Zukiswa Wanner in Eldoret

East Africa Literary and Cultural Studies Conference Keynote: Radical Joys and Solidarities in a Time of Mourning

Here is the keynote that I delivered at the East Africa Literary and Cultural Studies Conference at the Sirikwa Hotel, Eldoret, Kenya on Wednesday, September 8, 2021.

Radical Joys and Solidarities in a Time of Mourning

I hope you are well and thank you to all who are present physically and virtually.  My name is Zukiswa Wanner. I am a writer, an editor, a publisher, an arts curator, a woman, a parent, a partner, a friend and in case you’ve heard otherwise, an African. My keynote topic is Radical Joys and Solidarities in a Time of Mourning. If it appears that I appear a lot in this keynote, it is because last year, I had a choice seat as both a participant and observer on the literary scene on this continent.

At the beginning of January 2020 I had, as usual, my year already programmed. There was a lot I was looking forward to. In late March, I would land in Jordan and take a road trip to Palestine for the Palestinian Literary Festival. I wanted to see for myself the landmarks that a writer whose work and activism I admire immensely, Susan Abulhawa wrote of in her novels Mornings in Jenin, The Blue Between Sky and Water and Against the Loveless World.

There was a planned trip to The Gambia with my partner and son, a first for my son and I.

I anticipated August when I would travel to Weimar, Germany with aforementioned son as my date where I would have the great but somewhat dubious honour of being the first African woman, in this case, first African woman to be a recipient of the Goethe Medal with my co-recipients, the more famous Ian McEwan from Britain and the more artistically original Elvira Espejo Ayca from Bolivia.

I looked forward to presenting a paper at the IBBY Congress in Moscow in September titled Another Folklore is Possible: Re-Imaginations and Literary Translations

And I was hopeful that in 2020, I would finally get funding to realize a dream of mine. Having an event I founded and curated for three years prior, Artistic Encounters, as a festival with University of Johannesburg’s Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study hosting a mini festival in April and the major festival happening in November in Nairobi with USIU as a partner.  But you know what they say about the best laid plans. You and I already know what happened.  Covid 19 happened.

I had heard and read about the new flu variant but it seemed something so far away in China and I was certain that it would pass us by on this rock in the same way that bird flu, SARS and swine flu did. This was not to be.

I had been in Johannesburg in February and scheduled to leave on March 6th. On March 5, reports of Patient Zero in South Africa came in. It still seemed all very far away. I flew out and returned to Kenya as scheduled.

By March 15, the continent was in enough of a panic that the Kenyan and South African Presidents made announcements of national lockdowns within an hour of each other. The broadcasts came as my family and I had dinner with my friend Lindelwa in Nairobi. It would be our last dinner outing for a very long time. We were now in different phases of lockdowns or curfews all over the continent and world.

For us, lucky enough to be able to stay at home and have our son still continue with school, albeit online, we turned to the internet and derived some morbid joy in watching the warnings from the dancing Ghanaian pallbearers telling us to stay at home or dance to our graves with them. We found our joys where we could get them, and at a time where we didn’t know what would happen next, laughter was radical.

And yet we knew this staying at home was for those of us who were privileged enough to still get an income.

During this time, I was writing for German broadsheet Suddeutsche Zeitung for some special columns on the pandemic in different countries. My first article was about a group of women very near me in Nairobi. Like many an African city, Nairobi has informal settlements whose residents seem to be there to be at the beck and call of the middle-class neighbourhood near them. So too with South B, where I stay, and Mukuru. Every morning at the gate of my estate, women sit waiting for someone to hire them for the day to clean the house or do laundry. These piece jobs make a difference between a meal for the day and sleeping hungry. At the time of writing, none of the neighbours who would normally do so were asking the women to enter their homes. Fear of this pandemic we knew little about had gripped us all. But still, every morning, the women from Mukuru arrived at the gate hoping, praying, wishing.

