Interview with Children’s Author of African Stories Christopher Okemwa

By Zion Rufus

To celebrate Africa Day, Editions Lifestyle will publish a series of interviews with esteemed children’s book authors by the UN SDG Book Club African Chapter

Christopher Okemwa, Author of ‘Sabina the Rain Girl.’
Christopher Okemwa is an author and Editor of several literary works in Africa and beyond. with a zest to support and encourage young girls in Africa.
In 2015, his novella, Sabina and the Mystery of the Ogre, won the Canadian Burt Award for African Literature. its sequel, Sabina the Rain Girl, which was selected for the UN SDG 2 Zero Hunger reading list, is fast becoming a popular novella among young people in Africa.
Christopher Okemwa has written eight books of poetry which have been translated into 15 different languages including Armenian, Chinese, Greek, Norwegian, Finnish, Hungarian, Arabic, Polish, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, and Serbian. He has translated four literary works of international poets from English to Swahili.


 Question: How long have you been writing/ creating images for children’s books?
Answer: I have been writing since the age of 15 when I was in form one. I recall my English teacher came to class one day and called me out. She was concerned whether I was the one who had written my composition or whether someone else did it. This female teacher was amazed when I answered in the affirmative. She praised me and assured me that I was going to be a writer. I self-published my first book in 2004.
Question: What inspired you to take up the challenge of submitting to the African SDG Book club?
Answer: To have people know and read my works.
Question: The main focus of the SDG Book Club is to inform and educate the children about the principles and themes of the UN sustainable development goals. Can you describe briefly how you were able to create a fusion of entertainment, education, and information?
Answer:I taught in Standard One as a primary school teacher for close to ten years. During that time, I created stories, skits and songs for my pupils. It is from that exposure that I acquired the art of story- telling for children. I am now able to derive materials and skills from my past experience. The entertainment, education and materials for my novels come naturally to me because of that low-primary school teaching experience.
Question: How do you carry out research for your book?
Answer:I first gather sufficient facts around my subject. I also talk to people so as to get insight and more information. I relate my characters to the information and facts that I have gathered. I create and imagine my setting and story-line alongside the information and facts I have been given.
Question: So far, what has it been like, being a writer?
Answer: It is not easy to be a writer. Sometimes you experience writer’s block and you brood for days, weeks and months without inspiration to write. And when the muse visits, you have to seek for time for inwardness and you need find a conducive atmosphere in which to write. With family at home and students waiting for you on campus, those moments for meditation are elusive.
Question: What was your dream job/ambition when you were younger?
Answer: From my young age, I used to love the word. I started writing a novel while I was in Form One. My former classmates say that I carried a huge novel around all the time. Poems and stories I found in novels amazed and enthralled me. At an early age I knew I was going to be a writer or a poet or a playwright or something.
Question: What do you like to do when you are not writing/ drawing images?
Answer: When I am not writing, I teach drama and poetry at university level. I also nurture young up-coming poets, journalists, novelists, actors and actresses, etc.
What were the challenges you faced when writing the book?
Answer: The main challenge while writing Sabina the Rain Girl was being able to capture the right atmosphere or a suitable aura in which the story could evolve, move and breathe. The air of fear, terror and horror was hard to paint in words. I finally got it—and that is why the story is appealing.
Question: Describe how you were able to build the main character of the story?
Answer: To create a story an author has to balance fiction and reality. I formed the character from the many campaigns I have run for the promotion of the girl-child in the Abagusii community where I come from. I also sourced materials from the stories I used to hear when growing up about amanani (ogres) and the far-away land in which they lived. Combining the two aspects helped me build the main character, Sabina.
I further built her by providing obstacles she had to surmount to succeed. I placed her in dangerous situations and made her face dangerous people and wild animals on her way to and from the land of the ogres. She had to cross rivers, hills, and she had valleys to reach and she had to come back from the land of the ogres. All these were intended to build heroism in her.
Sabina is brave and determined to succeed on her mission. She is also depicted as an intelligent girl, she is able to dodge people and escape their bad intentions. When she returns to her community with the tail of an ogre, rain falls again in the land that had been facing drought, suffering and deaths.  She becomes a heroine, a celebrity.
Question: Is there an underlying story, or the book was basically a figment of your imagination?
Answer: I grew up hearing stories in my community about amanani(ogres) and the far-away land in which they lived. I think, although I am not sure, these recollections of the past, coupled with my zest to promote the girl-child in my community impacted my story.
Question: What was the inspiration for the story?
Answer: My campaign for the support of the girl-child in my community. I have been yearning to write a story in which the girl-child is seen as a heroine, at least for once: a story in which a girl-child performs acts of valour only expected from a boy or a man. We have many heroes, but too few heroines in real life and in fiction. This came as a good opportunity to create a heroine.
Question: What advice would you give to young readers across the continent?
Answer: Young readers can be heroes and heroines in their community, in their country and in the world, just as Sabina is in her community. They can perform deeds of valour and save their own communities. They can come out on top in the world. With determination they can achieve; they can conquer; they can rule the world. And they can be celebrated just as Sabina is celebrated in my story.