Taban lo Liyong did Kenyans a backhanded favour when he called East Africa a ‘literary wasteland.’ His words have successfully served as a spur in the hearts, minds and pens of Kenyan writers whose works have proliferated since the 1960s when the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Grace Ogot and even Jomo Kenyatta were first published.
Since the 1970s we have seen street writers like David Maillu (After 4:30), Meja Mwangi (Kill me Quick), and Charles Mangua (Son of Woman) telling stories and often self-publishing because their works were not necessarily taken seriously as good literature.
That evaluation has changed over the years, but to date, Ngugi has been the benchmark and the way for young aspiring Kenyan writers.
Women writers like Asenath Odaga, Pamela Kola and Muthoni Muchemi, again, have, since the 1980s, often specialised in writing children’s literature and drawing on indigenous oral traditions to remind Kenyans of their grandparents’ wonderful stories, many of which would otherwise have been lost.
Important poets have also been writing since the Seventies and Eighties, such as Jared Angira, Jonathan Kariara, John Mbiti, Micere Mugo, and Okello Oculi; so when Taban’s words re-echo in Kenyans’ hearts and minds, it may be because his vitriol was so mean, not because of the verity of his literary vision.
Kenya’s literary world was given a shot in the arm in the early 21st century after Binyavanga Wainaina won the Caine Prize and went on to launch Kwani?, the local literary journal with funding from the Ford Foundation. Kwani? has proved to be an important platform for aspiring young poets, painters, cartoonists and short story writers.
But somehow we still seem to hear Taban’s words reverberate in the Kenyan media where too often we hear that “Kenyans don’t read” even though we know this is not really true.
Illiteracy is still too high in the country; that is true. But what is also the case is that people readily gobble up local newspapers and magazines. If it weren’t so, all the second hand book and magazine vendors wouldn’t be so visible in Nairobi streets and walkways.
Nonetheless, an even stronger shot in the arm for our local literary scene got started five years back when the acclaimed Kenyan writer-publisher Muthoni Garland reinforced her StoryMoja ‘reading revolution’ by launching the StoryMoja Hay Festival and brought together both global and local writers into a vibrant four-day forum, the latest one ending last weekend.
This year’s Story Moja Hay Festival ended tragically too soon with news of the untimely demise of the great Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor who had come with several other esteemed African, Asian and Western writers to be on panels, run master classes and generally inspire students and aspiring local authors to write all the more.
Out of respect for Awoonor and sympathy for the families who had lost loved ones in the Westgate Mall terrorist attack, Muthoni shut down the Festival last Saturday afternoon and organised a memorial dedicated to the professor who’s been called ‘African literary royalty’ along with the likes of Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.
Yet before the festival was closed, there were many outstanding panels, workshops, master classes and presentations, including the Wangari Maathai Memorial Lecture by the former head of the UN in Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, who gave a moving account of the atrocities that continue to unfold in Darfur, events described in his book, Against the Tide of Evil.
The Kenya Chapter of the Arterial Network also organised a ‘Catch Up’ panel at The Theatre Company tent on the theme ‘Making a Living as a Writer.’ One of the unspoken issues affecting all writers everywhere, not just in Kenya, the topic attracted a cross section of young writers.
Proving that writers need not be only penurious and unpublished poets, ANK’s Kimani wa Wanjiru assembled panelists that included Phoenix book publisher John Mwazemba, advertising copy writer and former Phoenix Player Teddy Muthusi, film producer Faith Koli, playwright and NGO media consultant Oby Obyerodhiambo, and Jackson Biko, freelance writer and editor of Msafiri magazine. They shared practical ideas about how writing skills can put bread on the table.
Kenyans have come far from the days when Taban’s echo made sense. The country is now a bountiful harvest field of literary accomplishment.