Where literary geniuses go on pilgrimage

Some of the attendees of the Writivism Festiva and the Babishai Niwe Poetry Festival. PHOTO| COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • There was Magunga Williams — blogger at www.magunga.com and founder of The Magunga Bookstore, Bryan Ngartia — a performing artist, filmmaker and poet; Lekpele M Nyamalon — a Liberian writer, poet and essayist, Ife Piankhi — a poet and newly-formed performing artist and composer of the hit theatrical politically-charged one-woman show, ‘I Bow For My Boobs’...The list was endless and the fun, equally so.

The week of August 21 saw a veritable host of artists, creatives and readers alike descend on the city of Kampala in Uganda to attend what were arguably the biggest festivals of the year in this region: the Writivism Festival, and the Babishai Niwe Poetry Festival.

The Writivism Festival has been in existence for four years now. The theme for this year was ‘Restoring Connections’. Over 70 guests populated the halls and gardens of Uganda’s National Museum on Kira Road.

The festival is organised by the Centre for African Cultural Excellence, and supported by several other local and international partners such as the Miles Morland Foundation.

I began my tour at Babishai Niwe Poetry Festival. This one, as you can tell from the name, is solely focusing on poetry and poetical arts, and is run by Beverly Nambozo Nsengiyunva, who started the festival in 2008 to reward Ugandan female poets. Since then, the festival has evolved to be a continental one, accepting submissions from all over Africa, from both men and women.

I also gave a talk titled ‘The place of Sensuality in Contemporary Poetry’, and ‘Why Africans still won’t talk about sex’, which, as you can imagine, was a hot topic.


But there were several other major and relevant topics at Babishai Niwe, largely because of the wisdom of the organisers and the varied guests present.

There was Magunga Williams — blogger at www.magunga.com and founder of The Magunga Bookstore, Bryan Ngartia — a performing artist, filmmaker and poet; Lekpele M Nyamalon — a Liberian writer, poet and essayist, Ife Piankhi — a poet and newly-formed performing artist and composer of the hit theatrical politically-charged one-woman show, ‘I Bow For My Boobs’...The list was endless and the fun, equally so.

Though these, as I said, were the biggest festivals currently going on in East Africa, a host of other festivals are going on across the continent, providing an opportunity for art lovers to immerse themselves in all things creative.

Right before Writivism and Babishai, the Chale Wote Street Art Festival was underway in Ghana and the Lagos International Poetry Festival is due for late October.

Kenya’s popular festival, Storymoja, is moving to Ghana later in the year in honour of the great Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, who passed away in Kenya at the hands of terrorists during the Westgate Mall attack in 2013. And of course there is the annual Nairobi International Book Fair, which has been going on for almost two decades now.

The list goes on, and grows throughout the year, in a good way of course.

I digress. There are, however, problems with East African festivals that should be addressed so that future events are improved.


One of the major problems is a distinct lack of attendance from the hometown populations. At Babishai for instance, the number of guests coming in to speak or sit on a panel or perform, outnumbered the number of people attending the festivals.

Most of the Ugandans I met were guests as opposed to audience members, which is disconcerting. It was the same at Writivism last year and this year as well. If we are holding festivals in Africa, who are they for, if not for Africans?

We are at a precipice in which Arts and Crafts have been completelyeliminated from the education system, and things like festivals are the only places that allow art to thrive in society. But if the society does not attend, then the festival turns into a meet-up for writers and creatives; which isn’t a bad thing in itself, except for that fact that that is not the point of a festival.

Then of course there is the problem of disorganisation, something that has plagued almost every festival I have attended.

There is a distinct lack of communication which we need to work on; I am not sure it is because we insist on being ‘African’ thus letting bad habits thrive such as lack of punctuality or bad communication.   Small things like that tend to ruin an entire festival. For example, last year, at Writivism, the festival was between three locations; Maisha Gardens, Makerere University and the National Theatre. If you have been to Kampala, you know that traffic and a newbie’s navigation skills puts these venues two hours away from each other, which was extremely frustrating. Thankfully, this year, everything was held in one place. So there is room for improvement.

