• Portuguese-speaking African writers are a rarity to Kenyans indeed
A sunlit Nairobi hosted the inaugural Macondo Literary Festival from Friday to Sunday last weekend at the Kenya National Theatre and Kenya Cultural Centre.
This event was certainly a first of its kind for literary lovers of Kenya and indeed East Africa. It brought to us rare writers from Portuguese-speaking countries such as Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde.
They made presentations alongside their Anglophone counterparts from Kenya, such as Yvonne Owuor of Kenya, Abubakar Adam from Nigeria and Novuyo Tshuma from Zimbabwe. The recent novels of the three contemporary writers continue to elicit critical acclaim. These are The Dragon Fly Sea (2019) by Owuor, Season of Crimson Blossoms (2015) by Adam and Tshuma’s House of Stone (2018), which were available for sale/autographs at the festival.
More interestingly, it can be argued that the extraordinary attraction for many who attended the festival was the three major writers from Lusophone Africa, who were visiting our English-dominated part of the continent for the first time.
They included the Angolan novelist Ndalu de Almeida, who writes under the pen name, Ondjaki, whose iconic novel set in Luanda is Transparent City (2012). Dina Salustio is the first woman to write a novel in the island republic of Cape Verde and was at the festival, too. She represents the women writers of her country, who are steadily being translated into English and showcase their feminist commitment to envoice the women of Africa. Their books are available locally now.
The Mozambican historical novelist Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa attended the festival, too. He is deemed to be one of the most influential African writers today.
Portuguese-speaking African writers are a rarity to Kenyans indeed. It seems that their unique national language is a barrier, making their writings inaccessible to us.
But this is not entirely true, especially to Kenyan students of literature. They encounter Lusophone African literature one way or the other, albeit in English translations.
Think here of the popular literary set book on poetry of the Lusophone African anticolonial struggles for independence. This anthology of poems edited by Margaret Dickinson is entitled, When Bullets Begin to Flower. It is a popular text in varsity literature departments across the country and the region. It is readily available in major bookshops.
Some of the poets from this book, like the first president of Angola, Agostino Neto, are better known in Kenya. His first anthology of poems, Sacred Hope (1986), was a common set book in the A-level curriculum that existed before the 8-4-4 curriculum.
A more recent generation of Kenyans may remember that Mia Couto penned a short story entitled, “The Girl with the Twisted Future”. It appears in a KCSE set book called Looking for A Rain God and other Short Stories from Africa (1995). Couto is a famous Mozambican author, whose style of writing is called magical realism.
The style was made popular by the late Colombian novelist Gabriel Marquez, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982.
Marquez created a fictional Latin American town called Macondo in his famous novel entitled, One Hundred Years of Solitude, just like Ngugi created Aburiria, a fictional country, in his magical realist novel called Wizard of the Crow.
The festival last week draws its own name from the same Macondo, a literary metropolis of wonder.
So, last weekend, the organisers of this wonderful literary event provided an opportunity for locals to interact with this phalanx of rare writers. They covered a wide array of topics, including, among others: literature from Lusophone Africa, narrative democracy, women writers and their arts, violence and youth in literature, role of translation in African literature, histories and historiography, as well as the enduring postcolonial anxieties of identity, belonging or absence of the two, actually.
The three-day event was moderated by a great team. They included Dr Tom Odhiambo of University of Nairobi, Dr Wandia Njoya of Daystar University, Prof Catherine Ndungo and Dr FE Kanana of Kenyatta University and the versatile Dr Mshai Mwangola of the African Leadership Centre.
The international event was sponsored by organisations from Kenya, Germany, Portugal, Brazil and Switzerland, among others. It is hoped that this event will be a permanent fixture on the literary calendar of Kenya, just like the Nairobi International Book Festival, whose 22nd event ran concurrent with Macondo.
Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University