Comment & analysis
Putting on the Kwani Lit Fest
2008-07-09, Issue 386
As dusk descends, preparations continue apace outside the main entrance of the National Museum. Trees planted in sturdy plastic bags brought in for the occasion are being wrap-dressed in gold shimmery fabric. A disco set of powerful spotlights alternate green, blue, red, shining through the customised Kitengela stained glass windows of the newly built reception area. The monotonous “one two, one two” of the sound test irritates – it always does. A large cardboard cut-out of the Gedi ruins is placed in one area; a model of the oryx and the lioness in another. Pacing through this activity is a woman, painted toenails showing hints of white from panic scrunched toes, hair akimbo as she rakes her fingers through it in distraction. It appears that the newly minted Minister for Tourism has decided to introduce himself to the diplomatic community outside the newly minted National Museum in Nairobi. And she, the proposer, and organiser is struggling to get all details in place before the jamboree kicks off.
I know that feeling. At the last Kwani Litfest in 2006, I got caught in Nairobi’s notorious evening traffic, made worse by an accident, on the eve of a fundraiser that I was in charge of called Authors in Conversation. As I sat, gridlocked, on a single lane road that really had nowhere to go, the phone didn’t stop ringing. First it was the DJ, Chimurenga editor Ntone Edjabe, saying that the owner of the venue had been so rude that he didn’t want to take part any more. Then it was the main attraction, MG Vassanji, who’d been insulted by the interviewer who had just confessed that he hadn’t read a single Vassanji book. He didn’t want to take part any more. Vassanji’s call was followed by the interviewer – who up to this point had thought he was the interviewee, having brought out a book himself just recently – he too didn’t want to take part any more. With all the major players resigning with just minutes to spare, it was actually a relief not to be at the event. That is until I received a call from the panicked restaurant to say nobody was manning the front desk, so everyone was coming in to our fundraiser for free. Squished on Tarifa Road between a matatu on one side and a green Peugeot on the other, I too raked fingers through carefully combed hair as I felt weeks of plans and organisation slip into chaos.
This feeling of hopeless panic was to descend on me over and over again in the next fortnight. It happened when the photocopies of manuscripts for a workshop didn’t materialise; when dinner in Lamu’s fort arrived so late that half the participants wandered off in search of other food; when a tutor fell through the bottom of a fibre glass boat as he leapt in excitement from a dhow (the same tutor who, only minutes earlier, had been rescued from a roaring tide that had yanked him far away from the boat). Oh, and when the additional luggage on our return charter from Lamu included spoils such as wooden carved chests, large mkeka’s, lamu chairs and other such cargo that the pilot, fearing that his overweight plane would just bounce from the runway into the sea refused to take off until great chunks of luggage was removed – resulting in a two hour haggling negotiation with a scheduled airline to take the goods.
Such is the world of Arts Management or Event Organisation. For some enterprising souls, this moniker involves securing a million dollars to helicopter a posse of people up north to dress Poi mountain in gossamer thin red silk carried up its sheer face by barefoot dancers who have learned to mountaineer for this specific purpose – to peg, in a gesture of oblique Samburu symbolism, said fabric to the climbing cleats driven into the rock by a more prosaic batch of Czech mountaineers. The scene is then painted at speed by disabled French dwarfs from the renaissance movement of art while Mongolian throat singers provide an appropriate and stimulating sound stimulus to the entire shebang. Ah, Creation!
Our approach is more prosaic. The Kwani team agonised as to whether to have a Litfest at all this year as the violence struck, stuck and spread across Kenya; bonfires and machetes uniting the land in the horror of our very own gruesome trance dance. It quickly became clear, as tourists hopped, skipped and jumped out of their bikinis and safaris suits and leapt onto leaving planes that holding our event, revised, revisioned and fully reflecting all that writers can do in unpacking a nation’s crisis was in fact completely vital.
Of course, some elements, regardless of theme or urgency don’t change. Having started so late meant that funding was painfully short. No urging from Mongolian throat singers then. Instead underpaid organisers, together with no pay volunteers work out how to structure, guide and direct opinionated creative people to (just for a short time) co-operate with the timetable, and the requests of the event. Simultaneously we persuade sponsors and attendees that what they are about to see/hear/read/pay for is in an awesome enough activity for them to part with some cash – even if it doesn’t involve yards of gossamer silk.
