Events Issues News Personalities

Jukwaani, that’s where we meet on Thursday

African culture has from time immemorial been transmitted, from one generation to the other, through the spoken word. This goes to show why the fireside stories, often told by grandmothers, occupy such a central place in the African literary setting. The study of African literature is not complete without talking about oral literature. Some of the greatest African novelists trace the roots of their prowess from the stories they were told by their grandmothers when they were growing up. Here, Chinua Achebe of the Things Fall Apart fame comes to mind. Performance literature has, over time, undergone a transformation in tune with modern trends. Still, this form of art is highly cherished in Africa. Perhaps the finest form of performance literature are poetry recitals which come in various forms, ranging from poetry slam to spoken word. In a move to celebrate performance literature, the Kenya Cultural Centre, the Goethe Institut and Alliance Francaise will be holding a one-of-its-kind festival from 17 to 20 September, whose entry will be free.Poster JUKWAANI 2

Dubbed Jukwaani! the festival will feature a blend of the new and old as far as East African performance literature is concerned. The five-day event will also feature European-based African artistes as well as those from Europe. The performances will mostly be in English and Kiswahili. Among the personalities set to perform during the festival is German-based poet and scholar Abdilatif Abdalla. Most young Kenyan’s would not be immediately aware of Abdilatif nor his achievements. In literary circles, he is best known for his protest works. The Kenyatta regime jailed him after he wrote the book Kenya Twendapi? (Kenya; where are we headed?) This book criticised the Kenyatta government for its excesses and neo-colonial stance. He was actually charged with sedition. His other book, Sauti ya Dhiki (Voice of Agony), a collection of poetry was written while he was incarcerated at Kamiti Maximum Prison. It was basically agitating for the opening up of democratic space in Kenya. Sauti ya Dhiki went on to win the inaugural edition of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 1974 for the Kiswahili category. Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, better known for their lyrical prowess, will also be part of Jukwaani! attractions. Ukoo Flani, draw their inspiration and creativity from the day-to-day struggles in Nairobi slums. They are based in slums of Dandora. Best known as underground artistes, these Dandora-based hip-hoppers have chosen to remain true to their impoverished slum existence by shunning the more commercial forms of creativity. Theirs is the hard-hitting poetry that depicts typical life in the slums, their suffering, in the hands on corrupt authorities, as well as triumphs. They also document the negative side of life in the slum, like the effects of crime and drug abuse. Ukoo Flani are a direct contrast to the other form Kenya’s urban hip hop, which appears to celebrate materialism, commonly expressed in the form of flashy lifestyles and bling. Proceeds of their album Kilio cha Haki are going towards the creation of a permanent studio in Eastlands. This, they argue, will help to give young Kenyans a voice and demonstrates how hip hop and music can be an alternative to drugs and crime; a source of income; a means of voicing social and political protest. Truth be said Ukoo Flani boasts some of the finest urban poets in Kenya today, and it is their lyrical prowess that will be showcased at the festival. Tony Mochama, also known as the Literary Gangster, for his unconventional and often abrasive poetry, will also be performing at Jukwaani! The moniker Literary Gangster was inspired by the title of his book, What if I am a Literary Gangster, a collection of poetry. Other featured performers include Dalibor Markovic, Sheikh Ahmed Nabhany, Talking Drums of Africa, and Zamaleo, among others. While the example of Abdilatiff Abdalla goes to show that performance literature has been in existence for a long time, particularly among the Swahili people, the idea of performance poetry has caught up among urban youth in the last four years. Perhaps the best known is Open Mic poetry sessions organised on a monthly basis by Kwani Trust. The idea of Open Mic is borrowed from the American inspired Poetry Slam. Here a number of poets take to the stage to perform their poems and are awarded points from either a panel of judges or the audience. Spoken word is the other form of performance poetry, which is often accompanied with a musical background. Compared with Southern African countries, East Africans lag behind when it comes to performance poetry. Zimbabwe for example, has a well-established poetry movement, which has been at the forefront in the agitation for opening up of democratic space in the country. Jukwaani! as the name suggests, will mainly centre on what is on show on the podium. Jukwaani is Kiswahili for on the stage or podium. Jukwaani! hopes that the boundaries separating the performer from the audience will be shattered leading to a situation where the audience is fully involved.

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Ngugi’s new book launched in Nairobi

Kenya’s most celebrated author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was in town and there is no way I was going to miss the occasion of launching his newest book, Re-membering Africa. This was yet another opportunity for me to interact with the cream of Kenya’s literary society – who in their right mind would dare miss an event graced by Ngugi?
I am walking to the Alliance Francaise, where the launch is taking place, when Billy Kahora, the Kwani? editor calls me from South Africa. There are some details I wanted clarified on the second edition of Kwani? 5, I am reviewing for the Sunday Nation.
I have particularly strong views on a certain Kwani? writer, which I am including in the review. “I have no problem with what you have to say as long as it is constructive criticism,” Kahora says from the other end of the phone. Hmm…
I am a bit late for the event, as usual, and Henry Chakava, the chairman of East African Educational Publishers (EAEP), Ngugi’s local publishers, is almost halfway into his speech.
My feelings of guilt are banished by the reception I get from Lydia, who is looking particularly hot tonight. Lydia, for those who do not know, is the receptionist at EAEP’s Westlands offices.
As he finishes his speech, Chakava addresses the issue of language in the book being launched. Remember Ngugi had sworn to only write in his Gikuyu language? Is Ngugi backtracking on his vow? “Sometimes it makes sense to tell them (Mzungu) in their own language,” says Chakava as he welcomes Ngugi.
As usual Ngugi welcomes members of his family present. Of particular interest is a young man, in his early twenties, who someone whispers to me, is a product of Ngugi and a Mzungu woman in Sweden. Apparently, the young man must have been conceived in the early years of Ngugi’s exile.
Ngugi then makes a revelation that he is working on his memoirs. The first installment is titled Dreams in a Time of War, which basically talks about his early childhood. Already five publishers around the world have already bought publishing rights of the book! I told you Ngugi was big.
Publishers in the region must envy EAEP. They are automatically assured of rights for Ngugi’s works.
And to appreciate how this relationship came about Ngugi tells of how far he has come with Chakava. At some point Chakava almost had his finger severed for continuing to publish Ngugi at the time when the powers that be wanted nothing to do with him. He is also the man who had to bear with Ngugi’s experimentation in writing in Gikuyu, in spite of repeated warnings from his superiors – then Heineman Educational Publishers in the UK.
Unconfirmed reports say that Ngugi is a major shareholder at EAEP.
Re-membering Africa, is apart of a series of lectures Ngugi gave in 2002, staring with Harvard. In the book he has addressed issues of language. Well aware that his thoughts might spark off heated debates Ngugi said that when people read the book, they will agree, disagree or add onto his ideas. “Most of all, I just wanted to provoke a debate,” he said.
On the issue of language, he said that there is nothing wrong for Africans to learn foreign languages. “However, there is something fundamentally wrong when one identifies with other people’s languages and despises his own language,” he said heatedly, calling that a form of slavery.
He added that to add foreign languages to your own language is to empower oneself. Mnaskia hiyo maneno?
Check this space for a review of this book.
The book was first published early this year by Basic Civitas Books under the title Something Torn and new: An African Renaissance.