Literary scene slowly hots up

Saturday August 16 2008

By JOSEPH NGUNJIRI, [email protected]

The Impala Grounds along Ngong Road, better known for their lively rugby action, last Sunday played host to a different occasion -- a literary event which lasted the whole day.

For a long time now, Kenya and, by extension East Africa, has cowered under the unpleasant accusation that ours is a poor reading culture. Our critics have said that we only read for examinations and, after that, the only reading we engage in is that of newspapers.

Prof Taban Lo Liyong, the Sudanese poet, added salt to injury when he harshly declared that East Africa was a literary wasteland. If Taban had attended the Storymoja Nyama Choma fiesta at the Impala Grounds, he would have had reason to retract his ‘‘curse’’.

Judging from the huge crowd that thronged the Impala Grounds at a fee of Sh500, one can safely assume that the Kenyan literary landscape is slowly coming to life.

The Storymoja Nyama Choma fiesta, now in its second year, is the brainchild of Storymoja, an initiative of five writers, who are committed to publishing contemporary East African writing to world class standards.

Reading is Fun

Operating under the mantra ‘‘Reading is Fun,’’ the event seeks to fuse popular aspects of our social lives with love for the book. ‘‘Nyama choma’’ (roast meat) is arguably one of Kenya’s most favourite pastimes, and what a better way to draw in Nairobians with disposable incomes to a literary event.

Storymoja has been causing ripples in the literary world, if only through their unorthodox way of doing things. For one, they have opted to make a clean break from the established literary traditions, and this is paying dividends.

Not that there is an established literary tradition in the country to speak of. What we have are publishing houses that place very little emphasis on reading for leisure, their argument being that these have no market in Kenya.

This explains why our established publishers pay close attention to textbook publishing, as it ensures a steady flow of revenue.

Storymoja, under the stewardship of Muthoni Garland, would have chosen to follow the well-trodden textbook publishing path, but opted to take the more challenging path of publishing books for the leisure market.

“In order to get our people reading, we need to identify what interests them, otherwise you would find yourself churning out books nobody is interested in,” says Muthoni.

Juvenile undertaking

One might think that mchongoano, that street form of making fun of each other, is a juvenile undertaking not to be taken seriously, but not for Storymoja. Mchongoano was one of the major attractions at the event, and it had people roaring with laughter, asking for more.

In itself, Mchongoano is a work of art, whose driving force is creativity. The contestants at the Sunday event left the venue with cash prizes. One of the contestants noted that his opponent’s head is so big that when he bends to ties his shoelaces, he tumbles over in a somersault!

Then there was the storytelling sessions, which saw the winner walk away with a cash prize of Sh10,000. The storytelling proved to be a major crowd-puller. However, most of the storytellers based their stories on the theme of HIV and Aids.

Granted that HIV and Aids is a serious national issue, there are a myriad other issues that would equally inform great stories.

That aside, storytelling is an area Storymoja has taken quite seriously and has an enthusiastic following in over 70 high schools and colleges around Nairobi. Clearly, from Sunday’s performances, the craft of the late Erastus Owuor is alive and well amongst us.

Children were not left behind either. There was the ‘‘Spelling Bee’’ competition, which is a fun and challenging event that encourages children to perfect their spelling skills. Organised under the auspices of the Nairobi City Education Department, this year’s ‘‘Spelling Bee’’ featured over 30 public primary schools.

Aspiring writers who attended the event left the place the wiser for the tips they received on how various forms of creative writing could be financially rewarding. Some of the mentors included movie-maker Judy Kibinge, and poet-humorist Tony Mochama, among others.

There were also tips on how to write manuscripts that can get published. Here, Doreen Baingana, whose book, Tropical Fish, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, was at hand to share her wisdom. Also in the panel was Wayua Muli, True Love magazine’s editor, and Bantu Mwaura, who runs Jahazi, a cultural and creative magazine.

Leisure reading

Research on the Kenyan publishing industry shows that the potential of textbook publishing has been exploited up to 70 per cent, which means that room for expansion is only 30 per cent. Leisure reading, on the other hand, has only been exploited up to around 25 per cent.

This means that if groups like Storymoja play their cards right, the untapped market out there is 75 per cent, an exciting prospect indeed for any serious business mind.

Martin Njaga, Storymoja’s marketing manager, prefers to look at it in a different way. “As far as textbook publishing is concerned, it can only cater for an individual up to secondary school level,” he explains.

“Our market is, however, infinite as we can have clients as old as 100 years, as long they are able to read.”

And, due to the popularity of the event, sponsors are taking note and are slowly offering their support. And, true to its name, there was plenty of nyama choma for everyone.

It is odd that in spite of Storymoja’s unique ability to pull crowds for purposes of the book, local publishers gave the event a wide berth.

Sooner or later, they will find their annual book fair being overtaken by fun-filled events like the Storymoja Nyama Choma Fiesta, in terms of popularity.