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Prof wins prestigious Kenyan literary awards
November 7, 2007

A Calvin faculty member has won a duo of prestigious Kenyan literature awards.

Nyambura Mpesha, a professor of Kiswahili at Calvin, has won awards in two categories of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. The honor, awarded biennially by the Kenya Publishers Association, recognizes the best in Kenyan literature.

Mpesha, a native of Kenya, won the first prize in the Kiswahili children’s fiction category for Hanna na Wanyama (Hanna and the Animals) and the third prize in the English Children’s Fiction category for Far, Far Away.  

The Office for Multicultural Affairs will host a book reception for Mpesha in the Alumni Board Room on November 19 from 3 to 4:30pm. Refreshments will be provided.

“It is a great honor,” said Mpesha, who heard about the awards from her publisher. Hanna na Wanyama tells the story of Hanna, who loves both Tomi, her dog who escorts her to school, and Pusika, her cat who waits for her at home, but she longs to have more animals. “She’s trying to negotiate with her dad so she can have more animals, like a rabbit or chickens or a parrot or maybe even a tortoise,” said Mpesha. After her father takes her to visit a wide assortment of animals, Hanna, unable to choose a new pet, finds herself contented with her dog and cat.

Mpesha wrote Hanna and the Animals at the request of Phoenix Publishers, the company for whom she has authored several books. The book is intended not only to tell a story but to teach the Kiswahili language, which is taught from grade one through high school in Kenya.  

She had already been thinking about writing a story about a girl who wanted pets when her publisher proposed the book, Mpesha said: “We don’t have a lot of written stories about pets as you do here. African children in the cities don’t see a lot of animals. Children in the rural areas do. And this Hanna is living in a city.”

Far, Far Away, which is used to teach English in the primary grades, is based on two African folksongs. “One song is in the language Kikuwu, and the other folksong is in Kihaya. Kihaya is my husband’s language, which I have learned, and Kikuwu is my first language,” Mpesha, who is married to a native of Tanzania (and a Calvin professor of economics and business) explained.

Both songs, though they take different approaches, are about a little bird. “What intrigued me was the way the two communities focus on this bird. I couldn’t let that bird escape. I had to catch that bird somehow,” she said about the genesis of her story.

In addition to writing children’s books and teaching, Mpesha has also written a bibliography of African literature and done research on oral literature. It was the oral tradition in which she was raised that inspired her to write. “I loved reading. But I was also brought up hearing my grandmother tell stories,” she said. “I felt I needed to share stories.”

Mpesha is concerned that the oral tradition in her native land is slowly dying out. “Because storytelling in the home situation is becoming less and less, I’m feeling that children are needing to read more and more,” she said.

While she is gratified to have won awards for her work, Mpesha is not sure when she’ll actually be able to pick them up. “I could have picked them up on the 30th of September, but I’m a long way away, and I don’t think that they provide for that kind of travel, so I’ll have to go when it’s convenient to pick them up,” she said, laughing.

~written by Calvin staff writer Myrna Anderson

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