Arthur Flowers, better known now as “Mganga Maua” is a regular invitee of the Kwani Litfest. He has watched it evolve over the years and wrote in his blog of 2006:
“I have met so many strong African writers this trip, its been an experience
this kwani movement never ceases to amaze me
my workshop full of fellow teachers and academics who know the craft as well as i do
ive gained as much as ive given in that workshop a gathering of very powerful women that see things i dont see
often im sitting there with my mouth open catching flies”
Arthur and fellow writer Jeff Allen, were so inspired in 2006, that they decided to set up their own festival – kicking off next week in Ghana – check out their acitvites at www.panafricanliteraryforum.org
In the UK, the advent of the Olympics being awarded to London led to an almost instant, 30% cut in Arts funding. A clear case of prioritisation for the UK government then. Of course here in Kenya, getting any funding at all from the government for such an event is well nigh impossible, as nothing is earmarked for such endeavours in the first place. More shame them. I prefer the Korean’s approach. In November 2007, the Koreans funded the beautifully organised Jeonju Asia-African Literature festival, to which I was invited. It was a massive event, funded by a government that understood if you feted writers who have the potential to alter their countrymen’s thinking, you can basically get them to do all the promo work for you. It’s a good approach. The good people I met in Jeonju and beyond are often on my lips and at my fingertips. I’ve rarely been so well fed, so comprehensively photographed, so carefully chaperoned, or shown such wonderful treasures as we were in South Korea.
See the Koreans figure that once us writers have softened up our nation by repeatedly extolling the virtues of our Korean trip in magazines destined to sit around in dentist’s waiting rooms, or newspapers to be passed through eight different hands, then our fulsome praise will touch a lot of people. Those words, these days can also be googled many years after the event, and all serve to build up positive PR about the country. And they are right. Now that I’ve seen how well they do things, how much space they now give to their thinkers, I am favourably disposed. When the Koreans come in with their products and services, I’ll sign up. They do a good line in digital dictaphone recorders by the way.
Anyone with a love for books must make a trip Paju Book City – their custom built, wetland surrounded, architecturally inspired new City – a whole area entirely dedicated to publishing the most beautiful of books. Here the new technologies of sophisticated printing presses merge with old techniques of producing beautiful hand made paper. A whole 360 publishing houses specialising in science, poetry, fiction, turn out hundreds of wonderfully designed, immaculately executed books for a 100% literate population that has one of the strongest reading cultures in the world. Your average Korean is an avid book purchaser, and they are able to support this thriving creative book making industry (and they possess the largest bookshop in the world).
This, by the way, is a nation, that in 1963 at Kenya’s independence shared the same level of GDP as we did. Look where a government policy, which includes proactively encouraging - and paying for - an interest in reading has taken them.
Say something often enough and it embeds itself in a nation’s psyche. Write opinions that reflect support and uplift the ideas of the masses and you have a revolution. That’s why they lock up writers don’t they? Too dangerous, too powerful?
And yet we can’t even get the enthused, but nonetheless assistant Marketing Manager at Kenya Tourist Board (KTB) to return our calls. It seems that bringing in prize winning, best-selling authors into a country recently ravaged by the negative publicity of violence and disorder isn’t so relevant to changing the perception of this nation to outsiders. Our assertion, that we can show these powerful people, through the Kwani Litfest, a facet of Kenya that is fascinating and thriving enough for them to want to write about seems to carry as much weight as the Gedi ruins cut-out at the Ministry of Tourism big bash this week. “The weekend papers have been full of Kenya specials, so they (KTB) must be throwing some money around,” commented Aminatta Forna, one of our invited writers. “But to get an advert in Harper's Bazaar would cost them their entire annual budget and more.”
She’s got us an editorial and is arriving with a commission – a travel one no less from Harpers Bazaar to write a piece on her Kenya trip. For the price of an air ticket and a good hotel room, that’s valuable column inches being given over to the recovery a vital fact of this country’s economy.
