Monday, October 4, 2010

Storymoja Hay Festival 2010, Nairobi

The Storymoja Hay Festival 2010, held in Nairobi at the weekend, was billed as an arts festival that would include poetry, literature, debate, discussion and other events.But what I took away from the festival owed a lot to the free copy of 'Living Memories', by Al Kags, that was included in the ticket price.

This was a collection of stories from older Kenyans, what they could remember from earlier times. These stories were disturbing, but also very moving. Some of the memories were from the thirties and forties but most were from the fifties, specifically, the Mau Mau years. I have read about the vicious treatment meted out by the British before, but these stories all added something to knowledge of the period that no amount of academic writing could.

I hope Al Kags and others manage to collect and publish lots more oral accounts, not just of bad times, but also of ordinary times, good times and things that have been forgotten by some and were never known by others. Occasionally I hear stories myself, but there is no substitute for oral histories being collected while it's still possible.

Sadly, there were not that many visitors on Saturday, the only day I was there. But I wouldn't be surprised if people were put off by the 500 shilling ticket price. This is not the way to make arts and literature more accessible.

This high cost is quite a contrast with the Maker Faire exhibition that took place at the end of August. This had no entry fee and was very well attended, despite coinciding with the promulgation of the new Constitution.

For people interested in poetry reading, storytelling, debate and discussion, there were certainly opportunities at the Storymoja Festival. And perhaps it seems negative to ignore these and complain about the cost.

But the lack of interest in literature and reading in Kenya, as well as arts in general, is disappointing. Children are brought up seeing reading as a chore, never as a form of entertainment. Even if it can't compete with TV and the rest, it should appear somewhere on the list.

However, there is one particular factor which ensures that most children will not be exposed to much literature in the near future, and that is the costs involved. The few bookshops in most cities sell a small range of books at exorbitant prices, most of them being published abroad. The choice for children is even more limited than that for adults. At the festival, much of what was on offer could as easily be bought in a Nairobi bookshop.

There was clearly plenty of sponsorship for the festival. I spoke to some people who had been involved in the lead-up to the event and a lot of things took place that might not have been obvious to visitors. The free book of living memories is just the sort of thing that should have been subsidized, rather than expensive VIP entertainment. But that book is a great example of how much more could be done.

If money is availabe for such events, perhaps some of it could be spent making literature and the arts in general more accessible to people, and more relevant. Most books were being sold at European prices, even many of the books by African authors. And the locally published books, at several hundred shillings, are still too expensive for most Kenyan people.

For those who went to the festival, what can they take away? If they have developed a desire to hear more poetry or stories, where will they go next? Other events are similarly priced and usually held in expensive Nairobi venues. How many people were, as a result of attending the festival, signed up for a mailing list so they can be kept informed of such events and anything else related to literature and the arts?

There was another exception to the high cost of most of the items that people could buy. An educational publisher, the name of which I don't remember, was selling indigenously produced comics. They were comic versions of folk tales, very simple, but very beautiful. It may be because they were published in the 1980s that they were only priced 5 shillings. But even 25 shillings or more might have attracted a lot of buyers. The series is called 'Pichadithi' (from 'picture' and the Swahili for story, hadithi).

My views of the festival are somewhat mixed. I can see clearly, just as I could after the Maker Faire, that there is a lot on offer in Kenya, but that there could be a great deal more. Similar to the inventions and creative items being exhibited at the Maker Faire, there are incipient stories, poems, novels, plays and much more. But a lot of work needs to be done to allow them to become real and more still to make literature and the arts accessible to everyone.


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