Last month, Freehand Studios, an African digital arts and social impact studio based in Nairobi, released a graphic novel and motion comic whose story aims to inspire young Africans to imagine and build an alternative African future using blockchain technology.
Set in a fictitious African republic, TRUST tells the story of Moraa, a young female activist who, together with a group of techies called the Sankofa Collective, use the power of blockchain technology to stand up to Max—a land-grabbing oligarch whose greed threatens their communal land, their culture and the entire pastoral community.
Outside of the crypto bubble, most people—even the smartest and most sophisticated—don’t understand what blockchain and cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are, or what their utility is in everyday life.
By writing the graphic novel, co-authors Chief Nyamweya and Anne Connelly have used the power of storytelling to focus more on the utility of the technology and less on the intricacies of how it works, while creatively exploring the themes of corruption, cultural and ecological preservation, historical injustices, communal trust, and land ownership.
In the novel, Moraa, the story’s protagonist, is an activist who has never heard of technologies such as DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organisations), Bitcoin and blockchain. However, when she meets Akinyi and the Sankofa Collective, she is taught about these technologies and how they work using relatable analogies. Later on in the story, we learn why they built the Wahenga DAO and why they were fundraising using bitcoins.
Kenya has the highest digital currency adoption rate in Africa
Three years ago, If you had walked up to a random stranger on the streets of Nairobi, Lagos or Johannesburg, woman or man, young or old, and asked them if they knew what crypto or blockchain technologies are, let alone if they had ever used them, you would most likely have been met with blank stares.
That has since changed.
In just three years, the continent has once again lived up to its name as a leader in technology adoption.
Out of a population of 53.7 million Kenyans, 4.25 million individuals possess digital currencies, the highest adoption rate in Africa according to a United Nations research report.
Nigeria has the world’s highest share of active crypto traders, a report published this year by global research firm Morning Consult found. With more than 50 per cent of monthly active adult crypto traders, Nigeria topped the list of countries with the highest share of adults that trade crypto once a month.
In just three years, the continent has once again lived up to its name as a leader in technology adoption.
Despite the directive of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) banning crypto transactions in 2021 and the subsequent fining of three banks for allegedly facilitating cryptocurrency transactions the same year, Nigerians went on to trade at least N77.75bn ($185m) worth of Bitcoin in the first three months of the year. About 33.4 million Nigerians still trade or own crypto assets.
In 2021, Nigeria was reported by Google trends as the country with the highest number of bitcoin searches globally, revealing the widespread adoption of cryptocurrency in the country.
Four million South Africans own cryptocurrencies according to Finder’s Cryptocurrency Adoption Index which ranked the country 18th out of 26 countries for crypto adoption.
But more needs to happen.
Blockchain and crypto technologies have a storytelling problem
Blockchain has a storytelling problem.
Emily Parker, the co-founder of Longhash, presented an essay on the Unchained Podcast titled Blockchain Tech’s Storytelling Problem and How to Solve it. In the episode, she explains,
“I have had countless versions of this same interaction. Step outside of the crypto bubble and say the word ‘blockchain’, and you will often hear smart and sophisticated people say things like, “I tried to understand it . . . but then I gave up.” This mental block, so to speak, has real implications for an industry whose success largely depends on network effects and public participation.”
This is a larger industry problem that continues to plague one of the most complex mass market technologies in history. As Parker further notes, the lack of a clear storyline may not have mattered during the 2017 crypto boom. However, a lot has changed since then and for a technology whose growth and future are dependent on having as many people as possible use it, it’s doing a poor job at onboarding or even creating goodwill among the public.
Some of these problems are legitimately hard to solve. But at the same time, the cryptocurrency industry is not helping itself. Instead of trying to communicate a larger vision, many are consumed by petty infighting about which tokens are best, Parker notes.
