Potatoes, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the beauty of simple things

Thursday January 13 2022
KFC pic
By Charles Onyango-Obbo

It is almost always the small stuff, the simple things.
In Nairobi, fellows couldn’t get their French fries at outlets of KFC, the American fast-food restaurant chain.
Turns out, because of the Covid-era disruption of global supply chains, the potatoes for making the chips weren’t arriving in Kenya from abroad. Customers were told they could make do with alternatives. If you have gone with young people to KFC, you know that you don’t come between them and their French fries.
So, how come there were no potatoes? Turns out KFC imports them from Egypt, the Kenyan potatoes not making it for their fries. Now, we didn’t know that. There are potatoes everywhere in Kenya. That they could be considered not good enough for KFC, is scandalous.
Naturally, a headline on BBC online said “How KFC in Kenya got fried over its chip shortage”.  
Feeling disrespected and abused, Kenyans rallied. As someone put it flippantly on Twitter, there’s at least one thing that unites Kenyans after all – waru (potatoes). There were endless recommendations for KFC, including that it should import its customers too. Reeling from the public relations debacle, KFC promised to give local potatoes a shot.
For the big picture folks, the potato fiasco was likely about something larger; transfer pricing, a practice where a division or subsidiary of a company in another part of the world usually, charges another for goods and services provided. It is a controversial practice, used to dodge taxes, or to transfer foreign exchange abroad, but also to gain efficiencies.  There’s no knowing the broader business reason KFC imports potatoes from Egypt, but last week it found itself playing chicken.
All that wahala, simply because someone didn’t get their French fries. Otherwise, KFC would have gone on happily importing potatoes from Egypt.
KFC’s potato kerfuffle, followed a few days after a niche story on Forbes online, about the most translated books in the world. It was based on work by Preply, an international language learning service that links live tutors with students,  which analysed data on translated titles to derive a list of the most translated book by a native author from each country of the world.
On Africa, it threw up a big surprise. Turns out the most translated African literary text is Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s short story/fable The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright. It has been translated into over 63 languages. Chinua’s Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which had been the most translated African book for ages, has been dethroned, coming in second with just over 57 translations. Third is Somali writer Wasit Dirie’s Desert Flower, with over 39.
Those who every year keep nominating Ngugi for the Nobel Prize for Literature don’t have The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright top of their list. It is, to his impressive body of works, what French fries are to KFC. It is not the chicken.
Yet, this fable, about organs of the body arguing with each other about which one of them is more important, and aimed at children as much as adults, is up there in the translation rankings, shading not just Things Fall Apart, but the more meaty Wizard of the Crow, Devil on the Cross, Petals of Blood, A Grain of Wheat, The River Between, and Weep Not, Child in a list of the great man’s writings. The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright leads down another intriguing path. It was first published in English online (Ngugi originally wrote it in Gikuyu) in March 2016, by Nairobi-based pan-African digital publisher Jalada. Now it is a colourful illustrated book.
Except for the literature buffs, most East Africans probably don’t know Jalada. It’s an unassuming hidden gem, and it is surfacing some delightful, eclectic and quirky writing from young East Africans, and indeed other Africans, who could shake literary trees in the years to come.
Beyond the stories, I always look out for their author descriptions. Carey Baraka, a writer from Kisumu, and author of Finance Lessons from My Mother, we are told, “sings for a secret choir in Nairobi”. Gathoni Ireri, author of A Catalogue of Loss, we learn “most days drinks tea (black, lots of sugar)”. Abdirashid Diriye Kalmoy wrote Maandeeq and Monsters, is a “Red is who jumped from the sunny and red-soiled playing fields of Mandera’s Bulla Mpya Primary School to Nakuru Boys School rugby playing grounds. He is an… aficionado of Jungian psychology and Sufi spiritual poetry and writings”.  Ugandan writer Clare D Kyasiimire, among other things, is “a stay at home mother of three, married to one man”.
Ahmed Shayo, author of “Forgotten” is a Kenyan currently residing in Kampala and working as a freelance software developer. “He is a monger of kindness, love, worship and service to family and…strives to be a good father and husband in future.” There’s beauty in the simple and small things. And many big things, and problems, always start small.