Literature
Photo by Daniel Gilbert Bwette

On Reinventing African Lit: All the Buzz From East Africa’s Biggest Literary Festival

We talked to attendees at the Writivism Festival in Kampala about what makes a memorable legacy in African literature.

The acclaimed writer Taban Lo liyong has an easy strategy to make people speak more honestly about literature—drink red wine, say something controversial, and apologize later.

Liyong was scheduled to be the opening keynote speaker for the 2018 Writivism festival in Uganda that took place over the weekend in Kampala. Ugandan writers might not dominate discussions about African literature, but Kampala is a city that has hosted the most notorious debates about the genre from the Makerere conference to Transition magazine where writers like Ezekiel Mphalele, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong'o argued with each other about what made writing "African" or "good." Writivism follows that tradition of gathering people from all over the continent in Kampala to discuss what African literature is.

The theme for the festival this year was "Legacy." Since Liyong had said in 1965 that East Africa was a literary desert, there was no one better to reflect on how far East African literature had come. In his keynote, he proclaimed that the novel Kintu (2014) by Jennifer Makumbi had finally broken Uganda's dry spell. Makumbi was great because she had mastered the art of long form narrative, critiqued Ugandan royalty, and managed to "graduate from a muslim college in the East and still remain interesting." She was the writer Liyong had been waiting to read for forty years.


Following Liyong's opening speech were two days of panels, readings, and book vending that all took place at The Square, a rooftop event space in Kampala's industrial area. Some of the highlights were Dami Ajayi's book launch for his poetry collection A Woman's Body is a Country and readings by newer writers who were shortlisted for Writivism's Koffi Addo Creative Nonfiction Prize and the Writivism Short Story Prize. The winners were announced Sunday night and the prizes went to Chisanga Mukuka for her story "Belonging" and Mbogo Ireri for his story "Hopes and Dreams." As Liyong gave out the prizes to the Zambian and Kenyan winners he joked about how happy he was to see a non-Nigerian winner, and that he hoped next year the winner would be South Sudanese.

But the best discussions happened in between the events, as people ordered drinks from the bar and went on rants about the difficulties of accessing African books in different African countries. The best part about casual conversations with editors and writers at the festival was being able to walk away with some free books and magazine issues by simply asking people I met what they were working on and if they had copies with them.

The weekend was haunted by Liyong's opening remarks, after all there is nothing that sparks a debate faster than declaring one Ugandan writer in forty years as truly mastering the artform of writing. I asked some festival goers if they agreed with Liyong's keynote and how they would define legacy instead.

Here is what they had to say:

Tracy (Uganda)

Photo by Daniel Gilbert Bwette

"As a child I read a lot of Kenyan literature, I only got to see Ugandan writers as a young adult. I loved Ugandan literature not because it was good literature but because it was Ugandan and I could relate to it. But I agree with Professor Taban, Jennifer Makumbi came and she is the best. It's great to see the elders here and to hear from them. As we lesbians like to say, we are seeking the older wiser lesbians."—Tracy, attendee.

Tinashe (Zimbabwe) + Harriet (Uganda)

Photo by Daniel Gilbert Bwette

"I think there is a big generational gap with Taban. I look for more forms of expression when I think about great writers. I had a problem with Taban saying we have waited 40 years for Jennifer Makumbi. Does he read short stories or anthologies? What did he mean when he said only she has mastered the art of creative writing?"—Harriet, writer and editor of Word Oven.


Anike (Nigeria) + Tobi (Nigeria) + Sumayya (Nigeria)

Photo by Daniel Gilbert Bwette

"In the Q and A at Liyong's keynote there were the same old questions about colonialism. We are still talking about colonialism. It happened, what next. Let us reinvent ourselves."—Sumayya, creative director at Open Arts

"I have to disagree with you there. I don't think we should stop talking about colonialism. Even here in Uganda, we can't talk about Uganda and not talk about how they were colonized. The problem is we tend to sit on our history instead of talking about it in a way that does not make it a limitation.—Tobi, editor of The Book Banque

"I think in discussions of legacy what is missing for me is thinking about African literature in different forms other than the written form. Oral tradition has not been considered in these discussions at the festival. We should give space to other forms of storytelling."—Anike, curator at Òrò Àníké.

Dami Ajayi (Nigeria)

Photo by Daniel Gilbert Bwette

"Listening to Taban, I still was not convinced about privileging the novel. I'm a poet. Poetry is close to music. And if you think there is any form of art that could have the popular effect of carrying the crowd along it's probably music. That's gonna bring the revolution."—Dami Ajayi author and founding editor of Saraba Magazine.

Kearomo (Botswana)

Photo by Tweny Benjamin

"Telling our stories and telling them properly is legacy. When people think of legacy they might think Bessie Head or Dambudzo Marechera. Legacy to me is simply someone who connects well with their readers."—Kearomo, writer and book hoarder.

