Kampala buzzes with the sound of a thousand carpenter bees descending on a block of wood that splits into the late afternoon wind as motorcycles vie with other vehicles for space on the winding roads. This incessant buzz is interspersed with the thumping upbeat music that seeps from the electronic shops that double up as boutiques for not-so-original designer clothes. The heat dances as Josh, our cab driver, starts the engine and heads for the hotel.
I am in Kampala on the invitation of the dedicated team behind the Writivism Festival. This is my first time attending the festival, and my excitement is a jagged, asymmetrical mark on my forehead that I cannot hide even if I wanted to. Geoffrey Oryema’s ‘Land of Anaka’ plays in my earphones. Listening to music from the country I am visiting is my way of establishing a connection, becoming part of the thin thread that links me to the people around me, and merging in the canvas upon which their daily life is mapped.
Before all this:
I am in a taxi coming from the Ugandan side of the Busia border to Kampala. Taxi, because across the border, where my father, mother and siblings are, we call them matatu. I have to learn that I am no longer on that side, even though I am seated with five Kenyans (“This bus has more Kenyans than Ugandans,” is the comment from someone with the voice of an ungreased wheelbarrow) who have embraced their ‘Kenyanness’ and have settled into a comfortable conversation that swivels – creaking while it moves – from the tough economic times to the recent election. I do not join in – perhaps I don’t feel Kenyan enough to take part or maybe I just don’t know how to talk about Kenyan politics in a Ugandan matatu (taxi!).
Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings lays spread out on my lap, waiting for my eyes to fall on the words.
At the hotel, I am surrounded by both strange and familiar faces. Faces I have seen while scrolling through my Facebook timeline but never met before. People whom I have always admired because of how they make words submit to them. Efemia Chela. Billy Kahora. EC Osondu. Edwige Dro. Igoni Barrett. Shadreck Chikoti. Names that make the tongue tremble, afraid to pronounce when it wants nothing but to recite them.
The festival takes place at The Square, a place with a panoramic rooftop view of the bustling city of Kampala. The morning session is a roundtable discussion around arts management and literary activism. Billy Kahora, editor of Kwani?, Beverley Nambozo of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, and Pamela Acaye of LaBa! Arts Festival all give us insights into the intricacies of organising a literary festival.
The morning is a butterfly that briefly perches on the window pane and flutters away, not to be seen again. The afternoon is a flurry of activity with a visit to the Butabika mental hospital and, much later, the launch of the Jalada/Transition collaborative issue. No Place to Call Home, JJ Bola’s debut novel about the life of a Congolese family navigating the belly of London, is also launched. This happens at the same time as the Uganda Bloggers Happy Hour, an event I am unable to attend. (Oh, we all know the story of the hyena that tried to attend two feasts at the same time …) Kawuna, a one-woman play by the talented Kemiyondo Coutinho, who has the ability to seamlessly transition into nine different women, is staged and the applause at the end of it is the clap of thunder before a storm hits.
The bus takes us back to the hotel, where we sit around the table and soothe our throats with what everyone present seems to agree is the best beer in Africa: Nile Special. Milk of the Gods. The Ivorian wonders how she can smuggle some to her country. Suggestions are offered: Repack in plastic bottles; just carry them in your luggage and press with clothes so the bottles don’t break; import them…the rest trails away. The conversation morphs into a beast with seven heads as we talk about Cameroon and dog meat, among other things. Laughter that is the cackling of hyenas splits the dense night air – and from a point of unfamiliarity, the writers have found home.
At the table, an argument starts between the Kenyans and the Ugandans regarding who drinks more. Blackass says the Ugandans drink more (He has a Ugandan friend who knows so many people who have died from drinking). The two Ugandans agree. I am rooting for the Kenyans (If you are in a foreign country and you need to find the Kenyan, look in the bar). The other Kenyan supports me. (We are the drinking nation, after all). Azotus the Kingdom has no comment on this. In an argument about who between Ugandans and Kenyans drinks more you’d expect one of them to win, right? Well, with an average beer consumption of 12,28 litres per year, Nigeria leads the top 10 biggest beer-drinking countries in Africa. This is by virtue of her population, which technically translates to higher volume and litres consumed per year. So Nigeria wins. Damn you, Nigeria, always winning everything!!
The second day of the festival begins with Moses Kilolo of the Pan-African Writers’ collective Jalada, Emmanuel Sigauke of Munyori Literary Journal and me talking about the dynamics of setting up and running a literary magazine. EC Osondu launches his book This House Is Not For Sale and the copies run out before I can grab one for myself. In the evening, we are treated to the best of Ugandan spoken word and poetry and I am left in awe by the rawness of some of the poets, like Peter Kagayi. I have never seen him perform before but will now pay to attend his show. The A Ka Dope band also thrills the crowd with its music.
Music. It is, after all, a Friday night in Kampala.
Runtown’s ‘Mad Over You’ blares from the speakers and all around me bodies are gyrating on the dance floor. Swaying like papyrus reeds on the shores of Lake Victoria on a cloudless, windy night. Exposed arms gleaming with sweat. I am with the two Kenyans, the Cameroonian, the Malawian and the Ghanaian-Zambian. The Malawian comes around with shots of tequila, and we each press the lemon into the salt, bite hard, then gulp down the liquid that burns our throats. Part of going to the festival is what happens outside it. Contrary to popular belief, writers, too, can dance.
The day is a blur. I am nursing a hangover that threatens to split my head into a million pieces like a coconut hit with a sledgehammer. One thing I manage to take part in, though, is the publisher speed dating and I get a chance to give writing advice on how to get published (Yeah, even I am still chuckling at that).
The award ceremony – the event that we are all here for – begins at 8.00 pm. Before this, I get to attend a workshop by the most wonderful Efemia Chela; Nii Ayikwei Parkes gives a keynote speech on the structures for improving literature in Africa. At the award event, Charles King, the eventual winner of the Koffi Addo prize for nonfiction, is the first to read out ‘Meat Bomb,’ a story with such deliberateness in its choice of words and imagery that it provokes even the dullest of senses (“…as slowly as the equivalent of having my retina ripped from my eyeball and then stitched back on, repeatedly: fuzziness, clarity, fuzziness, clarity”). I get to read too. ‘Finding Binyavanga’ by Sada Malumfashi. After a hilarious comedy skit by the Ugandan comedian Munachim Amah, the winner of the fiction prize reads ‘Stolen Pieces’, a tender yet engaging story that explores the human condition and sexuality in the most beautiful way.
And now the time has come, for the swarm of writers (not my words) to leave Kampala. The memories are packed in airtight containers and stashed in suitcases. The goodbyes, like all goodbyes, are meant to say, “We’ll see each other again soon.”