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March 24, 2018

Exploration of Language at Kwani Litfest 2015

Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature prize winners Christopher Bundala Budeba, Enock Maregesi, Anna Samwel and Mohammed Ghassani
Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature prize winners Christopher Bundala Budeba, Enock Maregesi, Anna Samwel and Mohammed Ghassani

Language especially in literature in Africa and the diaspora has been a point of heated discussion with reknown writers like Ngugi wa Thiongo and Chunia Achebe being in the middle of it. The Kwani Litfest 2015 explored this concept of language with the theme “Beyond the Map of English.”

The Kwani Litfest was established in 2006 as a way to bring together leading authors across Africa to explore a variety of discussions through the lens of the continent’s literature from the past, the present and to the future.

This year’s event provided a platform to explore language beyond the discussion of English, and to look at the issues that affect or influence writing in local languages. In a panel discussion on language and its changing relations to the African experience and writing on the continent, one thing was obvious, our writing still bears the colonial legacy.

“We existed more in reference to who we were made into; colonial subjects rather than who we promised ourselves to be or who we ought to have been. Ours was the language divested of authority,” Nuruddin Farah said in his keynote, Celebrating Differences.

Patrick Mudekereza from DRC highlighted that the colonial division of the continent led to the separation of villages into different countries.

“I live 30km north of Zambia, and we are French speakers, and when you cross the border, we have a feeling that the different towns were a big village that was divided,” he said adding that such divisions played an important art in artists writing and choice of language.

That writers would identify themselves as per their nationality instead of the language they speak.

“The challenge now is for us to try to reconnect these divided villages and languages. This is not taken as seriously as it should,” he adds.

This was also the sentiment from Caine Prize director Lizzy Attree, who decried the lack of translation centres as it limits the interaction of languages across the continent.

Talking of the connection between prizes and language, she said: “In a way, prizes in languages work as there are only very few ways for rewarding writers and encouraging them. I would love for there to be more African language prizes, because it is kind of ludicrous they do not exist, and even more ludicrous that there is no interaction between languages across the continent.”

This is one of the many reasons that the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili prize was set up as they had seen a gap in the kind of content they received in other prizes like the Caine Prize.

“As much as Caine Prize accepts stories in translation, it does not cater for stories written in local languages. It has also been dominated by Anglophone countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe. In a sense, there is a huge gap as we do not receive a lot of stories in translation, and we know for a fact that we miss out on so many things,” she added.

The Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize was launched in 2014 by Attree and Mukoma Wa Ngugi to promote reading and writing in African languages. The inaugural winners of the prize were celebrated and awarded at the Kwani Gala on Thursday December 3, 2015. The winners include Anna Samwel for Penzi la Damu, for the fiction prize, and Mohammed K Ghassani for N’na Kwetu for the poetry prize. Second and third prize went to Enock Maregesi for Kolonia Santita and Christopher Bundala Budebah for Kifaurongo for fiction and poetry respectively.

Away from prizes, the importance of local languages was emphasized by South African author Simphiwo Mahala, who highlighted the dilemma facing many writers and publishers in the continent. “There is the sentiment and political reasoning and practicality on the issue of language.”

For him, it took an elderly neighbour having her grandchildren reading his book, When A Man Cries, to her for him to actually start writing in his local language.

But the practicality of writing the book in IsiXhosa was very challenging to him that he could have written two English books in the same period.

In her keynote, Taiye Selasi, the author of Ghana Must Go, called for the acknowledgment of the varieties of English spoken in different parts of the world.

“The language I grew up speaking, thinking and dreaming in, and therefore the language that I write in is English. But it is not an English that belongs to England or foreign in anyway. It is an English that comes effortlessly and unmistakably out of my experience. It is mine.”

She spoke of the need to have literature in different languages and have this literature translated to be able to reach out to a larger audience.

“We need more Lusophone and Francophone literature, and literature written in indigenous African languages, and they need to be translated so that they can be read by global Anglophone audiences. That’s undeniable,” she added.

The same sentiments we shared by Ken Walibora, who was in conversation with Kimani Njogu on his writing in Kiswahili and the status of Kiswahili literature in Kenya.

“Hakuna haja ya kuweka mipaka katika lugha,’ he said referring to the freedom for people to select languages they need to write in and express themselves in. He also decried the complication of Kiswahili texts, saying many Kiswahili writers complicate the language for no reason at all.

Away from the discussion, Fokn Bois, Ghanaian duo were the headlining act for a concert to raise money for Binyavanga Wainaina’s medical fund. Binyavanga was diagnosed with a medical condition that affects his blood vessels to the brain making him susceptible to blockages and strokes.

According to Kwani Trust’s executive director, Angela Wacuka, Binyavanga is currently in India undergoing further treatment.

Farah’s Hidden in Plain Sight, a novel set in the wake of the death of a Kenyan UN worker in the wake of a terrorist attack in Mogadishu; Nikhil Singh’s Taty Went West, a story about an adolescent with super powers and has to navigate dangerous spaces to survive; and Kwani Trust’s journal Kwani 08, were launched during the festival.

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