Most people globally do not know and cannot explain what blockchain is and it’s not their fault. In offering some solutions on how the blockchain industry can remedy these seemingly insurmountable challenges Parker notes,
“Some of the most important work may lie with entrepreneurs and developers. For blockchain technology to truly touch ground, it needs to be applied to products that people actually use. If a start-up can’t concisely describe its product and the problem that it is attempting to solve, then does the world really need that product?”
Her solution lies at the very heart of why Nyamweya and Connelly wrote the TRUST graphic novel.
The blockchain industry continues to be white and male-dominated. This is a problem that could threaten the technology’s global adoption. It is a status quo that enthusiasts such as Connelly who have seen the industry grow since its inception are hell-bent on challenging.
TRUST — A story rooted in young Africans’ hunger for a decentralized African future
Connelly, who teaches Blockchain for Social Impact at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, first suggested the idea of writing a graphic novel to Nyamweya when the two met at Singularity University.
Nyamweya — a Kenyan writer and illustrator best known for his masterfully ink-illustrated graphic novels that address history, science and most recently, the future of education — did not understand what blockchain was before meeting Connelly. However, it did not take him long to appreciate its potential and what this power, placed in the hands of young Africans, could help them do in building their future.
Most people globally do not know and cannot explain what blockchain is and it’s not their fault.
“Young Africans are hungry for a vision of an African future rooted in trust, sustainability and freedom from unaccountable state power. It is the desire to satisfy this hunger with a story of a practicable grassroots alternative that led us to create this transmedia project called ‘TRUST’. We wanted to use the power of storytelling to speak to readers and viewers about blockchain technology, inspiring them to see a decentralized future rooted in justice and ecological sustainability.” remarked Chief while speaking at the book’s launch.
Emerging three years later is a story beautifully told in black and white illustrations that are relatable to any African familiar with the frustrations of living in a capitalistic society and dealing with centralized power.
Connelly and Nyamweya’s vision for TRUST is that millions of young Africans will have access to inspiring and culturally relevant stories that allow them to reimagine their own futures. The two believe that with new technologies such as blockchain, young Africans can build that future by claiming their seat at the table.
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The Remarkable Revival of Ugandan Football
Uganda has never qualified for the World Cup, but at a continental level it is making a comeback. So is its club football.
As the prospect of the FIFA ban on Kenyan football being lifted improves, it might be a good time to look at the example of neighboring Uganda, and how the football sector in that country managed to pull itself out of a deep crisis. A decade ago, the state of Ugandan football looked highly discouraging: after years of internal wrangles and conflicts between the Federation of Uganda Football Associations (FUFA) and some of the country’s powerful clubs, as well as match manipulation, and financial accountability problems, many fans and sponsors turned their backs on the sector. The public image of both FUFA and club football was poor, and public trust and confidence were low. Meanwhile, the popularity of the English Premier League (EPL) among Ugandan football enthusiasts was on a steady rise.
In 2022, however, Ugandan football is thriving, and it is increasingly successful internationally: The U20 male national team qualified for the 2023 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations; the winner of the last season’s Uganda Premier League (UPL), Vipers SC, reached the group phase of the CAF Champions League—only the second club in the country’s history (after Kampala Capital City Authority FC, KCCA) to achieve this milestone; the senior women’s national team won Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) competition and thus qualified for the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations 2022 in Morocco (where the team went out in the group stages); the winner of the FUFA Women Super League (FWSL) 2022, She Corporate, made it into the final at the CAF Women Champions League Zonal Qualifiers (where they lost to Simba Queens from Tanzania); and Ugandan coach Charles Ayiekoh Lukula (who was in charge of She Corporate at that tournament) was hired as head coach by Simba Queens and led the club to the semi-final of the CAF Women’s Champions League in Morocco, the first time a CECAFA team reached that stage and the first time a Ugandan coached a team at this tournament.