 I brought this up in one of the WhatsApp groups I was in and equally important, I wrote about it in my SZ column. Two acts of kindnesses and solidarity happened. In the first one, some of the women in the WhatsApp group offered sukuma, cabbages and pumpkins from their shambas. In the second, a reader in Germany got in touch and sent money Western Union that she asked me to distribute to the women.

Until Nairobi opened up a little for people to get comfortable enough to have people in their homes, Brigitte would collect monies from her friends and send some for the women at the gate and Njeri would deliver vegetables in her van weekly.  These kindnesses and solidarities across economic brackets in one country and global north-south borders filled all of us involved with joy. At a time when we didn’t know what would happen next, it showed us all that a more humane world is possible. And it was radical.

But back to that first week of lockdowns in March 2020.

Sleeping patterns, even this early, were no longer what they used to be.

And it was in one such non-sleeping pattern that in the early hours of Friday March 20, I contacted my brother, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim in Nigeria. Abu had just managed to land back home in Abuja from France before lockdowns in Nigeria, he was self-isolating and he was as bored as I was. How about we have an online literary festival on Instagram? I sounded him out. He thought it was a good idea. I immediately sent out WhatsApp texts to other writers asking whether they wanted to be part of it. By Friday evening, I had 16 writers (including Abubakar and I) committed to being part of something I called on the whim, Afrolit Sans Frontieres -African Literature Without Borders. We had three Nigerians, three South Africans, two Angolans, an Ethiopian, a Ghanaian, a Zambian, a Namibian, a Liberian, a Kenyan, a Congolese and a Malawian. It was a literary festival the way I always imagined it. With the major three official colonial languages represented because too often the term African writer (which is problematic in itself) has been used to mean Anglophone African writer.  In thinking of Afrolit participants, I hoped to share with readers across the continent and world the works of some of my favourite literary peers. I also hoped to showcase that despite oft-mentioned and very lazy statements, there is no single African narrative written in different ways and that sex/humour/crime/joy/science/fantasy etc exist African fiction.

 James Murua came on board as official media partner.  Because, well, if one must get a media partner, it helps to get on board the biggest blogger on literature from Africa and its diasporas so that the archival material will be available.

On Monday March 23, with sessions at 12GMT and 18GMT for eight days, in another first, the first virtual literary festival in the time of the Covid19 pandemic was born. the only reason I know this is because sometime in early April, some British curators announced on Twitter that they were getting ready to do the first virtual literary festival and the Afrolitters (an allusion to literature but also to the quick wit and trash-talking of some of the loyalists of the festival) went to town on them. When one meets Maaza Mengiste, Kadija George or Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, they are the most gentle of human beings. Twitter showed us otherwise as these three joined everyone who had participated or been in the audience though during this little episode of a battle for the narrative.

Africa 1: Brexit 0. The British curators apologized and retracted the statement.

This was something that we delighted in in the WhatsApp group we were now referring to as The Green Room.  It was an unfair fight though because we were a whole continent against a lone island that had Brexited, with curators who probably didn’t know what was going on outside their ‘empire’ but, we took our wins and joys where we could find them.

Because amidst all this in South Africa, members of the South African National Defence Forces had just killed Collins Khoza who was sitting in his yard. Cause of death? Blunt force trauma to the head after being assaulted by the soldiers. More than a year later no-one is serving time for that murder and we all know that justice delayed is justice denied. But we speak of it continuously so that the powers-that-be know that we will not allow them to rest or forget.

The Green Room thus became, for at least 14 of us, a place we went to to try and make sense of the outside world.

It became a place to cry when we lost family members or friends. It became a place to be vulnerable to 13 other writers about manuscripts, about agents, about publishers, bookstores and yes, western academic institutions. It was and is a place to discuss geopolitics – we watched with bated breath as the Malawian Presidential election went to court and sighed in relief when the courts ruled as they did.

 The Green Room was and still is a place to laugh, cry and to celebrate.

Mohale Mashigo teamed up with Marvel for their Legacy series. We rejoiced that the world now knew this woman of wonder as much as we did.  

