Let’s Judge #TheWritivismFestival2015 in the Right Context

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Literary festivals are always fun to attend. The point of such festivals is to meet your favorite authors, listen to them read from their works, get books signed, launch others, discover new writers, meet other book lovers over drinks and have a kick ass time musing over all things lit. The Writivism Festival 2015 with its guest list of fifty renowned personalities in the African scene was not any different. It was five days of enjoying literary pizzazz from Africa that came to a close this past week.  However, sharp criticism about how things went down in Kampala has spurred conversations on social media and other platforms. For that, I felt that I owed it to myself to tell my version of events.

From where I stand, I think it would be unfair for to dwell on the bad things about the festival, without looking at Writivism in the right context. Writivism is not just about the festival held every year in Kampala. There are also several workshops that are held in different places in the continent. Here, writers are invited to a retreat in which their work is evaluated by not just iconic personalities from this island, but also their peers. Personally, I was a part of the workshop held in Dar es Salaam that was supervised by Zukiswa Wanner and Ayeta Wangusa.

After the workshop, there is a mentorship program in which budding writers like myself were given the opportunity to be tutored by  more experienced writers – those who have been in the craft long enough to hold a candle for the new ones and show them the way. Again, I was a part of this mentorship process. I was afforded the rare opportunity to be guided by Tope Folarin; the 2013 winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing.

After the mentorship process, short stories are entered in a competition and the winners announced at the festival in Kampala.  This year, Pemi Aguda won the competition with her riveting short story, Caterer, Caterer. Felicitations to her!

It is true that the organization at the Writivism Festival needs upgrade.  There are simple things that make a whole lot of a difference. Apparently there was a distinction between ‘guests’ and ‘other visitors’ – a distinction that we were not made aware of until we got to Kampala. Guests were the VIP personalities; those who were to lead panel discussions. Visitors were ‘the others’. However, we can agree that all of us being immigrants to a new city that we barely know of, surely, the Writivism team should have informed us of things like the distance between festival locations and maybe helped us get accommodation near to the venues.

The moment we landed and found our rooms in Kireka, we were on our own in a strange city.  This caused many of us discomfort. It made our stay in Kampala more expensive than we budgeted for. It made us miss out on sessions that we would otherwise like to attend. And when we were told that we could not attend an Open Mic session, because it was a closed event meant for guests only, we felt terrible – almost like children of a lesser God.  Amongst us were poets and performers who would have loved to perform at the event. Yet they were denied entry.

At Maisha Gardens was a guest list. One of the visitors, in a bid to quench his thirst, tried to get a bottle of water to drink, only to be hastily stopped by the festival interns. Water was for guests on the list, not visitors.

At this point a number of us decided it would more fun to simply tour Kampala instead.

(Later on, we would come to learn that this mess was cause by hiccups in communication between organizers and interns. Broken telephone kind of thing.)

Most of the Kenyans could not help but compare Writivism Festival to our own Storymoja Hay Festival, and in that comparison, Writivism pales.  However, we have to acknowledge how different the two are. Writivism is on its third year, while Storymoja is on its seventh. No doubt Storymoja has had time to mature and progress, but even then, it has its own problems – especially with guests.  The same case with Port Harcourt Book Fair that hosted the Africa 39 writers, which I did not attend, but I have read about in Stanley Onjezani Kenani’s review. Apparently, a section of the attendees were far from pleased at the organization, which makes me wonder whether  these glitches in organizing literary festivals are only peculiar to Writivism or are they a continental phenomenon.

Or is it that the pot breaks at the doorstep? In other words, shit happens?

Nonetheless, we have to give credit where it is due. Even with all the mishaps the event was still a success. I got to interact with people I never imagined I would one day meet. Authors who only exist on my bookshelf and others who I only interact with on Facebook. Personalities like Naija’s favorite social media noise maker Ikhide Ikheloa, Saraba Magazine’s Dami Ajayi, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Ukamaka Olisakwe, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi etc. We held court in the late afternoons and broke bread over meaningful discussion on the direction that African literature is taking.

Peter Kagayi’s revolutionary poems (or is that spoken word? What is the difference? Anyone?) made us reflect on what it really means to be complacent in the face of political turmoil. They reminded us that peace is not the absence of war.

Donald Molosi’s gripping one man play, Today It’s Me, introduced me to a man I never knew existed; Philly Lutaaya. A maestro who from Uganda whose life was cut short by HIV/AIDS, much like Fela Kuti.

The session on adventures from the bedrooms of African women was the most thrilling. Nana Darkoa, Moses Kilolo, Zukiswa Wanner and Stella Nyanzi spoke about the art of writing erotica. So heated was the session that at some point Stella Nyanzi offered to pleasure herself for the crowd. She asked “Do you want me to perform for you? This is a theatre after all. Do you?” She asked in that self assured tone that was clearly not joking.

People kept silent. I really wanted Stella take it to mean consent. However, Nana stopped her from lifting her skirt to show us her elongated labia that she spoke so fervently about.

Look, I may have no experience on how to organize a literary festival. I know nothing about the challenges that takes to put together such a shindig. But I know it would be inconsiderate to cast aspersions on the Writivism Festival and not appreciate effort made to bring writers of every shade together for literary communion.  It would indeed be a great lie to say that the festival in Kampala was without blemish, but we would also be doing a great disservice to the organizers and to ourselves if we ignore everything that Writivism does and suggest that there was nothing or little to gain.

My only I hope is that the Bwesigye and company will take the criticism in their stride as they seek to grow. For we are all work in progress and perfection is but an illusion. At the end of the day, negative feedback may not be pleasant to hear or read, but they are still valid.  It would be more worrisome to do something and only receive accolades. That, in my opinion, would mean you are either doing nothing meaningful, or people simply do not care.

Now can we all put on our big adult pants and go back to writing? God knows without stories these festivals wouldn’t even exist in the first place. And neither would this conversation.

Next stop for me is the Babishai Niwe Poetry Festival in August, followed by Storymoja Festival in September then Kwani? Lit Fest in December. And then a repeat of all this in the years to come.


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  1. Kind words Magunga. And thanks for being honest. See you at #Writivism2016. I am glad you had time to actually participate and attend conversations, panel discussions etc. And thanks for talking about the entire Writivism programme that goes beyond a festival. The festival itself, as you have put it, is about building connections, enabling conversations etc. And from your experience, I am excited to note that besides the challenges, the goals are being achieved. Thanks once again for coming and looking forward to seeing you in 2016. I hope we can have Tope at the festival so you two meet physically.

  2. I like where Africa as a continent is headed especially in terms of literature and the arts. I think people have become more open and decided to try things. It only shows you the courage we have as a continent when a woman gives a talk on erotica and even offers to pleasure herself infront of a quorum. Such talk was reserved for closed doors with tongues wagging in hashed tones. It warms my heart when I hear folk like Binyavanga organizing the publishing of African works in bulk. Because let’s face it some of us are tired walking into bookshop to only find John Grisham and James Patterson on the shelves. I mean, take nothing from them, they’re fantastic writers in every aspect but we need more African content in Africa so I tip my hat to Story Moja, Writivism, short story day, Saraba and such like publications nurturing the budding African writer.

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