Le Carre Novel Spooks Kenyanbooksellers

By Crawley, Mike | The Christian Science Monitor, March 6, 2001 | Go to article overview

Le Carre Novel Spooks Kenyanbooksellers


Crawley, Mike, The Christian Science Monitor


If you want to buy the new novel by bestselling author John Le Carre in Kenya, you'll need a secret Swahili password to get it.

"The Constant Gardener" is so controversial here that most bookshops are afraid to sell it. It takes the whispered phrase moja shamba, the Swahili words for "one garden" to finally produce it at one shop.

A clerk fishes the book from its hiding place in a cardboard box and passes it to the customer already wrapped in a brown paper bag. "We have to be quiet about it," the bookseller says.

Set in Kenya, Mr. Le Carre's novel paints an unflattering portrait of the country's leadership, and booksellers fear that by selling it, they will run afoul of the country's political elite.

While there is no official government ban on "The Constant Gardener" - nor have government figures spoken publicly about it - the manager at a bookshop in a Nairobi shopping mall says, "It's a banned book. Anyone who keeps it, if you get caught, you'll have a problem."

"It's too sensitive for us to stock," says another bookseller, smiling uncomfortably and ending the conversation abruptly.

When other booksellers are asked for the novel, they drop their voices, look around nervously and say they have no copies and no plans for getting any.

The booksellers' reluctance stems from the government's intolerance for freedom of expression, says Namwaya Otsieno, editor of Expression Today, a monthly paper published in Nairobi.

"The bookshops are highly compromised," he says. "They have been used to ensure that certain material deemed sensitive by the government doesn't reach Kenyans."

Some bookshops are owned by businesspeople with close links to the government, Mr. Otsieno says. "They would not want to stock anything that would jeopardize their relations with the people in power."

Le Carre's novel contains a few references to President Daniel arap Moi and Richard Leakey, the son of famous paleontologists who now heads Kenya's civil service. While Mr. Leakey is depicted as honorable, the comments about the man who has ruled Kenya for 23 years are far less complimentary.

The novel characterizes President Moi as being antagonistic toward gays and aid agencies. His government is called "terminally corrupt" by the character Sandy Woodward, a British diplomat. "Ministers and officials are diverting lorry-loads of food aid and medical supplies earmarked for starving refugees," Woodward says. …

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