In domestic competitions, there are many positive dynamics as well. The UPL is broadcast on live TV by Chinese multinational StarTimes, as part of a 10-year contract. There is also a revival of football in the various regions of the country outside the traditional football area of greater Kampala. The UPL clubs based in the north-western city of Arua and Jinja in the east did well last season and some of these teams have been competing for top UPL spots. Jinja-based BUL FC (thanks also to strong management and sponsorship) is atop the UPL table currently, and won the Stanbic Uganda Cup last season (against Vipers SC).
The fan base is growing and vibrant in a number of clubs and there are many examples of improved relationships between fans and club management. Many clubs manage to sign deals with sponsors, including those in the lower divisions and outside the UPL. Currently, more than 40 sponsors are engaged in the UPL.
The KCCA FC, which plays in the capital, just announced that it would start floodlit night games in the second half of the UPL season, thanks to the support of the club’s newly signed jersey sponsor, Chinese multinational CHINT Electric Uganda, an energy solutions company. FUFA started its own TV channel in 2022 and is broadcasting live games from various competitions (women and men; senior to school level), press conferences, and various other activities. The social media presence of FUFA, clubs, players, fans, journalists, and pundits is extensive, innovative, and captivating.There is a range of very strong and popular amateur competitions, especially in Kampala, usually played over the weekend. Artificial turf grounds have been constructed, and this supports the football of amateur teams, competition organizers, schools, academies, and communities. Arua Hill SC is building a stadium that is integrated into a larger shopping mall complex, which also has plenty of office space and hotel facilities. The club offers fans and other members of the public a real estate product—a plot and house in Kongolo Sports City. Clubs such as Vipers and KCCA made some good money from players’ sales in recent years and this helped cover the club running costs and development initiatives, such as improvements to stadium infrastructures. Finally, football competitions at secondary school and university levels are popular with students and fans and attract significant media attention.
One could go on at length about the various current problems in Ugandan football—the issue of players’ welfare for example, but there is value in exploring what is behind the regained popularity and positive trends in the game in Uganda? How was the turn-around achieved? I have explored these questions as part of a research project into the effects of the commercialization of football in Uganda and Kenya.
The leadership of the current national football association president, Moses Magogo (in power since 2013), marked the beginning of the revival of both FUFA and the sector. This was a very gradual process that had shortcomings, limitations, and setbacks. However, judging by the situation in late 2022, it was remarkably successful. Key components of this revival included FUFA being more open and responsive to external criticism; a strengthened media team; a focus on professionalization of the sector via significant capacity-building (running various training programs for clubs, coaches, sponsors, media and other professional groups that operate in the sector); a more inclusive sharing of the benefits of these programs across regions; an enlarged set of well-organized competitions (including beach soccer and the like); a boosting of women’s football; promoting commercialization efforts; successes in attracting sponsorship; and an improvement in the relationship with government.
This trend is particularly evident in the strengthening of media/PR units in many clubs (that was accelerated during the COVID-19 lockdown months when clubs had to find a way to reach and stay in touch with fans at home, for instance via the launch of club TV). Social media handlers are the norm now and the work of these committed, skilled and enthusiastic, young handlers ensures that teams provide updated, detailed, and slick mix of texts, pictures and videos about the latest happenings in their clubs, on all sorts of platforms: from Tik Tok to Twitter. Other parts of club operations, such as accounting, marketing, fan affairs, talent recruitment & development, or players’ transfers have been professionalized too.
There is “more balance and better coexistence”—as one marketing professional put it—between EPL and UPL and Ugandan football generally. Dedicated fans now prefer to go to live matches rather than watch EPL games on TV. There is a significant and increasing sense of fan culture (in terms of identity, pride, rituals and off-pitch activities), self-organization, and desired engagement with the club management. Fans reportedly buy and increasingly wear the shirts of their local club also thanks to the “wear your local jersey” initiative, and other promotional activities. For example, one club gives free access to home games this season to all undergraduate university students who show up wearing the club’s 2022/23 jersey, while another club offers free access for women and students. Fans also spend money more readily on merchandise. There is also increasing demand for easily accessible and detailed information, statistics, data and updates. The drive for, interest in, and use of statistics and data (by fans, coaches, pundits, journalists, scouts and agents) is a major feature of the sector’s development. This is also due to the influence of betting that relies on people having access to stats.
