Perhaps Kenyans and Nigerians should lift their foot off the literary gas pedal for a while, just for a while. That is what one panelist seemed to suggest in one of the discussions at Maria’s Place in Ntinda, Kampala, during the annual Babishai Niwe Poetry Award (BNPA.)
The BNPA is now in its third year after opening up to poets from all over the continent. Initially it focused on Ugandan women writers, efforts that led to discovery of Ugandan budding poets. In 2014, the founder opened it up to the continent and male poets. Kenya’s Tom Jalio won it that year and then Nigeria’s Adeeko Ibukun in 2015. A reason for Nakasinze Segawa’s worry.
But in Kampala, none of us was troubled about this. Babishai Niwe is a big prize that attracts a small crowd. Next to it is Writivism, a festival that attracts a bigger crowd. Perhaps the reason for this is that poetry isn’t for everyone the way fiction and non-fiction are.
We went to the Uganda National Museum on our first evening. Writivism had started already and the Ugandan poet, Harriet Anena, had a solo performance titled 'I Bow for my Boobs.' I Bow... is political erotica about Uganda. In a country that has had a university professor expressing herself by stripping, Anena’s performance is potent and incisive, questioning power in a country that has had government critics thrown into prison and harassed.
Literary festivals are a place of discovery. Reclusive writers are forced out into the open and usually silent poets get to speak because they now have to. Redscar McOdindo K’Oyuga is a Kenyan poet who rarely comes out into the light. His reasons are valid. “I want my work to open up my way, not the other way round,” he says. It was the last day of the festival that was on many people’s minds, however. A shortlist of nine poems had been made and from it, the top five selected. Among these top five were two Kenyans, one Nigerian, One Ugandan, and a South African.
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Next door, the Writivism Awards had two Kenyans awaiting too. Gloria Mwaniga Minage for her short story ‘Boyi’ and Abu Amirah with ‘The Swahilification of Mutembei’ (which reminded me of Abdul Adan’s The Somalification of James Karangi from Kwani? 08).
Leaving the hotel for the awards, I said to Redscar, “Good luck, mate, but I hope you lose to me.” He laughed and wished me the best too. That evening, at the Chinese Fang Fang Restaurant in Kampala, this writer was announced the joint winner of the 2016 Award alongside Moyosore Orimoloe from Nigeria.
It is however, the relationship between some of the writers in Kampala that intrigued me. The following day after BNPA, Redscar was announced winner of the Writivism Okot p’Bitek Translation Poetry Award and the Nyanza Literary Festival Poetry Winner. A day after, Innocent Immaculate Acan from Uganda was announced winner of the 2016 Writivism Short Story Award.
The two Kenyan poets, Redscar and I, have had collaborations before. I also found out that Immaculate Acan, the short story winner at Writivism, had been in the same secondary school with Maria Kakinda Birungi, the Ugandan shortlisted poet at BNPA. These relationships, while not very visible, remain quite influential to the writers. When people set out in a space, they compete among themselves and share resources hence critiquing and strengthening each other. In Kenya, such spaces have been the now in hiatus Hisia Zangu and other smaller literary clubs in colleges, universities, and schools.
Back to the issue raised by one of the panelists, Nakasinze Segawa. This year’s joint winners were again male, and non-Ugandan. They were in fact a Kenyan and a Nigerian. The protected space initially offered for women writers has been lifted off and it’s perhaps why this panelist was worried. But perhaps there were reasons to opening up the prize. Beverly Nambozo lamented about the low response she got when she made callouts for Ugandan women this year. She had wanted to feature women writers this year. “Maybe the response would have been stronger if the callout had been for the award. Money awakens attention,” my friend Ngartia, a Spoken Word artist, mentioned.
“Opening up the competition to the continent forces the quality of the works awarded to go up,” I replied.
“Maybe we should have another award that helps to nurture young Ugandan women writers like BNPA set out to do when it started,” he replied.
- The writer is the 2016 Babishai Niwe Poetry Award joint-winner.