Pearls And Heels: Muthoni Garland

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Today on Pearls And Heels we feature one of Kenya’s best children’s writers Muthoni Garland. Muthoni Garland is a writer, editor and co-founder of Storymoja. She has published over thirty books for children, two novellas for adults and several stories published in literary journals. Her anthology, ‘Helicopter Beetles’ is available on Amazon as an e book. She is also a storyteller and has appeared on stage in several countries. Muthoni regularly runs workshops, incorporating storytelling, to help writers develop stories for children and teenagers. She was one of the judges for the 2016 Morland Writing Scholarships, and for this year’s Caine Prize for African writers.

Muthoni is a founder member of the writer’s collective, Storymoja, which aggressively preaches the gospel of reading for pleasure. Storymoja runs several projects promoting reading among children, including the bi-annual National Read Aloud, which in 2015, broke the world record of people reading from the same text on the same day at the same time; and the Start a Library’ initiative. Since its inception in March 2012, Start a Library has installed 101 libraries in primary schools.  For more information or to donate, please visit: http://www.startalibrary.org. Storymoja also organises the Storymoja Festival in Nairobi (2017 dates Wed 27th Sept to Sun 1st Oct). Please check out www.storymojafestival.com or www.storymojaafrica.co.ke.

  1. Describe your typical day?

In the morning, I respond to emails in the office.  Later in the day, I usually attend external meetings with clients/partners or push and production peeps at Storymoja about various tasks, plans and promises to clients. Late afternoon and evenings, I either attend industry events or edit manuscripts or write – mainly non-fiction at the moment.

I always read for about an hour in bed before I sleep. Most Saturday mornings I either run workshops or rehearse storytelling. I also sit on the board of two unrelated organisations that suck up a lot of headspace.

  1. What did you want to be when you grew up?

At age 6-8, I saw myself as a policewoman. I loved the uniforms, especially the hats! I made my siblings march up and down the corridors of our house in Dundori. In high school, I wanted to be a writer, but my parents were not prepared to pay good money to educate me in a ‘dangerous’ hobby. It became an absolute no when Ngugi was forced into exile. Studying business administration (major in marketing) was a compromise.

During my fortieth year, I moved to Egypt when my husband was posted to work there. To kill the boredom of being ‘only’ a housewife, I took a  fiction writing course online, and through an online critique group, met Binya and other African writers who became significant figures in the literary world. But it was recognition from the Caine Prize that helped me ‘accept’ that writing was a valid career for me.

I got into publishing because the type of books I wanted to read (quality writing from Africans) were missing from the scene. But the reality of our poor reading culture and resulting poor market for adult books came close to cutting short the publishing dream. Although I grew up deeply rural, reading has always opened doors for me, and given me the language to articulate my needs. Getting books into all our children’s hands is critical if we are to develop a more inclusive, knowledge-driven society… thus Storymoja’s skew towards children’s books.

  1. If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?

Nothing. The pressure to make money for school fees would still apply so I’d still start my career in marketing / market research. Plus, I still apply what I learned in that career in my business today.

4. What would you say are the top three skills needed to succeed at your job?

  • Creativity to generate solutions to problems, to see opportunities where others see nothing, to innovate.
  • Persistence is a must as there are innumerable steep obstacles to producing and selling books.
  • Financial literacy to ensure what we earn does not end up in a leaky bucket and to ensure we give Caesar only that which is his.
  1. As a professional how is it working in the Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?

Nairobi is my favourite city on earth (and I’ve been to many around the world). I love its vibrancy, its vulnerability, its try-hardness. I love the way I feel accepted in my ghettos – literary spaces and family.

That said, Nairobi needs to be safer for women.  And less corrupt cops please. And Nairobians should think bigger, eliminate ghettos of thought – encourage professionals in different fields to meet regularly to stimulate multi-dimensional innovation and problem solving particularly of public problems. Yaani, the middle classes need to engage and influence delivery of public services so Nairobi becomes a more attractive, cleaner, safer place to live.

  1. What motivates you?

Idea that I can use my brain and energy to make an impact in an area that matters dearly to me – the education of young people.

  1. How do you define success?
  •  Raising kids that respect you yet want to hang out with you.
  •  Laughing with the hubby.
  • Great health.
  • Starting circa 20,000 libraries – yaani, a library in all public and low cost schools in Kenya. Now that would be real success. The rest is a journey. And afterwards, we reset goal to Africa-wide deliverables.
  1. Who has been your greatest inspiration?

My dad who made us write book reports on every book we read from when I was four. As we inherited a colonial’s library at home, many of the books were B.O.R.I.N.G. tomes on agriculture or pheasant shooting in England. Now I speak English so well that few believe I really grew up in Dundori.

  1. What is your favourite aspect of your job?

Reading aloud and storytelling especially to children in public or low cost schools who are often surprised how enjoyable and enriching story books can be. Wawa, nothing beats watching their eyes getting all big and shiny as they get captivated by a story or figure out an insight from it.

  1. What would you say are the key elements to being successful?

Same thing my mama told me. Work hard. Be good.

  1. What advice would you give somebody just starting out in your line of work?

Be clear what you want. Cost it and proof the concept so you are sure it can pay the essentials. Then persevere through the hardships.

  1. What has been your most satisfying moment in terms of career?

The memory of eating with Wole Soyinka at the 2014 Storymoja Festival still gives me goosebumps. I tried to speak to him but my brain went blank and refused to feed my mouth. Yaani, I just stared, while Auma jabbered with him like they were life-long mates. That is the trouble of worshipping a human being for their talent. Only meeting Toni Morrison could top that feeling.

  1. What makes you happy?
  • My children’s joy.
  • Meeting really switched on Kenyan kids.
  • Storymoja growing up, making a difference.
  1. What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?

My hobbies are my work. I walk in Karura every weekend. I also love to swim and do Taebo.

  1. Where you see yourself in around 10 years?

I will be doing what I do now. Maybe we will be at 20,000 libraries later. I will be 65 then. Insha’ Allah.

If you would like to interact with Muthoni you can find her on twitter at @MuthoniGarland.

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