Roland (Uganda)

Photograph by Daniel Gilbert Bwette

"We just crossed the five year marker for Writivism. Last year our theme was reinventing the future and we were thinking about where we are headed. But as the saying goes 'you can't tell where you are going without knowing where you are coming from.' So if we are going to redefine African literature we have got to talk about the past. That's why we chose this theme and the speakers." —Roland, Writivism festival curator.

Taban Lo Liyong (South Sudan)

Photo by Daniel Gilbert Bwette

"Life as lived by cows and other animals is not reflected over. Cows just eat grass from year to year. Human life is reflected over. We think and we speak. There is the big jaw, the little jaw, the joking jaw, the judgemental jaw. A big jaw crushes everyone who speaks, the little jaw is quiet. Writers are the judgemental jaw. If you want to tell jokes that is fine, but to have a legacy you must stand for something. I also want to say apologies, apologies, for making people think that Ugandans haven't been writing. Let more rain rain and Ugandans write."—Taban Lo Liyong, writer and philosopher.

*

Check out more photos below from the Writivism Festival in Kampala.

Photo by Daniel Gilbert Bwette

Photo by Daniel Gilbert Bwette

Photo by Daniel Gilbert Bwette

Photo by Daniel Gilbert Bwette

Photo by Tweny Benjamin

popular
(Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Bernardine Evaristo's Award-Winning Novel, 'Girl, Woman, Other,' Is Being Adapted Into a Film

The British-Nigerian author's Booker-prize winning book, about the lives of Black-British women, is headed to the big screen.

British-Nigerian author Bernardine Evaristo's Booker-prize winning novel Girl, Woman, Other is being adapted for the big screen by major British production company Potboiler Television, reports African literary site Brittle Paper.

The production company, helmed by BAFTA winning producer Andrea Calderwood and Gail Egan, is the same company behind the upcoming series adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie's Americanah on HBO Max. Potboiler Television's previous productions also include the 2019 film The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

Here are 10 Recent Books from Black South African Women Writers That You Need to Read

These 10 books have both shifted and unearthed new narratives within South Africa's literary world.

A few years ago, we celebrated the eight most influential Black South African women writers during Women's Month. The list featured the likes of Miriam Tlali, the first Black woman to publish a novel during Apartheid, Sweet Medicine author Panashe Chigumadzi and beloved poet Lebogang Mashile. We now bring you our selection of ten literary gems by various Black South African women writers which have shifted and even unearthed new narratives in the South African body of literature.


This list is in no particular order.

​"Collective Amnesia" by Koleka Putuma, published 2017

It is unprecedented for a poetry book in South Africa to go into a ninth print run and yet, Collective Amnesia has managed to do just that. The collection of poems, which compellingly explores religion, womanhood, Blackness, queerness, traditionalism, trauma and everything in between, has also been translated into Danish, German and Spanish. The winner of the 2018 Luschei Prize for African Poetry, Collective Amnesia has also been adopted as reading material for students at various institutions of higher learning across the country. It is a truly phenomenal and unrivalled first work by Putuma.

"The Ones with Purpose" by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, published 2018

Jele's book centers themes of loss, grief and trauma. After the main character's (Fikile) sister dies from breast cancer, it is now up to her to ensure that certain rituals are performed before the burial. The Ones with Purpose highlights a lot of what Black people refer to as "drama" following the death of a loved ones. It highlights how often Black people are often not given the opportunity to simply grieve their loss but must instead attend to family politics and fights over property and rights. It also speaks to how, despite the rift that loss inevitably brings to Black families especially, togetherness also results because of it.

"These Bones Will Rise Again" by Panashe Chigumadzi, published 2018

Drawing from Audre Lord's concept of a biomythography in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name as well as Alice Walker's essay In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Chigumadzi's These Bones Will Rise Again explores the history of Zimbabwe's spirit medium and liberation fighter Mbuya Nehanda during the Chimurenga, Zimbabwe pre- and post-colonization and the Mugabe-regime. The book also pays homage to her late grandmother. Chigumadzi's commitment to retelling lost narratives in Zimbabwe's complex history is a radical act in itself in a world that seeks to tell the country's stories through a lens that centers any and everyone else except Zimbabweans.

"Reclaiming the Soil: A Black Girl's Struggle to Find Her African Self" by Rosie Motene, published 2018

Just as Matlwa's debut novel Coconut explores the cultural confusion and identity crises that result in Black children raised in a White world, so too does Motene's book. In contrast, however, Reclaiming the Soil: A Black Girl's Struggle to Find Her African Self is instead a non-fictional and biographical account set during Apartheid South Africa. As a young Black girl, Motene is taken in by the Jewish family her mother works for. And while she is exposed to more opportunities than she would have had she remained with her Black parents, hers is a story of tremendous sacrifice and learning to rediscover herself in a world not meant for her.

