Storymoja Hay Festival brings literature to life By MARGARETTA wa GACHERU Posted Thursday, September 20 2012 at 13:54 Business Daily
Caption: Sitawa Namwalie’s Cut off my Tongue starred (l-r) Mumbi Kaigwa, Sitawa Namwalie and Ogutu Muraya thrilled audiences on Saturday night at Nairobi Museum Since its inception four years ago, the Storymoja Hay Festival has seen itself primarily as a literary festival, the first one of its kind to start up in Kenya. And from the look of the multi-generational audiences that came to the four day fete, the Kenyan public has been starved for such a cultural event: one which not only brings writers—poets, playwrights, novelists, bloggers and even filmmakers together from all over the world.
Caption: Storymoja is cultivating a Reading Culture It’s also so interactive it generates conversations about cultural issues that people clearly relished having. Yet from the beginning, the festival’s founder, Muthoni Garland has also had the hope of growing’ the program, which this year had more than 70 events and featured writers from all around the globe, from China, US, UK, India, and all over Africa including Kenya. Muthoni would also like the Storymoja Hay to become as multi-faceted as its ‘mother’ Hay Festival which has been held annually in the Welsh countryside for the past 25 years. The 10-day Hay Fete, which she first attended seven years ago, attracts more than 150,000 visitors a year, and according to Hay producer Maggie Robertson, generates as much as 15 – 20 million pounds annually for the village of Hay. Goal Muthoni’s main aim is not so much to make millions for Nairobi, although she wouldn’t mind so doing. Her goal is to transform Kenya into a land of readers. It’s to spark a literacy revolution and generate a reading culture. This year Muthoni came that much closer to fulfilling her vision by including lots of live music, film, visual art – (both sculptures by Ken Mwingi and illustrations by Marit Tornqvist), and theatrical performances—especially dramatized poetry — on the program. These were in addition to all the workshops, panels, readings, guest lectures and book shops that did booming business throughout the festival. Held for the first time this year at the Nairobi National Museum, which is likely to be the festival’s annual home from now on, many of the high points of the Festival were theatrical: There was a skit by The Theatre Company dramatising Muthoni’s new novelette, Attack of the Shidas: AKAs Save Planet Earth, which was commissioned by the Kenya Human Rights Commission, Sitawa’s dramatised poetry, entitled Cut Off My Tongue, and scores of other writers sharing passionate performances of their writing, including Nigeria’s Lola Shoneyin, Pakistani-born Imtiaz Dharker and Kenya’s own John Sibi-Okumu, Tony Mochama and Ann Moraa. I saw Cut off my Tongue once before, but this is clearly one production that improves with age. Sitawa shamelessly adapted her script and selection of poems to ensure her show stayed fresh, timely and relevant to young and old alike. She even upgraded her cast on Saturday night to include Ogutu Muraya, Nyangaya Kiarie and a stunning Mumbi Kaigwa whose presence as part of the crew lent a ferocity and freshness to the text that I don’t remember being there the first time I saw it staged. Power The poetry itself included controversial subjects that rarely get discussed on the Nairobi stage, such as black on black racism, also known as tribalism, colonialism, classism, the corruption of indigenous cultures, and the whole uncomfortable issue of land grabbing. The corrupting influence of power is a particular topic that Sitawa’s poetry addressed, but always in a deceptively playful style that served to parody the power mongers, be they politicians, police or pompous colonials who once behaved as though natives needed to feel privileged to serve as squatters on their own land. Performing to a packed house at the Louis Leakey auditorium last Saturday night, the cast of four was accompanied only by the accomplished percussionist Willy Rama whose powerful drumming was a perfect fit for the parodies of power that Sitawa’s cast portrayed with such aplomb: from the wabenzi mama politician (Mumbi Kaigwa) whose response to her people’s hunger was ‘let them eat rats’ to the ‘Leader’ (Sitawa Namwalie) who blamed her people for their ‘unsightly’ poverty. Clearly tailored to a Kenyan audience, many of whom had been traumatized by the post-election violence of 2007-8 and who the poet felt had yet to fully recover, Cut Off My Tongue is the only production that I’ve seen which effectively addresses that horrendous period of Kenya’s recent past as well as its aftermath. Challenging Kenyans at their core to address the key issues of tribalism, inequality, discrimination, cut off my tongue as a title alludes to the rhetorical question raised by one poem. The poet says she’d rather cut off her tongue than take part in the hate speech that embraces and even justifies racism and tribalism and for her was at the crux of the violence.