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February 22, 2019

The Annual StoryMoja Literature Festival Is Here With Us Again

It is that time of the year again. Not rockstar bashing – Bob Geldof lost his daughter, and if that stops even Jane Bussmann, it will stop me, too. And the latest do-gooder thing I heard from Bono was so snoozemaking, I rolled over and went back to sleep. No, it is my other favourite: Literacy!

A Kenyan writer, Okwiri Oduor, won this year’s Caine short story award – again. It is a bit like the marathons where you can have any (insert city name) Marathon, but it will inevitably be won by East Africans so, people of the world, back off. For Kenya, this is great news. And it again prompted a bit of discussion on the local publishing industry.

One argument was that if you are an African writer, you would have to leave your country, physically, or at least in the way you are represented and published, if you want to become commercially successful. I think there is some truth in this. A couple of years ago, when I was first introduced to Miles Moreland, one of the main sponsors behind the Caine Awards, I wondered why the award ceremony was held in the UK rather than somewhere on the continent. But part of the reason was to bring African writers closer to the British publishing market. And this makes sense: Making money as a writer is difficult anywhere in the world, but you need to seek out the big markets (And doing that won’t stop readers in your home country from reading you).

Unless your book becomes a text book, the local Kenyan market is, relatively speaking, teeny tiny. And with that, a publisher can not really reinvest in producing good books. Of course this is also a chicken and egg situation: would people in Kenya buy more Kenyan books if they were better? Or if Kenyans bought more local books, would publishing houses be able to invest more in writers and quality? If people do not read good material (this is, I realise, a fairly vague concept, but religious/self-help/motivational/get-rich-quick books do not count), their writing is typically weak, too.

As i have argued plenty of times before, right here, that is not just an issue about entertainment. If you are the sensitive type, taking a look at what university graduates write on social media, your head will explode: There is a whole generation that can not string a sentence together. This is not just a spelling issue. This is not just an issue of horrifying a prospective employer. If you learn by rote, and never venture out into the book world, then this is bound to affect your ability to express yourself, your ability for complex and abstract reasoning, and also your ability to acquire knowledge.

One of the reasons why StoryMoja started the annual Litfest was to nurture a market for ideas and books, to show that these things are both fun and good for your head. Moreland’s foundation has given them funding this year, and Teju Cole and Wole Soyinka have shown enormous good will after the festival was cut short last year when the full horror of Westgate emerged on Saturday afternoon. Cole is coming back because he wants a full Litfest, Soyinka says he is coming to support it in the aftermath of Westgate.

If you are a CEO around here, you should be all over this like a rash. These, my friends, are your potential human resources: People who wish you a ‘nyc tym’, fail at logic 101, and use their mobile internet for Twitter, but not to look up information. Is that what you are looking for? If you are a hotel or airline CEO, don't you think that with the right promotion, this could be a massive tourism event? Corporate Nairobi, where are you?

And no, I do not get paid by StoryMoja. Once or twice a year, I suspend cynicism and support a cause.

PS: So Nairobi Governor Dr Kidero and his deputy have Twitter accounts. And they tweet. That is all good – digital government and such things. I have, however, lost track of how many times I have asked them on Twitter why the Westlands roundabout traffic lights do not work anymore. Cold shoulder, every single time. Dr Kidero, are you out there?

The writer is an independent country risk analyst.


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