In June 1962, Makerere University held the first African Writers’ Conference. The forum was celebrated as historic and a major milestone in arts, with discussions centred on the question of what defines African literature.
More than five decades later, the conference is set to take place at the Kenya National Theatre (KNT) in Nairobi, from September 27 to 29.
The 1962 Kampala conference saw the public, including literature lovers, locked out as literary giants engaged in A heated discussion about what constitutes African literature.
The gathering consisted of top literary names from across the continent, with Kenya being represented by Grace Ogot and Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
From Nigeria, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, John Pepper Clarks and Bernard Fonlon among others, were present. Controversial Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo, who later swapped his pen for a gun when he joined fighters in the Biafra secession war, also attended the forum.
Healing from the wounds
South Africa was represented by activists-turned-writers Dennis Brutus and Ezekiel Mphalele, among others. Uganda’s representatives included poets Okot P’Bitek and Jonathan Kariara.
It was a meeting of writers from countries that were either fighting for independence or healing from the wounds of the white man’s rule.
But it was not just an African affair. American poet Langston Hughes was also present, perhaps to demonstrate that the definition of ‘African’ was not limited to physical boundaries.
The conference ended in disagreement, with some rooting for the use of African languages, while others insisted on European or a hybrid of the two. Soyinka insisted on the use of sophisticated European language on grounds that African authors should accept the reality that they have acquired an imperialist language.
On the other hand, Ngugi advocated for the use of mother tongue, including Kiswahili, while Achebe insisted on Africanising foreign languages.
The upcoming Macondo Literary Festival with the theme “Re-imagining Africa’s Histories through Literature,” will see writers from the Portuguese and English speaking countries on the continent, as well as other writers across the world, share a platform with the public.
Among the award-winning writers set to attend the event organised by Macondo Book Society are Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, author of Dust and The Dragonfly Sea, as well as Dr. Peter Kimani, who penned Dance of the Jakaranda.
Others are Ondjaki (Angola), Dina Salústio (Cape Verde) and Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (Mozambique). Nigeria’s Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, South Africa’s Jonny Steinberg and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma from Zimbabwe will also feature. Also expected to attend the conference are Brazilian writer Geovani Martins, British writer and translator Jethro Soutar and Angolan-Portuguese filmmaker Joao Viana.
Anja Bengelstorff, the Macondo Book Society co-founder said there will be keynote speeches and panel discussions on the first day. The public will be granted access to the venue free of charge on the first day, but will be required to pay an entrance fee on the last two days will attract a fee.
The central point of discussion will revolve around historical experiences reflected in the works of the writers.
“Unlike the 1962 conference, this is not an academic event. This event is for book lovers who want to discover writers from various countries speaking different languages,” said Ms Bengelstorff.
“Some counties are even bordering each other but speak different languages. Literature brings us all together,” she added.
Dr. Kimani confirmed his participation during a telephone interview with The Saturday Standard.
He said the festival will be an opportunity for literature lovers to examine progress made in African literature, especially after the 1962 Makerere Conference.
“It would be interesting to review what has been gained and lost. Despite the change in time, our conditions on the continent have remained the same. We are still fighting poverty, disease and ignorance like our forefathers,” Dr. Kimani said, adding that writers and literature lovers will look at the changes in the artistic realm.
He observed that the presence of the Brazilian writer was good for the festival, considering that the South American country has a large population of black people.
The selected authors share one thing in common: their literary works lean on historical experiences of their countries and to a larger extent, Africa as a whole.
For instance, Dr Kimani’s novel touches on the colonial era and the advent of independence in the country. The book, rich in imageries, takes a symbolic journey from Mombasa to Port Victoria, where the ‘metallic snake’ or ‘Lunatic Express’ as the colonial railway system was referred, made its last stop. It is a narrative of cultural conflicts and transitions, sweeping through the two historical periods.
Influenced by history
The works of his Kenyan counterpart and co-founder of Macondo Book Society Yvonne Owuor, who authored Dust and The Dragonfly Sea, have also been influenced by history.
Dragonfly Sea revolves around the lead character Ayaana who lives with her mother and later finds her father who has been missing in her childhood. Other experiences that shape her life include an encounter with a religious extremist, cultural emissaries from China and her trip to the Far East. All her experiences depict external intrusion by other cultural and economic powers (and even a present reality of Kenya’s marriage with China), while her trip to the Far East reflects the unending migration of Africa to other worlds.
In Dust, she alludes to political assassinations in Kenya and repressive methods used by the state to silence resenting voices.
Outside the country, writers also explore historical experiences Kenyans can relate to.
Angola’s Ondjaki, winner of the José Saramago Prize 2013 and the Sao Paulo Prize for Literature 2010, in his novels The transparent City, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret, looks at issues that bedevil Africa, including corruption.
Cape Verde’s Dina Salústio, the author of The Madwoman of Serrano, uses magical realism to explore the concept of women empowerment, tackling the slippery gender equity question in many parts of the continent.
Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa from Mozambique, in the novel Ualalapi: Fragments from the End of Empire, explores Africans’ resistance to colonialism and by extension, the need for resistance to neo-colonial expeditions. It also satirises dictatorship, a rising cancer in the continent.
Nigeria’s Abubakar Adam Ibrahim in his Season of Crimson Blossoms, looks into war, poor governance and their effects, as is South Africa’s Jonny Steinberg, in her works, which includes One Day in Bethlehem.
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Zimbabwe) captures the current experience of economic turmoil in Zimbabwe owing to political mismanagement of the country in her works like House of Stone.
Geovani Martins (Brazil) in his anthology of short stories, “The Sun on My Head,” depicts the hard life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.
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