Five years ago Hilary Ngweno began a weekly news magazine that promised to report critically on events in Kenya and elsewhere in black Africa.
It wasn't only Ngweno's shortage of funds that made the project seem unlikely to succeed, or that the Weekly Review's editorial staff numbered just two, or that Ngweno's credentials as editor seemed unlikely -- he was raised in the Nairobi slums and studied mathematics and physics at Harvard.
The problem was more basic, for in most of black Africa critical comment is carefully controlled by governments, and often not tolerated at all. There are exceptions, notably Kenya, Nigera and Ghana. But even in these countries the line between government booster and independent commentator can be a fine one.
Most people who read the first edition in February 1975 were certain that the Weekly Review would not last a month. Half the original press run went unsold. The advertising community -- which was and still is controlled by foreigners -- stayed away in droves, unwilling to give its support to anything that might nettle the government.
Yet Ngweno and his wife, Fleur, gave a party recently to celebrate the Weekly Review's fifth anniversary. The attorney general was there, praising the magazine's contribution to Kenya. Ambassadors, members of Parliament and most of the foreign press corps were there as well.
The Weekly Review has yet to turn a profit -- "though I can now see the day when we'll be in the black," Ngweno said -- and advertising still accounts for only 20 percent of the content. But circulation has risen to 35,000 including 1,000 foreign subscriptions, and the magazine has received international and local recognition as a publication of unmatched editorial excellence in black Africa.
In addition, Ngweno and his over-worked staff of eight publish a Sunday newspaper, the Nairobi Times (circulation 20,000), and a children's magazine, Rainbow (5,000). Ngweno's modest publishing empire comprises what are believed to be the only African-owned and African-managed independent newspapers and magazines south of the Sahara. All are published in English.
"I've written things that have angered the government and nothing has happened," Ngweno said the other day in his rented offices above Moi Avenue. "I don't know how much further I could have gone and gotten away with it, but certainly there is a government tolerance toward criticism in Kenya that is absent in most African countries."
Ngweno's political analysis is so astute that some diplomats base their reports to their governments almost exclusively on what they read in the Weekly Review. The publication also examines issues that are left untouched in most African countries -- income distribution, tribal rivalries, rising unemployment, the performance of parliaments.
There are three reasons, Ngweno said, why the Kenyan press has been allowed to remain freer than that in other African countries.
First, any attempt to control the media would throw jitters into the foreign community, which controls a considerable part of the economy. Second, Kenya's two largest daily newspapers are part of large, foreign-owned businesses that have extensive interests in East Africa. The Daily Nation is owned by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the international businessman and spiritual head of the Ismaili Muslims; the Standard is owned by the powerful Lonrho conglomerate.
But most important, Ngweno said, is that Kenyan politicians have learned that there is no such thing as government control; there is only control by a particular faction of government. When that happens, the group that is out of favor loses access to a medium for reaching the public.
"The radical left was forced out of the Voice of Kenya in the 1960s," Ngweno said, "and the first thing its members did was to come to the imperialistic press to complain that they were out in the cold; no one was reporting what they said."
In 1962, after graduating from Harvard, which he attended on a scholarship, Ngweno joined the Daily Nation as a reporter, at a salary of $200 a month. He soon drifted on to several better-paying jobs, but eventually returned to the Nation and became its editor-in-chief. The paper was staffed largely by British expatriates in those days.
He quit two years after becoming editor, and founded a satirical magazine called Joe.
"I was taking the editor's job too seriously," he recalled. "I was caught between the pressures of publishers and government. There was just too much business at stake that I didn't understand when I took the job."
The Weekly Review was born when Ngweno sold his interest in Joe. The news magazine is aimed unabashedly at the educated upper class. Its editorial positions are conservative by African standards and are unwaveringly tough on apartheid and superpower intervention in African affairs.
In 1977, Ngweno received the John D. Rockefeller Award, given annually by the Rockefeller Foundation to men and women under 40 who have "made an outstanding contribution to the well-being of mankind."
Ngweno used the $10,000 prize to pay off some of the Weekly Review's debts.