“Heroes and scholars are everywhere”: Q&A with Abu Amirah, founder of Hekaya

AiW Guest Aurélie Journo

Author’s note: I met Abu Amirah when I attended the first Swahili Litfest he organised in March 2019 in Mombasa. After an exciting day of performances by high school students from selected schools Mombasa county in the hall of the Swahili Cultural centre, followed by a discussion on the ways forward for creative people from the Coast – writers, poets, screen writers, painters and actors — I sat with Abu Amirah on the stone steps of the newly built amphitheatre overlooking Fort Jesus and the Ocean. The sun was setting when we started talking about Hekaya, the writers’ collective he and others have set up in Mombasa, and as the conversation drew to a close, it was already dark and mosquitoes had had a feast on my arms and legs. The conversation was worth it.

Could you tell me a bit more about how Hekaya started?

Hekaya started through a workshop Kwani? Trust organised in 2015 in Mombasa. It brought together writers from the Coast, and we realized we didn’t know each other until then. That meant a lot for me, I could see all the talent and the passion that existed on the Coast. And the fact that it was the first creative writing workshop organised in Mombasa ever, that was something huge for me. Our idea back then was to have more of these workshops, to get more writers published on the Coast. So we started a group called Tendi, but it didn’t last because everyone got busy. But my idea was still there. Actually, when we were brainstorming for a name for the group, the name I had suggested was Hekaya, because it means short story in kiswahili, so that name stuck from 2015. I kept writing and in 2016, one of my short stories was shortlisted for Writivism. Writivism was a life-changing experience, because I got to meet so many people from the continent, Chuma Nwokolo, Panashe Chigumadzi, Ayobami Adebayo, and so many others. It changed my perspective on African writing and made me love the short story genre even more. After that, I attended several workshops. In

Aurélie Journo interviews Abu Amirah

Aurélie Journo interviews Abu Amirah. Courtesy SwahiliPot Hub/James Murua.

2017, I went to the Miles Morland workshop in Uganda, on Bulago island. The same year I did the online Writivism writing course, with Yewande Omotoso, who was my mentor and it was amazing. We did an online short story course with Storymoja, which lasted a few weeks and focused on young adult fiction, which is an emerging genre. They selected one of my stories and I’m still working on it, and hopefully it will be published soon. With the AMLA workshop around arts initiatives, that’s when I started thinking about the idea of the festival and Hekaya as an outfit, so AMLA really opened the doors for me. 

Hekaya started in 2018, before the AMLA workshop. We had launched the Hekaya website in 2017 and had sent out a call for stories from the Coast, and what we got was a bit disappointing because we received many submissions from Nairobi and elsewhere and very few submissions from Mombasa. The few people who sent submissions and were from Mombasa didn’t live in Mombasa anymore and most wrote from Nairobi. We filtered the stories and decided we were not going to publish stories from outside the Coast, […] In the end, we published 12 stories in Hekaya 1, but there was so much work to be done, so much editing, so much rewriting. Still, from those stories we could feel the passion and the need to tell the stories. And this is something we got from every writer, because you get so many stereotypes about the Coast and so many people are trying to tell the coastal stories from elsewhere. The writers from the Coast are passionate about telling their stories and about how they should be told, and we have so many stories that need to be told as well. It was a very interesting time.

Could you tell me more about the editing process?

Khalid Adam edited the Kiswahili pieces, and I edited the English stories. And then we just published it online, because we needed it as a reference point, you know, that’s the audience we’re looking at, the participants and the writers we’re looking at, in form and content. We learnt quite a few things from Hekaya 1. Especially that so much needs to be done, we have the writers but we don’t have the structures to support them. If you look at Nairobi, they have quite a number of forums, creative writing forums, they have Amka, Kwani?, Storymoja, and things are happening, whereas in Mombasa not much was happening. Somebody tried to launch an open mic, but it didn’t get much support and didn’t work out. But in the last six months a lot has been happening, especially with the opening of SwahiliPot Hub, promoting art and culture for the youth, where a lot of creative people meet. This has been an amazing space to be. This is where we hold our forums, once a month, because there is a need to meet, to talk with all the writers. […] One Saturday per month, we meet at SwahiliPot Hub and discuss literature. We read our work, we critique our peers. Those forums allowed the writers to grow, and gain confidence to share their works. Some writers started blogging after that. Lubnah Abdulhallim started Creative Writers League, focusing on writing in Kiswahili. From that small workshop we saw amazing growth: the first workshop had 7 participants, and the latest one had over 15. They are also getting longer as more people share their work. And young poets who read their poems for the first time gain confidence, and go on to start blogs to circulate their poetry for instance, like Farwat Shariff or Fatma Shafii Mohamed

