Kenya: By the Book - Omwa Ombara

16 September 2019
interview

Omwa Ombara, a seasoned journalist, was the first female bureau chief of the Standard Group in East Africa. She taught English and Literature in English, and Catholic Pastoral at Loreto Convent Msongari, Nairobi. She lives as a political asylee in the US and is the author of a memoir, God's Child On the Run.

What are the three most memorable books you have read so far, and what makes them so?

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth stole my heart. It is 1400 pages and brilliantly follows an Indian mother's pursuit of a husband for her well-educated daughter. The book has helped me appreciate cultural conflict and diversity.

The River Between by Ngugi wa Thiong'o is a masterpiece. "Tell Nyambura I see Jesus." These words mark the triumph of culture over colonialism. I love its historical perspective capturing Kenya's colonial period. The rivalry between the two villages, Kameno and Makuyu, the intrigues and the love stories and betrayals surrounding Waiyaki and Nyambura, teaches that unity is the key to survival.

Then there's the allegory, Animal Farm by George Orwell. The animals rebel against a cruel human farmer called Mr Jones, hoping for change and equality. Instead, dictatorship creeps in headed by a pig called Napoleon. As a human rights activist, this book is always a point of reference. We strive so much for change but when new leadership sets in, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

How many books on average do you read in a year, and do you have a favourite spot where you read them from?

I read about 50 books a year, one every week. My favourite spot is on the bus and at the bus stop or railway station when traveling to and from work.

Which is your most favourite genre of books? Any reason?

I love memoirs. They are true to life and authentic. It takes courage to share your whole soul with the world and I value that.

What is the size of your book collection as of now? Where do you get them from,and what motivates you to?

Wherever I have lived, I keep a library. I have about 1000 books currently. I buy 4 books in a month and also pick up cheap copies that libraries sell at $0.25 (Sh. 25). Books can be expensive, especially for students. I have always dreamt of having a resource centre where writers could come and chill as they read and write. This dream is still valid.

Which are your two most treasured books and why? Would you lend them out?

The Bible, because of its dual role as a literature and faith book serves my interests well. My Memoir, God's Child On the Run, because it gives me the power to own my story. I do not lend books. People rarely return them. I'd rather buy you a copy.

If you were to become a character from a book, who would you be and why?

Wodu Wakiri the Wag in The Concubine by Elechi Amadi. He creates comic relief in a bizarre atmosphere. We should be able to laugh at our own follies. I do.

If you had the opportunity to meet three authors, dead or alive, who would they be and why?

Prof Wole Soyinka. I am curious as to what drove him to write, The Road and his obsession with life after death.

Dr Stella Nyanzi. Her writings explore powerful political activism using images from the human anatomy. Her writing is antique and monumental and questions the role of aesthetics in literature.

Oprah Winfrey. Her story is an inspiration and her Super Soul Sunday show is warmly educative.

What is that one book you read that was out of your comfort zone?

The Koran. I wanted to read for myself and clarify rumours I had heard about the Muslim faith.

If you were to recommend three books to a 10-year-old, which ones would they be and why?

Land Without Thunder by Grace Ogot, Wendo Tours Nairobi County by Vera Omwocha and Beautiful Nyakio and other Stories by Fredrick Ndung'u. Children need such adventure stories that help them explore so that they can sharpen their creativity and imagination.

Have you ever had a bad commentary about your writing? What did it say and how did you deal with it?

Yes. Criticism is a regular part of a writer's life especially in journalism. There is a sub-editor who could not stand my work. She said I could not write. I did not have to deal with it because when I got a promotion, she resigned.

What are your thoughts on the reading culture of Kenyans in the face of popular culture?

I have not been in Kenya for about seven years now, so I am not in a position to give an informed opinion on this. Still, I would say that as an oral society, we need to work harder to document our stories. I visit bookshops here in the US and find stories about our culture, animals and people written by tourists who have only visited Kenya for three weeks! Writing our own story empowers us and sets the record straight for generations to come.

E-books versus hard copies, what is your preference and why?

I prefer hard copies. I love the feel of the book, the smell of printing paper and I feel a personal bonding with the author, especially if it is autographed. E-book is great especially where there is Wi-Fi.

What was your last read and how did you find it?

Toni Morrison by Jean E. Bashfield. It features the life of the late acclaimed African American author, Toni Morrison. Despite a challenging childhood, Morrison enjoys her role in introducing African Americans to their own heritage. "We have to know the past so that we can use it for now," she asserts. That is a goal many readers, including me can reach.

If you weren't an author and journalist, what would you be?

I'd be a recording artiste. Music is my other love.

What piece of advice would you wish all aspiring authors to keep in mind?

Write not for money or fame but to deliver an impactful message through your story. If your story can change one life, you will have saved the world.

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