Kenya has been likened to the Biblical parched desert of dry bones as far as reading and writing are concerned. However, Summer Literary Seminars–the first American literary programme in Africa scheduled for Mombasa, Kenya, December 7 – 20, 2002–is likely to fulfill Isaiah’s prophesy: “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and bloom” (Isaiah 35:1).
Local and regional participants are invited along to this epoch-making event that will feature some of the world’s leading literary minds at dramatically discounted rates. Any one interested in merely visiting to listen to readings will be welcome. Mikhail Iossel, the director of SLS who is currently in Kenya, says scholarships for participants from outside of Africa are available. Faculty includes best-selling multi-award winning American writers and teachers Terry McMillan, Colson Whitehead, Arthur Flowers, Cornelius Eady, and Josip Novakovich, and South African writer and instructor Leon de Kock.
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But odds are stacked up high against these literary giants’ effort to help transform Kenya, a valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14), into fertile ground teeming with life. David Maillu, one of the pioneer writers and publishers in Kenya and self-declared “father of popular literature”, says, “It isn’t true that Kenyans don’t read as there is a dearth of relevant literature for them to read.” Saying his books are “widely read”, Dr Maillu contends, “If you lend someone a book he or she reads it and then lends it out and it keeps on passing from one person to another.”
Compiler, editor and publisher of Ka: The Holy Book of Neter (the Bible of African Religion), argues that reading culture has not been aggressively promoted in Kenya leading to the public’s apparent apathy towards reading.
For example, he says, “There is no library in the whole of Ukambani where I come from. Where can people get books to read?” He says poor distribution network undermines the reading culture as published books cannot reach readers. A pioneer indigenous publisher, Maillu should know better. He however adds that given the right literature, Kenyans are voracious readers. “I have been made what I am by Kenyan readers. Where would I be if they never read?” he poses. For Kenya to get out of the valley of illiteracy, critics say, several factors have to be addressed as a prerequisite. The country has to set its literary priorities, shift from its examination-oriented mentality and combat poverty. It is almost impossible for a working person earning Sh1813 (about
US$23 to be expected to buy a book while his stomach and those of his family are grumbling for lack of food. The current per capita in Kenya is about US$279 while available literature is expensive. He asks the government to subsidise the cost of paper in order to make literature affordable. Writers and publishers are focusing on prescribed school textbooks as they sell. Consequently, they neglect creative writing. As unemployment soars, Kenyans are becoming apathetic to reading. An unemployed Nairobi youth says, “There is little difference between the one who has read lots of books and the one who hasn’t.” Besides helping establish distribution networks and popularising reading (only 65 per cent of 34 million Kenyans are literate and literacy is still declining due to poverty), Dr Maillu appeals to the government to subsidise paper to encourage reading and publishing.
He refuses to accept that poverty is undermining reading. “Even with poverty people still smoke, drink, and party. Where do they get the money for this?” He says non-publishing in vernacular works against the reading and writing culture. But instead of just complaining, Maillu is writing a Kikamba novel as an example worth emulation by others. “I am planning to re-issue My Dear Bottle in Kikamba in order to develop and promote my language.”
Maillu already has several works of poetry in Kikamba. But isn’t this what Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o tried to do in the past? Yes, Maillu answers. “But Ngugi didn’t think about the audience he was writing for. His writing in ‘Ivory Tower’ made the books to be translated for university as his ‘common people’ could not understand him.” As for Maillu, he says he has carried out a survey on what people want. “They want books on every subject as long as it is within their experience,” he says, adding that the government has failed Kenyans in the promotion of publishing. “How can you promote culture, values, and religion without the written word? You can get a loan to open a bar. However, this is not so with a publishing firm. These are some of the problems that must be addressed by any one promoting literary works in Kenya. SLS is the high profile of writing and reading seminars that are starting to pop up in Kenya, a traditionally oral society. Trusts are being established to carry out literary workshops and seminars
Dr Gichora Mwangi–a teacher, playwright and theatre director– with the support of the Ford Foundation, has established Karamu Trust “to support the development of a vibrant play righting in Kenya and East Africa by providing writers with a forum and to help muster any resources that will be of benefit to all writers.” One such forum was held at Goethe Institut in Nairobi with 30 people in attendance. Dr Mwangi says the project will set up workshops and seminars designed by and for playwrights, hold regular discussion and evening reading fora, and help in providing access to material and people within and outside East Africa that could be helpful to the development of play righting.
Several Kenyan writers–among them Yvonne Owuor, Ali Zaidi, Binyavanga Wainaiana, Wahome Mutahi– have formed Kwani, an organisation to publish a journal in the language and tone of ‘the common mwananchi (person).’ Writers are unrestricted and can write in the language of their choice including vernacular. The maiden rolls off the press at the end of November. SLS is based on the idea that one’s writing can greatly benefit from the keen sense of temporary displacement created by an immersion in a thoroughly foreign culture and street vernacular; that one’s removing himself or herself from the routine context of his or her life provides for a creative jolt by offering up new perspectives of looking at the customary and the mundane.
SLS is a not-for-profit organization in the state of New York, USA. It is affiliated with Herzen University in St. Petersburg and the University of Oklahoma in the U.S., which provides graduate and undergraduate credit for students taking our courses. Other affiliations include the literary journal Tin House, which publishes its contest winners and co-sponsors the contest. It partnered up with Russianpoetry.net to record videos of Russia’s leading contemporary poets during SLS 2002. SLS runs its programmes in St. Petersburg (Russia), and Mombasa (Kenya).
The Russian programme, coordinated by Tatiana Rudneva, has over the past five years brought together finest American writers and literary scholars with their Russian counterparts in a four-week flurry of writing related activities. Founded last year and coordinated by Kenya-born New York-based Victoria Mesopir, the Mombasa programme will next month bring together some of the most well-known American writers with the Kenyan literary community in what is expected to be a launching pad for the country’s literary leap forward. Mrs Mesopir is the owner of Red Earth Travel, a Safari Company specialising in Kenya travel.