Remy Ngamije received his first Caine shortlist and a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster. His novel, The Eternal Audience of One is now in good bookstores worldwide.

Maaza Mengiste got shortlisted for the Booker for her novel The Shadow King.

The German government announced recipients of the Goethe Medal.

Frank Chike Edozien completed his debut novel, his first long work of fiction after his award-winning memoir, and from what I hear from our mutual agent, it’s a book for us all to look forward to.

Nozizwe Cynthia Jele started her Masters in Creative Writing at University of East Anglia and some of us were lucky to read her work as it progressed.

Ondjaki started a publishing house and opened a bookstore, Kiela, in Angola stocking books from across the continent in Portuguese and English. And he did this while still writing and making films.

Kalaf Epalanga, who is as much a musician as he is a writer, curated a beautiful virtual festival for Interkontinental where actors read excerpts from writers and Kalaf played the music mentioned in those texts. We also celebrated the upcoming translation of his book from Portuguese to English by Faber & Faber thanks to the work of a literary agency that Emma Shercliffe, formerly with Nigerian publisher Cassava Republic, started during the pandemic last year.

 Natasha Omokhodion-Banda got a publishing deal with Blackbird and many of us finally got access to her novel, No Be From Hea.

Leye Adenle got a publishing deal with Ouida Books and we all await to read this new offering from a writer whose wit keeps readers roaring with laughter as they muse.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim published his second collection of short stories, Dreams and Assorted Nightmares and third book and it showcased just what literary delights readers can get when a writer lets their imagination soar.

Thanks to a tip from Yara Monteiro, I applied for funding for Paivapo from the Portuguese government and managed to get funding to get her novel translated from Portuguese to English for English-speaking Africa. Loose Ties will be out within a month.

Bisi Adjapon got an agent and later, a publishing deal with HarperCollins and her sassy novel of a young woman coming of age with her sexual self, The Teller of Secrets is out now.  It was no coincidence that her new agent who brokered this deal, Sharon Bowers at Folio just also happens to be an agent to Abubakar, Frankie and I.

 Thanks also to Agent Sharon, I would, for the first time, get my first book deal published in the UK, Black Pimpernel: Nelson Mandela on the Run which came out earlier this year.

We all wondered when Mukoma wa Ngugi actually teaches there by Cornell University as  he gave us a novel  (We, The Scarred) and a critical work of nonfiction  The Rise of the African Novel and then this year we learnt that another novel as full of rhythm as a beloved tizita tune, Unbury Our Dead with Song is now available on our bookstores.

Sometimes it felt as though we were all worried that we may not make it past the pandemic but if this should happen, we were going out having left some legacies.

And whatever happened during the week, every Friday morning one of us would post Mufasa dancing and singing ‘It’s Friday now, then Saturday, Sunday whaat’  because on Friday evenings, we would all have a Zoom party with Remy in Namibia and Kalaf in Spain taking turns at the deck. Joys. We took them where we could find them. And it was radical as we did not know what the near or distant future held.

Afrolit Sans Frontieres was supposed to be a once-off event and a distraction of sorts while we tried to make sense of the pandemic. It was not.

In the Green Room, Maaza suggested that we co-curate the second instalment.

Why not? I responded.

From this second one, we got a little more professional. The Green Room donated money just so that we ensured that moderators (all of them younger writers) would get paid. For the rest of the writers who took part, the payment was sadly just social capital as there were no funds.

We would have four more episodes of the festival with a final one in October that focused only on indigenous languages with eight languages represented. This last one was also the only one where I managed to secure funding to ensure that every writer and every moderator got paid.

I was by turns saddened and delighted to seem like a blesser when veteran Zimbabwean author Aaron Chiundura-Moyo was surprised that he would be paid for talking on a panel. I think I have never quite understood the privilege of writing in a colonial language and being used to getting paid as I did then.

