From the 12-18th September I was away to Nairobi for the Storymoja Hay Festival. The Festival is the partnership between the Kenyan publisher, Storymoja, and the Hay Festival, a UK based literary festival that partners with people around the world to run literary festivals in their own countries.
The first event I had was with Nigerian Lola Shoneyin, author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. We spoke to a group of school children about how we write, why we write and many other questions they threw at us.
I sat on two panel discussions. The first one was titled “Content and Technology: Digitisation, E-publishing and Innovation”. As anyone who regularly reads this column knows, I have a lot of hope that e-publishing is a godsend for writers on the continent. I got the opportunity to speak about the recent publication of my Kate Gomolemo ebooks on Amazon and the experience I’ve had so far. I also spoke about the FunDza Literacy Trust that I write for in South Africa that sends out stories to its members via cellphones.
The other panel discussion I was part of was: “The Writer and the Reader- Who are the Contemporary African Authors Writing For?” The managing editor of Kwani?, Billy Kahora, was the moderator. On the panel was Kenyan writer, Claudette Oduor, Nigerian writer Jekwu Anyaegbuna and myself. Some of the more contentious issues discussed included if we write to an audience and if that compromises our artistic integrity and if we describe ourselves as African writers, a label some writers from the continent don’t want. It was a lively discussion that I thoroughly enjoyed.
I also ran a writing workshop for some teenagers from a local school. We practiced writing stories from different points of view, in first and then in third person. In my last session I read my picture book, Lorato and Her Wire Car (Vivlia) to a group of young children and their parents.
While there, I was also interviewed on one of their television stations. It was a 70 minute interview on a show targeted to women viewers where we discussed a wide range of topics. Also in that interview was a man who runs a dance academy in Nairobi. Though I don’t normally write poetry, one of the presenters found a poem I wrote on my blog and she had me read my poem while the dancer performed an improv dance to go along with it- on live TV! To my astonishment it was quite beautiful.
There was a fantastic line-up of international writers at the Festival. In an attempt to learn more about writing poetry, I attended two workshops run by the UK based poet Lemn Sissay. Many of you might remember him when he performed in Gaborone as part of the British Council programme Power in the Voice. I also attended an interview in which Giles Foden, the author of the novel about Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland, was in discussion with Kenyan writer, poet and actor John Sibi-Okumu. And I managed to catch just the last bit of Chinese author Jung Chang’s Wangari Maathai Memorial Lecture which was part of the festival. Other international writers on the programme included American/Ethiopian author Dinaw Mengestu (Children of the Revolution) and UK based Precious Williams author of the memoir titled Precious.
One of the most interesting sessions I attended was an interview of Miguna Miguna the author of Peeling Back the Mask: A Quest for Justice in Kenya. Miguna was a senior advisor to the prime minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga. Miguna joined Odinga’s team enthusiastically thinking that the Prime Minister was a new leaf for the country, the man to lead them to a more equitable and honest Kenya. But quite quickly he began to see the chinks in Odinga’s surface and though he attempted to advise the Prime Minister, his advice fell on deaf ears. He left his job (first suspended and then asked to come back, an offer he refused). The book is a memoir of his life and his time in this administration. It has met with a strong backlash in the Kenyan community. At at least one event for the book, stones were thrown at the author. In the event I attended, the auditorium was pulsing with emotion. It is indeed a book that has Kenyans polarised. Miguna makes the point that if the country is to go forward, it must do so with knowledge. Though many Kenyans believe that Odinga is the best they have, Miguna feels that Kenyans should not compromise, that they should demand what they deserve and that the book is a way to further transparency and democracy. I’ve yet to read the book but I was very impressed with the robust debate.
I had a fantastic time in Nairobi, my only regret being that I wish we could have such a vibrant literary community in Botswana. But as friends have assured me, it will come- one day.