Joseph Ngungiri reviews Kwani? Litfest in the Sunday Nation.


Joseph Ngungiri reviews Kwani? Litfest in the Sunday Nation.


 There can be no denying that Kwani? Trust has what it takes to keep the literary flame ablaze in Kenya for a long time to come.

Ever since they happened on the scene about six years ago, they have been growing bolder and better. And lovers of the written word have been taking notice.

It all started when Binyavanga Wainaina, then virtually unknown in the country, won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing with his short story Discovering Home in 2002. He chose to invest his prize money in promoting writing in his country.

This came at a time when the Kenyan literary landscape was experiencing a fallow period. Binyavanga had a plan for reigniting the now cold literary fires, but he had to do it his own way.

For one, he broke with convention and embraced individuals who conventional literary types would not have touched with a 10-foot pole.

Took in his wings

Binya, as he is commonly known, took in his wing the Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, a hip-hop community based in the slums of Dandora.

And, to cap it all, he founded the Kwani? journal, which even featured graffiti art.

And to ruffle the establishment types even further, he celebrated Sheng, that bastard street language that is much reviled for its corrosive effects on proper English and Kiswahili.

To cut a long short, Kwani? has today become a movement. Even those initially opposed to them today find themselves honoured to appear at their functions.

From the Open Mic (monthly poetry reading sessions) to Sunday Salon (monthly prose reading sessions), the Kwani? gospel is slowly but surely winning followers.

By far the most prestigious literary event to have been brought about by Kwani is the annual Literary Festival (Litfest), which attracts celebrated international literary figures who mingle with homegrown talent every December.

Sadly, and due to last year’s divisive and disruptive election campaigns, which resulted in unprecedented bloodletting early this year, the Litfest did not take place. Incidentally the post-election violence will come into sharp focus during the festival.

This will be in the form of a symposium titled Revisioning Kenya, which will feature 12 visionaries drawn from Kenya and abroad. These thinkers will impart their ideas on how to address the issues thrown up by the post-election violence.

Although the festival is back, it has been moved to August. The writers’ festival will take place from August 1 to 15 in Nairobi and the coastal town of Lamu.

The festival will be in the form of a series of workshops, symposiums, book launches, discussions, retreats, travelling and networking.

One of the star attractions will be Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian who has variously been described as Chinua Achebe’s literary daughter. And it is not for nothing. Chimamanda has written two highly acclaimed novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun..

Half of a Yellow Sun is a different story altogether. Apart from being such a joy to read, the author took the bold step of writing about the Biafran war, which took place more than 30 years before she was born.

And she writes it with the freshness and vividness of someone who was actually there. And, for her troubles, she won the prestigious Orange Prize for Literature in 2007.

Another personality who will be coming for the festival is Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone, whose book, A Long Way Gone, has caused enough controversy in the literary world.

There is also Doreen Baingana, a Ugandan whose book, Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe, won a Commonwealth Prize in 2006, among others.

Another Ugandan, Monica Arac de Nyeko, winner of the 2007 Caine Prize for her story The Jambula Tree,will also be coming. Aminatta Forna will also make an appearance.

She is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her critically acclaimed memoir of her political dissident father and her country Sierra Leone, The Devil that Danced on the Water, was runners-up for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2003.

Her novel, Ancestor Stones, has been nominated for several awards and translated into a dozen languages.

Gambian in Kenya

Dayo Forster, a Gambian based in Kenya, will also be there. Her book, Reading the Ceiling, was short-listed for the 2008 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best First Book for the Africa Region.Most of these foreign authors will be conducting writing workshops at Club Undecided in Westlands at a fee.

There will be all manner of talent at the festival, ranging from journalists, poets, writers to movie-makers. Topping the list of local stars is the other rebel, the mercurial Tony Mochama, otherwise known as Smitta Smitten.

Now, Mochama is not your everyday journalist. He is a gossip columnist extraordinaire, a poet and a trained lawyer. Late last year, he wrote his poetry anthology titled What if I am a Literary Gangster?

There is also Muthoni Garland who, together with five other writers, formed Storymoja, with the aim of publishing and promoting outstanding East African writing. Muthoni is also the author of Tracking the Scent of my Mother, which was nominated for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2006.

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