Litfest takes on interactions of Africans and their languages
How can Africans interact with their literature if it is presented to them in a language that is not their own?
The Kwani? LitFest is a biennial gathering of writers and artists from across Africa. This year’s theme was “Beyond the Map of English: Writers in Conversation on Language.”
The programme consisted of readings, performances and discussions on how language relates to African experiences and writing on the continent.
The 2015 edition was the fifth in the series, and featured noted writers like Somalia’s acclaimed Nuruddin Farah, Kenya’s Yvonne Owuor, Senegal’s Boris Boubacar Diop, Italian literary collective Wu Ming, Aldin Mutembei from Tanzania, Patrick Mudekereza from Congo, and South Africa’s Siphiwo Mahala. Ghanaian music duo FOKN Bois performed at the event.
The LitFest took place just after the death of Kenyan author Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, one of the most prolific women writers in Africa. She was described by her publisher, the East African Educational Press, as a legend, a writer, a storyteller and a great woman.
In a public lecture on the second day of the festival, Taiye Selasi talked about her work and how it straddles different worlds of language to capture African experiences. Selasi popularised the term Afropolitan in her essay, “Who is an Afropolitan?”
She addressed the question of how Africans in the diaspora are treated with apathy and suspicion because of the perception that they have abandoned the continent.
Instead of this isolation, she proposes that Africa celebrate its own, no matter where they are. “We should be seeing Africans in the diaspora as satellites of the African mothership. In fact, we should send Africans all over the world,” she said.
With the example of 2013 Caine Prize winner Tope Folarin, who brought the question of who is an African writer to the fore, she examined the role of pidgin in African literature, a language that is neither wholly African nor wholly European, but occupying a space between the two worlds.
Selasi’s Ghana Must Go is an examination of Africans in the diaspora and their complex relationships with the continent. It tells the story of a surgeon who moves from Ghana to the US, starts a family and later abandons his wife and children to return to Ghana. The family falls apart, with no one in regular communication.
The festival featured an awards ceremony, recognising the winners of the inaugural Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature.
All the winners in this category were from Tanzania, a sign of the country’s dominance of the language. Anna Samwel won first place in fiction for Penzi la Damu,and Mohammed K. Ghassani won the poetry prize for N’na Kwetu.
In a session at the Kenya National Theatre moderated by Prof Mukoma wa Ngugi on language and its changing relations to African experiences and writing on the continent, it emerged that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the most widely read and translated African literature from the 20th century, is yet to be translated into the writer’s native Igbo tongue. The people whose culture is extensively portrayed in the book cannot read it in their own language.
The role of the publishing industry in looking for and publishing stories in local languages was discussed. How can Africans interact with their literature if it is presented to them in a language that is not their own?
Yvonne Awuor noted that there are countries that have Swahili as a national language but are not promoting it.
Additionally, African languages are fading fast, as they have been relegated to a literary ghetto, and the people fluent in those languages are dying out. Children, she pointed out, are often punished for using their mother tongue in school, so expecting them to have an interest in literature that is published in that same language is a tough sell.
A concert was held to raise funds for Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina. A founding author of the Kwani? Trust, he suffered a stroke in October, and is undergoing treatment in India.
The LitFest saw the launch of the East African edition of Nuruddin Farah’s novel, Hiding in Plain Sight, set in the wake of a terrorist attack that kills a Kenyan UN worker in Mogadishu. The novel is published by Kwani Trust. Also launched was Nikhil Singh’s Taty Went West.
Kwani 08, a compilation journal featuring stories, poetry and works on the 2010 Kenya Constitution, the 2013 General Election and devolution in Kenya, was also launched. Featured writers include Paul Goldsmith, Okwiri Oduor, Laura Fish, Jackie Lebo and Ngala Chome.