REIMAGINING AFRICA'S PAST

Top writers engage history through literature at Macondo Litfest

Literary enthusiasts can only hope that this is the first of many in the years to come

In Summary

• Two books in translation were launched for the first time in Africa

• There were more than 10 panels with writers, as well as storytelling and musical performances

Novuyo Rosha Tshuma, Njuki Gathethwa, Dina Salustio, Jethro Soutar and Wandia Njoya during a panel at Macondo Literary Festival
Novuyo Rosha Tshuma, Njuki Gathethwa, Dina Salustio, Jethro Soutar and Wandia Njoya during a panel at Macondo Literary Festival
Image: OTIENO OWINO

Kenyan publishers like to reap where they did not sow. That was author Peter Kimani’s response to an audience question at the Macondo Literary Festival held from September 27-29 at the Kenya National Theatre.

The speaker had asked why the most beautiful books in book stores were those published elsewhere.

 

Kimani’s latest novel, Dance of the Jakaranda, was first published in February 2017 by Akashic Books in the United States.

 
 

A year later, it was published by Telegram, an imprint of Saqi in the UK. Until recently, no Kenyan publisher had snapped its rights.

But Kimani had sent the manuscript simultaneously to the US and several Kenyan publishers.

He heard from the US firm after three weeks, yet is still waiting for responses from Kenya.

There was no one from any of the local publishers in the sizeable crowd listening to the panel on the history of stories.

Perhaps they were at the Nairobi International Book Fair organised by the publishers’ association, and which was held concurrently with the festival.

Yvonne Owuor, author most recently of The Dragonfly Sea, was on the panel with Kimani.

 

Her latest novel was published in March in the US but is yet to be published locally.

 
 

This moment captured the entire spirit of the Macondo Literary Festival. No topic captured by the theme 'Re-imagining Africa’s Histories through Literature' was taboo.

FIRST EVER

It was the first time a literary festival in Nairobi brought writers from the Portuguese-speaking world alongside their Anglophone counterparts.

Literary enthusiasts were treated to workshops in writing, translation, filmmaking and radio production.

Two books in translation were launched for the first time in Africa. There were more than 10 panels with writers as well as storytelling and musical performances.

In addition to the Kenyan writers Owuor, Kimani and Chief Nyamweya, there were 13 other guests: Ondjaki (Angola) Geovani Martins (Brazil), Dina Salústio (Cape Verde) and Yovanka Perdigao (Guinea-Bissau).

Others were Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (Mozambique), Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria), Jonny Steinberg (South Africa), Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Zimbabwe), writer and translator Jethro Soutar (Portugal) and filmmaker Joao Viana (Angola/Portugal).

Kenya performers Ogutu Muraya, Makadem and Sitawa Namwalie were also featured.   

Festival co-founder Anja Bengelstorff said the focus on Lusophone writers was because in the last six years, more books had been translated into English from Portuguese.

This, she said, had “opened opportunities for readers of English to also read writers from other parts of Africa whose work was not accessible to them due to a language barrier”.

Also central to the festival was the question of Africanness. “How and if Africa is a home. What is the African identity? How can we discuss Africanness if we don’t know other regions that speak other languages?”

Festival founder Anja Bengelstorff moderates a panel with South African writer Jonny Steinberg.
Festival founder Anja Bengelstorff moderates a panel with South African writer Jonny Steinberg.

ILLUMINATING PANELS

The panels were engaging and illuminating. They shed light on aspects of history that subvert official narratives.

Whether it was Kimani spilling the beans on Jomo Kenyatta selling out on the Kapenguria six — he apparently was paid £650 (Sh 83,000 ) and had conjugal rights — or Novuyo talking about the Gukurahundi massacre in Zimbabwe; one felt there was still more that we do not know about our histories.

Jonny Steinberg perhaps had the toughest task, carrying South Africa on his back and having to respond to questions of xenophobia, while he was at Macondo to discuss his literary work.

Dina Salústio talked about the wonderful work Cape Verdian women writers are doing in her country.

Abubakar Adam held the audience captive, telling the story of how violence in his home Jos became at first paralysing but later the seed that germinated his novel Season of Crimson Blossoms.

WORKSHOPS

On the first day of the festival, small groups of participants were treated to four workshops.

The History for Radio workshop led by Michael Schweres sought to find how Kenyan history can be developed for listening audiences.

Through an inquiry-based approach, a number of themes and questions came up. What is the meaning of history? Which histories are privileged? Why is history important? Participants left with several possibilities for radio stories.

Peter Kimani’ Writing History workshop emphasised the need for in-depth research, patience and honesty. But more than just getting the facts right, the craft ought to be the vehicle that delivers them in an engaging and captivating manner.

Kimani said biographies and autobiographies by Kenyans are self-serving and often conceal the darker sides of the subjects.

Joao Viana, known for always making a feature and short film pair, sought to decolonise the history of film with participants.

The Filming History workshop interrogated the work of African filmmakers, including Ousmane Sembene, considered among the greatest to come out of the continent.

BOOK LAUNCHES 

To introduce the audience to works by Lusophone writers, there were two book launches. Cape Verdean Dina Salústio held the world book launch of The Madwoman of Serrano, her first novel to be translated into English.

Brazilian sensation Geovani Martins also launched his short story collection The Sun on my Head. Both were sold out by the time the festival was ending, as were Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope and Ondjaki’s Transparent City.

The massive sales underscored the importance of festivals in connecting writers to readers, and the desire for books in translation.

Abubakar Adam (Nigeria) Yovanka Perdigao (Guina Bisau), Geovani Martins (Brazil) and Tom Odhiambo.
Abubakar Adam (Nigeria) Yovanka Perdigao (Guina Bisau), Geovani Martins (Brazil) and Tom Odhiambo.
Image: OTIENO OWINO

CAPTIVATING PERFORMANCES

Ogutu Muraya is perhaps among the most accomplished performers of his generation. Those who missed out on his storytelling session need to look for his next show.

Ogutu delivered an electrifying performance rich in history, while telling the story of some of Kenya’s greatest runners.

With the slightest manipulation of sound and light, the audience was transported to Kipchoge Keino’s 1,500m Olympic gold, against all odds, in 1968.

With the call and response of popular chants and his strong stage presence, the audience received an unforgettable experience.

Makadem collaborated with Ondjaki on a truly unique performance, fusing the liquid sounds of the nyatiti with poetry.

They told a sad story about a character called Ombela. While Ondjaki wrote attributes about her on a large screen in the background, Makadem sang the lines to the soothing nyatiti tunes.

Performance artist and writer Sitawa Namwalie curated an exhibition titled "My Grandmother's Miniskirt", in which people sent photos of their mothers or relatives in miniskirts from years before the current policing of women’s bodies became rampant.

AN ANNUAL FEST?  

One of the drives to host the festival, Anja said, was that she and co-founder Yvonne Owuor felt that as an East African literary hub, Nairobi needed a literary festival on its calendar.

But it was not easy putting together the funds. Most of the support came through European embassies and their cultural organisations.

Like in Kimani’s situation with Kenyan publishers, the Macondo Literary Festival was hit by a wall of silence from potential supporters.

It was only iPay, which runs the tickets-for-you platform, that put in money for the festival and offered free ticketing services.

It is based on the funding difficulties that Anja wasn’t committal on the magical Macondo Literary Festival gracing Nairobi again next year.

Literary enthusiasts can only hope that this is the first of many in the years to come. Macondo magic is worth savouring again.

Edited by Tom Jalio