‘African authors prefer African festivals’: Kenyan literature festival returns

‘We wanted to create this platform through literature to give people an opportunity to speak, to dream’, says co-founder

Kenya’s Macondo Literary Festival will return to capital Nairobi for its second run this weekend, after it was put on hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The three-day festival will include speakers from countries including Madagascar, Angola, Mozambique, Senegal, Brazil, Guinea-Bissau, Cameroon and the UK. Among them will be Zanzibar-born Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, as well as Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed, whose 2021 novel The Fortune Men was shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize.

The festival will also be highlighting up-and-coming Kenyan writers, such as Gloria Mwaniga, Dennis Mugaa and Khadija Abdalla Bajaber.

It is organised by the Macondo Book Society, which was set up by two friends: novelist Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and journalist Anja Bengelstorff.


“We realised there was no literary festival at that time in Nairobi or in Kenya,” said Bengelstorff, on the phone from Nairobi. This year, they are hoping for as many as 1,000 attendees, while more people can watch the four sessions which will be live-streamed on their YouTube channel.

Bengelstorff said they wanted to give Kenyan readers a greater idea “of what African literature actually is”. There can be an over focus on African literature written in English, often by Africans in the diaspora, Bengelstorff said. “Literature that is originally written in Portuguese or French is overlooked because not many translations have been available in the past. But this is changing.”

On top of that, she said, “we wanted this event also to be a platform for debates in society that everybody’s talking [about], for example Africa’s youth divide. How the youth are the future but … they struggle to find a place in this world because it’s so difficult even to make a living.”

“We wanted to create this platform through literature to give people, and this year particularly the youth, an opportunity to speak, to dream, to discuss with our authors about possible African futures.”

Macondo’s 2019 iteration mainly focused on historical fiction, with the aim of giving “another perspective of African history, away from colonial administrators’ reports or missionary reports.” This year’s theme is “the future of memories”.

Bengelstorff – who is German, but has lived in Kenya for 15 years – said they did not consider whether holding the event might help boost African writers beyond the continent. “This festival is for African readers,” she said. “Everyone who has been observing developments in art, not just in literature, but also in visual arts [can see that] African creatives really make a mark… I don’t think they are underrepresented because they are loved by their target group and their main, and their favourite, readers are Africans.”

She said they have had no problem getting writers to attend, either. “African authors prefer to go to African festivals because this is their crowd. This is their community. These are the people they feel connected to. And there’s an anecdote I heard from an author who said, ‘I’m so tired explaining all the time at festivals outside Africa why Africa is at the stage that it is. Why is Africa so poor? Why is there so much conflict and so on?’ They’re just tired of that and you cannot expect any individual to explain the whole continent.”

The festival will also include free workshops, including one on caricaturing history with Godfrey Mwampembwa, who is known as Gado and is one of east Africa’s most famous political cartoonists; a session on memoir writing with Cameroonian novelist and poet Patrice Nganang; and one on analysing the link between poetry and history, particularly in African epics, with French-Senegalese poet and scholar Sylvie Kandé.

Virtual reality artist Melisa Allela will have headsets for attendees to use while exploring African oral storytelling.

The festival is taking place at venues including the auditorium of Kenya’s National Theatre, and will be supported by the Kenya Cultural Centre, a semi-autonomous government institution which was founded in 1952.