The maiden issue of Kenya's first literary magazine carries a smoldering tale of a taboo romance between two Kenyans -- one ethnic Indian, one African. They cuddle behind the city's Indian haunt called Diamond Plaza. They discuss race and class. They swoon over his Swahili rap music and her homemade spiced kebabs "in a coup of cultural diversity," the author writes.
Deeper inside the stylish journal, which arrived in bookstores this month, is a parody of the city's corrupt and potbellied mayor and an "Editor's Rant" column that asks if the government values intellectual and artistic pursuits.
Kenyans say the energetic and provocative 291-page quarterly called Kwani? -- which means So? in Sheng, a slang mix of English, Swahili and several tribal languages -- is an exciting sign of new freedom for writers. Booksellers used to be terrified to sell anything more contentious then East African coffee-table volumes on wildlife or the commissioned and glowing biography of the autocratic former president, Daniel arap Moi.
Moi stepped down last December after 24 years in power. Veteran politician Mwai Kibaki won the presidency, the first change of power ever witnessed by more than half of this young country's population. In the euphoria, people declared the birth of a new Kenya.
"It's not a new country overnight," said Binyavanga Wainaina, the journal's dreadlocked editor, who was sipping Kenya's Tusker beer at an outdoor pub in the heart of Nairobi. "But it is a chance for us to start new. This is the first time that Kenyans are defining themselves from the ground up, not from the top down. For me, it's the first time Kenyans are ahead of their politicians."
Today's Kenya, nearly 10 months after the election, is a complex stew in which old practices exist, and sometimes flourish, side by side with evidence of change. Kenyans expressed concerns that elected officials were sliding back to Moi's heavy-handed ways when Crispin Odhiambo Mbai, a senior official of the constitution review commission, was killed earlier this month in what the opposition said was an assassination. Mbai, a professor, was arguing for cutting back presidential powers.
Three newspaper editors were arrested for publishing leaked confessions of suspects in the case. The journalists were released, but the murder remains unsolved.
Still, young Kenyans, like those who write in Kwani?, which is printed in English, say the mood has changed, if not the mode of operation by government officials.
"It's been such a long time for writers in Kenya," said Yvonne Owuor, who won the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing for a story about Rwandan refugees in Nairobi published in the literary journal's first issue. "For political reasons, I feel so strongly there was an aching depression that made it difficult to be creative. People lost hope. They said, 'Why bother?'
"But now there's a wonderful energy, and a lot of outsiders feel it," she said as she drank a beer alongside her editor. "It's infectious. We aren't going to wait for the government to change."
She wrote her story, "The Weight of Whispers," after she was encouraged by Wainaina. He won a Caine Prize for his novella "Discovering Home," a tale of self-consciousness as a young African.
After studying commerce in South Africa, "and failing badly at it," Wainaina said, he came back to Nairobi three years ago. He went around telling friends, "Just write, write, write," recalled Alvas Onguru, who responded by writing the story about the Indian-African romance.
Onguru has a day job writing advertising copy, mostly about the four-wheel-drives driven here by expatriates and rich Kenyans, many of them government officials.
But he yearned to be more creative.
"He told us that in the new Kenya, you can talk about real issues," Onguru said of Wainaina. "You can talk about race and express yourself politically. So many friends and friends of friends who dreamed of being writers came out of the woodwork. Others wrote new things since they were really inspired and excited."
Filmmakers from Nairobi, hip-hop singers from the coastal city of Mombasa and creative writing students from western Kenya started submitting stories and poetry. So did untrained fiction writers who had not completed high school but had a passion for telling stories, Wainaina said. Others were recruited by Wainaina and other editors who were spreading the word at bookstores.
"We want to discover as many creative Kenyans as we can," Wainaina said. "Kenyans used to think they couldn't be too radical, couldn't say anything that might question authority. Since colonialism, we have been told how to think. I think most people are thrilled that those days are gone. It's time for Kenyans to bring out their work and define themselves."
Through his efforts, writers are emerging.
Kenya's largest newspaper, the Nation, has a Saturday humor column for women called "Flakes." The articles are lively and filled with tales of cheating men, debates over marriage to polygamists and tips on how to wash dry-clean-only clothing over charcoal.
But the author, Kate Getao, is a stirring political poet. She has been recruited to write for the journal's next edition.
"She is actually Kenya's best poet," Wainaina said.
The magazine includes photography, poetry and short stories, capturing the energy of the Nairobi art scene's urbane youth, who are known as hipsters. In the diverse mix is a dialogue among women at a Nairobi hair salon in 1970 discussing their role in society; a satirical essay on how to become a macho European Kenyan, known here as a Kenyan Cowboy; and a short story about a coastal romance in Mombasa.
"We want to be relevant," said Kairo Kiarie, a marketing executive for Kwani? "For so long the older generation dominated. Now, young people out there have worldviews that are very different."
The journal is partially funded by the Ford Foundation, which awarded a grant because of the lack of opportunity for writers in East Africa. So far 3,000 copies have been printed and about half have been sold. Each copy costs $6.50, a hefty price in a country where many people earn about that in a week. But eventually the journal editors hope to donate copies to libraries and universities.
So far the journal has been distributed only in Nairobi and in a few chain bookstores in Mombasa, a problem the editors say they hope to solve over the next few issues. The editors also are trying to enlist writers from more rural areas of Kenya by traveling the country and asking for submissions in local languages.
Meanwhile, Wainaina is pushing the writing as far as he can. The next issue will contain an essay critical of the new president and his government.