Nairobi — When Kenya's foremost novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o went into exile in 1982, his books were banned from Kenyan schools. Such were his difficulties with the then Kanu Government that, at one point, it was almost seditious to be found with his books.
Although Ngugi ended his exile in 2004, it has taken three more years before any of his works could be considered for study in schools. On October 23, the Ministry of Education circulated a list of books to be studied in secondary schools beginning next year; among them was Ngugi's The River Between.
And, just as the author's return from exile was marked with controversy, a cloud hangs over the return of the book to Kenyan classrooms. Two local publishers are claiming the rights to distribute it locally.
At the centre of the dispute are East African Educational Publishers (EAEP) and Mvule Africa Publishers. EAEP is the local publisher of the book, having acquired the rights from Heinemann, the original publishers of the book.
On the other hand, Mvule is the agency for Heinemann in the country. At stake are the millions of shillings to be made from the sale of the book. A publisher is likely to move between 80,000 and 100,000 copies a year for a set book. At Sh375 per copy, this translates to more than Sh30 million.
The controversy was sparked by Mvule Africa Publishers who said in a circular to schools and booksellers dated November 20 that The River Between is available from Heinemann Publishers of the UK through them.
The circular was also given to the press. Mvule was apparently reacting to advertisements by EAEP warning students, teachers and parents that its editions of The River Between and Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, "are the only editions approved for use in schools by the Ministry of Education, as they carry important changes."
As a result, there are two editions of the Ngugi book on the market, and this is likely cause confusion among schools and parents over which book to buy.
The EAEP edition has a "School Edition" stamp on it, which on the face of it would appear to lock out competitors.
In apparent reference to this, the letter by Mvule says: "Our attention has been drawn to deliberately false and misleading announcements in the media that there exists a revised edition of this book and that this purportedly revised edition is the only one approved for use in schools."
It adds: "As the only Kenyan legal representative of Heinemann UK, the publisher and worldwide copyright owners of The River Between, we want to advise all concerned parties that there exists no such thing as "School Edition" of The River Between. Any efforts to suggest otherwise stem from dishonesty on the part of persons publishing such information."
When contacted, EAEP showed the Sunday Nation correspondence with the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) - which vets books to be used in schools - indicating the changes to be made. EAEP further showed this newspaper their e-mail communication with Ngugi, who approves the changes.
"The proposed changes do not go against the spirit and letter of the novel. So they are okay. But I would have a sentence, or something on the cover, that says: student edition," Ngugi wrote in the e-mail.
When KIE, through the ministry of Education, released a circular of the books to be included in the syllabus, it noted that "It is very important that schools buy the 2007 Editions of the newly introduced set books because they contain some important corrections."
But in the seventh edition of the Orange Book - which lists the books approved for use in primary and secondary schools in Kenya - The River Between is listed as a Mvule Heinemann publication while the list of approved set books, also from KIE, indicates the same book as belonging to EAEP. In the Orange Book, the price of The River Between is listed as Sh500. In their adverts, EAEP put the price at Sh375.
"KIE urged us to make the book affordable as we would be able to recoup our expenses due to economies of scale," says Mr Muluka, adding that their edition is now selling at Sh370. The question is which publisher has the rights to distribute The River Between in Kenya.
Mr Muluka of Mvule says the arrangement between EAEP and Heinemann is "non-exclusive" and thus Heinemann has the "freedom to bring other copies of the book into the market." And since Mvule are the Heinemann's legal representatives in Kenya, Mr Muluka says they should also sell the book alongside EAEP.
EAEP, on their part, maintain they have exclusive rights to distribute the book in Kenya. Mr Muriuki Njeru, the managing director, showed this newspaper copies of agreements between them and Harcourt Education (Heinemann), which extended the licences for five years from 2004. Among the books included in the contract is The River Between. Incidentally, the contract bears Mr Muluka's signature. He signed the contract when he was managing director of EAEP.