Ugandan football is remarkably broad-based and linked to various values and aspirations: love and passion for the game; pride in one’s city, region, country and culture; professional opportunities, jobs, business, incomes, and profits; uniting communities and strengthening identities; showcasing, supporting and celebrating talent ; inspiring youth through being a role model in one’s home community; and putting all regions on the map of national attention.
Finally, many sponsors are joining the football sector, and/or renewing their engagements with it. Sponsors are varied and include firms from across the economic spectrum. Major sponsorships from multiple large brands are seen as crucial to inject money, vitality, and confidence into the game and the future trajectory of football in the country. There is no overreliance on betting firms in terms of sponsorships.
Uganda is not an outlier in the region given positive developments too in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi for example. Second, in Uganda it is not just football that is on a significant upward trend but the sports sector as a whole, including in netball, basketball, rugby, boxing and athletics. Multimedia company Next Media just launched NBS Sport, a 24-hour sports-dedicated channel, to extensively broadcast local sports including live-action and talk shows. Joseph Kigozi, Next Media’s Deputy Group CEO and NBS Sport General Manager reportedly noted: “We have put together a platform where Ugandan sport can leave the back pages and small segments of daily content … Sport can be a source of income for all stakeholders … We look forward to working with all involved to make this a success.”
Masculinity in Kenya: The Pressure to Provide and Perform
Heterosexual Kenyan men are unhappy and they are desperately looking for explanations for the impasses they find themselves in financially, socially, and with regard to their relationships with women.
Women are the reason why men have changed because women are hard on men. […] The expectations they come with into a relationship, and generally how they have been brought up, or the life they live, that is what gives some men stress. […] When someone is living with a woman in the house, you find that issues are many because money is little.
Wellington Ochieng, 36-year old labour migrant from western Kenya
During almost three years of ethnographic fieldwork among male migrants in Pipeline, an over-populated high-rise estate in Nairobi’s chronically marginalised east, I heard complaints like Wellington’s almost daily. Migrant men, in my case predominantly Luo men from western Kenya who came to Nairobi with high expectations of a better future, bemoaned a life full of pressure caused by the romantic, sexual, and economic expectations of their girlfriends, wives, and rural kin. The blame often lay on “city girls” who were portrayed as materialistic “slay queens” who “finish” men by leaving them bankrupt only to suck away the next sponsor’s wealth after grabbing him with their “Beelzebub nails”, as Wellington called the colourful nails sported by many Nairobi women. Soon, so a fear repeatedly expressed by my interlocutors, most men would no longer be needed at all and Kenya’s economy would be ruled by economically powerful women who raise chaotic boys brought up without an authoritative father figure. Such fears of male expendability also manifested in imaginations about a future in which more and more men and women would live in homosexual relationships or “contract marriages” that replace trust and love with contractual agreements. Once, on his way back to our shared apartment, my flatmate Samuel—a student of economics who is divorced from the mother of his baby son—passed a neighbour’s house where a group of women were celebrating a birthday. He shook his head and sighed: “We live like animals in the jungle. Women and men separately. We only meet for mating and making babies. Maybe that’s where we’re heading to.”
