Imagining the world at Kenya’s premier annual literary event , Storymoja Festival

On Wednesday, Kenya’s premier annual literary event , Storymoja Festival, returned... daring you to imagine the world.

To capture the mood of the five literary fest days, the first event Reading is Cool! encompassed all ages.

It was a cocktail of uniforms as school children sang the reading anthem, and the reading pledge. Before breaking to several groups, according to age. The Festival spoils you for choice, as there are exciting activities in different locations running at the same time.

On Wednesday, about 400 pupils gathered at the Courtyard for an exciting Guinness Book World Record Warm-up.

Well, Storymoja just seems dead set to improve the reading culture, with each year of the festival, in its brief five years, a testament of the literary revolution in this ‘literary desert’, as Taban Lo Liyong calls it.

 And to prove their point, Storymoja wants to break the reading record currently held by the US of 223,000 people reading from the same book, same text at the same time. The are planning a nationwide reading moment on June 16, on the Day of African Child. “We do not want to just break the record, but smash it,” declares Muthoni Garland, the Festival Founder.

This year, Storymoja organised a national reading, where 142,279 students from 260 schools in six counties read from one text at the same time.

One of the events, Jaza Matatu na Vitabu music concert, is geared to get donations for books for needy schools. Festival goers are encouraged to carry books to ‘Jaza the Matatu’.

Today, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka will be conducting a lecture in honour of fellow laureate, the late Prof Wangari Maathai, who died on September 25, 2011.

Dr Auma Obama, US President Barack Obama’s half sister is this year’s patron. Auma shared her famous memoir, And then Life Happens, with students who asked her a host of questions on different topics. The memoirs was first published in German in 2010 titled, and translated into English a year later.

“It is in Germany that I found my voice,” Auma told the students, teachers and other guests, “Having been born in Kenya, you all know those days it was hard for women to express themselves. But in Germany there was women emancipation. It fitted well with my independent and argumentative nature.”

The event is an invaluable learning opportunity for aspiring authors, poets and  artists. Oshwal Primary pupils innocently revealed to author Tony Mochama (pictured right) and Riva Jalipa that as aspiring writers, one of the topics they would tackle events like the Westgate attack.

Bigger and growing

This is a testament that terrorist’s activities leave deep wounds even in children. That aside, Mochama and Jalipa, from Phillipines, had a good session on how to critique stories constructively with the pupils, through Amka Kenya, an exciting literary workshop. Oshwal was joined by the St Lwanga School from Nakuru.

The festival started humbly in 2007 as the Nyama Choma Fiesta in what Muthoni Garland humorously says was a trick to hook Kenyans. You see, Kenyans love their nyama choma. Dangle some and they won’t notice when you introduce a book. Three hundred people attended that first festival and fastforward to 2013, about 4,000 people were in attendance.

About 170 authors, writers and guests are attending this year’s festival. There also are about 170 local artists, from musicians to poets which is an increase from last year’s 100.

Tomorrow it will be a year after the Westgate terror attack that claimed more than 70 people took place. The attack left a permanent scar on our national psyche and claimed Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor.

Yes, this is hardly the background you would wish for a literary event, but this is the situation organisers find themselves in. Yet the show must go on.

And fittingly, to coincide with the attack’s first anniversary, the National Museum is holding an exhibition, “Our Nairobi, A Westgate Memorial” at the Aga Khan Hall in tribute.

The memorial, conceived by broadcast journalist and writer Arjun Kohli includes mounted photographs of some people who lost their lives, with captions of a brief bio. Next to each picture is a computer and headphones, which festival goers took reverently and listened to the life story of the victims and events of the fateful day.

“That is my uncle,” says 16-year-old Harveen Kaur, as she walks with a slight limp towards a picture of a turban-clad man of Asian descent. Harveen had left her fellow Oshwal Academy students at the Storymoja Festival at the National Museum to steal a quiet moment at the exhibition.

She travelled back to September 21, 2013, when she had invited her family to cheer her up in a cooking competition at the Westgate Mall rooftop.

Her uncle, Ambi Ghataurhe, came to their rescue, but his mother Dalvinder Kaur and his Pavraj were no more.

Harveen escaped with three gunshot wounds, one at the ankle, the thigh and the stomach. She also had minor lacerations in her stomach, probably from shrapnel following a grenade explosion.

If you are in Nairobi today and tomorrow, spare a moment and experience great minds critique daily issues, meet great story tellers, share ideas and get entertained.