By Zaahida Nabagereka
In March 2017 Jalada Africa embarked on its first Mobile Literary and Arts Festival, visiting five countries (Kenya, DRC, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania) and twelve locations (Nairobi, Nakuru, Kisumu, Mombasa Kampala, Kabale, Goma, Kigali, Mwanza, Arusha, Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar). Not only does the range of activities reflected in the programme illustrate the creativity of the visited regions but also demonstrates a comprehensive attempt at inclusivity. From panel discussions to performances to book stalls, there was something for everyone, with particular attention paid to language and orality.
This was the first festival of its kind to take place in Africa, therefore it marks a very significant point for literary activity in East Africa as it highlights a shared vision that there are exciting new ways to promote the abundance of Africa’s literatures. The genius of Jalada’s festival though, is that it was premised on a network of like-minded organisations coming together to make the initial idea a reality. By drawing on the wealth of literary creativity and knowledge of local organisations and initiatives in the 12 locations the mobile festival visited, a truly eclectic and stimulating programme was achieved.
In Kampala, Uganda, the fourth location on the festival’s journey, events took place on Saturday 11th and Sunday 12th of March at the National Museum, starting with a Creative Writing and Translations Masterclass facilitated by Margaret Nanfuka Mbale, a Kampala based author and teacher of Luganda, German and English; the masterclass was put on in collaboration with the Goethe-Zentrum in Kampala. This was a comprehensive two part session outlining the basics of creative writing and literary translation. Some of the most poignant remarks were made on the subject of language, with aspiring writers being encouraged to use whichever language they could best express themselves in: Ugandan or European. A key question raised in the case of translation was what to do if the language you were translating into did not have adequate vocabulary to truly convey the writer’s meaning? Some attendees noted this had been their experience with translating from a Ugandan language into English. This was an interesting point and led into a lively discussion on the importance of a writer knowing his or her audience, or having at least a rough idea of whom they were writing for. In this sense the use of language was heightened as giving authenticity to characters and plots in many respects as it depends on the author’s language choice and use. All in all this session was informative and though ambitious in its intent to cover two vast subjects, still managed to give time to attendees’ idiosyncratic queries and requests.
Next in the Kampala programme was a panel discussion convened by FEMRITE (also known as the Uganda Women Writers Association) on the topic of “Dispelling the Language of Silence (Un-Silencing) – a Focus on Women’s Narratives”. Discussants included Professor Dominica Dipio a literature academic from Makerere University, Barbara Oketta an educationist, writer and editor, Charles Batambuze of the National Book Trust of Uganda, Peace Twine Kyamureku an author and FEMRITE member and FEMRITE Executive Director Hilda Twongyeirwe as chair. The discussion started by thinking about the place of women within African societies, and the difference between overt and more subtle forms of female subjugation. Twongyeirwe quoted an English translation of an African proverb: ‘Silence is a woman’s best garment’ to question whether it is right to introduce gender hierarchies to young girls and boys, ultimately arguing against such practices as they entrench ideas of inferiority. Professor Dipio stated the case for more research to be done looking into women’s songs and stories, and the need to ‘actively listen to women’s voices’. There was general agreement on the power of literature in aiding the ‘Un-silencing’ of women’s experience. To wrap up Saturday’s events in the evening there were multi-lingual performances in various Ugandan languages.
The Sunday started with another panel discussion on the topic of “Modern Folklore: Social Change” chaired by poet Peter Kagayi with Makerere oral literature academic Isaac Tibisiima and Jalada Africa’s very own Richard Odour Oduku. This was a lengthy and provocative debate on what oral literature is and its significance in modern African contexts. Language featured heavily in this discussion, with some pertinent points made about spaces, and the ways in which people come into contact with oral literature, for example Tibisiima said ‘Oral literature is what makes us human’ and the family setting is the ideal place to pass down oral traditions, however in reality some people only come into contact with it at university. On the same issue Oduku said ‘the way a culture remembers is through its stories , there is a lot of oral literature that happens outside the confines of the classroom and the strictures of academia, the content of storytelling changes as society changes’. In relation to Uganda Tibisiima spoke of the ‘crosspollination’ of oral traditions that have happened over time between the Baganda, Basoga and Banyoro, stating that the ‘location of culture is fluid’ and that there has always been ‘borrowing’ between neighbouring communities. This was a lively and refreshing conversation on the place of language and orality in Africa with a decent amount of time given to discuss issues in depth. The final event of the Kampala leg of the Jalada Mobile Literary and Arts Festival was a second multi-lingual poetry performance consisting of poetry in Sheng, English, Luganda and Acholi. Ugandan poets Daniel Omara and Paul Omara stole the show with Daniel’s rendition of his free verse poetry in English, like a stream of urgent consciousness, accompanied by Paul’s singing in Acholi with musical accompaniment.
The Kampala instalment of Jalada’s Mobile Literary and Arts Festival was a triumph of achievement championing the future of literary partnerships in East Africa.