Overwhelmed by their wives’ and girlfriends’ expectations, many migrant men who spoke to me in Pipeline had decided to spend as little time as possible in their marital houses. Instead, they evaded pressure by lifting weights in gyms, stockpiling digital loans and informal credits, placing bets in gambling shops, gulping down a cold beer in a Wines & Spirits, playing FIFA videogames, or catcalling “brown-skinned” Kamba women on the roads. Some men who could no longer cope took even more drastic measures involving murder and suicide. One man cut his girlfriend’s throat and tried to kill himself, while another tried to poison himself, later quoting his wife’s actions and character as the reason for his attempted suicide. Anything appeared better than spending time with the “daughters of Jezebel” who were waiting for them in the cramped houses of Pipeline, sometimes demanding that they engage in romantic and sexual practices they were unfamiliar with, as expounded upon by Wellington:
“When you come to Nairobi, our girls want that you hold her hand when you are going to buy chips, you hug her when you are going to the house, I hear there is something called cuddling, she wants that you cuddle, at what time will you cuddle and tomorrow you want to go to work early? […] you don’t go to meet your friends so that you show her you love her, you just sleep on the sofa and caress her hair. To me this is nonsense because that is not romantic love. I think that romantic love, so long as I provide the things I provide, and we sire children, I think that’s enough romance. […] Another girl told me to lick her, and I asked her ‘Why do you want me to lick you?’ She said that she wanted me to lick her private parts. Are those places licked? […] Those things are things that people see on TV, let us leave them to the people on TV.”
The burden of economic and sexual performance was not only felt by poorer migrant men, however. Rather, as shown by articles in Kenyan newspapers (see, for example, here and here), it is a nationwide pandemic affecting men from different classes. On a two-day-long men’s meeting on the slopes of Mt. Kenya in mid-2022 which I attended and which was organized by Chomba Njoka and the self-help book authors and masculinity consultants Silas Nyanchwani and Jacob Aliet, for instance, a male lawyer, a psychologist, and a land surveyor, among others, lamented about similar issues. Sitting around a bonfire drinking cold beer in the damp cold of Mt. Kenya, one man after another told a story about a girlfriend who cheated with a financially better-off man, a wife who emptied the marital home of all valuables and left with the children, or young women who come to Nairobi to be seduced by the city’s material promises and men in suits with “deep pockets” who flock the bars of places like Pipeline looking for teenage girls with dreams of big cars, shiny clothes, and expensive hair pieces. Initially the stories were told hesitantly; one could feel that the men telling them were afraid to be blamed. Was I not man enough to provide for a family? Was I responsible for my wife leaving me? But more and more of the men present told similar stories, cathartic laughter breaking out after yet another man narrated a ridiculous incident in his life. Maybe, we began to think, it was not our fault. But whose fault was it then?
“Nairobian girls, man, acha tu (Kiswahili, “just leave it”)! If some hapless guy with disposable income and sensible behaviour shows some interest, the girl will put her acting mask on, and can easily fool the man proper. Nothing wrong with that, as life is a game. You play. They play. We play each other”, writes Nyanchwani in his book 50 Memos to Men, a collection of his Facebook posts on gender relations in contemporary Nairobi. When I first met Silas in a café in Nairobi’s central business district, a calm and soft-spoken guy over six feet tall and father of a girl, he told me that men had been left behind in Kenya’s economic and cultural development of the last two decades, perpetuating local discourses about the “neglect of the boychild”. Most development aid interventions were targeting the girlchild, and women were increasingly empowered economically. Who, however, was there to tell men what to do, to give men a voice and guidance? Aliet, an imposing man with an authoritative appearance, shared Nyanchwani’s sentiments. Known as a writer of Sci-Fi novels, Aliet decided to write his book Unplugged: Things our fathers did not tell us after many of his male friends had shared stories with him about the pressure to provide, the burden of performance, women’s ungratefulness, and men’s inability to know how to respond to what women and society demands of them. If the raving reviews by both men and women on the homepage of the Nuria bookstore are anything to go by, the book has helped many male readers to find relief and new hope by receiving guidance on what it means to be a man in contemporary Kenya.
But more and more of the men present told similar stories, cathartic laughter breaking out after yet another man narrated a ridiculous incident in his life.
