Achola Rosario takes a close up look at the #MacondoLiteraryFestival in #Nairobi

(Posted 11th October 2022)

The spaces in between pages are where worlds are born, but it takes a particularly skilful
writer to make it truly come alive. And when the subject is something that you can identify
with in some small way then you get pulled into the created world like a security blanket
that reminds you of a life you have not yet lived. This year’s Nobel Prize for literature may
have gone to a French woman, but last year’s Laureate from Tanzania was in Nairobi last
weekend making an impact on the ground.

Abdulrazak Gurnah from Tanzania is a complex man. Writer of ‘By the Sea’, which won him
the revered prize, he dresses like a primary school maths teacher in a plain white starched
shirt, grey slacks and brown Hush Puppies, but his is an imagination that conjures up
characters as if they really existed. His character in the book, Saleh Omar, a rich furniture
trader from Zanzibar who seeks asylum in the UK at the age of 65 by pretending to be a
peasant who speaks no English, straddles so many worlds, timespans and boundaries that it
brings a new insight into the hearts he describes. And this illusive sense of identity was what
the discussions at the Macondo literary festival embraced.

African literature has existed since the dawn of time but has been either deliberately
obscured, stolen and lately not propagated well enough, which has ensured people’s
ignorance of it.

Most people interested in African literature have to go abroad to Europe
and America to meet their heroes and learn their stories. Writers like Gurnah only came to
mainstream prominence after winning the Swedish prize, and most still reside in countries
not of their origin.

Therefore, to come to the National Theatre in Nairobi and be surrounded
by the literary glitterati, was as refreshing as it was intimidating. This is a small circle that
know each other very well and appearances depend on how many indecipherable names
you can quote as having read. But the good thing about ignorance is that you can ask
questions. There were plenty of books by writers from across the continent on display for
sale at an affordable price, enticing the curious to come get their fill of the range of subjects
on offer. People always think that to be an African writer, one must write about poverty,
pestilence and the petrification of the soul, but the books on display told a different story.
And so did the discussions in the main auditorium.

“Where is Africa? We are building our world” was one of the discussions in the auditorium
featuring Mia Couto from Mozambique, Abdulrazak Gurnah from Tanzania and the UK 2021
Booker prize short-lister Nadifa Mohamed from Somalia, as well as newcomer and winner of
Black-British musician Stormzy’s new literary venture, Merky Books Prize, Hasfa Zayyan from
the UK.

Exploring the setting of a story as a crucial aspect of writing, the panellists discussed
how they wrote about the places they were from but no longer lived in, about how they
identify themselves as African within their prose, and about whether there was a need to
identify oneself as African as they write in the first place. Does the fact that one was a white
Mozambican mean that he was not African? Or about the fact that the other was born in the
UK of mixed African and Asian descent but only travelled to Africa to write the book, make
hers any less of an African Story?

Who bears the responsibility for disseminating those stories, the authors themselves or the
state? And if Africans do not read each other, whose fault is that? The colonialists? These
questions are not mere navel-gazing but are central to the idea of Identity Building. It is not
Vanity to tell one’s own story. What are we writing and who are we writing it for? Are our
people interested in reading or do we only want what we are told is good by foreign agents?

Does the fact that Frenchwoman Annie Ernaux won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature and
not Kenya’s Ngugi Wa Thiongo change the fact that he is a well read and prolific writer
globally who has made a huge impact on the African literary scene? Have most Africans
even read his work? These questions are the beginning of a solid foundation for our own
literary identity. One that does not depend on the fluctuations of global interest to decide
which books our stores should stock. Piled side by side on tables under flapping tents, the
multicoloured paperbacks were a testament to the range of ideas and theories fronted by
our own writers, and were a challenge to us to put them on our shelves for our own
personal consumption. And that alone is enough to change our own, if not global,

The Macondo Literary Festival is founded and curated by Caine Prize Winner Yvonne Adhiambo Owour, and will be an annual festival at the National Theatre supported by the Goethe Institute. It features “meet the author” spaces, workshops and discussions with authors from Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone Africa, as well as from Brazil.

Kenya National Theatre/Kenya Cultural Centre
Harry Thuku Road, Nairobi

To watch the FOMO Travel Show Ep89:

Come and open your mind.

Contact Achola Rosario via if you are interested to have your location featured on the F.O.M.O. Travel Show and on

Your comments are welcome and will receive a response in due course.

%d bloggers like this: