Writing beyond borders: Kwani Trust as an ambitious African LINGO | An article by Ewout Decoorne

Hidden behind a leafy courtyard off Nairobi’s Riverside Drive, Kwani Trust houses one of Kenya’s (and perhaps Africa’s) most fascinating literary contributions of the last decades. The small, cosy shop can hardly reveal the magnitude of this movement, which since its inception in 2003 has adopted an increasingly influential voice within Africa’s intellectual and cultural arena. Kwani Trust has developed into a literary hub that assembles an ever expanding community of writers, poets, journalists, academics, photographers etc., who showcase a great variety of work in an impressive range of literary products and happenings. Apart from its role as a publishing house, Kwani Trust provides training opportunities for upcoming talent, organises literary festivals (the last edition of Kwani LitFest dates from 2015, the next one is to be expected in 2018), holds numerous projects dedicated to the promotion of contemporary literature, and, perhaps most importantly, comments upon current social, political and cultural affairs through its magazine Kwani?. As a compilation of prose fiction, poetry, literary experiments, journalism, interviews, articles, and photography, this journal offers a selection of today’s best and brightest literary talents in Kenya, the rest of the continent, and beyond. In this contribution, I will consider the role that Kwani assumes today within Kenya’s literary field through the most recent issue of its magazine: Kwani? 08, and by referring to the ground-breaking study by Doreen Strauhs on Kwani Trust and similar initiatives past and present.

Literary organisations in Africa that situate themselves outside the regular commercial publishing circuit and, at the same time, do not operate within or thanks to state-funded (academic) institutions are neither extraordinary nor new. In her book African Literary NGOs: Power, Politics, and Participation, Doreen Strauhs has studied Kwani Trust together with the Ugandan organisation FEMRITE as two examples of African LINGOs. LINGO, as Strauhs has coined the term, stands for literary non-governmental organisation. Strauhs defines this as “[f]irst and foremost, […] a non-governmental organisation with a focus on the production and promotion of literary talent, events, and publications that is situated in the nonprofit sector.”[1] Naming various examples from Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana, Strauhs indicates that LINGOs exist throughout the continent.[2] Also within Kenya several other initiatives that dedicate themselves to the written word situate themselves in this non-profit sociocultural sphere. Jalada, Twaweza Communications, Storymoja… they all operate independently from governmental guidelines or strictly commercial agendas. Moreover, these various initiatives are embedded within a tradition that stretches back for over more than half a century.

Consequently, Strauhs suggests that LINGOs such as Kwani Trust and FEMRITE are not as new or revolutionary as they like to stage themselves. According to Strauhs, the first LINGOs surfaced at the beginning of the 1960s, elaborating on and responding to the literary networks that were rooted in colonial cultural and academic infrastructures. As such, LINGOs have been driven from their very first beginnings “by networks of people spanning across and beyond transnational borders, triggering contacts and synergies between writers as well as critics from around the world.”[3] Chemchemi Creative Centre, established in 1963 in Nairobi and directed by the South African writer Es’kia Mphahlele was directly influenced by Ibadan’s Mbari Club, and, as such, prefigured the cosmopolitan and hybrid nature of today’s Kwani Trust. The Kwani? magazine, in its turn, is a direct heir to the late Transition magazine, a literary journal that in the sixties and seventies echoed the equally legendary Black Orpheus magazine. From the very beginning, literary associations looked beyond the borders of the nation and adopted transnational perspectives on literary creativity in the continent and the diaspora. After two difficult decades at the end of the 20th century due to political, economic and social upheavals, the LINGO and its editorial appendages re-entered Africa’s literary stage. Kwani? 01 appeared in 2003, its first editor being Binyavanga Wainaina, who had been awarded with the Caine Prize for African Writing the year before. An acclaimed author arriving from South Africa, establishing an ambitious literary project in Nairobi: Es’kia Mphahlele’s course seemed to be repeated.