Yet neither Nyanchwani nor Aliet rule over Nairobi’s booming masculinity consultancy scene where one can find controversial figures such as former radio host Andrew Kibe among more moderate voices such as Pastor Simon Mbevi who counsels men and couples or Onyango Otieno who openly talks about his experience as a male rape victim and advises men to allow themselves to be vulnerable. The most famous personality, however, is Amerix, a medical doctor from western Kenya who gives advice to Kenyan men on Twitter and through other social media channels. Although Aliet, Nyanchwani—the former writer of The Retrosexual column in The Nairobian that is now written by Brian Guserwa—and Amerix align with the global red pill movement, part of a global backlash against feminism or some of feminism’s social consequences, they do so to different degrees. While they all agree that the world has become “femicentric” and that men need to swallow the red pill to be “unplugged” from the false truths of feminism, Amerix has a more radical take on Kenya’s gender relations and not only offers answers that aim to change the totality of his adepts’ daily lives but also openly admires Paul Kagame’s autocratic style of leadership and dreams of a world where strong “Afrikan” men subdue obedient women. In his chat groups, young Kenyans are not allowed to write using “effeminate” emojis or incorrect English while dreaming about a reinstated patriarchal order and implementing Amerix’ advice by practicing semen retention to accumulate testosterone, fasting for days, lifting weights, and avoiding processed food as well as the imperial ideology spread in NGOs and churches by white men and women. Being pressured to perform economically and sexually, young men all over Nairobi beg Amerix to “continue to mislead” them by warning against get-rich-quick schemes and by ridiculing women’s expectations of large penises and pornographic sexual performances.
It would be easy to ridicule the absurdity of some of the advice given by Amerix or to call out Aliet and Nyanchwani as toxic men. Yet, over one million people are following Amerix on Twitter, and both Aliet and Nyanchwani are typical Kenyan men who, despite harbouring patriarchal inclinations, care about their children and their spouses. None of the men I met on the slopes of Mt. Kenya dreamt of enslaving women, and all agreed that a return to their fathers’ world was not desirable. However, after three years of fieldwork, I can count on the fingers of one hand those men who confided to me that they are in happy relationships or marriages. Heterosexual Kenyan men, in other words, are unhappy, and, as attested by Amerix’ fame, they are desperately looking for explanations for their experience of economic, romantic, and sexual pressure and the impasses they find themselves in financially, socially, and with regard to their relationships with women more generally. Many Kenyan men feel side-lined and, despite their willingness and attempts to provide, are unable to meet what they imagine to be—or what sometimes indeed are—the unrealistic expectations of women, which compels them to look for advice from fellow Kenyan men who seem to be the only voices resonating with the problems they face “on the ground”. Mark, an unemployed Luo migrant with a degree in physics who survived by writing essays for Chinese students with substandard English skills, responded to my question about the role of Amerix in his life with excitement:
“Amerix is talking about why shouldn’t we be us? Why do you have to be dictated by a woman? Let the woman decide whatever you have to do? Be away from friends she does not want? Do whatever she wants? You see that? So, we were like, give us this shit. […] From the first day, we were all into Amerix’ thing. […] There are some people who argue that Amerix is misleading the men, but then if you understand what Amerix is talking about, it is the real thing, the real situation on the ground.”
In such an impasse, Western journalists, social scientists, and development aid practitioners should ask themselves what social, economic, and conceptual benefits for both men and women could be generated from working with more moderate masculinity consultants such as Nyanchwani. Although they neither agree to notions of the social construction of gender nor share beliefs in the necessity to dismantle all patriarchal gender roles, they have access to the minds and hearts of Kenyan men such as Wellington, Mark, or Samuel. While I disagree with the red pill movement’s evolutionary naturalization of gender roles and its simplistic use of biological assumptions—such as female hypergamy—to explain human social relations and strongly believe that a more political-economic approach would allow men and women to attack some of the common enemies that deprive them of economic development, I also think that honest debates that include the voices of various masculinity consultants could open a conceptual space beyond, on the one hand, the capitalistic and colonial notion of the male breadwinner and provider that necessarily produces pressured men who desperately want but cannot provide for their loved ones due to the structural conditions of Kenya’s capitalistic economy, and, on the other hand, the largely still unacceptable notions of men as vulnerable and dependent that only resonate with a few middle-class Kenyans. Such progressive, open-minded, and creative debates might help to repair what appears to be a social constellation characterized by mutual misunderstanding and heightened mistrust between men and women.
