Njeri Wangari is a Kenyan poet and blogger based in Nairobi, Kenya. I recently interviewed her at Nairobi Java House in downtown Nairobi and later continued the interview via email. In this interview, Njeri discusses how she has been using her blog, Kenya Poet, to promote artists and art scene in Kenya. Through her blog, she says, she has given Kenyan poetry a larger meaning and exposure.
Question: When did you start blogging?
I started in 2006.
Q: Why did you decide to blog?
I had been writing poetry for sometime and had not found a publishing house to publish my work. This was frustrating because I wanted to share my thoughts on various issues of concern with people. I cannot remember how I came to know about blogging, maybe it was through Google. But once I found this amazing tool I started to experiment immediately. Initially, I was not sure what to write or what to put there. The first item was about people who inspired me. I wrote about Maya Angelou [the African American writer and poet] then later I realised that a blog is a tool to share your personal interests. I am interested in art, literature, African, jazz and Neo Soul music and poetry. I started doing features on my blog about writers and poets in Kenya and elsewhere. My first feature was on Okot p'Bitek [the Ugandan poet and writer].
I realized later that I needed to update my blog more often and it was not easy to do that with my full time job. I asked myself why not do reviews of art events that I frequent? So I started art reviews. The reviews drew more traffic to my blog as some would have photos accompanying them. At that time there were no online resources offering information about arts in Kenya. One had to check the weekend newspaper, which only featured major events . I later on decided to post information about upcoming events and also tried to find more information about the artists going to perform and with time, this drew more traffic to my blog than even my poetry as I could not post a piece everyday as I could with other art information. There is, however, an interesting aspect, after my poetry performances I would get enquiries on where my poetry can be found and I simply refer them to my blog. You will therefore find those who visit my blog specifically for news and information on art and music and those who visit just for my poetry.
Q: What is the difference between the reviews that you do and the ones on weekend newspapers?
Newspaper reviews are too formal and most journalists have no or very little knowledge of the subject matter especially when it comes to non mainstream art events like poetry performances and underground hip hop and emerging forms of music. I realized that a lot of reviews that were appearing on mainstream media was mostly criticism of poetry and the quickly growing art scene that is seeing a lot of first time poets coming out to perform. In addition to this, journalists tend to look at poetry in the lenses of written poetry and have no understanding of spoken word and poetry performance. WAPI [Word And Pictures] has received criticism from mainstream media while it gives a space to many upcoming artists and has contributed a lot to the growth of hip hop and other forms of art not just in Kenya but it is now in more than 5 African countries. I also noted that mainstream media reviews lacked the personal style of review that is more detailed, descriptive and does not have to be a certain number of characters.
Q: As a poet what do you think is the role of art blogs?
The role of art blogs is to give a space to creative writers to express themselves, be heard globally and get feedback as well as critique and support. Blogs help to create greater understanding of various forms of art and appreciation.
Q: What value have you added to Kenyan poetry as a blogger?
I have given poetry a larger meaning and exposure. Events such as the ones that take place in various spots e.g Rhythm and Spoken at Dass Restaurant, utenzi at the Wasanii Restaurant and others would never be known were it not for the information that I give on the blog. Poetry lovers would probably not know very promising Kenyan poets like Tim Mwaura, Obaladan, Number 8, Neema Mawiyo and many other great poets. I have inspired many upcoming poets to not only share their work on stage but also to start blogs. The weekly newsletter that I send to subscribers about art events and artists has also helped maintain a fanbase of dedicated followers of art and poetry. I am currently hosting some upcoming poets temporarily as I help them start their own blogs. Their poetry can be found on my blog with brief biographies about them and their contacts.
Q: Do you have poets who come to you to ask about blogging?
Many! Poets complain about not getting published. I tell them why wait for publishers while you can do it on your own? You don't need highly technical skills to start a blog, what you need is to know what you want to do with your blog. There is Neema, for example, who is also a poet and actor and blogger. She blogs at Ngwatilo. I urged and inspired her to start a blog, something she was finding too involving. Bildad Mathenge and Connie Mutua are currently working towards starting their own blogs as I temporarily host their poetry on my blog.
Q: Since poetry is both written and spoken, do you have poets in Kenya podcasting their work?
You can listen to some Kenyan poets on MySpace. I recently registered a MySpace page. Imani is poet who is using MySpace where you can listen to her poetry. Grand Master Masese who is also a poet and a performing artist is also utilizing myspace
Q: What about video?
There are a few videos on YouTube that have been taken during various poetry performances. But nothing substantive so far.
Q: So you would say that blogging has measurable benefits to the local art scene in Kenya?
Yes. It has has made a huge impact. Blogging constantly about poetry has made more people aware of Kenyan poets. It has given exposure to upcoming artists who would rarely get coverage in the mainstream media. Through our blogs, people realise there are many entertainment options and more people get to know more about the Kenya poetry movement. Posting upcoming events and doing a review of the same has also helped quite a lot in disseminating information to art and poetry enthusiasts. It has also helped market upcoming artists who have not yet made their names in the art industry.
Q: What are you views on blogging in general in Kenya?
Blogging here is still in the phase where most people think you have to be in the IT industry (read geek) to blog. A friend of mine, Daudi Were who blogs at Mental Acrobatics made a comment at our recent meeting regarding the upcoming African Bloggers Conference, and I quote him “blogging is the most ‘ungeeky’ thing one can do on the net”. I am in the organizing committee for the conference dubbed Kelele '09 that aims at bringing African bloggers together for the first time in Kenya later this year.
Q: What about the content on Kenyan blogs?
Well, most of it is about politics, which is sad.
Q: Why sad?
People have allowed politics to be the only topic worthy discussing and blogging about despite the fact that there are many other issues affecting Kenyans every day, which need to be part of public debate. It is not like other things in society are not happening. There is more to life than politics. Again, blogs are about one expressing him/herself freely and I refuse to believe that we can only express ourselves politically.
Q: What other topics would you like to see in the blogosphere?
There are many as everyone is unique and so are their ideas. What I tell people is to write about things you have a passion for. I have a cousin who attended a recent barcamp event held in Nairobi. He is a medicine student in his final year with an interest in IT. He realized that he can write about medicine because there are many issues related to medicine that would be of help to ordinary people. Reading his blog is more refreshing as there are things maybe we are afraid to ask doctors. I'd like to read a blog of a struggling drug/alcohol addict, the memoirs of lawyers, the struggles of a lesbian in Kenya, etc.
Q: What are you best Kenyan blogs?
Bankelele: Simply because i don't like financial news written for financial analysts! I want financial news for ordinary people. I want to know what economic meltdown means. Bankelele breaks things down.
White African: I like IT stuff. He writes stuff that you will not find in newspapers.
Sports Kenya: I am not very much into sports but he writes very well, he puts sports into historical perspectives and gives behind the scene sort of stories to sports news making headlines
Gukira: I like his command of the English language.
Thinker's Room: I think he has been busy lately.
Q: What are your long term plans?
I want to elevate my blog, Kenyan Poet, to a unique online brand that represents all forms of art on Kenya.