Does this suggest that Kwani Trust will face the same challenges as Chemchemi Creative Centre, its defunct predecessor? Strauhs considers the history of LINGOs in the 1960s and 70s in order to indicate some of the main issues that threaten today’s organisations survival in volatile African book markets. The author identifies two conditions which can nurture or harm the institutionalisation of the LINGO: the one is socio-political, the other sociocultural. A stable social and political climate that allows limited forms of free speech in a fairly democratic environment is necessary for LINGOs to function, although FEMRITE demonstrates in Uganda that organisations can be surprisingly flexible to adapt to unfavourable political conditions. Visibility and funding opportunities open up along with the international recognition that is awarded to the LINGO and the writers involved. Here, sociocultural factors come into play: literary networks and prizes heighten the author’s and publisher’s prestige. However, (foreign) funding and (international) recognition are double-edged swords: they can stifle creativity as much as they can boost it. Given these multiple challenges, Strauhs identifies several threats and weaknesses that limit the influence and sustainability of African LINGOs. Non-African funding structures that limit the organisation’s independence, the fragile right of free speech and the infrastructural limitations of publishing distribution networks are major threats. Possible weaknesses are a too outspoken political commitment that might trigger repressive measures from political regimes and a lack of resources to implement crisis management when necessary.[4] Nevertheless, the Concerned Kenyan Writers’ response to the crisis following the electoral tragedy of 2007 has proven that literature can become a tough opponent to political authority and socio-economic challenges. For its survival, the LINGO faces obstacles that are more persistent and profound. Strauhs concludes that “the dependency on funding in the light of limited local markets for creative writing and the lack of government support probably remains the most prominent challenge to the LINGOs sustainability.” [5] For the time being, however, Kwani Trust seems to flourish, unhampered by the apparent curtailing of free speech and artistic freedom in many parts of the world. It’s magazine, again, provides convincing evidence.

With several hundreds of pages and a remarkably wide thematic and stylistic range, Kwani? journal is undoubtedly the organisation’s flagship publication. In a way, it serves as a sample of what the organisation stands for, and how it opens up an intellectual space for social, political and cultural debate. Every issue has its principal theme. The most recent one, Kwani? 08, appeared in 2015 and takes the 2013 general elections as starting point. Today, as the consequences of the 2017 general elections are still taking shape, the journal seems more relevant than ever. Even though the last issue appeared two years ago, it still provides profound insights into Kenya’s political landscape, and the ways in which Kenyans cope with the country’s principal challenges. Besides, little has changed since the previous elections anyway. The main competitors in 2017 are the same as back then. The socio-political context in which the elections have taken place are strikingly familiar as well: fear of a repetition of the 2007 post-election violence, the public opinion’s critique on the tendency in Kenyan politics to mobilise ethnic-based alliances, and, ultimately, the general distrust in the election’s procedures.

Given its length and scope, tackling every contribution to Kwani? 08 is an impossible task. Instead, I would like to single out some interesting features. First of all, there is the immense variety in genres, voices and modes of narration. The extensive table of contents announces following sections: short takes, long takes, elegy and verse, map and journey, revelation and conversation, spectacle and invention, electoral meanderings, scenarios, the other, and photo essays. This diversity in narrative media reflects the multitude of voices and perspectives the issue offers. This edition’s unifying theme, the 2013 elections, are examined through a prism of testimonies, pamphlets, analyses, reports, poems, interviews, text messages, plays and photographs. The magazine shows how literature can become a complex play that works in several directions. Strauhs, who draws theoretically from Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological approach towards literature, appreciates the LINGO’s configuration strikingly as follows: “[T]he bottom-up promotion of information is exactly what again shows the LINGO’s ambivalent role as both producers of literature as well as agents participating in the process of public opinion making.” [6] In his editorial, Billy Kahora criticises the “Peace Industry” that followed the post-election tragedy in 2007. The peace campaign was so deafening it led to the critique “that [it] forced the making of certain choices and curbed real scrutiny into things.” [7] The eighth Kwani? issue therefore looks behind smoke-screens set up by political parties, the official authorities, and the media.

In the first contribution, entitled “Moving on to what?”, Patrick Gathara compares concerned Kenyans to the wife of Lot, who, against premonitions, turned around to face the destruction of her native Sodom and got instantly transformed into a pillar of salt. Gathara likens the biblical flight from Sodom to the general exodus in 2013 in Kenya from “the flames of five years before that and the iniquity of the last 50 years”. [8] Lot’s wife looked back out of rage, which is exactly the same reason why some Kenyans do look back in 2013. Most of them, however, did not look back. They followed authority’s almost Biblical guidelines instead. Gathara is “outraged at the lack of outrage”. [9] In 2013, accepting the status-quo was considered as the only alternative to anarchy. Gathara laments how “Kenya has become a country of official truth with very few daring to challenge the official narratives.” [10] In an exemplary contribution that fuses opinion making and literary prose, the author foreshadows the issue’s main conceptions. The magazine and its contributors do look back, even if this means taking the risk of provoking divine powers. Kwani Trust offers a space for critical judgement, and, as such, fills the moral gap that other media leave open.

