Events News

Finally, the Storymoja Hay Festival

The inaugural edition of the historic Storymoja Hay Festival finally opened yesterday at the Impala Grounds, along Ngong Road. The Impala Grounds have in the last 15 years increasingly grown in stature, made popular by the annual Safari Sevens rugby tournament, but that is a story for a another day.
As I was saying, The Storymoja Hay Festival kicked off yesterday, and the biggest and the best, the literary and artistic community has ever witnessed in Kenya, will be stomping the grounds, harder than the rugby maestros have ever done in a single event.
Before I embark on my story, it’s a hats off to Muthoni Garland, and her tireless team of Storymoja team, who have made sure that this event actually takes off. And I mention names here, Carol Gaithuma, Sheila Ongas, Millie Dok – she actually went to Scotland – Matin Njaga – he of the Brethren of Ng’ondu – Sitawa Namwalie – Cut off my Tongue – , Joshua Ogutu – In the Land of the Kitchen – among others.
How Storymoja managed to convince Hay to partner with them, is something Muthoni will have to tell me. What is it they have done differently? After all the Hay Festival is not your daily Migingo, Mau Forest or Hague for that matter.
So I check in a bit late – 3.30 pm – and the car park is almost full. Er, I came in a matatu, if you must know. The first vehicle I notice is Lawrence Njagi’s SUV. Njagi is the young CEO of Mountain Top Publishers, and the chairperson of the Nairobi International Book Fair. He is here to be in the panel of publishers discussing the sticky subject of whether Kenyans read. Do they?
On my way inside I notice Annette Majanja, the diminutive former Kwani? publicist. I last saw her in September last year, and try as I could I could not get her to tell me where she is working nowadays.
Once inside, the first person I notice is Moraa Gitaa. She can really tell a story, this Moraa. Her book, Crucible for Silver and Furnace for Gold, a mouthful, I must say, is on sale at the Savani’s Book Stand. She tells me that my Friend Onduko bw’ Atebe is also in the house. Atebe’s first book The Verdict of Death won the inaugural Wahome Mutahi Prize for literature in 2006, a really tight book, I must say. Why do I get the feeling that this is one writer, whom the Kenyan literary crowd is yet to appreciate? Maybe Kenyans don’t read after all.
Atebe is with John Mwazemba, the publishing manager of Macmillan Kenya limited, who is also a prolific writer in the papers. He is chairing the discussion on the reading culture. Moraa had told me she was itching to put Mwazemba on the firing line, and I made a mental note of being there when her shot goes off.
Mwazemba is on the phone talking with Tony Mochama, the Smitta. Apparently, Smitta, who is launching his book, The Road to Eldoret, at the Goethe Institut today – will I make it for the launch really – has been promising Mwazemba he is coming to the Festival for the last four hours. Cheeky Smitta.
Its rather chilly – its July anyway – and there are not that many people on the opening day, maybe due to the fact that it is a weekday. I am sure place will be teeming with humanity today and tomorrow, what with all the hype and publicity that has surrounded the event.
People look rather subdued, perhaps due to the cold, but Mburu Kimani, the movie man is just in shirt, something to do with his bodybuilder’s physique. After promising to give me an exclusive of his forthcoming TV series, Mheshimiwa, I move on to the Kenya Burning tent, where they are exhibiting images of the post election violence. I have a copy of the picture book, done by Kwani? and the Godown Arts Centre, but I can’t resist going inside.
There, the pictures, of the various events that accompanied that dark period are hung on the wall, not looking frightening at all. I could not help but notice that most of the pictures tell the story of ODM and PNU, and how its supporters set the country on fire, both literary and metaphorically.
Isn’t it interesting that barely a week ago, Kibaki and Raila, all exuding lovey dovey camaraderie, shared lunch in Raila’s Bondo home, yet their infantile quarrel over votes led to the deaths of more than a thousand Kenyans, shame on them. Oh and Raila and Ruto, his lieutenant then, are not in speaking terms, but for how long?
At the end of the room, I notice that there is an adjoining room, and I can almost guess what is in there. I hadn’t seen any frightening images. It is then that I see the notice, “Viewer Discretion” pinned at the entrance to the small room.