So we’re trying to bring the writers together, to make the arts and literary scene on the Coast vibrant and sustainable, because the artists need to get something from their work. Right now, what we’re pushing for is to have serious creative writing workshops here. And we don’t want to call other people to do the workshops on their terms, what we want to do is plan the workshops ourselves and then invite people, on our own terms. What I’m hoping for is that in the next few months, we get a creative writing workshop going, through the networks that we’ve established through AMLA, through Storymoja, through Writivism and recently through African Writers Trust. These are networks that I’m tapping into so that we can have something going on. I know we won’t get resources easily, that’s a long-term thing, but ultimately, we’ll have resources, we’ll have writers from the Coast turning their energies into something. 

How would you describe the profile of the people who participate in the workshops?

Most are University students, some are still in high school. Still, I noticed something that surprised me and made me think the face of Swahili literature is changing. Years back, men dominated the field, there were very few women scholars. Today, we have many more women: publishing scholars, women bloggers, women poets…. And it’s visible here at the festival, with panels with more women than men. So I think women are doing a lot to promote Swahili literature, they are more visible today, they are adapting and contributing more, and they have been very vocal and vibrant.

How did the festival come to life?

At first when I talked with Lubnah, we wanted to have a creative writing competition for schools and the mainstream public and had decided to have a festival to announce the winners. It started as a very simple idea, but it has grown into something else and honestly, it has surpassed my expectations. I didn’t expect it to be this, considering that I’ve done it without any funding. The fact that it was difficult made it so much more worth it in the end. But I believed in it, and I felt it was the moment to do it, otherwise it would never happen again, the idea would have died. I had a lot of conversations with Abdilatif Abdalla, the chairman of the Mabati-Cornell prize, and he was very interested as well as Mabati-Cornell. But I needed to prove myself that I could do it without funding and now, I’m looking at the festival 10 or 20 years down the line. The festival will be held again next year, in March 2020, and will focus on Identity Politics.

Students from Shariff Nassir Girls High School. Courtesy SwahiliPot Hub/James Murua.

As Hekaya, we also have another long-term project. I have been talking to high school teachers and students, and I met students who were very passionate about writing and about creative arts, poetry. Right now, the school curriculum doesn’t allow for that, which is quite sad for the children. We invited 15 schools for the competition, but some cancelled. I feel it’s a negative culture of sorts, because the kids do not get support, they get discouraged and told there’s no future in arts and writing and also the teachers are overwhelmed, though they want to help. What we intend to do with Hekaya, with the networks we’ve built with schools around the Coast is to offer support and assistance, to come in as creative arts mentors for those children. We don’t want to do it for the sake of doing it. The school performances on the Coast are quite low, and I believe in the transformative power of books, of reading and creative arts in developing critical thinking. Ultimately, it will improve their grades, that’s what I believe. I’m looking at a 4-year plan, what I’m calling the “Soma Sana initiative”, so what we’re trying to do is to push initiatives in creative arts in schools. My vision is to start with students from form one and then follow them over several years. 

We come from a reading culture. I started reading early, in standard 6, maybe earlier, because my mum used to read, she was a member of a library, so there were books at home. At the time I was growing up my uncle was out of high school and I remember the first book I saw lying on the floor in my uncle’s bedroom was The Concubine [by Elechi Amadi]. It was a set book back then, and they used to discuss it, and [Chinua Achebe’s] Things Fall Apart. So I tried reading it, but it was difficult because I was very young. But it got me thinking about Chinua Achebe and the power he had: my mother and my uncle were discussing his books in our home, and other titles from the African Writers Series. So there was this fascinating thing about authors and their books and the way they engage in people from other worlds. I believe books have this transformative power. If I hadn’t read from that early, maybe I wouldn’t be a writer today. 

