East Africa: a Literary Dwarf? Not quite.

In AllAfrica.com for 16 April 2010, African Writers Trust founder Goretti Kyomuhendo is quoted in the article “East Africa: Why Region Still Remains a Literary Dwarf.” To excerpt from the article:

East Africa, condemned in the 1960s by Taban lo Liyong as a “literary desert”, has once again registered a poor showing at the Commonwealth Writing Prize because of poor editing and over reliance on donor funding, literary critics, publishers, and novelists have observed….

None of East African writers made it to the shortlist of the 14 novels to represent Africa in the competition that brings together writers from Britain and her former colonies, including Ireland, the Caribbean, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Although AWT greatly appreciates the both the concern and commitment expressed by this news coverage, we think a few points require some further qualification.
East Africa
To start, the Commonwealth Writing Prize results for one year (or for that matter, even a few sequential years) provide only a partial sample of what has been happening on the East African literary scene. A few years of drought as far as this particular competition goes does not a desert make.

Likewise, the comparison made between Nigeria and individual Anglophone East African nations might also be a bit skewed. As well as a rich literary tradition, Nigeria also boasts a population of approximately 158,259,000 people. Compare this to Kenya’s estimated population of 39,002,772; Uganda’s of 32,369,558; Tanzania’s of 43,739,000, and so on.

All that being said, and the provocative article title notwithstanding, AWT certainly agrees with and supports the author’s conclusion:

If East Africa breeds independent collectives — modelled along Kwani and StoryMoja — but which are independent of donor funding and politics, a literary revolution is likely. And the collectives have to be more explorative. So far, most of the few collectives in East Africa have so far not ventured beyond short stories.

“We are still waiting for Binyavanga Wainaina’s, Kantai Parselelo’s and Yvonne Owuor’s first novels,” says Dr Ojwang. The poor showing in the commonwealth competition does not mean that East African literature is dead. The Commonwealth Literary Prize is exclusively for work in English. Tanzania and Rwanda produce work in Kiswahili and French, respectively. The Kenyan scene is fairly active in Kiswahili and vernacular publishing, which could be a pointer to greater decolonisation of letters from British writing, around which Commonwealth literature orbits.

Finally, even during a drought — or for that matter, even in the desert — life proves surprisingly resilient and resourceful. We believe the same is true of literary life right now in East Africa. Look a bit closer and you might see a flourishing.


2 Comments. Leave new

I think what we should also note is that novels, (good ones for that matter) take years to mature before getting published. Of course it’s not the reader/audience’s concern to think about the writer’s process, but I think there’re quality, craft and maturity reasons, for instance, why Binyavanga’s novel is not yet out. One is more careful to edit and revise thoroughly before sending a book to the publishers. The audience expects better writing and that should never be rushed. Junot Diaz, for example, took eleven years to write “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”. I’m sure in his 6th or 7th year people were asking him, what’s up, man, you a writer? But soon as it was published, it won the Pulitzer Prize, and it took a reader say two days or even one, to finish reading it. Somehow, we never think about that challenge–what takes a writer several years to accomplish may take a reader three hours. Let’s look around and we’ll see more writing, but let’s also be a little more patient and the writers we’ve already marked will surely deliver, in their time.


I agree with you,…, some publishers take centuries to put someone’s book to market so that it can be seen and reviewed and come up with such conclusions that east Africa is still a dwarf in literature. In My opinion I support lo liyong’s assertion that east Africa is a literary desert according to his time(when did He do this research? it’s long ago almost 40 years ago to be accurate) when we were just waking up from slumber of literature that’s 1970 and 1960s.when by that time we had only Ngugi wa thiongo at the top layer who was now matured literally compared to John Kirimiati who was starting to write while In prison, writing us literature after the departure of Europeans. He was just giving us the real face Africans when they were ruling themselves and what are capable of doing. So Taban Lo Liyong logic reasoning concerning east Africa literature should not be used In assessing it’s literature development to date. It will sound weird when we will measure our development in literature based on Taban lo liyo g’s long gone reasoning. when we were dwarfs on (that) time. of now.The long steps we’ve made in literature, we can stand still and compare ourselves with others.


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