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African literature: Kenya's book fair draws crowds

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

“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.”