The month of September is a pretty big one for those who pay attention to the literary and arts scene in Kenya. This is the month when the annual Storymoja Hay Festival takes place. It tends to attract the biggest names in the print, radio and visual arts fields, not just in Kenya but all over the continent.
It is an opportunity, not just for younger and older generation story tellers to interact, break bread and discuss the challenges of getting the African story out there.
It also features workshops and clinics within which budding story tellers get to receive advice on developing their craft. This year’s festival, running from 17th-21st September, will be headlined by Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Kenyan musical revolutionary Eric Wainaina and a whole host of other high profile storytellers from around the continent.
This piece is however not an attempt to plug the festivals itself, but taking a moment to reflect on the ambitions of such a festival, in light of the ongoing struggle, in Africa to tell our own story.
For the most part, a large chunk of the stories, both fiction and non-fiction, about Africa that have gotten into the mainstream consciousness have originated from non-Africans, through non-Africans outlets, and for the most part been structured very narrowly around war, famine or illness. Further to that Africa and its people have mostly been secondary, or bit part players to the narrative of the story being told. To the best of my knowledge even the ‘Africa rising’ narrative started from the Economist magazine.
There have been several critiques on this issue. The ones I am most familiar with are Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ‘shifting the centre’ argument (in the book Decolonizing the Mind), Binyavanga Wainaina’s famous essay ‘how to write about Africa,’ and Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Danger of a single single story’ thesis. For the most part, the festivals I have been lucky enough to attend have been awe inspiring, intriguing and on the whole very well organized.
At this point in time they are my only source of African literature. However, being someone who hardly goes into Nairobi on a regular basis, there is a sense that the festival is happening, in its own parallel universe: outside of the experience of the very people whose lives it is trying to represent.
In sense what I am trying to get at, given the a significant proportion of the attendance is of the er… upper middle class, and the segment of the community that already, how much more of the previously untold part of the African experience is really getting out?
From a writing skills perspective, the Storymoja festival, has made a massive impact on my own writing skills, that I can attest to, but how many of the voices that truly need to be heard can gain access to these platforms to begin with? The literary festival definitely has a powerful role, as Africans take control of what it means to be Africans, but could they be going further, and reaching deeper than they are now?