At Babishai, though entries for the prize were few as were visiting schools (most festivals have a day or two of outreach to schools where guests go visit the institutuions with the agenda of promoting a reading culture, or students come to the festival), the two schools that came to the festival were a pleasure to watch, particularly Namagunga Primary School, which wowed us with the astounding presentations, literacy and eloquence.

All these festivals had prizes to be awarded: there was the Okot P’Bitek Prize for Translation, in commemoration of the 50th year since the publication of ‘Song of Lawino’. This prize seeks to reward poets who write originally in an African indigenous language and translate their own poetry to English. The $500 (Sh50,000) prize went to Kenyan poet Redscar McOdindo K’Oyuga, who went on to win the $1000 (Sh 100,000) inaugural Nyanza Literary Festival prize for poetry that started right after Babishai Niwe.

The Babishai Niwe Poetry prize went to another Kenyan, Sanya Noel Lima, for his poem; ‘What would we have called you had you lived’.

Nigerian poet Orimoloye Moyosore was a joint recipient of the $700 (Sh70,000) prize, which also warrants them to receive ‘participation in the six-month Babishai mentorship scheme and fully paid for attendance and selected festivals around Africa.’

Writivism’s short story prize went to Uganda’s Immaculate Innocent Acan’s Sundown, an apocalyptic tale of despair.

In my opinion, the best thing about these festivals is that not only does it offer proof to the fact that literature in Africa is still alive and thriving, but also that writing pays – not just in monetary fashion, but in the satisfaction of knowing that the work you produce will be read.

That, for me, is one of the greatest things about these festivals; visible evidence that Africa is, in fact, lit.


Quotes from Writivism Festival and Babishai Niwe Poetry Festival

It feels good to have won. It is a little unsettling because you are now thrust into what they call, maybe, fame. I was just talking to a friend who told me, ‘you are no longer a boy. Now you need to put out a book!’ I am feeling the pressure, but I am not feeling it at the same time because I have the material. I just need the conduit. I have been looking for a publisher I can work with. I cannot self-publish because I do not have the energy to self-market. Given my career as an engineer, I cannot put it out there the way I would want to. I submitted because I needed the money.  Some of the prize money will go to rent, and some will go to buy books for my library, because books are what make me poor.”

Sanya Noel Lima, winner of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Prize


The poem I submitted was about something that needed to be fixed, something we are not fixing. Calling upon people to fix things which are more important than the ones that they are fixing. People are allowed to go on when they should be fixing things that needed to be fixed yesterday.”

- Redscar McOdindo, winner of the Okot P’Bitek prize for Poetry in Translation and the Nyanza Literary Festival Poetry Prize



The amount of visual art at Chale Wote was amazing. Often, you just have very book-based festivals, but there, they also had a  nice wide range of activities and visual and installation artists. In terms of the line-up and diversity of crafts and skills and countries, it was amazing. It was like a carnival. They had to be very strict this year about who came in without a press pass because last year, people took a lot of pictures and used them in advertising and yet refused to support the festival.” Maimouna Jallow, Storyteller



I was invited to be a guest at Babishai Niwe to speak at a panel about Internet and online marketing because my bookstore is solely online. My favourite thing about festivals is the people. They are so relaxed. I make contacts and people buy me good things. If I was not invited and had money, I would still come. I like being around books. And the mentorship programmes such as the workshop at Writivism-which I benefited from last year- helps younger writers as well.’

- Magunga Williams, bookstore owner and founder of theMagunga (www.magunga.com)


The intimacy at Babishai is great. I came to perform and then someone made me moderate! Kenya should do a poetry festival. I was thinking about it yesterday. We have so many poets. The problem with things like Slam Africa (a poetry performance platform), is that people win Slam and disappear.” Ngartia, spoken word poet