By Tom Odhiambo
To hope for good all the time is natural to humanity; to live with misfortune is humanity’s fate. Even when life is so rough, human beings tend to imagine that the next second, minute, hour, day, month or year, will be better. However, because human beings have little control over what happens in that second or year in future, they often have to endure disappointment when hope ends up as a thin thread, not much to hold onto and often it cuts, leaving one hopeless. Literature teaches its readers that this state of affairs is to be expected: we are born and grow up only as preparation for death. This is why Kenyan literary enthusiasts, like any other year, have had a lot to celebrate in 2015, but much to agonise over as well.
The good tidings of the past year can be summed up in the richness of the literary prizes for Kenyan writing in 2015. The grandfather of these prizes, the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, since renamed the Jomo Kenyatta-Sarit Prize for Literature, has now got two other competitors.
There is the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, which targets writing in African languages from the continent and encourages translation of fiction and poetry between different languages. One imagines that given the difficulties of translation, this prize would be a “Kiswahili” specialty for the foreseeable future. But at US$ 5000 (Sh500,000) for the winners in fiction and poetry, US$ 3000 (Sh300,000) and US$ 2000 (Sh200,000) for the 2nd and 3rd prize in any category, this is a mouth-watering honorarium that should encourage a lot of entries in the next round of the competition. It is sad that no Kenyan entry was awarded in this inaugural prize.
The second prize, which also seeks to recognise and encourage writing in Kiswahili, is Tuzo ya Fasihi ya Ubunifu Kiswahili (Prize for Kiswahili Writing). It is sponsored by the French Embassy, the Nation Media Group and Spotlight Publishers. At Sh1000,000, the winner pockets the richest literary award in Kenya, if not in Africa. Like the previous one, this prize seeks to promote writing in Kiswahili. It seems that it is a season of good harvest for Kiswahili writers. One hopes that this interest in Kiswahili won’t just promote creativity in the language for the region but that it will also lead to the spread of Kiswahili literature globally, with many of the winning texts being translated into foreign languages.
The other prize, the Burt Award for literature for the youth was in its fourth year this year and it remains the second best reward for writing fiction in Kenya. It has produced different winners in the past four years with some of the going into writing full time for young readers. One hopes that this award will survive beyond the funding of the main donor from Canada.
But 2015 was also a sad year for Kenyan writers. We lost Grace Ogot, Asenath Bole Odaga, Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye, Omar Babu and even seasoned Swahili anchor Ahmed Darwesh, among those most known publicly. The first three wrote in English and Dholuo whilst the last two wrote in Kiswahili. The three women writers were renowned authors, read locally and in other parts of the world, studied in Kenyan schools and commanding significant attention from critics. Omar Babu was an emerging author and language and literature teacher and critic. Others like Mude da Mude, wrote The Hills are Falling in the early 1960s, a book that dealt with the encounter between African and European traditions.
These writers deaths have been eulogised extensively in the media, with the usual refrain that Kenyan readers and critics “killed the writers” long before their physical death. This cry is part of the cliché that Kenyan readers don’t bother about their home-grown authors and that the scholars and their students in schools and universities are least interested in local books. Well, maybe there is a point in this post-mortem criticism, which in itself sees no irony in the fact that the authors of such claims would actually have done the departed writer service by writing in those words when she or he was alive.
Moving away from authors, there have been several literary activities in the country in 2015. There was the Storymoja Festival, then the Nairobi International Book Fair. The year was capped by the Kwani? Literary Festival. But before all the three festivals was Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s umpteenth homecoming. Ngugi was in the country to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his book, The River Between. During this tour, Ngugi visited several schools in the country and addressed different audiences in public, on radio and TV.
Ngugi’s public lecture at the University of Nairobi was probably his most pithy critique of Kenya’s post-colonial life whilst in the country since he went into exile. He tersely reminded Kenyans of neo colonialism, urging them, once more, to move the centres of their cultural, political, economic and national thinking and action back into their communities and country.
At the same time that Ngugi was in the country, Prof. Micere Mugo gave a series of lectures at Riara University. Micere emphasised the role that the education system should play in the country’s development efforts. She urged that university teachers need to be “committed” enough to their work in order to serve the interests of their immediate communities and the country.
And then Nuruddin Farah came for the Kwani? Litfest and gave a lecture at the University of Nairobi. Farah emphasised the need to celebrate our humanism and accept strangers, victims or even just visitors to our homeland. Nuruddin urged Kenyans to see themselves as cosmopolitan, especially considering they live in a region that is beset with political wrangles and economic hardships.
In all, the year 2015 brought gifts for the literary world but also reminded us of our mortality. Apart from the dead, who in an African sense are just ancestors who we should meet soon ourselves – and there are many departed from the art and culture world that I haven’t mentioned – Binyavanga Wainaina fell ill and is probably still hospitalised by the time you read this story. We wish him a quick recovery and pray that 2016 will be literarily richer.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; E-mail: Tom.firstname.lastname@example.org