Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 22, July 1998 

 
 

Talking Books: Serah Mwangi interviewed by the Editor

Serah Mwangi is Managing Director, Focus Publications Ltd, PO Box 28176, Nairobi, Kenya. Tel +254 2 600737

When Serah Mwangi, one of the few women proprietors of an African publishing house, reached high school age it was touch and go whether she would be able to attend. When she was younger her father had worked for a family in Nakuru, in the middle of the Rift Valley. In common with other migrant labourers he was provided with accommodation too small for his family, so Serah lived with her mother in the extended family compound in Morana, about 30km from Nakuru. Her mother would visit her father quite often; Serah has some memory of Nakuru, in particular being surrounded by people who spoke a language she didn't understand.

Serah's father could read and write - in order `to read what the white man had put his secrets in, which was in black and white', and he could count his money. `My mother was his bank.' But living apart was terrible. `Everything was geared for efficiency not families.'

Then came Mau Mau, the resistance struggle against British colonialism. Her father took to the forests, coming home only at night for food. During the day her mother was harassed by the home guards, `the buffer between the British and the people'. Eventually her father and those uncles that survived surrendered, `because they saw the family was in danger of being wiped out'. The home guards confiscated everything. `My family was deprived of everything we had, including animals and all that. Women were left on the land without herds. `When I was small I knew the animals, they had names, I loved them.'

There was, of course, no money for school fees. Her teachers looked around for sponsorship and found an Indian couple living locally who agreed to support her through school. The man had a bookshop near the school, and another one in Nairobi, where she went to work during the school holidays, `so I developed a natural liking for books, though I didn't read much'.

In 1972 she went to England to take a degree in Business Studies. Three years later she was back in Kenya, working as an administrator in a school, `doing accounts and other boring things'. She was interested in education, but didn't want to teach. `I was looking for other ways of passing on knowledge.' Soon she went back to Europe, this time to study philosophy of education - in Spanish, which she had to learn from scratch. In 1982 she was awarded her Ph.D in philosophy, for a thesis written in Spanish.

During that time ideas were burning inside her. She likes dealing with ideas: `the world is governed by ideas', and was wondering `how can I make people know the things I have learnt?'. Following on her thesis she went to the University of Navar in Spain to do a summer course on family orientation. Among the people she met there were some Spanish publishers.

At some point she wrote in a notebook `Look into publishing.' `I still have that note.' She wanted to help people develop values. `Especially I was very keen to show Europe the value of African culture.'

Back in Kenya, she started working again as an administrator with a foundation, getting involved in parents' associations and other activities to work out how to disseminate ideas. Meanwhile she had brought with her a Spanish book called Character Building, which was about `how to behave properly, be honest and hardworking'. She thought its ideas would help in Kenya, where corruption was digging deep into the economy.

She began by researching to see if the book might be useful in Kenyan schools. She went to the Ministry of Education, where she saw the permanent secretary and the director of education, who were both in favour of the book. Then she went to schools and talked to headteachers and parents. There looked to be a big market. She first approached her guardian, the bookshop owner. He advised her to publish textbooks instead of this Spanish title, which he said would not sell. Undaunted, she went to see a European woman who had lived in Kenya for many years `and knew Kenyans well', to ask her for advice about translating the title from Spanish. She was taken to an old woman in her eighties, who dictated a letter to a man in Dublin asking if would translate it for her. He wrote back to say he was also interested in publishing the book, offering to organise her rights with the Spanish publisher, and to give her film of the translation.

Armed with this information she obtained a printer's quotation and went back to her guardian. This time, recognising her determination, he agreed to help her. He called the general manager of the Textbook Centre: `Serah wants to publish this book, make the arrangements with her - 5000 copies to start with, you handle the distribution, get the marketing commission, she will take care of royalties for the rights holder.' `So I did my first publication when I didn't have a publishing house.' She used the name of the foundation she was working for at the time as the imprint.

The book was published at the end of 1987. At that time the President was working on a code of conduct against corruption. She had the first copy specially bound for him, with a dedication saying this was the direction Kenya should be going. Word got back to her that he liked it very much. There were also a couple of newspaper reviews. But when she asked the Textbook Centre how the book was doing she was told it wasn't selling. By 1990 only 900 copies had been sold.

At the time she heard this news she was doing a correspondence course in economics. She dropped the course, resigned from her job, and decided to sell the books herself. She bought them at a discount from the distributor, and within two months had sold 2000 copies. That was when she realised that if she wanted to publish books she needed to do it herself.

In January 1991 she started Focus Publications with the help of friends and `a very small amount of capital'. They approached the Dag Hammarskj÷ld Foundation to join the loan guarantee programme and were accepted, publishing Teenagers and their Problems. This was followed by a guide, which they overprinted, selling only half of the 3000 print-run. `I still have the books as a souvenir of the folly of venturing into the unknown without doing enough research.'

Then they started looking into local authors. In 1992 they were given their first unsolicited manuscript. She liked the story but it needed work. The following year the text was ready. She took it to be typeset, organising all the follow-through including the launch. But the typesetter lost the manuscript. Fortunately she had the original; they started all over again.

The book - The River and the Source - finally came out in 1994. By that time she knew about awards, and in 1995 the book won the Kenya Prize for Literature, then the Commonwealth Award for African literature in the category `best first book'. Now they have around 12 titles, waiting for another two to come out. `We don't lose money though we don't make much, but we get a lot of satisfaction.'

Though in Africa `we like talking, not reading', says Serah, `reading is important for Africans from different areas to understand each other.' Focus Publications are going into publishing for children in a big way, partly to make money, `also to transmit our values'. Eight or nine titles are in the pipeline, with good marketing in schools and with parents. She wants the company to carry out research on street children, for example; she is interested in social change. She is looking for entertaining ways to pass on information for children `instead of using charts and other boring things'.

Now she is talking to the other directors about creating a bookstore which encourages people to read, giving them a cup of tea and a chance to talk to staff and to each other. She also thinks they should be publishing in local languages, but it needs a lot of research first.

For relaxation she chooses sports. `If I hadn't been in publishing I would have been an athlete.' Her interest started on the long walks to school, which `they say were hardships but I'm glad about them, they toughened me up'. Now she jogs, plays squash and basketball, and does some mountain climbing. `You need exercise after a day at the computer.' She also likes spending time with friends, listening to music, and these days `I read a lot, I always have a book in my hand, in the car, when I'm travelling'; if not a novel, then a bunch of manuscripts to read. She hates to be idle.

Serah still lectures in philosophy from time to time. `I like to ride above petty differences of tribe and race. I don't like categorising people. We're basically the same. For example, bribes are wrong, wherever you are.' Philosophy has helped her gain a more universal understanding.

There are titles that she can't afford to do now, but would like to see on people's shelves: African novels, women's projects, for example. She'd like to see further research into African history to help solve the continent's problems - e.g. `Why do leaders still think in such parochial ways? Why do we seem to be going backwards instead of forwards? I want to find out what's good, what unites us. We have to do it here in Africa, trying to understand our own past.'

As for being a woman in publishing, there are constraints, but not specific to publishing. `Most of the financing institutions are run by men, the social set-up is oriented towards men.' If she were married, her land would be registered in the man's name, so she couldn't use it as collateral . `Women in Africa are still discriminated against.' If it was a level playing field she would like to go into politics, `not because I'm a politician, but because I'd like to see a few things put right'. But women who do go into politics can't do anything, they have to toe the line, so as things stand she has much more freedom outside parliament.

`The more I've done publishing, the more I'm interested in publishing' she says. `Whatever else I may do, I think I'll always end up in publishing, I think my outlook is so defined now.'

She is a council member of the Kenya Publishers Association and in 1994 was the Secretary. `It's only when we've had women secretaries that we've moved forward!'

If she succeeds in publishing she will have achieved her ambitions. `I'll only publish the kinds of things I want. My objective is to influence society positively. So if I get a manuscript condoning crime, or discriminating against women, I won't publish it.'

She could have written a book on the problems of publishing, especially the first book. Her guardian commented a couple of years ago, shortly before he died, that he had always wanted to give her a book called The Sufferings of a Publisher. She told him she was glad not to have it, or she would have been too afraid to go ahead. He was, she says, very proud of her. [end]  [BPN, no 22, 1998, p 15.]

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