“Is the bar open?” were the first words I heard on my inaugural encounter with the ‘literary gangster, vodka connoisseur, poet and gossip columnist extraordinaire’ Tony Mochama. This was promptly followed by his cheeky unveiling of his secret weapon … a big bottle of Smirnoff Vodka snugly tucked in a satchel, just in case some evil forces had colluded to create a warped dystopia where there just was no bar. True to his intentions and without any surprise his first stop was… yes you guessed it right…. the bar.
The bar was a buzz with the hearty laughter, merry making and camaraderie of peers.
It was an eclectic mix of squares, reserved and fully clothed, and liberals in bohemian colours and occasional short nothings all getting along just fine. From where I was standing I could see the tall silhouette of the Columnist Oyunga Pala posing for some pictures with a couple of fans. Binyavanga Wainaina was chatting away with David Ohingo. Suzanne Gachukia was having a passionate dialogue with Capital FM’s Laura Walubengo as she queued for food.
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo was frolicking around from one group to another having jolly time whilst barefoot. The filmmaker Hawa Essuman and the writer Parselelo Kantai were chatting away with Valentine Njoroge.
On my left was the stage surrounded by three tents decorated with a pink and black insignia arranged at obtuse angles to each other filled with attentive guests. On the stage, under a beautiful nights sky, was a cast consisting of Lillian Olembo, Joshua Moraya, Audrey Achieng and Justin Karunguru to name just a few performing an entertaining skit based on Al Kag’s collection of heart warming stories about men and women who grew up during pre-independent Kenya titled Living Memories. Jerry Riley was moving around with a gargantuan lens endowed camera taking pictures. Staff scurried about serving guests with platters of food and drinks. There was no sight of Tony Mochama – he was probably somewhere in the thick of the crowd having a witty conversation amongst his peers.
This was at the Storymoja Hay Festival Taster held in the huge garden at the British High Commissioner’s residence on August the 7th with an aim of rallying support for the event’s sustenance over the years to come. The event started at 7pm, opening with a gripping dramatisation from Millie Dok’s short story The Oath, and a performance from a select cast off Storymoja’s recent production The Matatu From Watamu , where the talented 11year old Rachel Wambui stole the crowd’s heart as she sang ‘Curiosity’; one of the productions central songs.
What followed was an eclectic evening filled with vibrant and thought provoking performances and discussions ranging from pilgrimages by African authors in foreign African countries, where Doreen Baingana interviewed Binyavanga Wainaina on his recent project African Pilgrimages and shared her experiences visiting Hargesa in the much misunderstood Somaliland. Martin Njaga and Aernout Zevenbergen, author of Spots of a Leopard – On Being a Man, had a conversation about the complex nature of what it means to be a man in modern day Africa. Wambui Mwangi delivered an eye opening talk on the frustrating nature of our tertiary education and it debilitating effects on Kenyan youth. Ngwatilo Mawiiyo peformed poetry from her recently launched book, Blue Mother Tongue. Others who graced the stage were the Congolese motivational guru Pepe Minambo, poet Kennet B, self-help guru Tazim Wambui, author Al Kags, and, yes, Tony Mochama, read from his witty collection of poetry and made up a hilarious one on the spot dedicated to the British High Commissioner.
As Kenya engages in the Herculean fete to rebuild itself as a ‘Second Republic’, public forums that shed light on and celebrate what was, is, and can be, are crucial. The Storymoja Hay Festival is one such forum. It seeks to celebrate the African mind and most importantly promote ‘reading that feeds the genes for creativity and innovation… reading and writing beyond exams’. As we pave forward it is important that we create and leave behind a thinking culture, a culture ‘that inspires us to modify, change, [and] invent anything and everything’. A culture that constantly reminds us, as Muthoni Garland, Storymoja MD and the evening’s MC put it, that ‘it is in our power to change and power our world’.