Inside there, I am met by some of the most foul and disturbing images I will ever set my eyes on. All of a sudden, the room gets cramped and stuffy, and I feel sick in my stomach. It’s like a morgue, and yes there is a picture of people viewing bodies inside a morgue. I can almost feel the stench. I am brought back to the present by gasps of horror from the other people watching the images from hell.
These are Kenyans who turned against their fellow Kenyans, all because politicians told them to. My mind rushes back to the day’s headlines. NO Tribunal, HagueThe Standard. Split Cabinet gives up on a special tribunalDaily Nation. Pictures of Kibaki alongside Raila feature prominently. It is getting increasingly clear that the victims of the post election violence will not be getting any justice any time soon.
I get out of the tent feeling nauseated and angry. My “foul mood” – ala Kibaki – is soon lifted when I see Carol of Storymoja. She has been working tirelessly seeing to it that I am completely updated on the Festival and its refreshing to see her.
She is in the rather shabby looking media tent – I am comparing this with last year’s media tent which came complete with a free tea/coffee and snacks corner. To all ye journalists expect no such freebies this year.
Carol accompanies me and soon we meet Wachuka Mungai, the managing editor of Kwani? Kingwa Kamencu, the writer – To Grasp at a Star – cum literary activist is also there looking absolutely smashing. She promises to buy coffee later. Billy Kahora, the Kwani? editor too is here, and he wants to know if I still remember today’s event, where I am in the panel interviewing Malindi-based visual artiste Richard Onyango.
Around the corner we meet a harassed Muthoni Garland, she’s just been from the main stage making announcements. Surely there should be other MCs helping her out in this event.
Leaving Muthoni behind, we meet James Murua, who had been running a session on Internet dating, accompanied by my two favourite poets, Njeri Wangari, aka the Kenyanpoet and Eudia Kamonjo, They are also bloggers. They are also running their own shows at the Festival. Apart from running his social, Murua is also a columnist with the Nairobi Star, now The Star.
I also see Oyunga Pala, the man behind the popular Man Talk column in the Saturday Nation. He has been running a session on Men Under Attack. He is a former editor of Adam magazine.
From then on my eyes get to behold the various personalities in the literary and art scene, I am somewhat overwhelmed. I can see Parsalelo Kantai, a two time Caine Prize nominee. Mukoma wa Ngugi, also nominated for Caine this year. And why is no one mentioning that he is Ngugi wa Thiong’os son? Or is it that he has come of age and can stand his own? Hmm…
I can also see Ugandan David Kaiza and his compatriot Doreen Baingana, she of Tropical Fish, Movie maker Judy Kibinge, writer Rasna Warah. I also espied Petina Gappah, the Zimbabwean lawyer whose collection of short stories An Elegy for Easterly – a wonderfully written story – is just out. Eh and Richard Onyango is also there. Why did I always conjure up images of him as a tall and muscular person? Well, he is tall alright and er, rather skinny.
Remember, there is also Hanif Kureishi, a renowned filmmaker and author, and bestselling author Vikram Seth. What more could one wish for? Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka was supposed to have come, but he didn’t. I will tell you that story another day. Our very own Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai will be there.
Its time to get into the Whether Kenyans read forum and apart from Mwazemba, Njagi and Baingana, there is also Bibi Bakare, who runs Cassava Republic Publishing house in Nigeria. I must have missed Moraa’s firing shot as Billy Kahora calls me to the beer tent to Meet Richard Onyango.
I also meet events cum fashion show organizer Leakey odera, who is all geared up to stage a cat walk later in the evening. I later meet him, looking rather downcast and he tells me that authorities have decreed that everything should close down after 6.30 pm, the killjoys!
It is time go home and Atebe gives me a lift in his Subaru. We discuss business, and heatedly debate Michela Wrong’s controversial book Its our Turn to Eat.
I’ll be back tomorrow. Tune in for another update.