Macondo: A Literary Festival of Africa’s Remembering
Africa’s literary greats come together at a festival that refocuses African writing to rememory, memorialisation and remembering histories, and curating futures.
The just ended Macondo festival that took place in Nairobi between the 30th of September and the 2nd of October provided a rare insight into the lives and loves of some of Africa’s leading authors today—from Lusophone, Anglophone and Francophone Africa. The festival was organised by the Macondo Book Society which is led by journalist Anja Bengelstorff and award-winning Kenyan author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. It attracted some of the best writers to come out of the continent in recent times. The programme was moderated by, among others, Aleya Kassam and Dr Mshai Mwangola—gurus who helped create lively conversations on a deeply profound subject. The Orature Collective’s reading of excerpts from some of the works helped give a performative grounding to the festival. Scholars and literary enthusiasts from Kenya and the region had their fill of literariness reloaded.
The theme of the festival, The Future of Memories, was in keeping with the Macondoic charm of a space of remembering and retelling. The masterpiece by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Hundred Years of Solitude, from where the word Macondo is borrowed, is indeed a book of remembrances and retelling of histories and discoveries. Macondo, a town established by a distraught José Arcadio Buendía, becomes the centre of a world created by a people seeking to orientate their world and visited by gypsies who recreate the memories and remembrances. The opening line of the novel sets the tone: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” There is memory, remembrance, history, family, imminent death and magical realism all rolled up in this one line. And thus was Macondo. This article will dedicate itself to retelling the remembered things I heard with my ears and felt with my heart.
On their writing
Asked why the characters in his works are distraught, Angolan writer of renown José E. Agualusa said, “Luanda is full of angry and toxic people.” About reading he said, “When you read a book, you can become another person and this getting otherness is what keeps you alive. “Asked why he writes at all, he replied: “I write to discover things, I write to know how it ends . . . It is a miracle happening before you . . . and it is ok whether people like it or not . . .” Asked why he wrote such stark criticism of the government he replied, “They don’t read books. They don’t care. So, writers can say what they want.” Is it still true that if you want to hide something you put it in a book? Anyway, asked what he thinks of himself as a writer, he posited, “A writer becomes the other, has multiple personalities; a writer must be a man, a woman, a child or even a gecko at the same time.”
When he was asked about the process of writing, Abdulrazak Gurnah gave a cryptic answer: “The best page you write you don’t know what you wrote . . . how you wrote . . . you just wrote.” This was strange coming from the Nobel Prize winner. It kind of pointed to the inspirational Muse that writers have always attributed their writing to: words and scenarios that force the hand of the writer, forging words and meaning as the pen sheds ink onto paper. His writings are preoccupied with the narratives of removal, uprooting and disinheritance of the African peoples from their culture to the alienating capitals of the West. He thinks that writing in Africa is yet to uncover much: “There is so much room for writers who take writing seriously, who do research, who take the story—the plot—as a beginning and spend time creating the world that carries it.” Soft spoken and deeply reflective, he took issue with being called “Abdul” by one of the audience.
Nadifa Mohamed thought the festival mirrored her own writing, which she sees as “meeting people between history and creativity”. On criticisms of her identity—British, or Somali nationalist—she has a scathing rejoinder: “In the time of nationalisms and bigotries the question of identities is irrelevant because what matters is being human; at worst writers have multiple identities.” She argues that African writing “must reflect Africans in the complexity of who we are. As intelligent beings, who think in complex terms regardless of who they are and where they are and when this story is set. Africans did not become complex in the present era. Our education is not predisposed to the future.” She does not entertain the definitions attributed to her by critics; she says: “I am proud of the books today I’m writing which reflect who I am now, the maturity of that. Just as am proud of my earlier books which reflect who I was then. Writing should be necessarily about self-love, whether communal or individual. Writing is a battlefield. The role of the committed writer is to fearlessly name the evil and the one who commits it.”