I had applied to #AfricaNoFilter, Standard Bank and other corporates and funding organisations from the continent. I had not received any funding. As usual the irony was not lost on me that the funding for this very African of initiatives came from Pro Heveltia, a Swiss organization. And there we have it. Africa rising.  

But there were some African corporate companies that really got it. Sterling Bank in Nigeria were seemingly one of those that understood the importance of the arts. Despite the pandemic and probably lesser profits, they sponsored a beautiful project  founded and championed by my sister Lola Shoneyin called OneRead. In this project, one downloads an app called OneRead and for a month, we are able to access the same book either as audio or written word all over the world. Angela Makholwa, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Ukamakwa Olisakwe, Petina Gappah are but some of the fiction writers whose books have featured on OneRead since it started.

Additionally, Sterling Bank continued their sponsorship of the Shoneyin-founded Ake Festival  which turns nine this year. Despite or may be because we had it online, the festival accommodated many more writers and artists in 2020 and we who participated were able to recreate the festival spirit thanks not only to the lights and banners that came in the mail but also our festival goodie bags. We still received the the mugs, the keychains and the t-shirts but, unable to access suya as we would have done had we been in Lagos, we got to snack on the equally spicy but no less delicious kilishi. Ake aired in October 2020 and in between it, the last Afrolit Sans Frontieres broadcast had morphed into something else, thanks to a recommendation by Remy to Goethe-Institut Namibia.

It morphed into Virtually Yours, a space where I get to have interviews with writers of some of my favourite books from across the continent and better yet, give away five books to five lucky readers. Virtually Yours is a year old this month and perhaps fittingly, we have the Namibian Remy Ngamije who recommended me to the platform as my guest author, now that his novel is finally available outside of Southern Africa.

But to go back again.

The third installation of Afrolit kicked off on Africa Day, May 25. The next day we woke up to videos of George Floyd executed by police in the United States. In the Green Room, we discussed what we could do. We drafted a solidarity statement. The presence of our Lusophone brothers and sister enlightened us to a broader narrative on solidarities. For many who are English-speaking, we became aware of the death of 14 year old Joao Pedro Matos Pinto executed by police in Brazil while  in his aunt’s living room. For us, he became as prominent in the #BlackLIvesMatter narrative as the more famous African American victims. We wrote a statement and shared it widely.

We would draft and share similar messages of solidarity at the end of July when journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and writer Tsitsi Dangarembga were arrested in Zimbabwe and in October when police in Nigeria massacred protestors at Lekki tollgate during the #EndSARS protests.

But that first solidarity statement written in late May marked a change in the way Afrolit Sans Frontieres ran as well as our media partner, JamesMurua.com.  Both the festival and the blog now widened their selection of writers to not just Lusophone, Francophone and Anglophone Africans but black writers in the diaspora.  Future editions, apart from the African languages one, would have participants from the UK, France, Brazil, US.

Among them was L.L. McKinney who popularized a discussion started by Nigerian-American writer Tochi Onyebuchi. #PublishingPaidMe would lead to questions about the publishing industry’s engagement with black writers in both the US and UK. African writers were perhaps some of the biggest beneficiaries of this, thanks to Agent Sharon who saw an opportunity and made a pitch to Audible, one of the biggest audio storytelling companies. From October 14, 2020 for six months, stories by writers from Kenya, Nigeria, Angola, Rwanda, Cameroon and South Africa will be on Audible as part of something called Afrolit Shorts.

That first solidarity statement also led to creating solidarities with a literary journal in Brazil, UNIPeriferias. Publishing in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, this relationship has led to writers from this continent who write in any of the languages of their publication being translated to the other three languages when their poetry or prose is selected for publication. It has led to Beata Umubyeyi Mareisse, a Rwandan writer who writes in French, being translated into Portuguese for the Brazilian market. It has led to me guest-editing their most recent issue and getting access to a database of black translators to work with.

Equally important, we got to have access to the writing of our siblings in Brazil.

We got to know legends like Conceicaio Evaristo. We got to hear Rodrigo Franca and younger voices like Utanaan Reis. We read the thoughts of minds like that of Hedio Silva.

