Saraba Magazine collaborated with Storymoja Africa to produce a special issue on literary festivals in Africa, ahead of the Storymoja Festival 2015. When I was asked to be part of this project, there was no other answer I could give other than a solid “Yes, of course!”. I have been a friend to Storymoja ever since I was called George.
Other writers featured in the project include Tolu Daniel (Nigeria), Julie Muriuki (Kenya) and Nyana Kakoma (Uganda). Check out a full copy of the edition here. Download it, read and share.
Meanwhile. here is my story.
***James sits with a can of Tusker Lager in his hand and narrates a story to me. I love listening to his stories because of the way he involves me in them. It is not unusual for James Murua to be telling me a story about something I know nothing about, yet expects me to miraculously know the facts. In the middle of his stories, he is fond of breaking off and saying, “You know this, Magunga, yes?” and very many times I have suppressed the urge to tell him “No, James. I did not know that. But now I know.”
This time he is telling me about a literary festival that he was invited to almost a decade ago. Then, as he says, it was known as the Nyama Choma Festival, which was held somewhere on Ngong’ Road and organized by Muthoni Garland and others. It was a very humble festival lacking the fanfare that is characteristic of today’s literary festivals. It was just a handful of book lovers enjoying roasted goat meat and talking about matters related to writing.
“That was 2008,” says James, laughing softly in reminiscence of how fast time moves. “In 2013, they called me again to be a guest speaker at what is nowadays known to the likes of you as the Storymoja Festival.”
In 2008, I was just finishing high school. Being a writer did not feature in my top list of anything. Sure, I scribbled a few things in my A4 notebook, mostly mushy love poetry that I used to seduce girls. I had just sat for my Kenya Certificate of Primary School examination – a very hopeful and impressionable 17-year-old boy waiting to get his A grade so that I could become a lawyer.
I got my A grade all right. I went to University of Nairobi to study law. I come from an everyday African family in which you can never be allowed to waste good grades on ‘unworthy’ professions like the Arts. You are only a good child if you become a lawyer, business man, doctor, or engineer. Anything else is a disgrace to the family.
So law school it was. I kept writing little things on my notebook and kept using them to get girlfriends. That was until I got to second year and my friend Martin Maitha introduced me to blogging.
Blogging, for me, was an acquired taste. At first, I was not comfortable with the idea of just about anyone reading anything I wrote. At the time, I was only writing for my close network of friends; people who I entertained when law lectures got boring. But then, my friends also have other friends, who in turn also have other friends. That is how my writing began getting its fame, and by third year, my blog was the most read website in my campus.
The thing about friends like these is that they play upon your vanity. They comment on your posts with statements like “This is such a wonderful piece of art. You should totally write a novel.” The first time you read a comment like this, you dismiss it. However, when it is repeated over and over again, it starts getting into your head, and when that happens, hell, your head swells and you start fancying yourself the new Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Never mind that the only reason you think of Ngugi is because you studied one of his books as a text in high school.
Such comments led me to Storymoja.
I sent my first story, Essentials of Campus Dating, a horrendously written story in hindsight. Looking back now, I have no idea why Storymoja published that story. Nonetheless, that was my key into Storymoja. Juliet Maruru added me to their roll of bloggers.
Very many Saturdays were spent with other bloggers from Nairobi in sessions that Juliet dubbed Ideagasms. These are basically sessions in which writers, both young and accomplished, meet and speak their mind about whatever pissed off the internets in the recent past.
I was never the kind to contribute to these discussions. I felt inferior. I felt intimidated in the presence of Michael Onsando, Jackson Biko, Aleya Kassam, Muthoni Garland, Alexander Ikawah and other beautiful writers who had literary sounding names and ran popular blogs with properly titled blogs like Bikozulu, Chanyado, Gukira and Brainstorm.
I remember one day being asked what the name of my blog was. I said ‘The Real G Inc.’ and Michael Onsando was visibly confused, probably wondering whether that is really a lit blog or a hip hop artist fan page.
“The Real what?” He asked.
“The Real G Inc.” I said.
“Aaah. Okay.” He said nodding, pretending to understand in that polite way that people do when they do not want to ask too many questions.
Later on, I would make friends with a number of these people, both online and in person. I started reading them. I met other young writers at these Ideagasms; writers who, just like me, were trying to get their sentences right.