For Patrice Nganang writing is like working through the difficult issues we experience—tribalism etc.—and “how that carries pain even as you write it and live it. It’s painful to carry that, work through that.” Talking to Mshai Mwangola about his book, When the Plums are Ripe, he argued that the setting of a story is important, as it captures the context (the history, the sound, the taste, smell, etc.) and this carries the essence of the story. Nganang is keen on decolonising the narratives of subjugation and dismembering of Africa. He argues, for instance, that there was a system of writing in Africa, a system of encoding, a writing system that was banned by the colonial anarchists, and with that they erased our memories and histories. Nganang argues for the restoration of that system, complete with the languages of our people. He sees the revisiting of this system as being easy now with the pervasiveness of technology: “Writing is not only using technology to write; it is also about inventing the technology to write. . . coding should be taken seriously because it is the future of writing.”
He is most aggrieved by the French-led atrocities in his country where the English-speaking people of north-west Cameroon are daily facing carnage by the government: “I am Bameke. We are a people who’ve experienced genocide because of who we are. Cameroon is a landscape of murder.” Because of his opposition to the government, he had to launch his trilogy of novels (A Trail of Crab Tracks, When the Plums are Ripe and Mount Pleasant) during the festival, his preferred launch venue, Yaoundé, being off limits. He is in the process of dropping the name Patrice and forgetting French.
On Memory and Histories
Memory, remembering and retelling of histories must have a long hand. Yvonne Owuor, who in the seminal remembering book The Dragonfly Sea recreates the remembered story of the Swahili Seas and the Chinese connection, said that “It is not that I have a revolutionary fervour, I am obsessed by histories and possible futures of this continent: if I don’t do this, I think I will go mad or something . . . Sometimes I think of my work as exorcisms, and exorcisms are messy, ritualistic opening of life’s doors so that light can come in again.”
For Roberta D’Alva, remembering is curated through art. For her, it is “cutting pieces of memory and putting them together to create a new memory”. This is her way of remembering without the archaism of the anthropological. Coming from Brazil, a country where people are violated by their government for seeking freedom, she is a believer in the self-redemption of the people and the collapsing of the dead narratives of redemptive leadership. She finds political activists who come with the messianic predisposition appalling: “It is not a matter of giving voice to people, to communities, no. Everyone has voice. What people need is ears . . . people need to be heard. So, [leaders] shut up and listen!”
Angolan/Portuguese poet Yara Monteiro emphasized the power of song and rhythm in bringing out meaning and memory: “A child may not know how to speak but definitely knows how to shake to the rhythm of poetry/music.” Sylvie Kandé shared the poetic complexity of hybridity based on her retelling of the exploits of 14th Century Mali Emperor Abubakar in The Never-ending Quest for the Other Shore. Guinea Bissau’s Abdulai Silá shared about the visions of freedom in his The Ultimate Tragedy. Mia Couto joined virtually to talk about his writing. His adoption of magical realism in writing is informed by the “migrating notions of peace and freedom” in Mozambique. Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa, popularly known as Naivo, a Malagasy novelist-historian also graced the festival. His works, particularly his novel Beyond the Rice Fields, is a “past-present-future” recreation of Malagasy societies. Hafsa Zayyan was perhaps the most intriguing writer present. A personification of remembered pasts, her work We are all Birds of Uganda reads like a call to re-identity, re-acceptance and re-generation. Film makers Wanuri Kahiu and writers Gloria Mwaniga, Khadija Bajaber and Denis Mugaa from Kenya also participated and shared in the festival.
The rich festival was a refocusing of African writing to rememory, memorialisation and remembering histories and curating futures—asking and answering the question other earlier African greats asked in the 1960s “Conference of African Writers of English Expression” as the Makerere meeting was called: “What is African literature?”
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