The magazine defies dominant narratives by opening up spaces where as many voices as possible can be heard. The section “SMS Politikal” consists of text messages sent during the election week, [11] Tom Maliti’s interview with Philip Ochieng includes questions from an audience,[12] Ngala Chome introduces excerpts from a Pwani elections observer’s diary, [13] and Usama Goldsmith’s extensive oral history of the Mombasa Republican Council questions identity, assumptions about Kenyan nationhood and official narratives through an elaborate selection of testimonies, documents, news items etc.[14] Some contributors, such as the poet Kate Hampton, invite the reader to react via Twitter, thus including social media in a literary setting.[15] The magazine raises a platform where personal, official, academic and fictional narrations by authors, readers and other instances get transmitted. As a result, the election theme expands to more universal subjects such as love and identity (see for instance Abdul Adan’s story “The Somalification of James Karangi” on forbidden love in a tribal political configuration),[16] or to other places in Africa and the diaspora. Examples include “Skin Parliament” by Chike Pilgrim, a writer from Trinidad and Tobago,[17] Dele Meiji’s poem “Cueta” referring to the refugee crisis on the Mediterranean,[18] and Jennifer Huxta’s report on the first free elections in Tunisia.[19]

Kwani Trust’s authors evidently write beyond borders. First of all, they transcend Kenya as a nation. Although the LINGO’s signature remains undeniably Kenyan, both its literary input and its distribution network are transnational. Secondly, the writers deliberately refrain from traditional stylistic, thematic or linguistic categorisations. Fact or fiction, written or oral, print or digital, text or image, English or Swahili; Kwani Trust rejects easy qualifications. African literatures in general tend to defy rigid and stubborn conceptualisations of what literature ought to be, and Kwani Trust skilfully reminds us of this. In doing so, the LINGO points perhaps in the direction in which literature’s function lies in our times and the next. That is: in being critical, daring and diverse. With its stylistic, thematic and social inclusiveness on the one hand, and its self-reflexive institutional goals on the other, Africa’s LINGOs in general – and Kwani Trust in particular – serve as noteworthy examples of literature’s ongoing relevance. In times of fact-opinion blending and diminishing space for nuance and diverging perspectives, magazines such as Kwani? show that the transfer of ideas can be ingenious and dynamic, which is reflected in the journal’s variety in narrative modes and genres. When old menaces such as social polarisation, contestation of freedom of speech and nationalistic fervour regain influence, Kwani Trust proves that literature, as a space for (transnational) dialogue and exchange, is resilient and powerful.

Ewout Decoorne

Kahora, Billy (ed.), Kwani? 08, Nairobi: Kwani Trust, 2015.
Strauhs, Doreen, African Literary NGOs: Power, Politics, and Participation, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

[1] D. Strauhs, African Literary NGOs : Power, Politics, and Participation, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. 22.
[2] Ibid. p. 31.
[3] Ibid. p. 42.
[4] Ibid. p. 76.
[5] Ibid. p. 90.
[6] Ibid. p. 167.
[7] B. Kahora, “Editorial” in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, Nairobi: Kwani Trust, 2013, p. 8.
[8] P. Gathara, “Moving On To What?” in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 14.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., p. 19.
[11] “SMS Politikal” in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 38.
[12] T. Maliti, “An Interview With Philip Ochieng” in B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 40.
[13] Chome N., “Diary of a Pwani Elections Observer” in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 118.
[14] U. Goldsmith, “An Oral History of the MRC”, in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 44.
[15] K. Hampton, “Seeds of Democracy”, in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 413.
[16] A. Adan, “The Somalification of James Karangi” in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 352.
[17] C. Pilgrim, “Skin Parliament”, in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 540.
[18] D. Meiji, “Ceuta”, in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 560.
[19] J. Huxta, “On Tunisian Elections”, in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 586.

This article was published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2017: Eastern Africa