Notes from the Kwani? Literary Festival

AiW Guest Dzekashu MacViban

In December 2012, I travelled to Nairobi for the 2012 Kwani? Litfest as part of the Goethe Institut’s pan-African exchange programme ‘Moving Africa’. Of the various panels and readings I attended four stood out: our Moving Africa reading, Kojo Laing in conversation, Nawal El Saadawi’s talk and Helon Habila’s lecture on the African novel.

2012 Kwani? LitfestWho’d have thought that an incongruous word like [self]-censorship would have been present at the Kwani? Litfest?  During the Moving Africa reading at the Goethe-Institut, our moderator made a comment about literary gangsterism and swear words, saying that some schools of thought did not tolerate those types of words in writing. When we were asked to react to that, Namibian writer Sylvia Schlettwein had the most appropriate response – ‘Bullshit’. It goes without saying that censorship always hangs above writers like a sword of Damocles, yet the Kwani? Litfest themed around ‘Conversations with the Horn’, opened up this perennial question to different experiences and perspectives. I couldn’t help reflect that even if the institutions that censor are no longer as rigorous as they used to be, writers are called upon to exercise self-censorship, and with censorship comes the death of freedom of expression. As Kojo Laing compelling argued – a writer should be honest in his writing and write the way he thinks, not the way institutions expect a writer to write. Thus it is the place of the writer to break taboos and banalize them in writing.

Helon Habila’s lecture on the African novel highlighted what he felt were the current trends in African fiction, mentioning ecology and the diaspora. He commented that many newly released and forthcoming books, including Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and We Need New Names by No Violet Bulawayo, focus on the diaspora. Could this be an indicator that more and more African writers are moving to the diaspora? Or that foreign publishers are more interested in stories about the diaspora? Indeed, this phenomenon is decried by Joyce Ashuntantang in a recent interview for Bakwa Magazine in which she says ‘As long as foreign publishers remain the mid-wives of our stories, they will keep determining the nature of these stories.’

Kojo Laing and Johannes Hossfeld (Director of the Goethe Institut, Nairobi)

Kojo Laing and Johannes Hossfeld (Director of the Goethe Institut, Nairobi)

Hearing them talk at Litfest, I noticed some striking parallels between the experiences of writers Kojo Laing and Nawal El Saadawi. Firstly, they both had an intuitive Cartesian logic which led them to question, and later dismiss the role of religion in their lives. Secondly, they became politically aware very early in their lives. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, their writing has cost them a lot. How phenomenal it would have been to hear these two writers in dialogue; they both challenge one to see the world differently.

Yet for me, the experience of travelling to Nairobi for the Kwani? Litfest was about so much more than panels and readings. It was the hours spent in Jomo Kenyatta International Airport ignored by immigration officials, waiting for authorization to enter the country. It was literary conversations while waiting in the airport with Awes Ahmed Osman, a Sweden-based Somali writer scheduled to appear at the festival, who was denied entry to Kenya. It was Helon Habila advising me that Wasafiri is a good ‘home’ for my fiction. It was the continual crash course in Cameroonian history and contemporary politics I had to give to explain myself as an Anglophone writer and editor from Cameroon. It was the Nairobi night life. All this, now waiting to be brought to life in the name of faction.


IMG_0280Dzekashu MacViban is the founding editor of Bakwa Magazine and the author of a poetry collection titled Scions of the Malcontent. In 2012 he participated in the Kwani? Litfest in Nairobi as part of the Moving Africa Program. His work has featured in Wasafiri, and Fashizblack among other places and is forthcoming in the Ann Arbor Review. He lives in Yaoundé and is working on a collection of short fiction. His work has been translated into Spanish and Japanese.


You can read more reflections on the 2012 Kwani? Litfest from Dzekashu and other Moving Africa participants at the Goethe Institut’s Moving Africa blog.

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