African literature: Kenya's book fair draws crowds

NAIROBI, Kenya — The young man at the front of the tent mugs for the audience, his arms waving extravagantly, his steps comically exaggerated. He is telling a story in the local Swahili language, or more accurately performing African literature.

Like the six other students in the final of this storytelling competition, 21-year old Kevin Amwoma has written the story himself and now recites it, with tweaks and adjustments that he makes with each re-telling, to a rapt audience crowded into a sweaty plastic marquee on a sweaty sun-burned day in Nairobi.

The storytelling competition was the highlight of this weekend’s StoryMoja Hay Festival, an annual celebration of books, literature, storytelling and debate held for the first time last year. Literary festivals are rare in Africa — others can be found in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Nigeria — and, until recently, all but non-existent in Kenya.

Muthoni Garland, author and organizer of StoryMoja, had run a small literary festival before but it was during visits to her husband’s home close to Hay-on-Wye in Hereford, England, that she got bigger ideas. The Hay Festival is one of the world’s most famous literary festivals and in 2009 Garland won the support of Hay’s organizers, bringing international clout to her own efforts.

“The quality association of the link with Hay and the access that gives to writers who may not have taken us seriously is a big benefit,” Garland told GlobalPost. “It means we are seen as being international not local.”

Last year Kenyan writers, poets and playwrites were joined by British author Hanif Kureishi, Indian novelist Vikram Seth, and BBC journalist Kate Adie. This year the line-up included British-Jamaican Rasta poet Benjamin Zephaniah, British author and journalist Michela Wrong, German film director Tom Twyker and British comedian and author Jane Bussman.

Garland said she “has no shame” when it comes to begging, borrowing and groveling to raise money for the festival, mostly from non-profits and the public sector. Tents are branded by groups like the Africa Centre for Open Governance, the British Council, Transparency International and the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi which sponsored the storytelling competition and donated a paid trip to the United States to the winner.

Hay lends its name and organizational input but there is no doubting StoryMoja is an African affair.

“Hay-on-Wye has a very literary crowd, people who read avidly already,” said Garland, “but we are about nurturing a reading culture, creating an atmosphere around books that is more celebratory and less, well, bookish.”

There are no snooty discussions of Literature (with a capital L), no forum in which fans pay homage to respected writers.

“We don’t have ‘Meet the Author’ sessions, rather we discuss the issues raised by an author,” explained Garland, who on Sunday joined a discussion about desire in African writing exploring some of the issues raised in her own novels "Tracking the Scent of My Mother" and "Halfway Between Nairobi and Dundori."

“We need to create a world beyond basic literacy,” said Garland. Simply reading and writing are not enough. “Literacy levels are low and you need a certain level of literacy to begin to enjoy language.”

Written fiction is relatively new in Africa. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s acclaimed 1958 novel "Things Fall Apart" is widely regarded as the first work of modern African literature.

Libraries in Timbuktu hold ancient manuscripts dating back many hundreds of years, but books never enjoyed the privileged position they did in the West where for generations they vied only with poetry and theater to entertain the masses.

In Africa books had to struggle for their place in modern life alongside radio, recorded music and television which appeared at roughly the same time. It is a battle that literature frequently loses and Garland attributes that largely to an education system in which, “books are a kind of torture, you learn by rote, you learn to hate books.”

She said that some students celebrate graduation with book burning parties to erase the memory of the turgid and joyless learning that they associate with books.

“Instead of authors our role models are the financially wealthy or politically powerful,” she said.

The joy that Garland says is lacking in the way youngsters are introduced to books is in abundant evidence in StoryMoja’s storytelling competition which draws the biggest crowds during the three day festival, the cheers and laughs erupting across the tented field.

This part-improvised, interactive and energetic performance of stories has origins in ancient oral traditions although in a typical piece of modern African cultural blending Amwoma lists his influences as, “Shakespeare, Jim Carrey and Martin Lawrence.”

“My stories come from the things I see in my local area, from the observations I make, from hearing what people say,” Amwoma explained. “The storyline is the same but each time I tell it is a little different.”

He says he uses comedy to “magnetize” the audience and his physicality to express himself better than he can in words alone.

There is no doubt that Africa’s long and noble heritage of oral storytelling lends a distinct voice to some African literature but for Garland its time, if not its influence, is largely over.

“If it is not written it barely exists, it will disappear,” she said. “Oral traditions are not part of modern life, our children don’t sit around the fire listening to the elders telling stories.”

The first Storymoja festival in 2009 attracted around 5,600 people and Garland says the number doubled this year. She smiles: “I dream big.”