We took our joys where we found them. And it was radical.

As devastating as last year was with loss of lives, in some way, we could also stop and breathe and realize that sometimes as Africans, as black people, our struggles are the same whether on the continent or off. That to governments in the west or east, black lives are disposable but so too, to our governments here who are izinduna for Western or Eastern capital.

We realized that while the African Union leaders will condemn the US for George Floyd losing his life, they will keep quiet while citizens of the continent are injured or lose lives from the acts of the uniformed services which on this continent are always uniformed FORCES. Unless of course, those citizens happen to be of a paler complexion then a press conference is called to condemn the attack on Kuki Gallman.

We took our joys where we found them, and it was radical.

Kenyan writer Troy Onyango, back from a 14-day quarantine after landing from the UK and unable to go home to Kisumu because Nairobi was on lockdown, came to stay with us.  He founded his second literary magazine, Lolwe. He wanted it to be different from other African-founded literary magazines. Whatever happened, he wanted to ensure that every writer and every visual artist who contributed to the magazine would be paid. And he has managed to do this so far through fundraising via Patreon and PayPal as well as asking more experienced writers to lead paid for writing workshops and split the income.

 Because of the Friday evening get-togethers, he would form a bromance with another literary magazine co-founder, Remy in Namibia. And to make it all pleasant, Troy would publish a short story in Doek and Remy one in Lolwe and both stories would be shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing this year.

Equally revolutionary to Troy’s Lolwe, Remy’s Doekstarted arts awards, and has in every issue, auralgraphs of African cities and an interview between an established and an emerging writer in a special called Literatea and in this way, the literary conversation continues across generations. Other literary magazines like Imbiza and Iskanchi have also come to the fore as well as literary prizes like the Kendeka Prize that was founded here in Kenya and accepts submissions from all over the continent. And then of course there was the creation of a library and residency by Renee Edwige Dro in Cote d’Ivore, 1949 to add to our continental literary spaces.

Literature. Music. Dance. We took our joys where we found them. And it was radical.

We smile now as we remember all the conspiracy theories about vaccines from last year and how this year, with many of us getting covid fatigue, having lost loved ones, we cannot get our vaccines fast enough. Posting selfies as we received those vaccines has become one of our joys. It’s funny how narratives can change in a small space of time. But it’s also beautiful how artists and art can  give us that institutional memory as human beings  to remember what we thought we had forgotten.

The governing party in South Africa may be attempting to rewrite who Charlotte Maxeke was while their relatives in Zimbabwe may be trying to co-opt Nehanda Nyakasikana as having been a ZANU cadre even before ZANU existed. 

Men who promised better governance for four, five, eight or even ten years but failed dismally and then try to hold on to power through dubious referenda may continue to be surprised when people tire and they get overthrown or outvoted or have their cases thrown out by courts.

Many of our African governments may be trying to scrap the humanities in our schools and universities.

But know this.

Somewhere is an artist who whether through orature, through music, through paintings, through dance, through different forms of creation, reminds us of these failures so we continue questioning.

Somewhere on this continent is an artist who reminds us of the successes so we can remember the joys.

Somewhere here in Africa is an artist who reminds us of the endless possibilities of what could be when we have better leaders because history remembers that we had better leaders once.  

And that artist may even be a scientist or a techy.

Because we who are here know that every inventor is an artist and the only way for any innovations to happen is when humanities, sciences and technology are in dialogue.

We know that many of our governments are trying to make zombies of citizens so we won’t question them when they steal from us, when they value external investors over their own citizens, when they kill us.

But we won’t let them. 

Because even as we mourn every death from covid19, from state sanctioned violence, from hunger due to being robbed by politicians, we will write the narratives, we will translate our stories, we will broadcast them or stage them. We will teach them because we deserve to share our stories and our children deserve to know them because we and they matter.

The freedom to create then and to share by any means necessary.

That freedom.

That is a joy that’s radical and no university council or government can take it away from us.