Below is the short speech I gave at the opening of the 17th Time of the Writer in Durban on the theme of the festival- “freeing the imagination” inspired by Binyavanga Wainaina’s inspirational videos.
I thought now with the state of the arts unravelling around us, we might think again about how the arts nurture creativity, and how creativity is required for everything we do, and how in the current climate, where solutions feel limited, creativity is exactly what this country so desperately needs.
For writers a prescribed imagination is death. But sadly, in Africa, from every corner, there are threats trying to curtail what we can think, who we can be- and therefore -what we can write.
Even the simple act of saying- I want to be a writer- is smashed down and destroyed.
A writer? Be serious. Go be a doctor, an engineer, a nurse.
In Botswana, where we have no degree programme for writers in the entire country, I’ve been told that the vice chancellor of our only university at the time was once presented with a proposal to start a creative writing programme.
He said- what does Botswana need writers for? This is a perfect example of how the lack of imagination in Africa is killing us. How the colonisation of our minds is still strong and vibrant- and deadly.
The need to conform in every way is very strong in our societies.
Those who step away from the expected path are brave indeed, to fight against such a wall of resistance takes courage and stamina.
But that is exactly what we most desperately need. Sadly, we clamour to walk the same disastrous, worn paths of the colonisers.
Even when we see where they are heading- the fateful end- we insist it is where we must go, too. Why?
Threats to our imagination and the wonderful array of ways all Africans can live and think are everywhere.
They come from the news stories international media houses choose to show about Africa. They come from the stories international publishing houses choose to publish from Africans.
They come from the fire churches that are setting rules about who and who is not a true African.
They come from our leaders with their pandering to international organisations with vested interests that have nothing to do with the lives of ordinary Africans.
And they even come from us- the writers.
As writers we make decisions about the stories we write, and we must interrogate those decisions.
We must be sure that we are writing our story. Each and every one of us is unique, and our stories are required to assist Africans to find all the wonderful, magical ways our imaginations can travel.
This idea that Africa is one huge, homogenous continent is a fallacy. As Chimamanda Adichie has said, the falseness of a single story is dangerous and destructive. We are wonderfully diverse.
I’m an African. I’m a Motswana- but who would have pictured me when they created a mind picture of who a Motswana was?
I must step forward and correct that, just like all of us must step forward and correct these mistaken thoughts, these artificial parameters that tell lies about each of us.
We need to make sure our stories and our imaginations fly free and unhindered by anything. As Binyavanga says in his wonderful videos- we must not be obedient.
We must not photocopy. Botswana is not Europe. Why do we try to make it behave as if it is?
I love how Africans are trying their best to find new ways to solve our problems- our problems -with publishing.
We have books and stories on cellphones such as Fundza and Ever Egg and Bookly.
We have Paperright that prints out books anywhere on copiers, in places where there are no bookshops. These are African solutions to African problems. This is us freeing our imaginations.
If Africa is to survive, as Binyavanga says, we need a diverse ecosystem.
Every oddball is required. Every person hovering at the margins must shout to be heard, they must demand their place.
That’s the new Africa and writers need to be at the vanguard.
It is our responsibility.