His parents were teachers at a time when the title ‘mwalimu’ held the highest regard along village paths.
He attended an expensive and prestigious private Catholic school for his lower primary; he was admitted into one of the highest ranking secondary schools in his region (it later went on to become a national school).
Indeed, his very own description of growing up with books lining the shelves and the leisure time to read them, paints the picture of a lad born into the lap of village nobility.
But it is not this that is interesting. What is most captivating about the life of Stanley Alfred Gazemba Navodera, is that rather than happily sit back in the train that would give him an assuredly smooth ride into high society, he leapt off the moving locomotive, rebelliously setting down the other way.
“My dad was determined to create a mwalimu’s son out of me. He wanted me to become a proper professional working in an office, but I rebelled against it.”
For this reason, rather than join his former classmates at Kakamega High School in bursting their spleens to become lawyers, accountants, doctors or engineers after Form Four, Gazemba merrily traversed the country, living a bohemian life of picking tea, making bricks, digging ditches and loading goods onto vehicles.
Gazemba’s preference to dwell in the ghettos (he has lived in Kangemi most of his life in Nairobi) and embrace of the less materially privileged life has likely had the founders of his secondary school — a veritable breeding ground for ‘sons of African gentlemen’ as Barbara Kimenye (of the Moses series) might have put it — turning in their graves.
Kakamega High School has produced a vice president (Moody Awori), speaker of the national assembly (Kenneth Marende), Cabinet ministers and MPs from different parts of the country (Najib Balala, Noah Wekesa, Ochilo Oyako, Newton Kulundu, Bonny Khalwale) and an international footballer (Dennis Oliech), in its time.
The very roots of Gazemba’s disavowal of the privileged life and turning to writing, nevertheless, may have had their seeds in the efforts his father put to making him a young elite, sending him off to boarding school when only in class two.
“I did not like the school; it messed up my childhood because I went there very young. I found my escape from the bells, rules and orders in books. Stories allowed me to fly out of my prison. Naturally, I also started practising telling my own stories.”
While in Form One, Gazemba wrote a Kenyanised version of the Hardy Boys sleuth series, confidently sending the manuscript off to a local publishing house.
He smiles as he remembers. “The editor said I had a knack for writing but I needed to improve and wished me luck. To me that was enough.
I bragged around the school, that I was going to be the next Chinua Achebe. My friends brought me bread to congratulate me.”
After high school, Gazemba spent time working at a flower farm in Kiambu. Then he moved to Mombasa, where he worked as a loader.
After that he went to Nairobi. “This is when I took up my famous gardening. It was actually fun, because I’m a natural farmer.”
Serendipity was to be credited. His employer, former AFP journalist Susan Linee, ended up becoming his mentor, teaching him how to edit his own work and extending the use of her typewriter and library to him.
Gazemba, who turned 40 this year, remained in gardening for over 10 years, a time in which he also wrote fiction and contribute articles to local newspapers.
Even though Gazemba speaks strongly against the pretentious middle class lifestyle, the sophistication of his writing nods to the gift his advantaged upbringing gave him: an easy life with numerous books to read and time to practice to write.
See how he describes tea-pickers walking to work in Callused Hands: “The workers rose from the cluster of wooden shacks straddling the misty river and joining the throng on the cold path dissecting the village, headed for the creaky bridge that crossed the mud-colored river, linking the village to the estate…. One after another they were swallowed into the coffee estate, which spread in a carpet of green up the hillside out of sight.”
Indeed, despite his overt real world attempts at class-suicide, in the world of writing, his credentials as a blue blood are clear.
Literary critics have pronounced his work “the future of Kenyan writing” (This by Dr Tom Odhiambo), literary institutions have jetted him abroad for international forums (he participated in the 2004 Caine Prize workshop in Cape Town, and was International Fellow at the 2007 Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont).
His name has been featured in a list of high ranking writers (the 2014 Africa 39 list where he is among Chimamanda Adichie, Nii Parkes, Chika Unigwe, Dinaw Mengistu, Tayie Selasie, Zukiswa Wanner and Lola Shoneyin.)
Gazemba’s first published novel, Stonehills of the Maragoli, went on to win the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2003, Grandmothers Winning Smile was longlisted for the 2007 Macmillan Writers Prize and an unpublished manuscript, Ghettoboy, was in the top seven shortlist of the 2013 Kwani? Manuscript Award.
To date, the Vihiga-born writer has published over eight children’s stories, three novels, and a few short stories.
With this year’s citation on the Africa 39 list, perhaps Gazemba figured it would be stretching it a tad to continue this lifelong project of projecting oneself as a ‘wretched of the earth’, especially having acquired so much success under his belt. Gazemba shakes his head: “I left gardening to progress in my career, it’s natural. I’m a journalist by training, when you move, you become an editor.” Indeed, Gazemba did buckle down to the motions of pursuing a career by joining the Kenya Polytechnic from where he graduated in 2005, having studied journalism. His new job is as regional editor of a website collating information on music — Music in Africa — which is run by Goethe and Siemens, and headquartered in South Africa.
This new position, where he overseas East Africa like a landed overlord, makes it look like he might soon find himself tipping into the same reviled middle class.
Gazemba’s works which explore themes such as child labour, the exploitation of workers and human resilience, calls for the consideration of a more humane approach by those of higher status to those of lower status that often work for them.
By walking in the feet of the ‘wretched of the earth’, Gazemba attempts to re-humanise the ‘product and productivity’ orientation of the capitalist system and focus it more on the importance of human beings and their worth, rather than simply see them as tools.
“I saw many people get sick when I worked at the flower farm in Kiambu. Many people die because they don’t have good protective clothing and the conditions are not conducive to their health.”
He favours books by writers of the old guard, who, like him, chronicle aspects of sleepy village life and the dusty countryside. His seeking to write in this thread is as though a nod from the world of the collective unconscious that much still remains to be mined of this realm.
He picks out Chinua Achebe, Ngugi, Meja Mwangi, Elechi Amadi, Chimamanda Adichie and Ben Okri, saying: “They are real, they create credible characters.”
This Kenyan writer’s attempt to escape the privileged class and his alternative views on civilisation and modernity are similar to other writers of other ages.
While Leo Tolstoy grew up as a landed nobleman, with acres of inherited land, all his life he exasperated his family with his obsession with peasants, preferring to wear peasant clothing, loudly praising their way of life.
Tolstoy voluntarily freed his slaves before their time, set up schools for their children and at one point had embarked on distributing his property to his servants, before his wife and sons put a quick stop to it.
Dambudzo Marechera is another one who famously renounced conventional living and, after getting expelled from Oxford University, spent his days sleeping under bridges, in doorways and park benches. Walt Whitman willfully embraced the life of an indigent, while Henry Thoreau’s Walden chronicled his experiment in living a more basic, solitary life, away from civilisation.
The urge to escape one’s privileged beginnings is also a common one with mystics.
Stanley Alfred Gazemba Navodera’s father did not manage to steer his son into a ‘respectable’ profession, even though among his children he now counts an engineer, an accountant, a computer technician, a businessman, a nurse, a teacher and a chef.
It is a cruel twist of fate that his generation of men neither understand nor appreciate the role artistes play in societies.
If he did, he would happily add ‘writer’ to the list of professions of his brood he counts off on his fingers before he goes to sleep every night.
Gazemba is married with three children.