Our season of harvest is near, let all East Africans style up for it

Ages Cultural dance troupe

Ages Cultural dance troupe perform during the launch of the Pio Gama Pinto exhibition at the Kisumu Museums on October 13, 2023. 

Photo credit: Ondari Ogega | Nation Media Group

Season of Harvest is the title of an early collection of critical essays by Christopher Lukorito Wanjala, my dear departed colleague and Bakoki (age-mate).

This patron ancestor of East African criticism has been gone for all of five years now, having left us on October 15, 2018, but his legacy lives on.

I remember he and I light-heartedly suggesting that we should celebrate our 75th birthdays jointly the following year, since they fell quite close to each other in the early months of the year. But it was not to be, and the memories are now of sorrow and desolation (ukiwa).

But the harvest that I am thinking of now is of a joyous, exciting and promising variety. If we play our cards right, we in Kenya and East Africa as a whole have an exceptionally rich cultural harvest coming our way over the next five or so years, and probably beyond.

I told you of the big football tourney coming to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in 2027. Of even more immediate relevance is the Kisumu continental and diaspora arts and cultural festival, now barely six months away.

When you desire something so strongly that you convince yourself that it is happening or will happen, we say that the wish is father to the thought.

To me, developments like those above are an indication that the continent’s attention and focus are shifting from wherever they might have previously been to our region.

This should rightly give us pride. But more importantly, our newfound prominence should challenge us to do our best to live up to the billing. In other words, we must prove demonstrably to Africa and to the world that we deserve the recognition and the respect that they are according us.

On the sports front, for example, our runners may be shining on all the world’s tracks, and Ferdinand Omanyala is proving wrong those who thought that we could not breach the limits of the dashes. But we cannot say with conviction that our football prowess today compares with the glorious days of legends like Dr J.J. Masiga, Coach Marshall Mulwa and the magic coastal keeper, Mahmoud Abbas. I will not comment on the Ugandan or Tanzanian teams, although I noted that of our three national teams, only Tanzania qualified for the AFCON25 finals to be played in Morocco in January and February 2026.

The point, however, is that, as the hosts of the AFCON27 finals, we are expected to field a team (or teams) to compete in the finals against the continent’s top teams. Our hosting glory is, therefore, also a tremendous challenge to us to not only provide the best facilities for the tournament but also to raise the standards of our game all round, put our best football boot forward, so to speak. We do not want to embarrass ourselves (kujiaibisha) on the pitch in the moment of our glory.

I had the same feeling as I followed the pomp and circumstance of the official declaration and endorsement of Kisumu, on Wednesday last week, as the host city of the African Arts and Cultural Festival (FESTAC24) next year.

It dawned on many of us that not only Kisumu but also the rest of Kenya, and indeed all of East Africa, will have to come up with the best and richest of its heritage to form the strongest foundation of the festival and create the right context for the rest of our continental and diaspora relatives to share with us.

Just imagine. Come May 2024, tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of artists and other cultural aficionados and enthusiasts will be travelling thousands of kilometres across seas, deserts and skies to come to Kisumu City, carrying tons and tons of visual artworks, books, crafts, well-rehearsed music, dance and drama performances. They will diligently set up their shows and exhibitions all over the city’s designated spaces, ready for the magic week of May 20-26.

Would it not be a pity and a shame if we, the East African hosts, were to be mere spectators, or at best “supporting casts”, with scrappy and poorly produced and presented shows? Talk about putting our best foot forward. I know Kisumu will pull out all the stops, as was indicated by my friend, County Governor Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, when he made the declaration and endorsement of the City as FESTAC24 host. The city’s vibrant artistic community, led by luminaries like Obat Masira, who was named “FESTAC24 Ambassador”, promised us an impressive appearance, as suggested by the few excellent performances they put on to mark the launch.

But what should we expect of Nairobi, Mombasa, Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam? Kampala, too, is only two hundred miles away, and if the Waganda/Wakanda fail to put in a strong appearance, I am sure Lupita Nyong’o will have a good laugh at them. In any case, as I suggested at the beginning of our conversation, occasions like this festival, or the kandanda (football) date in 2027 should not be seen as troublesome obligations. They are, rather, rich opportunities to market ourselves and our region to the world. This is what I have observed about such events where I have attended them. I still have souvenirs from FESTAC77 in Lagos, and until earlier this year, I was wearing a kente shirt I bought in Accra during the first conference for the International Society for Oral Literature in Africa (ISOLA) in 1995.

We may not be as enterprising as the Ghanaians or Nigerians, but we can certainly take advantage of a week’s presence of international visitors among us to market our crafts, our art, our music and our literature on a significant scale. Even our Kiswahili, already poised to become a continental language, could get a boost from being spoken, as it is done beautifully in Kisumu, around our visitors.

The harvest is coming. Tujiandae kuvuna (let’s ready ourselves for reaping).

- Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]