Celebrating East African Writing!
His speech was all encompassing, touching on not just the environment, but issues affecting the African continent in general. Issues including leadership or lack thereof, terrorism (Al Shabaab, Boko Haram etc), justice, access to resources, and our acceptance of the general status quo. One particularly memorable example he alluded to was the flooding in Mozambique, when a woman gave birth while in a tree she had climbed onto for safety from the floods. The woman became a symbol of resilience, of our spirit to overcome obstacles, and should never be forgotten.
The Dome (venue of the lecture) was fully packed, and nobody stirred while he delivered his speech & tribute. He ended by also paying a tribute to Prof. Kofi Awoonor, one of Africa’s greatest poets, who was killed last year during the Westgate Mall attack. He had been an invited guest of the Storymoja Festival in 2013. To quote Wole Soyinka, “He was a tree felled in the concrete jungle” and “while every forest is made up of several trees, in every forest there is that one tree that everyone notices”. I am paraphrasing.
It’s not every day that you are treated to an accomplished author such as Wole Soyinka and when the question and answer session came, at first nobody raised their hand. Then one person got the courage and this opened floodgates of questions from the audience. He answered everyone’s question with equal attention. Questions ranged from, do we have an identity as “Africans”, “African authors” and ‘African culture”; to which he responded that we have “African cultures”. It’s not one, but many cultures that exist in Africa. The issue of language came up, why are we writing in foreign languages? Here, he said that they in the literature world had settled on Kiswahili as a neutral language that could be used as common African language. Writers send their works to the Institute of Kiswahili in Kenya & Tanzania to have their works translated. But obviously, we needed foreign languages (mostly English & French) in order to communicate with one another. In fact, there is nothing more native to Africa than a coup d’etat! To another who was griping about writers not making money, he told him to publish on the internet and make sure to put “if you don’t like the book, at least put something for the effort” on the cover. Be creative on ways to make money. The Professor added that indeed, opportunities have increased for authors in Africa, and things are getting better than they were before.
In this way, he answered questions that made the audience clap & laugh in turns, or listen and reflect. One journalist asked him what he thought about the Kenyan leaders & ICC. He said if you belong to an international body, then you must take the convenient and not-so-convenient parts! I got a chance to put a question to him (hooray!), about his challenge to artists, poets, writers to put their skills to work and play a role in democracy today; can we play a more active role other than just criticizing our governments through the pen, can we join the fray? To which he responded that he can’t be responsible for my choices, but if you feel you can do it, by all means do it.
He patiently took question after question, and in the end agreed to pose for a few photographs before being escorted out. This was definitely the highlight of my attendance at the festival. What a privilege it was to meet this Nobel Laureate.