events which could serve as venues for selling books that the idea of staging Kenya’s own Hay Festival was born. But months before Muthoni went public with the idea of a Kenya Hay Fete, she was actually performing in the UK Festival in Sitawa Namwalie’s Cut Off My Tongue, the dramatized poetic masterpiece about the bane of tribalism by the former Kenyan tennis champ Betty Wamalwa Muragori.
“I read her poetry and wanted to publish it, but then our strategy is to present our writers’ work on as many different platforms as possible,” said Muthoni who was thrilled with the Kenyan response to the staged production of Cut Off my Tongue. It was performed first at the Ramoma Theatre in Parklands in July 2008; then, due to popular demand, it was re-staged at the National Museums of Kenya, performing to a crowd three times the size of the first run.
And finally, Tongue went to U.K. where nine out of ten of the original Kenyan cast performed both at Hay in May of this year and in London at the Hampsted Theatre and the Centreprise Trust.
“It was while attending the Festival that I got the idea of organizing our own,” said Muthoni who admits the Kenya fete didn’t quite compare with the Welsh one, which annually attracts 150,000 people to a ten day tented showcase of more than 500 events.
“Still, we expect next year’s Hay to be even more successful than this one,” she said.
Meanwhile, Muthoni continues to brainstorm with her team about ways they can turn their StoryMoja books into shows for TV, radio, film, animation, theatre, podcasts and even audio books, including CDs and DVDs.
Already, Oluoch Madiang’s children’s book, In the Land of the Kitchen has been made into a children’s TV show. It is one more event that Muthoni says generates excitement in the local literary world, but it does not necessarily “grow” book sales.
“Our mission is to get a book into the hand of every Kenyan” says Muthoni, who admits she’s ambitious, but she’s also got a worthy cause.
“I think what really got me charged up to launch StoryMoja was seeing how hard Binyavanga had to struggle to start up Kwani!”
Coming up with one idea to promote Kwani! sales, Muthoni suggested the creation of Kwani-ni mini book. “These little Kwani books would extract stories that had been published in the main [Kwani!] book, but sell for half the price. The idea again would be to use existing content but present it in a more affordable form to reach a wider [more middle class] market,” She said.
Muthoni’s biggest concern is build a reading public without retaining a donor dependency. “I don’t want to be caught in a situation of being stuck when some donor decides to stop funding us,” she said. “I want StoryMoja to be successfully for-profit.”
But in order to be a successful ‘for profit’ publishing house, Muthoni knows she has got to promote a reading culture in Kenya and ‘grow’ the book-reading market.
“And the only the way to do that,” she says, “is to be creative and to push the boundaries, which is what we continue to do at Storymoja.”