I walked into the bookstore and spotted the owner behind the counter. We made eye contact and I moved toward him. With a quick glance around, I leaned in and said, in a self-conscious half-whisper: "That book that everyone wants -- do you have it?"
The man shook his head. "Ahh, no more," he said. "Too hot, bwana, too hot."
The sold-out book in question is It's Our Turn to Eat, the story of whistleblower John Githongo's crusade against political corruption in Kenya, written by the veteran British journalist Michela Wrong. The publisher calls it a political thriller -- "a gripping account of both an individual caught on the horns of an excruciating moral dilemma and a continent at a turning point."
So why the coded language and "Spy Game"-style intrigue at the bookstore? Wrong's book, released in the UK last week, portrays President Mwai Kibaki and his ethnic group -- despite pledges to clean up one of the sleaziest bureaucracies in the world -- as bent on making themselves rich and keeping power at all costs. Githongo, who fled the country after uncovering details of a $750 million scandal involving fraudulent security contracts, has the goods on some of the most powerful people in the country, according to Reuters:
We are told that, as Githongo’s investigation deepens, the circle
of suspects widens to include many senior officials, members of
the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s biggest, to which Githongo and
President Mwai Kibaki belong. When he made his findings public
in 2006, Githongo was vilified by critics for betraying his tribe in
exposing "Africa’s Watergate."
Kenya's main newspapers have already run excerpts of the book -- though perhaps not the most damaging sections. Its publication comes at a particularly sensitive time for the political elite, with public frustration mounting over corruption scandals, police killings and general mismanagement by the "grand coalition" government.
Rather than seeing sleaze cleaned up, Wrong wrote in the London Times last week, the "new" Kenya is drowning in it. She makes a direct connection between kitu kidogo, the "little something" bribes that characterize most Kenyans' dealings with cops, meter-readers and bureaucrats, and the widespread political violence that engulfed the country last year. Wrong thinks it could be even bloodier in 2012, the next time Kenyans vote.
Laden with all this uncomfortable truth, the book appears to be a bigger symbol than some want to bear publicly. The bookstore I visited is the only one in town known to be carrying it, and the store owner doesn't display it on the shelves. You have to buy it under the counter. Even that, said the owner, made him feel "too exposed" and more than a little scared. I was told by a friend that, if I went in there, I shouldn't mention the book or writer by name.
Still, the store quietly sold all its 300 copies last week. More are expected within days. I hear a massive pdf file of the book is circulating in Nairobi. And journalists and diplomats shuttling between here and London will have no trouble carting back copies in their luggage. Kenya's feckless political elite has no hope of silencing a book this hot.