We want to pursue the Soma Sana for four years at least to collect data about its impact on school performance. We don’t want to focus exclusively on books, we also want to engage kids in poetry, spoken word performance and the like. Of course, there are drama festivals and music festivals in high schools, but I think they are too structured, too formal and we need something informal for these kids to enjoy books. In the end, we also need to build structures after high school, so the idea is to build a Creative Arts Academy to make it easier for them to continue and not lose that talent. 

Did you get any kind of local support for the festival?

We got support from the SwahiliPot Hub and the Swahili Cultural Centre as they allowed us to use the venue for free. The local government, I shied away from, I didn’t want that political influence. 

What has the experience of organising the festival taught you?

Panel of elders at Swahili Litfest 2019

Panel at Swahili LitFest 2019: Celebrating the Wazees. Courtesy SwahiliPot Hub/James Murua.

This festival has taught me so many things. I’ve talked to so many people and realized that we need to bring people together: creative writers, poets, artists, musicians, scholars and the Swahili community, because if we are to build a sustainable creative economy on the Coast, we need to bring these people together. That’s why I was very touched to bring the Swahili community together to celebrate the Wazee (elders) and to get support from people like Prof. Mohamed Hyder. That for me was very important. These things need to be done, creating structures here on the Coast for writers. Writers move to Nairobi, where they get assimilated into another writing culture, they no longer write from the Coastal perspective. We also need to make creative economy sustainable on the Coast, and to tell the coastal stories. In the coming years, we want the festival to be a rotating thing, we want to have it in Lamu, in Kwale, in Watamu, and even outside the country in Bagamoyo, Pemba, Kilwa, and Zanzibar. We want it to be a travelling thing on the Swahili coast. Heroes and scholars are everywhere. That’s my long-term dream. It’s a community thing. We want to engage the Swahili community and encourage the creative arts.

Another reason why I’m very keen on taking it round, is that when I applied for seed-funding with the African Writers Trust publishing workshops, we had a project: a travelling fiction project. In line with all we’ve been doing with Hekaya, the aim was to connect writers from the Coast, from the Kenyan Coast, from the Tanzanian Coast, and have them work together on a book, which is complete and will be launched at the 2020 festival. Each writer wrote 2,000 words and passed it on to the next writer to continue, and the story flows. […] It has already produced some writers, like Fatma Shafii Mohamed, who was selected for the Goethe Institut Afro-Young Adult project for her short story Safarini, which she wrote building on the text she had written for the first instalment of the travelling fiction project in Kiswahili. […] The Kiswahili book will be published by HAI Book Hub, the imprint we are launching, because it is important to push publishing in Kiwahili, and support writing in Kiswahili. […] One thing I’m very happy about is that it has shown me what was out there, in so many different places. Now, we need to build on that, on that writers database, outside Mombasa, to build a network. The idea is also for it to be our first step into publishing, a pilot project.

Do you know where the book will be published?

The book will be printed in Uganda and we will sell it through our recently opened online bookstore. Prestige Bookshop also gave us a huge boost by agreeing to have it in stock even though as a policy they only accept books from local publishers who have 5 titles and above. By getting into the book market ourselves, we want to have a feel of what our people are reading, understand their reading habits and influence this by working on relevant, appealing content.

I was quite surprised to see the role played by new technologies for emerging writers, with WhatsApp groups, blogs, etc. Social media and the Internet seem to be a space where writers meet, share their work, and exchange. What is your take on this shift and many writers’ collectives’ move to the Internet as a publishing platform?

I think publishing online is the way to go now because there is a digital audience. Personally, I still feel we need hard copy books, because reading online can be quite distracting. I believe in hard copy books, it’s an object you can keep, and there’s an intimacy to reading a book, the smell of paper. I prefer turning the pages [rather] than scrolling down the screen. But we cannot do away with online publishing, with Whatsapp groups, because there are people who have grown through those platforms. Beautiful writers who have posted their work online on blogs have been read. Most people also found out about what’s happening on the literary scene and about other writers through social media, through Facebook. Because it’s not being advertised or covered in mainstream media, social media works is a networking space. For instance, one of the reasons the festival has come alive is through WhatsApp and social media. 

Swahili LitFest Opening Evening 2019. Courtesy SwahiliPot Hub/James Murua.

Was the idea behind publishing Hekaya online linked to reaching the younger “digital-native” generations?

