Six years of robust 'literature constitution'

USA ambassador Robert Godec narrate a poem to school children during Storymoja festival at the Kenya National Library Services Nakuru branch

It was a chilly morning that day six years ago as Kenyans trooped to Uhuru Park to watch patriots, led by then President Kibaki and premier Raila Odinga, promulgate the Katiba mpya.

To “promulgate,” by the way, is a verb meaning to declare, decree or disseminate news or a cause to the general public. And no cause, after the Independence and the multi-party one, has been fought for so hard as the 2010 Constitution we now enjoy.

It’s sad that the National Cultural Bill is yet to become law in line with Article 11 of the Constitution.

That article of the Katiba rightfully recognises culture as the foundation of the nation and cumulative civilisation of the Kenyan people and says that the State SHALL “promote all forms of national and cultural expression through literature, the arts, traditional celebration, mass media, publications and libraries.”

On that cold August 27, six years ago, there were some great moments such as when Emmy Kosgei had the late First Lady Lucy Kibaki on her feet dancing to Taunet Nelel.

And epic fails like poetess Caroline Nderitu’s It Is Time, a colourful but utterly shallow performance that failed to fly in the public eye like those peace doves that refused to take to the sky after being released.

Maybe it was too chilly out there to go flying (or perhaps the presence of Sudanese President Omar el Bashir, in the audience, had a chilling effect on the avians).

Six years on, then, is the state of reading and writing and literary festivals in as sorry a state as one Viviere Nandiemo portrayed in her despairing article on this page, exactly three weeks ago?

Let us start with the state of poetry which, six years ago, was mostly a ‘spoken word’ affair organised by Kwani? at Club Soundd.

The world of spoken word poetry proliferated in the next three years to such an extent that every sixth club in town had a spoken word Tuesday night. Even the cinematic IMAX hosted spoken word for a couple of years at its Arfa Afra lounge, thanks to the artistically receptive Alexei Serkov.

Now it has all culminated in grand Poetry Slam Africa contests, complete with back up from outside genres such as the local guitar rock band RASH and beat-box poets like Young Noiz.

The next poetry slam is on September 11 at the French Cultural Centre, already known for promoting theatre (Heartstrings Ensemble) and the place where musical acts like Sauti Sol first took off from.

Next door, the Goethe Institut has become the beehive of the literary arts in the last six years. It was started by a dynamic director called Johannes Hossfeld and carried on by his successor Dr Nina Wichmann.

Book launches, book readings, book discussions, initiatives like Reading In Unusual Places (like Uhuru Park, the uncomfortable Sabena Joy, next in November in the ‘wild’ outdoors of Ole Polos before the claustrophobia of Langata Women’s Prison in mid-February, Valentine’s 2017), not to mention the monthly AMKA – the only regular creative workshop in the whole country, were born at Goethe.

Cultural discussion

And the Italian Cultural Institute under director Francesca Chiesa is entering the ‘mcheza’ of local literature.

In mid-September, at the National Museum, alongside Pisa professor Mirko Tavosanis and our old icon Ngugi Thiongo, they host a cultural discussion on national and minority languages, with local literary players like Billy Kahora, and Ralph Heckner, the Swiss ambassador.

We will be in attendance with my latest publisher, CEO Kiarie Kamau, (Run, Cheche, Run, EAEP, 2016) and he is among a new breed of pioneering publishers like Oxford Press CEO John Mwazemba open to bringing revolutionary new generation novels like Yvonne Adhiambo’s Dust, to the reading masses.

It was that, six years ago, local literary prizes were miserly; like the Jomo Kenyatta one worth Sh50,000. Only the Caine Prize, worth slightly over a million shillings, was there. And was fought for, by every short story writer on the continent, like a rump of steak thrown to a pack of starved dogs.

Since then, the Etisalat First prize for a full length novel has come to rival it for prestige. Money wise, the Morland Miles Award at Sh2.5 million (twice won by Kenyans) comes at twice the monetary purse.

And Kiswahili has not been left behind either, with the Sh1 million Mabati-Cornell Prize for Swahili stories.

Locally, there’s Burt Award for YA (Young Adult) writing which offers hundreds of thousands of shillings to the winners; and, from 2017, it will become seven figures as the competition goes regional, pitting Kenyans against neighbours Ethiopia and Tanzania, as well as the Ghanaians as per director Hadley Dyer.

Speaking of Ghana, the Storymoja Festival has moved from Nairobi to Accra, which is good as we are now “exporting” our literature.

As it runs there from September 21 – 25, the Nairobi International Book Fair has moved a week forward into those exact dates to occupy the vacuum, and the Kenya Publishers’ Association expects about twenty five thousand visitors at the Sarit Expo this year.

Viviere Nandiemo had lemons in her mouth that there are no literary festivals outside of Nairobi, which is hard to access from Kuria (where she teaches), Koromangucha or even Kehancha.

She will be delighted to hear that last year’s Burt Award winner, Christopher Okemwa (Sabina & the Ogre, Nsiema Publishers) is yet hosting the international Kistrech Poetry festival that will begin in Kisii County the first few days of October, move to Lake Victoria midweek, and culminate at Kenyatta University, Nairobi.

And in December, the Summer Literary Festival (under the great Russian-American professor Mikhail Iossel of Concordia University, Montreal) will come with Canadian students and other writers, to Lamu.

SLS will partner with PEN Kenya, which under its president Khainga Okembwa, has been taking creative writing through PEN clubs to every corner of the country – from Mombasa to Nyeri to Eldoret to lately Kakamega and Mumias, where PEN is very strong in Western Province – in recent years.

Even the Kenya National Library Services has gone digital, with librarians like Kaltuma Sama starting to offer online and live library circles in Buruburu (where this writer incidentally met Sports Cabinet

Secretary Hassan Wario walking about recently to see how the library services are functioning, and we had a chat on the same, never mind the Rio fiasco).

Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development director Julius Jwan also blamed recent violence on a curriculum that does not reflect “ethnic differences and encourage the appreciation of diversity.”

KICD veteran Alice Karichi has promised creative books in the new curriculum that will reflect student life in 2016 and their challenges such as rebellion and arson, and teach them to reason.

So, six years on, the constitution of Kenyan literature stays strong – even as we wait for doves to fly.

– Tony Mochama is the Kenyan delegate for the 82nd. PEN Intl. congress in Ourense, Spain, later in September.

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