Kenya’s Storymoja Strives to Connect the African Continent

In Feature Articles by Tolu Ogunlesi

By Tolu Ogunlesi

KenyaNAIROBI: “Words are the most important thing about coming together, said Kate Adie, the BBC’s former Chief News Correspondent, “and that is what Storymoja is all about.” Adie was speaking in Nairobi at a party held to round off this year’s Storymoja Hay Festival, which took place from July 31 to August 2. It is the first spin-off of the famous Hay Festival to take place on the African continent. Organized by Storymoja, a Kenyan publishing collective, it brought together writers, publishers and journalists from Africa, Asia, Europe and America, and featured an impressive line-up of bold faced names such as Vikram Seth, Hanif Kureishi, Kate Adie, Lee Siegel, Parselelo Kantai, Petina Gappah, Chika Unigwe, Toni Kan, and Mukoma wa Ngugi.

Storymoja was launched in Nairobi in July 2007 by five people: Muthoni Garland, Parselelo Kantai, Dayo Foster, Martin Kimani Mbugua, and Ivy Mwai. Four of them were involved with publishing Kwani, one of the first literary magazines in East Africa since Transition, and regarded by many as the most successful contemporary literary venture in Kenya.

Kwani? was itself founded 2003 by Binyavanga Wainaina, shortly after he won the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing for his story “Discovering Home,” originally published in the online magazine G21Net. The maiden print issue of Kwani? landed in bookstores October 2003 and five more issues have followed. Though its print run has been modest, it is credited as starting a renaissance in East African publishing and literary life. In 2005, Kwani? launched its own literary festival — Kwani? Litfest — which brought together writers from across Africa and overseas to commingle in Nairobi.

Storymoja’s managing director, Muthoni Garland, credits Kwani? with inspiring the Storymoja Hay Festival. “Without a doubt [Storymoja] would not have happened without Kwani,” she said during the Festival’s closing party.

Nevertheless, in the two years since it was founded, Storymoja has quickly established its own reputation as a serious and innovative purveyor of storytelling talent. Among its published works are  Tracking the Scent of My Mother and Halfway between Nairobi and Dundori, both by Muthoni Garland, The Brethren of Ng’ondu, by Martin Njaga, Living Memories by Al Kags, and Wasee Wasee – 99 Mchongoanos for Your Dissing Pleasure. The company publishes children’s books under its Storyhippo imprint, as well as audio books, starting with last year’s release of Tracking the Scent of My Mother.

Perhaps the smartest move of all was the early decision not to focus exclusively on literature. The second title Storymoja published was the business book, Crown Your Customer by Sunny Bindra, a well-known columnist for the Sunday Nation newspaper, as well as a university professor and management consultant. The book “details how exceptional customer service can transform your business.” It remains Storymoja’s bestselling work.

The mission statement of Storymoja declares that the company intends to publish “contemporary East African writing of a world-class standard”, as well as to grow “Kenya’s reading culture.” The two are of course closely linked — published writing needs readers as much as readers need appealing writing to engage their attention and justify their purchasing decisions. The statement continues: “We want to challenge the perception that Kenyans do not read (other than required educational texts) by providing them with contemporary stories they can identify with and which we believe they are dying to read.”

As such, in addition to book publishing, the company has launched a variety of advocacy programs, including a “Kenya Get Reading” campaign, storytelling competitions, spelling bees, the Nyamachoma Fiesta, and a monthly Women-in-Leadership forum. In the spring, a theatrical interpretation of Sitawa Namwalie’s poetry collection Cut Off My Tongue, published by Storymoja, premiered in Kenya. A UK premiere followed at the Guardian Hay Festival in May and there are now plans to tour it around Africa.

The internet, in particular, has played a significant role in Storymoja’s success. The company’s highly-trafficked site and blog has made it possible to spread the word and connect with writing talent from across the continent and in the diaspora. It is worth pointing out that, at the Storymoja Hay Festival,there were panels on “Internet Dating”, “Citizen Journalism”, “Online Business Opportunities”, and “Privacy, Piracy and Security”, among others, evidence of the rapidly growing role that the Web is playing in Kenyan life. The historic launch, last month, of the TEAM and SEACOM optic fibre cables (which will flood East Africa with cheap broadband internet access) means that organisations such as Kwani? and Storymoja will not only turn with increased confidence to the internet in their quest to transform the fortunes of East African writing in the coming years, but will also seek to prove their relevance by providing tools (books, seminars) that will help their target audience exploit the potentials of the internet to the fullest.

The Storymoja collective envisions a time “when the ordinary Kenyan is as excited by reading as he is by Kenyan music, Nigerian DVDs and the mobile phone!” The revolution that will bring that to pass has kicked off; it is taking place online and offline, and Storymoja, the newest kid on the block, is right in the centre of it. Of course, all of Africa is listening too. As Muthoni Garland, Managing Director of Storymoja, remarked as the first and certainly not last Storymoja Hay Literary Festival closed, “Africa lies in our hands… I love the way we’re beginning to connect as a continent.”

REPORTS: From the Storymoja Hay Festival are online now.

BUY: Storymoja’s books from Kenya’s famous

READ: Kwani? online.

About the Author

Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi was born in 1982. He is the author of a collection of poetry, Listen to the geckos singing from a balcony (Bewrite Books, 2004) and a novella, Conquest & Conviviality (Hodder Murray, 2008). In 2007 he was awarded a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg poetry prize, in 2008 the Nordic Africa Institute Guest Writer Fellowship, and in 2009 a Cadbury Visiting Fellowship by the University of Birmingham. His fiction and poetry have been published in The London Magazine, Wasafiri, Farafina, PEN Anthology of New Nigerian Writing, Litro, Brand, Orbis, Nano2ales, Stimulus Respond, Sable, Magma, Stanford’s Black Arts Quarterly and World Literature Today, among others. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.