Literary Gangster: Smitta’s poetry book

Saturday, November 10 was a big day for Tony Mochama. He was launching his book What if I am a Literary Gangster? – a collection of poetry – at the Goethe Institute in Nairobi.
With such a defiant title, you almost guessed what is contained between the covers of the book. Well, one thing you are assured of is that this is not going to be your ordinary goody goody conventional poetry. You also know that such a book will not find its way to a classroom, as a school text – the guys at the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) would have recurring nightmares would such a thing happen (but I am sure they would love to read it in private.)
Having said that, let us now examine the logic behind the title. Apparently, the title was inspired by Dr Egara Kabaji, who teaches at the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, in Western Kenya. Writing in the Literary Discourse section, in the Sunday Standard, Dr Kabaji dismissed Tony Mochama as a “Literary Gangster, whose godfather is Binyavanga Wainaina.”
To some extent I agree with Dr Kabaji, but without the Binyavanga rider. To me Mochama is a literary gangster of a different type. The product of his “crime” is one that really appeals to my literary buds. And for sure he shoots from the hip.
Sample this:
When I run out of poetic tricks
I shall commit syntax
Ferry my body in a verse
And bury me, in the symmetry

Witness how he effortlessly plays around with the words syntax/sin, verse/hearse and symmetry/cemetery. That verse is picked from the poem titled The Poetry Police.
Now, Tony Mochama is not your everyday writer. To me, he is the very exemplification of the title wordsmith. At the Standard, where he writes, Mochama has about four columns, the most celebrated being Scene at, in the Pulse Magazine, which comes out every Friday.
As a journalist, I will tell you that maintaining just one column is hard enough. Writing four columns week in week out is a different thing altogether. And he still spares time to write poetry, and drink some Vodka, lots of Vodka!
Speaking of Pulse, I think I will not be contradicted when I say Mochama, who writes under the name Smitta Smitten, is the very pulse of that magazine. It is not very difficult to see his wicked and wacky sense of humour, in most sections of the magazine, even without seeing his byline.
I came to know Mochama in the late nineties. Then he had a terrible afro hairstyle and still he was a poet. His fans called him The Mad Poet – what else did you expect?
Later he would be a contributor in the earlier edition of Expression Today (ET), published by the Media Institute. He later wrote the arts for Daily Nation, but it was not until his former boss at ET David Makali dragged him to Standard, that his star really shone. At the Standard, Pulse to be precise, he was given the freedom, nay latitude, to bring his latent talent to the fore, and it has shone ever since.
Pulse in itself has been a revelation in Kenyan journalism. It dispensed with the status quo kind of journalism long practiced in the country and brought out an explosive mix of bold and exciting entertainment reporting that really appeals to the targetted audience, the youth.
Simply put, it has been a breath of fresh air.
And did I mention that Mochama was once denied entry into Russia? Perhaps the first African to enjoy that rare “honour”. What crime did you commit against the Russians Smitta?
Back to gangster poetry. Well, a lot has been said about poetry being difficult, elitist and that kind of stuff, but Mochama in his book brings it down to the level that it can be enjoyed by every person.
The topics are as varying as the world is big. In the poem titled Trading Places, the poet takes a mischievous shot at the social, political and economic differences between Africa and the West. It also addresses the double standards employed by the West when dealing with Africa.
But coming from Mochama, it has to be different. In his poem, the tables have been turned. Africa rules the world and the West comes begging for aid.
And Libya invaded America to
topple George Bush
“the tyrant,” and “restore
democracy and freedom to the long-suffering people of
United States of America!”

From war to freedom and love, to the philosophical musings of life and death, Tony Mochama addresses these topics with the same happy-go-lucky manner that is the hallmark of his writing. His poetry is full of mischief and is in many instances fired off from a cannon loaded with irony.
That the gangster is also capable of being soft, reveals another side of his pen not many are aware of, partculary in the piece, Whispers.
Laughter and your stories, lingers,
Like a silver cobweb clings
On a broken wall lit by silver moonlight

The poem is dedicated to the late Wahome Mutahi, another wordsmith, of the humour variety.
I was especially intrigued by his pieces on love and heartbreak. They are refreshingly real and could only come from someone who has been through such emotions and trust the Smitta to have gone through all those.
However, careful editing of the book would have taken care of some annoying typos occasionally appearing in the book. Maybe that has to do with the fact that it was published in Russia.
Well, a literary gangster? The “celebs” who are always on the receiving end of his pen every Friday would rather use the word terrorist.
The book is Published Brown Bear Insignia
What if I am a Literary Gangster is distributed by Suba Books and Periodicals based at Hazina Towers