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African literature: Kenya's book fair draws crowds

African literature's top authors and publishers flock to Nairobi book festival.

(Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

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."