THE sixth edition of one of Africa’s premier literary festivals begins this week in Nairobi. A little less than a year after its fifth edition was tragically interrupted by the Westgate mall terrorist attack in which 67 people were killed, the Storymoja Festival plays host to over 170 artists from 16 countries. One of the most prominent names on the itinerary this year is celebrated Nobel Laureate and playwright Wole Soyinka.
Soyinka publicly confirmed his participation in this year’s edition of the festival shortly after the Westgate mall attack where his friend, Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor lost his life. Awonoor was shot dead at the Art Caffe lounge at the mall where he had gone to meet his son. His tragic death and the brutality that followed made continuing the festival hard and it was promptly cancelled that day.
While paying tribute to Awoonor in Lagos, Soyinka acknowledged that he had missed the festival due to prior commitments but said; “I have however written to the organisers not to even bother to renew my invitation for next year’ s edition-life permitting, I shall be there. We must all be there.
If he keeps to his word, Soyinka will be at Nairobi National Museum in Kenya’s capital to join an assorted cast of artists and thinkers from around the world. One of the main festival events will be the Wangari Maathai Memorial Lecture, which will celebrate the life and work of the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who died in September 2011.
Ghanaian poet and editor Kwame Dawes is scheduled to eulogise his countryman Awoonor, in one of a number of events scheduled to the tragedy at Westgate.
It will be a full house with filmmaker Kenny Mann, poets Kwame Dawes, Sitawa Namwalie, Kennet B, Ladan Osman, Liyou Libsekal, Matthew Shenoda, Teardrops, Vuyelwa Maluleke, Abigail Arunga, Njeri Wangari; fiction writers Prajwal Parajuly, Oduor Jagero, Vered Ehsani, Kinyanjui Kombani, Tony Mochama, Ciku Kimeria, Alexander Nderitu, Ndiritu Wahome, Doreen Baingana; artists Mshai Mwangola, Dizraeli, Sauti Sol (band), Fedelis Kyalo amongst many others.
There were some artists whom you rarely see at such festivals, like 13-year old Kenyan author Joseph Bokea and 9-year old author and pianist Ngure Matu Ndiritu.
The Storymoja Festival traces its roots to a small gathering of intellectuals, writers and other creatives called the Nyama Choma Festival. It was relatively unknown outside Kenya until it partnered with the famous Hay Festival of the UK and became the Storymoja Hay Festival. Muthoni Garland, one of the founders of the festival, recently announced the end of that partnership. “From this year, the Storymoja Festival is no longer a part of the Hay Festivals. Our mutually beneficial partnership brought this festival to the global map, but it is time that we took the next step alone.”
The Festival includes a mix of sessions featuring different methods of creative expression. These include numerous book launches, film screenings, live discussions, storytelling events, spoken word, music concerts, lectures and puppetry. At a time when Africa is grappling with numerous problems such as epidemics and civil wars, a literary festival that draws upon the most respected names in the region might just be the kind of alternative conversation the continent needs.