"Period Pain" by Kopano Matlwa, published 2017

Matlwa's third novel Period Pain honestly pulls apart the late Nelson Mandela's idea of a rainbow nation and non-racialism. Through the central character Masechaba, the reader is shown the reality of a country still stuck in the clenches of racism and inequality. Xenophobia, crime and the literal death sentence that is the public health system are all issues Matlwa explores in the novel. It's both a visceral account of the country from the vantage point of a Black person without the privileges and comforts of a White person as well as a heartfelt story about how even the most broken continue to survive. It's the story of almost every Black person in South Africa and that that story is even told to begin with, and told honestly, is important.

"Always Another Country" by Sisonke Msimang, published 2017

Msimang's memoir details her political awakening while abroad as well as her return to a South Africa on the cusp of democracy. Hers is not an ordinary account of Apartheid South Africa and its aftermath but rather a window into yet another side—the lives of South Africans living in exile and more so, what happens when they eventually return home. Admittedly, it's an honest account of class and privilege. Msimang describes the tight-knit sense of community built between families who were in exile and acknowledges that many of them came back to South Africa with an education—something of which South Africans living in the country were systematically deprived. It is an important addition to the multitude of stories of Apartheid-era South Africa, the transition into democracy and the birth of the so-called "born-free" generation.

"Khwezi: The Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo" by Redi Tlhabi, published 2017

Redi Tlhabi's second non-fiction work tells the story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, the woman who accused then President Jacob Zuma of rape back in 2005. "Khwezi" as she became known throughout the very public trial, was a symbol of the many women subjected to the abuse of men in positions of power. Similarly, she was treated as women like her are so often treated—ostracized by the community and forced to leave and start anew elsewhere. Tlhabi's account of Khwezi's life was a courageous one and one that tries to obtain justice despite the court's decisions. Although Khwezi died in October 2016, her memory continues to live on in the hearts of many South African women who refuse to be silenced by the dominant patriarchal structure. For that alone, this work is tremendously important.

"Intruders" by Mohale Mashigo, published 2018

When one thinks of African literature, stories of migration, colonization, loss, trauma, culture and traditions usually come to the fore. As a result, Afrofuturism or speculative fiction is a genre that is often sidelined and the stories therein left untold. Intruders is a collection of short stories by Mohale Mashigo that unearths these stories in a refreshing manner. From mermaids in Soweto, werewolves falling in love with vampires and a woman killing a man with her high-heeled shoes, Mashigo centers the proverbial "nobody" and pushes against the narrative that Africans can only tell certain kinds of stories but not others.

"Miss Behave" by Malebo Sephodi, published 2017

There is a reason why Sephodi's Miss Behave has resonated so strongly among women across the board. Drawing inspiration from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's adage that "well-behaved women seldom make history", Miss Behave documents Sephodi's journey to smashing the stereotypes peddled by society in its relentless prescriptions of what women can and cannot be; can and cannot do. Naturally, she's labeled a "misbehaving" woman and hence the title of the book. Sephodi also explores themes of identity and gender issues while allowing women the opportunity to take charge of their own identities despite societal expectations. A book that wants women to discover their bad-ass selves and exercise agency over their lives? A must read.

"Rape: A South African Nightmare" by Professor Pumla Gqola, published 2015

This book is both brilliant in the way it unpacks the complex relationship that South Africa has with rape and distressing in the way this relationship is seen to unfold in reality. Rape is a scourge that South Africa has not been able to escape for years and the crisis only seems to be worsening. Written almost four years ago, Prof Gqola's profound analysis of rape and rape culture as well as autonomy, entitlement and consent is still as relevant today as it was back then—both a literary feat and a tragedy. There can be no single answer to why South Africa is and remains the rape capital of the world, but Rape: A South African Nightmare is by far one of the best attempts thus far.

popular
(Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

Blitz the Ambassador Named 2020 Guggenheim Fellow

The Ghanaian artist and filmmaker is among 175 "individuals who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts."

Ghanaian filmmaker Blitz Bazawule, also known as Blitz the Ambassador has been named a 2020 Guggenheim fellow.

The musician, artist and director behind he critically acclaimed film The Burial of Kojo, announced the news via social media on Thursday, writing: "Super excited to announce I've been awarded the Guggenheim 2020 Fellowship. Truly grateful and inspired."

He is among 175 scholars, "appointed on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise, the successful candidates were chosen from a group of almost 3,000 applicants in the Foundation's ninety-sixth competition," says the Guggenheim.

Keep reading... Show less
Culture
Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

6 South African Podcasts to Listen to During the Lockdown

Here are six South African podcasts worth listening to.

South Africa has been on lockdown for almost two weeks as a measure to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and it looks like the period might just get extended. If you are one of those whose work can't be done from home, then you must have a lot of time in your hands. Below, we recommend six South African podcasts you can occupy yourself with and get empowered, entertained and informed.


Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox

news.

popular.