A Conversation with Oyunga Pala on Writing Satire, Love & Going Back To School At The Peak Of His Career

How and when did you get your start in Journalism?

I started writing for the Nation newspapers, Saturday magazine as a feature writer in 1997. I entered the newspaper space and the field of journalism accidentally as a kind of holding ground, while waiting for a ‘real job’. I ended up sticking with the art of writing. I suppose it grew on me and I moved into writing opinion columns and the rest as they say, is old news.

What did you study and was it easy for you to find work after graduating?

I graduated from the University of Nairobi with a degree in anthropology and I was not able to transition into the job market in this area of specialization. I held a few odd jobs as every novice does but the only steady work was the writing that I always treated as a side gig in the first 5 years out of college. Eventually, I decided to jump headlong into a career in creativity, learning ropes and paying my dues.

Did you make a conscious decision to specialize in satire or did it come about as an extension of your personality?

The satire was a result of the context of the times. I started writing towards the end of the Moi reign and we had just emerged from a period of brutal silencing of creative voices. It was not considered smart to be overly critical of the regime and so I also found myself leaning towards satire. One big influence was the Whispers column by Wahome Mutahi. He was a master satirist and when I started column writing, I found my own way of ‘whispering truths’ creatively.

You’ve written a weekly column for almost 2 decades. Have you ever experienced writers block and how did you deal with it?

I have written two columns consistently for about 16 years in total. 10 years with Mantalk in the Saturday Nation and 6 years with Crazy Kenyans in the Crazy Monday Standard newspaper. It has been a good run and I am grateful for the audience that kept me going with their encouraging words during those lean months. Writer’s block is the amateur writer’s go-to excuse for not producing copy. As a professional writer, if you don’t write, you don’t get paid. It is simply a luxury we cannot afford. Writing is a discipline and while we might not always produce the perfect story there is always a story waiting to be told even when it does not meet our ego standard of perfection.

What was the inspiration behind Man Talk and why did you decide to leave it behind?

Mantalk was a response to the times. In the late 90s, the gender debate went mainstream and blew out into a heated battle of sexes in popular press spaces. Mantalk evolved into a platform that articulated the male point of view in a world that had become critical of institutionalized male privilege. However, it was important to state that the male reality was not homogeneous and men needed to challenge the unhealthy demands of gynocentricism and misandry. Eventually after 10 years, I had pretty much said all that could be said on the subject and it was time to find new spaces to expand as a writer and to create room for emerging writers. Jackson Biko who took over the column is one of Kenya’s most celebrated bloggers.

You suffered a motorcycle accident early on in your career, how did that affect you personally and professionally and how did you bounce-back?

I had a nasty motorcycle accident in 2010 that almost killed me. I got knocked from behind by a careless driver. I got off bikes after I had another accident soon after my recovery though I was lucky to escape with just a cut on my face. I ended up leaving Nairobi for my home village in Gem in search of a place that would allow for healing and ended up morphing into a farmer. I was away from the scene for about three years before I was invited back to the city to start a column in the Standard’s Crazy Monday magazine.

Your work spans 2 decades and your Print career has had several iterations; Man Talk, Adam Magazine and now ;These Crazy Kenyans. What would you say has been the secret to your longevity?

I suppose it is fortune of finding the right opportunities that have expanded my writing and the simple understanding that life is a marathon. We just have to keep going. I try not to arrive because in the business of creativity, once you arrive, the journey of discovery ends.

Last April, you spoke at PAWA 254 and during your talk, you described writing as a labor of love, a broke profession. Do you not believe  that Kenyan writers can be commercially successful solely off their writing?

Success is relative. If success means the ability to pay bills, yes, writing can afford one that. However, writing is not a money-making business in the strict sense of the word. It takes years of toil for a writer to arrive at a place of lucrative financial compensation. The craft demands a lot from ones’ spirit and the writer who never discovers his ‘why’ soon realizes that money is never enough incentive to return to the blank page.

In addition to writing, you’ve worked in Radio, at Spielworks Media and you blog. Have you diversified by design or are you just following your passions?

I am a man of many hats and different stages of the career offer different opportunities for exploration and expansion. I came out of the era of the gig economy ; we never had the luxury of one steady job. I had the fortune of working in spaces I am passionate about. My stint in radio was brief but fun and engaging. I am still the head creative developer at Spielworks Media where I help in the development of shows for TV, I edit and curate at theelephant.info, maintain a weekly blog and continue to write for diverse subjects for various publications.

You got married to the beautiful Dorothy Ghettuba in late 2016.  How would you say love has changed you? Has it made you into a better writer?

Marriage slows one down and revs one up at the same time. You become a creature of habit and routine and find yourself hanging around more married couples and shopping for mortgages. The partnership is a source of renewed strength and after years of flying solo, I do not take it for granted that two people working in harmony can achieve a lot more. I don’t know about the effects it has on my writing. Some people say I have mellowed and become deep which is a good thing for a man in their 40s. I suppose time, will tell.

You’re successful and you’ve had the type of career that many young writers dream of having, yet now you’re in Grad School. Why did you decide to go back to school when you’ve already achieved so much?

One of my mentors, Taban Lo Liyong, the Sudanese writer once advised that, a good writer should be married to scholarship. There is no end to learning and one is never too old to learn. I have spent 20 years in the field and it was time to come back to school, brush up on my theory practice and benefit from the insights of a pool of teachers.  It is also quite humbling to find that some of the lecturers are my peers, guys who were a few years behind me in college.

You already wrote a letter to your younger self, so I’m not going to ask you what advice  you would give to your younger self, I’m going to ask instead, given the current state of affairs in the media industry – (heavy regulation, lay offs etc.)what advice would you give to a young Journalist staring out their career about getting ahead and staying afloat?

The first would be ; writers write. Too many writers talk about writing and hardly do any writing. The second is to use writing as an act of resistance and bear witness to the times. Good writers thrive in chaos because chaos is the mother of material. So do not waste energy mourning about the bad state of affairs. Write about them. The third would be to treat the profession seriously, invest in learning skills, networking with other writers and pursuing opportunities relentlessly. In the end, good writing never goes unnoticed.

You can read more of Oyunga’s work through his blog: here.

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