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.

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