Connecting Africa’s histories and future through literature

Macondo Literary Festival

Some of the guest writers at Macondo Literary Festival (from left) Leila Aboulela, Aminatta Forna, Jennifer Makumbi and Youssef Fadel.

Photo credit: Pool

The past two three months have perhaps been the most exciting this year for literature lovers as the literary scene came to life with thrilling literary events. From Soma Nami book fair to Nairobi Lit Fest (courtesy of MacMillan Libraries) to Down River Road’s (DRR) literature-themed exhibition to Macondo Literary Festival which happened a fortnight ago, the god of book lovers has kept giving over and over this season. Not to mention book launches (there’s always a book being launched at Alliance Francaise or Goethe Institute at any given point), book hang outs and book readings.

Held at Kenya National Theatre over three days, Macondo Literary Festival attracted a large crowd of attendees, the most dedicated of them fondly refer to each other as ‘Macondites’.

Now in its third year, the festival had a stunning lineup of invited guest writers who included Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (author of ‘Kintu’ and others); Aminatta Forna, a multi-award winning author of Sierra Leone and Scottish origins, and currently a creative writing professor at Bath Spa University in Washington; Leila Aboulela from Sudan (also the first winner of Caine Prize for African Writing); Masande Ntshanga (from South Africa, and author of The Triangulum and other books, and also, by far the most non-writer like writer I ever have met.)

Youssef Fadel from Morocco; Kalaf Epalanga, an Angolan writer and musician based in Berlin; Hemley Boum, a Cameroon novelist based in Paris; Djamila Ribeiro from Brazil; Yvette Edwards from the UK, and Kossi Komla Ebri, a Togolese writer based in Italy and a founding member of ‘El-Ghibli’ online magazine of migration literature and our very own Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.

Some of the panels also included young Kenyan writers and creatives like Silas Nyanchwani (author of Man About Town and other books), Carey Baraka, Slim Shaka (a poet), Gado, Chief Nyamweya, Lutvini Majanja and Makena Onjerika.

According to Yvonne, “the theme was meant to provoke discussions around the concept of home. Our idea of home gets a bit disrupted and sometimes re-defined every five years in Kenya (with general elections) and so this year’s festival is not only to discuss these disruptions but also to imagine what the idea of home would mean in the future.”

While last year’s highlight was the presence of the Nobel Literature prize winner Abdulrazzak Gurnah, this year, the festival invited an Arabic writer, the wise Maroc Youssef Fadel, for the first time.

“The idea behind theme of this year’s festival — Disrupting Home — was that home means different things to different people and so, we wanted to bring all these ideas and meanings and interpretations of home together. To give alternative view of African literature,” says Anja Bengelstorff, a co-founder of the Festival.


Noun. The place where one lives permanently,

Adverb. or at the place where one lives.

Verb. (of an animal) return by instinct to its territory after leaving it.

Example: a dozen geese honing to their summer nesting grounds

Since home is a concept beyond just the noun of place, each of the guest writers invited had works that in some way explore the idea of home and disruption albeit from different approaches.

For Jennifer Makumbi, the characters in her books often leave their homeland to move abroad to Europe or other continents feeling sure at the time of their departure that they are going ‘home’ and that their destinations hold better ‘homes’ for them, only to get there and discover they actually left home behind. This, she admitted, was partly borrowed from her own experience moving from Uganda to Britain.

Masande believes that sometimes, home can also start from language. Born in East London (a city in South Africa, not the geographical east of the home of West Ham United), he comes from and lives in a country that not only has 12 official languages but also one that struggled with (and occasionally still does because what is xenophobia if not a struggle with one own’s home?) defining home especially having undergone a long period of apartheid. Noticeably, his characters are always searching for ‘home’.

“Home sets us to motion but it is what we carry inside us,” he says. “Even in the movement, there are all manner of things to deal with, that is the joys, the fears, the pains, all these are actually homes, because home is all the contentious territories that we carry and will always remain in us.”

The very first home, for everyone, according to Leila Aboulela, is our mothers’ wombs, and the last one is our graves. These are some of the collective, universal homes we share as humanity. In between birth and death, we seek our own meanings of home, and we attach worth to them so that eventually, home becomes where we are with worth, and outside home our worth drops. (Coincidentally, Leila’s home country - Sudan - is currently experiencing civil unrest and thousands of people have had their lives disrupted as they flee their homes to seek safety or befittingly, to delay their ending up in the eventual ultimate home — the grave).

For Kalaf Epangala, home is not only the music but also the records and the two poetry books he carried with him when he first left Angola where he grew up to move to Portugal. Now living in Germany, whenever he must explain to someone what home is, he plays them music. But home to him is also the Kizomba music clubs (where he first waitressed when he immigrated) on whose dance floors everybody becomes one to the music and no one is a stranger to the other, and then, it - home - is also his children’s names.

Similarly, having immigrated from their home countries to live abroad, Aminatta (from UK to the US), Yvette and Kossi (Togo to Italy) and Hemley (Cameroon to France) have had to intentionally explore and re-define what home means to each of them and to the characters in their books. For Hemley, she dreamt constantly in her first years of relocation of her mother’s kitchen.

Djamila documents and writes around the experiences of black women and girls in Brazil.

But what drives our (Africa’s) interest in the future? What’s wrong with the present?

“Africa is restless,” says Jennifer. “Nothing is enough for us. We are imaginative and we are talented, and while Africa’s reality has been so fictionalized especially by the West, that does not bother me, because then we get to shock them out of their worlds.”

Since we can’t get rid of myths, she advises that we create our own and live up to them.

Masande writes and is interested in speculative fiction as genre because it is his way of protesting how the West has always portrayed and dominated the portrayal of Africa’s reality. His book Triangulum (Triangulum refers to the most distant star you can see with naked eyes) explores the interaction between the past (in this case apartheid) and the future (i.e., what would the world look like in 2050?).

Both Yvonne’s books — Dust (which Eric Rugara terms ‘as what Cormac McCarthy does when he drifts into an ancient-sounding poetry except that she, Yvonne, sustains it for an entire book) and The Dragonfly Sea explore home as a theme. In one, the protagonist fights with their idea of home, a home that has snatched, among other things, a loved one from them, while in the other, the protagonist sets off to search for home.