Henry Chakava 1946-2024: The Publisher Who Pricked the People into Consciousness

Chakava is best remembered for publishing some of the giants of East African literature – Okot p’Bitek, Mazrui, Meja Mwangi, Marjorie Oludhe-Macgoye, and most notably (and riskily), Ngugi wa Thiong’o.


Henry Chakava (right) with his friend and collaborator, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in 2015. Photo courtesy: Henry Chakava family.

Henry Chakava’s passing is, without a doubt, the end of an era of a protracted struggle by the first generation of post-independence African publishers to locate the African book industry at the centre of policy-making and practices shaping education and the broad domain of culture in our countries. It could also, fortunately, be the beginning of an era of extended harvesting from the fruit trees he planted, and a reason to celebrate his life and achievements. If some of these reflections appear somewhat personal it is because Henry and I shared the passion and even the pain over the last 52 years, but also some success in putting African publishing on the international scene.

The publishing industry East Africa inherited from colonial rule was based in Nairobi and was entirely British and it remained so for much of the first two decades of independence. Heinemann Education which HC went to work for was one of the important publishers. This fact was an important backdrop to our initial contacts, Henry and I, and the friendship and solidarity that developed between us much later.

HC and I went into publishing the same year, 1972, coming from different backgrounds. He came from academia and joined Heinemann. I joined Tanzania Publishing House after seven years as a Foreign Service Officer. We also came from two neighbouring countries at the time marching on different political and economic trajectories – Ubepari na Ujamaa (capitalism and socialism) – and with a culture of suspicion between them. HC was fond of telling a story about how I ‘kicked’ him out of my office the first time he visited our office, as he put it because he was a ‘representative of a filthy multinational company.’ His choice of words was somewhat exaggerated, but the sentiment was correct. Why would I want to meet a comprador who made money exploiting the masses only to transfer the profits to the metropolitan banks of a foreign multinational?

Fast forward to 1980. HC and I found ourselves at Dakar airport at 2.00 am expecting to be met by conference organisers of UNESCO’s Regional Meeting of Experts on National Book Strategies in Africa. They were not there. Luckily, I speak French and a taxi driver took us to Hotel Atlantique, a ‘Two-and-a-half-Star’ affair. We found out later that morning that it was the hotel where French pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), used to break off his long flights from France to Argentina in 1939. We decided to abandon the 5-star hotel we were booked; this little hotel was a hive of activities of Senegalese petty traders, very lively and very different from East African city life at that time.

Our next bonding meeting was at the 1980 Frankfurt International Book Fair, where we participated in a big protest against South Africa’s presence led by the great Sembene Ousmane, where also Mariama Ba received the first NOMA award for Publishing in Africa with her classic novel, Une si longue lettre (So long a letter). We were to attend numerous conferences, book fairs, and other book events cementing our friendship and our commitment to publishing that has lasted till his passing.

In 1984, the first of several Dag Hammarskjold Foundation Arusha Seminars on the Development of Indigenous Publishing in Africa (dubbed Arusha Seminars) was a momentous event in the intellectual articulation of African publishers’ experiences, the obstacles in their way from their governments, but more crucially, from the web of multinational publishers and their neo-colonial tactics in the textbook publishing sector. At that conference, there were high-class papers presented by two distinguished publishers, Per Gedin from Sweden, and Mathew Evans of Faber and Faber, UK; presentations by the late Amir Jamal and Amon Nsekela, distinguished Tanzanians with government financing and banking backgrounds, and two African publishers, Henry and myself.

Henry’s paper “An Autonomous African Publishing House: A Model” was a detailed exposition of the requirements for the entrepreneur wishing to go into publishing, and he recommended a minimum capital sum of US $250,000. He also covered every aspect of what was needed, from establishing aims, studying and understanding the publishing environment, carefully evaluating human resource requirements, training, book pricing, and markups for profitability and return on investment, and other practical advice on how things ought to be done. If this suggested a capital target way above what most African publishers start with, it partly explains why many such African entrepreneurs entering the textbook publishing sector do not stay long there or only operate on the margins, publishing one storybook or two now and then and hoping they will be recommended as supplementary reader for schools. Occasionally a publisher may produce a high-quality textbook or leverage strong connections, leading to widespread adoption and significant financial gain. Still, Henry’s model remains relevant for publishers wishing to join the existing players in the cutthroat competitive environment of textbook publishing and remain in the business.

As this paper was written in 1984, the technologies that have developed since then do challenge the recommended capital outlay requirement of $250,000. With innovations in manuscript preparation and printing such as print-on-demand, one can start with much less than that. What we are presently seeing is the mushrooming of small publishers and self-publishers who are fostering marginalised fields of knowledge including local language publishing, poetry, and autobiographies. On another plane, we see niche publishers producing serious trade books that even the strictest textbook publishers are not uninterested in.

In another paper presented in the Arusha Seminar series (Arusha II), “Book Marketing and Distribution: The Achilles’ Heel of African Publishing,” Henry was candid and not afraid to be critical of the weak, if not the weakest, aspect of African publishing houses – treating publishing as only producing a book and expecting it to sell itself. He quoted the paraphrased biblical verse, “They light a lamp and hide it under a bushel” which is a relevant observation of the weakness of African publishers’ marketing, sales, and distribution arrangements. Indeed, this is the Achilles’ Heel of African publishing as he colourfully put it. While new avenues of book promotion and advertising have since opened up with the internet and social media, there is still no alternative to field visits, developing and nurturing personal connections with booksellers, librarians, and educational NGOs for selling books and gathering knowledge about the activities of other publishers.

These articles are available in the EAEP publication by Henry Chakava,“Publishing in Africa: One Man’s Perspective.”

Henry’s accomplishments span a wide range, reflecting his deep intellectual background and extensive knowledge of Kenya’s political landscape and trends. These attributes empowered him to successfully navigate the complexities of engaging with the Moi government through the Ministry of Education, as well as managing relationships with other publishers. Despite often toxic dynamics, particularly during his 10-year tenure as Chairman of the Kenya Publishers Association, Henry demonstrated resourcefulness and adeptness in fostering consensus without compromising on the integrity of proposals. His taciturn demeanour, speaking only when necessary, became a finely honed skill. Additionally, Henry held a permanent position on the Council of Management of the African Books Collective (ABC). Unlike many African book organisations reliant on donor funding, ABC transitioned to financial independence, testimony to the strength of the Council and management team’s determination to succeed. Henry’s contribution to that success will long be remembered.

In conclusion, of all that has been said about Henry, and his success as a pioneering African publisher, in my view, nothing exemplifies character, courage, commitment to professional ideals, and loyalty to authors, as well as the integrity of their works, more than Henry’s relationship with Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Moi government.

It took me many years to get the courage to ask him what had happened to his little finger as he was always pulling at it as if wanting to stretch it. The story of his near kidnap and the possible consequences that could have befallen him was humbling enough. However, that he would not cave in and abandon Ngugi, and that he continued to publish him and support him in all the ways that Ngugi himself has written about, is truly heroic. Henry wrote (unfortunately I cannot recall in what publication), that a publisher will not be remembered for how many textbooks he published, or how much money he made, but for what books he published that contributed to awakening peoples’ consciousness and contributing, in however small a way, to their wellbeing in body and mind in a holistic Ubuntu way. It is a tall order for those of us in the industry but it is worth all our efforts. May Henry’s example inspire us and may he rest in peace.

Note: This article was previously published by African Arguments and is republished here under the terms of the original Creative Commons Licence CC BY NC SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/). 

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