Yes, the first issue of Hekaya was a downloadable pdf file. So other than cost, we’re also looking at reaching out to young readers, people who are always on their phones. It created some sort of buzz because it was online, and also because it was the first time we had a collection of stories from the Coast. We had a conversation on Facebook and somebody commented on the main story, “Jihadi Brides”, by Moraa Gitaa, which depicts something we from the Coast are so familiar with. The reader said “This is not a writer from the Coast”, so we asked them, why ? They said, “it’s too good to be from Mombasa”. So that in itself means we are on the right track, we’re doing the right thing. We had to bring in Moraa so that she would introduce herself, showing that even though she’s working from Nairobi, she still considers Mombasa her home. Through these platforms, the festival, the travelling fiction, our goal is to connect people.

You’ve done a lot in a short time…

The idea behind Hekaya was planted in 2015, four years ago, so it’s been and still is a journey. We’ve received support from other platforms like African Writers Trust, Kwani and Jalada, through Billy Kahora, and Moses Kilolo. We don’t want to lock ourselves within the Coastal boundaries, though we are localized on the Coast, we’d also like to be heard outside, as the stories we tell are also universal. We also hope to work together with Kenyan publishers like Storymoja – around their initiative to promote reading –, like Nairobi-based Queenex Publishers – who held a writing workshop in Kiswahili in Nairobi –, or even Tanzanian ones, like Mkuki wa Nyota (Dar es Salaam). One of the problems we have is that books are not available. For instance, publishers no longer have any copy of Alamin Mazrui’s Kilio cha Haki, and they didn’t digitize it. We want to collaborate with publishers to set up a digital library to make sure these books are not lost and their writers forgotten. Preserving and curating literary heritage from the Coast is a very important part of our project, because, for instance if you look at the names of roads in Mombasa, when Ali Mazrui passed away, they renamed a road after him, but the irony is, on one side of the road, it’s written Ali Mazrui Road, and on the other it’s still Madaraka Road… We have a road heading to Nyali that was renamed Fidel Odinga Road, but why don’t we have road names honouring people like Fumo Liyongo or Muyyaka Bin Haji AlGhassaniy? We’re also looking to creating a space where they would be honoured, their books kept, a space that would be a museum of sorts, an art gallery, a library. And because even contemporary, award-winning books from Tanzania, like Mungu Hakopeshwi by Zainab Alwi Baharoon, which won the Mabati-Cornell price last year, are not easily available in Mombasa, we’ve also decided to launch an online bookshop (HAI Book Hub), with plans underway to have a physical bookshop here in Mombasa to attract readers and story-lovers. Our plan is to create an interactive, communal space with a bookstore, café and reading area.

Abu Amirah speaking at Swahili LitfestAbdulrahman ‘Abu Amirah’ Ndegwa is a Mombasa-based writer, AMLA (Art Managers & Literary Activists) Fellow, AWT (African writers Trust) Publishing Fellow, founding editor of Hekaya Initiative, a literary & cultural production platform publishing voices from the Swahili Coast, convener of the annual Swahili Literary Festival and proprietor of HAI Book Hub– Hekaya’s publishing imprint and bookstore. 

 His story “Swahilification of Mutembei” was shortlisted for Writivism Short Story prize in 2016. While other stories are set to be appear in other literary magazines, some have been published in Kalahari Review, Munyori Journal, Hekaya Issue 01, Writivism 2017 mentorship program anthology “Transcending the Flames” and long listed for Writivism’s 2019 Koffi Addo nonfiction prize. He has attended several creative writing workshops: Kwani? 2015, Miles Morland Foundation workshop 2017, Writivism Online workshop 2017, Storymoja short story course 2018, AMLA Fellowship 2018 and won the AWT Seed Funding for a pilot publishing project which will be launched in March 2020 at the Swahili Literary Festival with a second launch a week later at AWT’s Publishing Fellowship Workshop in Uganda.


Aurélie Journo was trained at the École Normale Supérieure, Lyon, France. She is currently a Lecturer in Anglophone Literatures at the University Sorbonne Paris Nord. Her main interest is in the field of contemporary Anglophone literature from East Africa. She is interested in the sociology of literature and in the analysis of literary sociability and networks and is currently working on past and present African literary journals and literary practices. She has published articles on the literary journal Kwani? and Kenyan contemporary literature in Études littéraires africaines, Itinéraires, Postcolonial TextThe Literary Encyclopedia and elsewhere. She is currently working on her first book.

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