Notes from a meeting with Kenyan author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.

Yvonne Owuor doesn’t mince her words. She goes straight for the jugular, without preamble. She asks the hard questions, relentlessly, and demands answers. This is how you develop a sense of what’s missing from the stories you tell yourself about yourself, she argues.

What is your worst fear? Your deepest insecurity? Go back to the most excruciating moments of your life to find that spring of feeling that wants to jut out on the page. Throw it all there, do not walk away. To write truthfully is to live on the edge.

This discomfort isn’t gratuitous: at the heart of…


Have you ever seen or created a meme in your first language?

If that language is isiXhosa or Pulaar, chances are that your answer will be a resounding no. A group of language diversity advocates set out to change this through a coordinated social media campaign, so that nobody feels left out of all the fun the Internet meme culture has to offer. But there’s also a deeper reason.

In many countries, languages that do not enjoy official status tend to be associated with lower social prestige and, consequently, are less likely to be taught, visible in public places, and used to communicate online. …


Here’s why.

I’ve watched so many American movies and series that when I’m stressed out, I catch myself thinking “I need a drink” and reaching for my imaginary crystal flask of whiskey. Then I go have an espresso, because coffee is my drug of choice.

Thing is, I don’t drink alcohol at all. In other words, I’m a teetotaler. Since I’ve spent most of my life in France and Kenya, two countries that have different drinking cultures but both take their booze habits very seriously, I’m used to all sorts of funny and not so funny comebacks when I volunteer this information.


Stop undermining yourself and start living it up!

At the beginning of every year since 2007, I’ve followed a tradition inherited from Kevin Jesuíno. I give the year a title which serves as a guiding mantra.

This year was meant to be ‘Year of Fruitful Creation’ and in many ways, it has been that. But if I could rename 2016 a posteriori, I would say it has turned into ‘Year of Applying for Everything’ and the change of perspective has been enlightening.

There’s always been this voice in my head that says: ‘You are not qualified enough. Who do you think you are? …


Thoughts unraveled by a single sticker (tag: spotted in a mat)

Kencom stage, Nairobi CBD. Photo by Xiaojun Deng — Flickr: Nairobi, CC BY 2.0

Whenever I come back to Nairobi from a trip, I am reminded of all the little things that give the city its flavour. The ngumus and mandazis in their flimsy plastic bags suspended on the mesh of the kiosk’s window take on a golden hue. I find an unexpected fondness for the oversized suits that come in a range of bland colours. Memories of places and food and Nairobian quirks come flooding back: Najmi’s bhajias and home-made chili sauce. A peculiar appreciation for gates. Eastleigh malls. …


How do you know if you’ll ever break free of old mental patterns?

For nearly seven years of my life, my head was full of numbers, and it wasn’t because I was taking advanced mathematics.

The numbers that swirled around my tiny frame and choked me a little bit more every day were a list of calories ingested, calories spent in an hour of jogging, calories, weight, calories, weight, on and on. The need for control was all-consuming. To this day, I still remember the calorie content of many basic food items.

When I was 14, I spent six months in a teen psychiatric ward where young people whose life had veered off…


Germano Almeida’s novel ‘The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo’ takes us deep into the intimate recesses of a Cape Verdean businessman’s life.

It took me a while to remember the full name, Mr Napumoceno da Silva Araújo. Especially the Napumoceno part. But once it rolled off my tongue with all the vowels in the correct order, it became nearly impossible to get him out of my mind.

Senhor Napumoceno — as I’ve come to call him for short — is the central character in a novel that unfolds through the reading of his 387-page testament, in which he recounts in minute detail selected events of his life. …


When the state decides you can’t give your child the name of your choice

In the 1960s, the Manrot-Le Goarnic family became an icon of the movement for the official recognition of Breton names by the French state and ultimately of parents’ right to give their children a name of their choice. Six of their twelve children born after 1955 were denied registration because the couple insisted they should be named Diweza, Sklerijenn, Brann, Adraboran, Garlonn, Gwenn and Maiwenn. Mireille and Jean-Jacques Manrot-Le Goarnic subsequently engaged in a legal battle that culminated in a ruling by a European court granting the six children “European citizenship and Breton nationality”. …


I love Nairobi. But I haven’t always felt this way.

Photo by Meena Kadri (Under Creative Commons license BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I love Nairobi with the kind of love that simmers for a long time, its flavours revealed little by little until you find yourself overwhelmed by beauty. The city happened to grow on me after a rocky start to our relationship.

I sometimes wonder if that’s the kind of story arc others have had with the city. What draws a person to Nairobi and what keeps them here for several years, sometimes a lifetime? I am not interested in impersonal lists of reasons to move to Nairobi or, for that matter, reasons not to move to Nairobi. …


No flash cards required

Learning new languages has become something of a hobby for me. I enjoy the challenge of aiming for that watershed moment when what previously sounded like gibberish starts making sense and you slowly gain access to a new language universe. Getting there takes a lot of effort though, and an essential part of it is building up a solid vocabulary foundation that allows you enjoy varied content in your target language.

Though I grew up in a monolingual French-speaking community, I’ve successively learnt English, German, Thai, Swahili, Yoruba and Portuguese while dipping my toes in a couple of other languages…

Laila Le Guen

Serious things: language, education and technology. Sometimes I spill my guts on the page too.

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