It’s not every day that you get to shake hands with a Nobel Laureate or rub shoulders with a Booker Prize winner; but this is the kind of thing you get at the burgeoning literary and intellectual art festivals in East Africa.
It may all seem quite glamorous, the opportunity such forums provide for the pushing of boundaries of thought and to place political, social and economic realities under sharp scrutiny, are just as important.
This year’s Storymoja Hay Festival, which ran from September 13-16 under the theme “Imagine the World” did not disappoint.
Literary forums by writers such as Pakistani-born British poet Imtiaz Dharker and Black-British poet Lemn Sissay were held alongside films on justice after the 2007 Kenyan post-election crisis, the question of how “development” is being practised as related to the Lamu port, as well as open discussions by the gay and lesbian community on their rights.
It also saw the inaugural Wangari Maathai Memorial Lecture delivered by Jung Chang, a Chinese writer who lived under repressive communism.
Storymoja founder Muthoni Garland explained that the objective was to celebrate a reading and writing culture, moving away from “beer talk.”
“We are saying: Here are some of the greatest thinkers locally and internationally and telling people, why not spend a weekend listening to all this condensed wisdom brought straight to you?”
The Storymoja Hay Festival is in good company with other festivals around the region such as the Julius Nyerere Intellectual Festival (Dar es Salaam), the Samosa Festival (Nairobi) as well as the Kwani literary festival set for December.
Uganda has the Bayimba Cultural Foundation that focuses on the arts as a whole while Rwanda is set to host the inaugural East African Community Arts and Culture Festival from October to November.
These forums are used to discuss matters of public interest that are not given enough attention in the press.
Garland divulges that they have been criticised for some of the events they have chosen to host such as the gay and lesbian forums and the panel on Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s former aide Miguna Miguna’s controversial book.
“My take is that we can’t keep nurturing a culture of intolerance. We’d rather have a mind engagement than a machete engagement,” she said.
Gacheke Gachihi, a member of Bunge la Wananchi who has attended the Julius Nyerere Festival, echoes Garland.
“These forums provide an intellectual space that allows people to generate new ideas. They help to breathe life into the backward politics that we’ve been having on the continent since the introduction of neo-liberal reforms.”
Dr Garnet Olunya, a cultural consultant and former lecturer in literature, shared her thoughts on the role of local universities in promoting and holding these kinds of events.
“There are a few of these forums but they are more academic in nature,” she said, explaining that the current laid back nature of literary departments in Kenyan universities can be attributed to the repressive regime of the former president Daniel arap Moi years, under which intellectuals were arrested and sent into exile.
Giles Foden, author of The Last King of Scotland, was one of the guest writers at the Storymoja Hay festival.
A native of the UK, he explained that most literary festivals there are centred around towns or regions- such as the Edinburgh Festival, the Cheltenham Festival and others, with local councils and local businessmen sponsoring such events.
If indeed such forums provide the opportunity to discuss progressive ideas, forthrightly, it would make a interesting to see similar events organised with the support of local counties in the rural areas.
It would be a difference from the rowdy kamukunjis and political rallies where citizens would get a chance to interrogate political and social happenings and enjoy their own cultural productions rather than lapping up propaganda.
Wanjiku Mwaura, who recently completed her university studies, attended the festival. She said of some of the film screenings, “It was a great to compare where we have been as a country and where we are right now.”
While festivals such as these provide a welcome space for reasoned debate and discussion on national issues, they would be even more effective if they spread out to rural areas.
They provide the space African American writer James Baldwin spoke of where people can examine and discard the illusions they cling to.
Baldwin said, “A people under the necessity of creating themselves must examine everything, and soak up learning the way the roots of a tree soak up water.”