In September 2013, some of these new voices from the Ideagasm sessions volunteered as festival bloggers at the Storymoja Festival. I joined them. I remember being in awe of the crowd that showed up at the Nairobi National Museum. There were so many school children running around. There were live bands scheduled to perform. There were renowned writers on the festival line up – writers whose names drew mammoth crowds. All this was strange to me, given the fact that there has always been this endless talk about how Kenyans do not read.
Clearly, Kenyans read. Perhaps they do not like buying books, but they most definitely are a reading lot.
It was at 2013’s festival that I was assigned to Nii Ayi Kwei Parke’s sessions. Ideally, I was to sit in his poetry masterclasses and then later on write about it on the Storymoja blog. Nii, however, is a special kind of a human being. The first day I met him, I was taken by him. One could easily conclude that I was star-struck, but that would be to cheapen the tantalizing effect of his poetry.
We became friends. Both in real life and on Facebook. I followed him. Both in real life and on Twitter. In the evening, I googled him and came across this solemn poem on YouTube, Someday My Prince Will Come. I tweeted him and asked him to perform it the following day when he was in a panel discussion on poetry alongside other poets from the continent, including Clifton Gachagua, Warsan Shire and Kwame Dawes.
He tweeted back saying that he would. That was on the evening of 20th September 2013.
He lived up to this promise, you know. In the evening, sitting in a hall inside The National Museum, Nii Ayi Kwei Parkes performed Someday My Prince Will Come. He performed it with flashing eyelids trying to hold back tears. His words tripped over themselves on his lips on their way out. His eyes were red and he was shaking.
He was performing just after being told that his uncle, Dr. Kofi Awoonor (a legendary poet who was also attending the festival) had been shot by unknown masked cowards during the tragic terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall. Also shot, was his nephew, son to Kofi Awoonor, whom he was meeting for the first time here in Nairobi.
The part that gutted me the most was when Nii took out his handkerchief, wiped the tears from his eyes, and apologized for a not-so-good performance. He was cut to the quick a bad one. He was bleeding. He excused himself from that session to be with his nephew and I never saw him again. The Storymoja Festival was called off. The nation was grieving. Security was tricky. The show could not go on.
For a long time, I wondered how Nii was holding up. I remembered his poem. During such moments of grief, I did not want to console him with condolences. I felt like I would be intruding while he was still grieving his uncle’s demise. I only wished that he could trust his own words;
..love is a child with no shoes
in a world full of invincible thorns.
Love is a song played a feuding band,
sometimes the band dies.
But the song lives…
So far, I have only been to two literary festivals. The Storymoja Festival and the Writivism Festival in Uganda. These two festivals are more similar than they are different. Both of them have programs to train young upcoming writers through mentorship programs. The only difference would be in their age. Storymoja started almost a decade ago at a nyama choma joint, while the Writivism Festival started three or so years ago.
I hope to attend more festivals in the years to come. Not just in the African continent but also abroad. I am curious to learn. I follow festivals like Ake, Hargeisa Book Festival, Port Harcourt Book Festival, The Hay Festival (London), Africa Writes and Open Book on social media. I feel a little jealous of those lucky writers like Ndinda Kioko and Zukiswa Wanner who attend almost all of them.
As I write this, I am to attend the Babishai Niwe Poetry Festival – it will be the first time I am attending a festival as a guest speaker. Somehow, people are starting to believe in this lie that I have perpetuated that I am someone worth knowing in this literature business.
Truth be told, I do not know what I will say to people at a two hour masterclass on blogging at a poetry festival. That is because I am neither a poet (forget those things I used to write to seduce girls!) nor a master at blogging. I am just a small writer struggling to find his words.
- Of course by now you must have noticed the name of this space has long since changed from The Real G Inc. to the Magunga. Clearly, my self absorbtion and vanity still cast a long shadow on the identity of this blog. But at least nobody will ask me when I am dropping my next rap single (or diss track) when I mention it out loud.
- Babishai Niwe Poetry Festival was amazing. I spent half the time wishing I was a poet too. Beverly Nambozo pampered us like royalty. The only thing that bothered my mind is the meaning of the phrase Babishai Niwe.
Read the winning poems here and here.