Legacy of Kwani Trust two decades later

Macondo, Nairobi’s biggest litfest today, builds on the ideologies and aesthetics the Trust helped to establish

In Summary

• The 2023 version of the Macondo literary fiesta is coming up on September 15–17

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

This year marks exactly two decades since the influential Kwani Trust was established. Such temporal mileage affords us critics a moment of retrospection.

One can map Kenya’s trajectory of literary flowerings in the 21st Century using the life and times of this literary network that helped elevate the careers and oeuvres of, among others, Binyavanga Wainaina and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.

Kwani Trust was created as a space for “developing quality creative writing and committed to the growth of the creative industry through the publishing and distribution of contemporary African writing, offering training opportunities, producing literary events and establishing and maintaining global literary networks”. It did all these and more before going into hibernation.

To develop quality fresh creative writing, the Trust launched the Kwani Journal. It ran eight issues on a roughly annual account. Some of my poems appeared in the 4th edition of the great journal, which convened the literary talents of a network of writers from across Kenya and the Diaspora. I made my contributions while living in the Kreuzkölln neighbourhood of Berlin a dozen years ago.

The eight volumes of the journal gave a platform to emergent writers to display their interpretations of form and content in pursuit of stories of their changing worlds. One of my poems, Angst to be Abidjan, was a rhapsody inspired by the political crisis that followed the 2011 Ivorian elections pitting Laurent Gbagbo and the incumbent leader, Alassane Dramane Ouattara.

The Kwani journal opened for me the realities of seeing African experiences at various levels from the local to the national to the regional, then continental and beyond. The transnationalisation of life is a hallmark of the journal and its aesthetics; it had anchor in the life and times of the key personalities associated with the journal as it came into existence.

Binyavanga founded the journal with others. He had lived in South Africa for long. His short story, Discovering Home, was awarded the Caine Prize from African Writing in 2002. It was published online. Wainaina’s mother was from southern Ugandan and his roots spill over between Rwanda and Burundi. This transnational ethos would remain as a key feature of the literary wanderings of this celebrated author to his final days.

In 2010, I released a book of verse inspired by the post-election violence of 2007-08. It is called Nest of Stones. I published it in Cameroon with a publishing house recommended to me by Binyavanga. Langaa Publishers is owned by a Cameroonian writer and intellectual who lives in South Africa, Wainaina’s base at the fin de siècle.

Wainaina endorsed my debut poetry book ebulliently at the top space of the front cover. His words that Nest of Stones is “a kind of epic that all can consume, that compromises nothing”, helped to confirm my standing as a new poet in Kenya; as did the book’s foreword written passionately by the late great poet Prof Micere Mugo.

In the year Kwani Trust was mooted, 2003, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor published her debut short story, Weight of Whispers, in the second issue of the Kwani journal. Her haunting transnational tale talks of a group of Rwandans stranded in Nairobi in the aftermath of the genocide of 1994. I have used it to teach courses on new trends in Africa literature both here and abroad.

I first met Yvonne when she was the executive director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival (Ziff). She bought my first-ever air ticket. I was a rookie book critic for the People Newspaper back then under the literary editor Kipkirui K’telwa as I pursued graduate studies at Kenyatta University, our common alma mater.

She hired me as a rapporteur and I flew KQ to the isle of cloves for the Ziff courtesy of her. It was my first time to be in the skies. 2005. Now I have old blood relatives there. The rest is history.

Yvonne and I have met numerous times ever since. The last time we shared a tête-à-tête was in 2019 at the beautiful international Macondo Literary Festival curated by Anja Bengelstorff and others. She was one of the guest speakers and featured novelist with others from across Africa. Her literary career has led her to Berlin, China and elsewhere.

Her epic second novel, The Dragonfly Sea, published by Knopf in 2019, is one of the handful of literary works from this region addressing the old and evolving Sino-African ties across the Indian Ocean. In the spirit of transnational diplomacy and cultural intercourse, recently, she connected me to a network of Chinese scholars who are keen on African Studies. This summer, I delivered several lectures to their postgraduate students on representations of China and Chinese in contemporary African literature and popular culture.

Yvonne forms a new canonical nucleus of talented African writers heightening the presence of African literature on the global stage in this century. The 2023 version of the Macondo transnational literary fiesta is coming up on September 15–17. It will be held at the Kenya National Theatre under the theme: Disrupting Home.

The event is recognised by the Global Association of Literary Festivals. Macondo, Nairobi’s biggest litfest today, builds on the foundational momentum of transnational ideologies and cosmopolitan aesthetics that Kwani Trust and her lead writers above helped to establish as entangling artistic spaces for the enunciation of literary excellence in Kenya.

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