Photocredit: Joe Khamisi
You got your start in Print Journalism as a trainee reporter at the Standard Newspaper in the early 1960s. What made you want to pursue a career in Journalism and was it difficult for you to get into the field?
My interest in writing started early in primary school. I would read stories in newspapers and magazines and rewrite them from memory using my own words. My father Francis Khamisi was an avid reader of newspapers and magazines. He was also a writer and often contributed articles to the Mombasa Times and other publications. He was the first African Editor at the East African Standard in 1939. After spending time in politics, he was called back by the Standard to be the Chief Editor of Baraza, its weekly newspaper in 1961. It was while there that I got a breakthrough into Journalism. I applied and was employed as a proof-reader at the Standard newspaper. After about 6 months, I became an intern at Baraza dealing mostly with Letters to the Editor. I eventually moved across to the white-dominated newsroom of the Standard as a cub reporter. The rest, as they say, is history.
In your memoir, Dash Before Dusk: A Slave Descendants Journey In Freedom you talk about experiencing racism in the newsroom as a trainee Journalist and earning your first byline by sheer luck because there was no white reporter available to cover a press conference that particular day. What was it like cutting your teeth in that environment and has what you learnt in those early days, had an impact on your writing style today?
Initially, my job as a junior reporter at the Standard was to receive by phone, stories sent in by reporters and correspondents from the field. Most of the time I had difficulty understanding the spoken English of the white reporters. After all, I was a Form 2 (high school) drop-out. However, there is a saying that you fake it until you make it. One day, a big story broke out and the more experienced reporters were all out on assignment, so I was dispatched to cover it. At the end of the day, it was not a perfect piece of writing but it helped get my feet in the door. From thereon I was assigned to the courts to report on minor criminal cases. Working alongside those experienced journalists gave me an opportunity to learn the basics of turning out a clean written copy. It was certainly a stepping stone that got me to where I am today.
I remember when I used to do things purely out of love. I grew up in a small town that was mostly agricultural and on weekends there wasn’t much to do. We had a large backyard and on sunny days, I would lay out in the grass and get lost in a book.
I went from Thumbelina and The Pied Piper of Hamelin to the midnight feasts and sweetened condensed milk of Mallory Towers to The Sweet Valley and Sierra Jensen series as a pre-teen then on to classics like Little Women and Pride and Prejudice as a young adult.
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.
Photocredit: Mutua Matheka
When did you start writing?
I started boarding school at an early age (9 years) so letter writing was my first exercise in reporting and storytelling. When I wasn’t begging to switch schools or drawing up a comprehensive shopping list, I was sharing stories of my day-to-day life, about school friends and great big plans for the holidays.
What did you study and was it difficult for you to find work after school?
A love for composition then English literature paved the way for a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Nairobi. I majored in print journalism with a goal to focus on arts & culture.
I got my first by-line while still in University. It was in Adam Magazine’s “Travel Misadventure” segment. I wrote about an impromptu midnight drive to Subukia that ended at a bonfire in Nakuru. I wrote two more pieces and had hoped to intern at the publication, when they announced their closure. That’s when I heard from UP Magazine, they had just put out their first issue. I interned there as a fourth year and for about two and a half years after graduation.
How did you get into Journalism?
“Real’ Journalism began when I was hired by The Star Newspaper. For three years I worked with this amazing team on the online desk and wrote articles for another amazing group of people in the Features department. Prior to The Star, I did some reporting when I was in University but I think the real journey began with books. I’m a book dragon (I refuse to call myself a ‘bookworm’).
The natural progression of that, I think is wanting to be a writer. I wanted to be as good a writer as the one’s I had read. So at first, my goal was to be ‘Lydia, the best-selling novelist.’ Then I realized that before I get that huge book deal, I should probably find a way to feed myself, hence Journalism school.