If you type Kwani Litfest 06 into Google, over 1150 blog entries appear. And the reports are often glowing entries from writers who were wowed at Litfest 2006 and went on to tell the world about it. Similarly, a fat, favourable five-page spread in Vanity Fair appeared after its book’s editor attended in 2006, going to workshops, but more importantly swooning with pleasure at the gentle comforts and the delicious seafood of her Lamu sojourn. Her riff went something like this: “It seems everywhere one goes these days – those in the know are buzzing about an African Literary renaissance…. Nowhere is this more evident than at the SLS Kenya Kwani? Litfest this past December, where a historic number of writers, journalists and magazine editors from Congo to Cape Town, Bangalore to Boston have gathered to catch a ride on literature’s new wave…Fuelled by the internet (and few Western publishers who have rubbed the sleep out of their eyes), the African revolution is on your doorstep….Lucky, lucky you.”
In that same issue, Kwani founder - our very own Binyavanga Wainaina, who has achieved some notoriety and no small amount of power from his writings (see separate interview) was given another five pages to expound his opinions of Kenya and Africa. Add the ever more vocal and more immediate world of blogs; the kudos of stories in national daily newspapers from New York to New Zealand (as Vanity Fair would not doubt put it) and you can see that our gathering had some pretty good clout. One guy even wrote a whole book of poetry based on his experiences of Lamu. We plan to launch it at this year’s Litfest.
Despite all this hard evidence, it seems we are still viewed as a specialist esoteric group of individuals, not relevant enough to shaping this country’s ideas to be taken too seriously. Its’ enough to make you whip out your dictionaries of Korean characters (purchased in Paju Book City, and printed on thick luscious hibiscus flower paper), and start learning the language of a nation so as to move to a place where the critical importance of writers shaping a citizenry’s thought has been understood.
Except there are enough of us “in the know”, as Vanity Fair asserts, to see our influence filter out all over the Kenyan arena. We see excerpts of our ideas dotting the opinion pieces of journalists in the national press; we’re quoted by businessmen; our words are spoken with authority by donor agencies. We watch the hive of creativity grow and blossom into new projects that we barely dreamed of when we first thought of putting local and international writers of all hues and styles together in this particular sphere. We see heated arguments morph into brilliant collaborations.
There were 100 little adventures to be had at Kwani Litfest 2006. From swimming across the Lamu to Manda channel, to getting lost somewhere in the middle of the island, to eye-popping visits in Dandora and incredible poetry performances that are still talked about today - those many little organisational glitches, turned quickly into many, many triumphs. The Nigerian Litmag Farafina was born at a Litfest, as was the Pan African Literary Forum. Watch this space for the advent on an exciting international literary archive project called Goonj. All these created the many narratives that made up the Kwani Litfest 2005 and 2006.
KLF 208 is set to bring an even brighter cast of literary icons and events to Kenya during the first two weeks of August for a world-class celebration of African stories. From literary safaris a la Hemmingway to sailboat excursions on the Indian Ocean, plus the usual dose of 'Afropolitan' workshops, dinners and symposiums in the teeming capital of Nairobi, KLF 2008 will harness all of this country's vivid diversity. "Kenya has never been more relevant to global development than today," notes Binyavanga Wainaina, founding editor of Kwani? magazine and contributor to Vanity Fair, National Geographic, Granta, and other notable publications. "For the best writers on the continent to gather in a setting that embodies Africa's greatest hopes and deepest fears is an extraordinary opportunity."
The 2008 faculty also includes Chimamanda Adichie, the Nigerian star whose novel Half of a Yellow Sun won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction; Sierra Leone's Ishmael Beah, whose book A Long Way Gone thrust the plight of child soldiers into western hearts and minds; plus many more prize-winning journalists, authors, influential editors and publishers from across the literary spectrum.
In addition to honing participants' skills in poetry, fiction, nonfiction and journalism, this year's litfest will be informed by the horrific post-election chaos from which Kenya recently emerged. The role of the written word in conflict situations will be examined by writers fresh from the field, their experiences and insights sure to electrify colleagues and participants alike.
Join us for a collection of new incidents this year.
*Shalini Gidoomal is a freelance journalist, writer, businesswoman and inveterate traveller, born, and currently living in Nairobi. She has worked extensively on various UK and international magazines and newspapers, including The Independent, News of the World, Today, FHM, GQ and Architectural Digest. She profiled five Northern Irish photographers for the book Parallel Realities, and has worked in Kenya for the Standard and Camerapix. Her short stories and non- fiction have been published in The Obituary Tango, Jungfrau and Kwani 04. She is editorial co-ordinator for the Generation Kenya 45 project and festival director of Kwani Litfest 2008.
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