By Amanda Nechesa
Frank Njugi is a Kenyan culture journalist, poet and writer. An alumni of the Nairobi Writing Academy, his work has appeared across numerous platforms, such as African Writer Magazine, Afrocritik, The Standard, and many more. He was long-listed for the Akachi Chukwuemeka Prize for Literature in 2023, as well as being a 2023 Sondeka Awards nominee. He currently serves as the managing editor for Salamander Ink Magazine.
When a friend or someone you know announces that they are releasing a book, a collection or a micro chapbook in this case, there’s always two reactions that immediately follow. One is a glowing admiration of them (aww, look at that! They did it! They are living their dream!), and the second is a minor feeling of contempt towards yourself (aww, look at that! Unlike me, they are actually doing it! What am I doing with my life?).
I must thus admit I felt a twinge of envy when Frank Njugi announced the release of his first micro chapbook — Risto Za Maswara. Thankfully, the feeling was only a twinge, easily surpassed by my admiration for him.
A Managing Editor for Salamander Ink magazine, a culture journalist for The Movee, and a myriad of publications on his back, it’s hard to believe that Njugi would still feel the pinch of elation that one feels when they add a new publication to their name, but he does. This is, after all, his first micro chapbook.
“First achievements are always a delight for not only myself but any writer out there," he says after I congratulate him. "Coming from a place where opportunities for publishing pamphlets and any form of chapbooks are rare, I feel really lucky to have had the opportunity.”
Risto Za Maswara, which loosely translates to The Tales of Bad Luck, is part of Konya Shamsrumi Press' Gazelle Project (third edition). An African poetry collective excited about everything poetry, the Konya Shamsrumi Press established the Gazelle Project as a way of helping poets earn a wage while at the same time building a vibrant African poetry community.
Their third edition, also dubbed as the March Gazelles, was published on 20th August 2023 and features five micro chapbooks: Ifunanya Georgia Ezeaono’s Droplets, Anastesia Orahi’s Between My Folds, Jide Badmus’ Blood Currency, Iliya Kambai Dennis’s Litany of Longing, and of course, Frank Njugi’s Risto Za Maswara.
When asking Njugi if being published in the collection was something he had been eyeing for a while, or if it was a serendipity of the moment kind of thing, he says:
“I am a very deliberate person. I only tend to go for opportunities I have had time to work on, reflect on and also research about. So yes! The Gazelle Series was something I aimed to be featured in since I discovered it.”
Exploring the Multilingual Aspect and Tracing Childhood Memories
For the title of the micro chapbook, Njugi chose to explore the multilingual aspect in his poetry — a first for him. Risto Za Maswara is a Sheng expression, and him using the creole language mostly associated with Kenyan urban youth should come as no surprise, seeing as he is also a Kenyan urban youth.
However, as a page poet, Njugi mostly writes in English, so it was curious to see him deviate into the language, and to do it so boldly as to name the title of his micro chapbook in Sheng. He explains that he grew up speaking semi-urban Sheng more than he did Swahili or English.
“Sheng has always been prevalent in my works, the problem has been finding platforms willing to publish poetry with the multilingual aspect. That's why the works I have published have not boldly showcased the creole. Otherwise my poetry always has that aspect , although not seen. I am just grateful that the editor at Konya Shamsrumi, Carl Terver, finally gave me the chance to reveal that side to my poetry.”
Apart from introducing the multilingual side of his poetry, the title also serves as a mirroring of the essence he is exploring — not only for him but also for his people. This essence is nostalgia, and in Benthic, one of the poems in Risto Za Maswara, Njugi traces back to his childhood in Naivasha town, Kenya.
According to him, Naivasha is ripe with challenges and beauty in the same breath, and his poetry is all about describing this bane and beauty concurrently. This means that nostalgia and memory also play a major role in his work.
“I believe nostalgia goes hand in hand with memory," he says. "The micro chapbook is a nostalgic description of the memories I have, and as the title suggests, memories of constraints; either mine or that of a third party I have witnessed.”
These memories are also witnessed in another one of the poems, Bereavement. According to Njugi, he wrote it as a description of a personal grief and was an attempt at trying to describe the details of a mourning and the bane a loss caused him.
The Narrative Style and Selecting Poems for Risto Za Maswara
As a poet, there are many styles that Njugi delves into when he is writing. For Risto Za Maswara, he chose a narrative style filled with metaphors. The reason for this is simple: The Gazelle Series, which the micro chapbook is a part of, is an exploration of stories, and Njugi believes that the style was significant in revealing the tales he wanted to tell through the poems.
But how did he “find” the right poems that fit into the narrative he wanted to express in the first place? Did he select them from an already-written set or did he have to write them from the start?
“At first, as I was writing each one of them, I was not aiming to combine them into a pamphlet. It was only when I thought of submitting to the Gazelle Series that I went back to find suitable poems among my previous ones that were suitable to what I wanted to explore.”
The result of this was ten poems for the micro chapbook, some of which will be turned into a podcast recording by the Konya Shamsrumi Press. As a winding remark, I asked Njugi why he thinks someone should buy Risto Za Maswara and what they should expect to experience if they do so.
“The micro chapbook is an exploration of essences," he says. "And every human essence is relatable to another in a way. Reading the poems offers a mirroring of essences one can relate to.”
Risto Za Maswara, along with the other four microchapbooks of the March Gazelle Series were released on 20th August 2023, and are available for purchase here.
About the Writer:
Amanda Nechesa is a writer and poet from Nairobi, Kenya. Her work has been published in The Kalahari Review, Salamander Ink Magazine, WSA-K Magazine, Qwani Anthology and long-listed in the Kikwetu Journal 2022 Flash Fiction contest, among others. An alumni of the WSA Creative Writing Academy, Amanda is also a contributing writer for Erato magazine.