We have eyes, but we don’t see. We have ears, but we don’t hear. We can read, but we don’t understand what we read.
It is on that premise that the literati at the University of Nairobi, led by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Taban Lo Liyong, advocated for the complete overhaul of the curriculum at the Department of English so as to see the growth of literature based on African cultural experiences. That was in the late 1960’s.
About forty years later, a group of literature enthusiasts conceived an idea of integrating storytelling and reading of African literature during the most popular urban afternoon pastime of nyama choma meets. From that first event of 2 Dec 2008, when Storytellers regaled the audience with impromptu tales and enacted stories from published books, Storymoja Festival has over the years morphed into one of the biggest literary events in the world bringing together participants from across the globe.
The programme has transformed a lot, from sessions of performance-only to in-depth sociopolitical conversations. In the words of Mathew Shenoda, a renowned poet, the festival is a place where the complex diversity of African and African diasporic voices congregates to celebrate, interrogate, and innovate the present and future of African literature!
Interestingly, Storymoja is a combination of an English word (Story) and a Swahili word (Moja, meaning One): a single story that refused to die, but gave birth to many tales.
No one could have described it even better than Aleya Kassam, when she says The festival provokes, puts a mirror up to us as a society, challenges, asks us to imagine, to have the difficult conversations, and if we aren’t having them, to ask why. My brain feels stretched.
And I agree with her. The first time I attended the festival in 2011, I was awed by the complexity of curation, where lovers of literature and the arts would stretch their brains in exchanges with panels consisting of the likes of Yusef Komunyakaa, Ben Okri, Binyavanga Wainaina, among others. Hard, provoking
and informed conversations that affect the way we look at the world happen here. Many other artistes and thought influencers have graced the festival in the past few years, among them Koffi Awooner, Kwame Dawes, Wole Soyinka, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Beverly Nambozo, Chuma Nwokolo, Teju Cole, and many more.
The transformation of the programme has also seen the inclusion of a three day children programme that encompasses performances by poets, music groups, art and craft artists in origami, readings, storytelling, and this year will see the introduction of the spelling bee. All these activities that actively involve the participants can only lead to one thing: a thinking and prosperous society.
As Storymoja Festival returns to Nairobi, after holding the previous event in Accra, I sought the Festival Producer Anne Eboso for a conversation about this year’s event.
Storymoja Festival turns 10 this September. That is a huge milestone. Ten years later, would you say the objective of the festival has been met?
The original objective of the festival was to ignite the reading culture in Kenya, in a sort of way that people would just read for pleasure, both children and adults. Through the festival we have become part of many conversations that have given birth to even more conversations about books, literature and education. While we cannot claim it solely to ourselves to have boosted the reading revolution in Kenya, we can proudly say we have witnessed more and more people reading, talking about society and culture, and choosing to participate openly in social change after interacting with the festival.
The theme of the festival this year revolves around Black Peace. Would you elaborate on that for a better understanding?
The term Black Peace evokes varied thoughts in different people. To us the theme is a chance to talk about current social issues of identity and conflict especially as brought out through literature, and to explore hope and the future in events specially designed for students, families and individuals.
The Black in #Black Peace is a call to explore peace in the African context. Many times, peace has been associated with a ‘white’ face, and it is time we gave it a face we can identify with.
We acknowledge the ethnic and political tensions that exist between us. We understand that there are other forms of conflict as well; those revolving around families, mental health, disability, religion, languages, gender issues, employment crises, education, book publishing and distribution among others.
We wish to explore these conflicts and possible solutions at the festival through panels, book readings/launches, music, exhibitions, conversations, concerts, keynote addresses and theatre performances.
There is a lot of buzz around one of the new events being in this year’s programme: the Spelling Challenge. Apart from that, what new things should we expect to experience at the festival?
The Spelling Challenge is a most delicious addition to the festival for children aged 8 – 13 years, and their families and friends. Anyone can sign up their speller on the festival website. The children’s or schools’ programme is robust with events and activities for children age 6 – 18, from read-and-meet-authors, theatre and puppet shows, science experiments and many more. Then of course, there’s the Masterclass series and the weekend programme with something for everyone.
Holding an event of the magnitude is such an enormous challenge. A lot of work goes on in the background. Enthusiasts will be excited to grace the occasion again this year, after the pilgrimage to Accra. Any expectations on the number of visitors? What does the future hold?
We hope to attract more than 8,000 people this year, both school children and adults. We are working towards reproducing the feeling of a grand book party; a celebration of our stories and culture and literature on a grander scale than before. Mmmm for the future, we hope to become the biggest, most stimulating gathering of local and international writers, artists and audiences exploring, showcasing, generating and celebrating the African narrative in the many creative and cultural forms. We envisage putting together a wonderful gathering of creatives and leaders from across the globe in an auspicious celebration of books and culture.
What would you like the reading and non-reading nation to know about the Storymoja Festival?
The festival is a wonderful gathering of writers, artists, creatives, thinkers and leaders from across the globe. With the rich diversity of our program, there is absolutely everything for everyone!
Maybe it is that time we should say, We have eyes, and we see. We have ears, and we hear. We can read, and now we understand what we read.