Written by Salem Lorot
When Storymoja offered me a free Saturday pass to Storymoja Hay Festival 2011 because of my participation in the activities of the Storymoja Writers’ Blog, I had no idea of how much I stood to benefit. I remember being excited at the prospect of mingling with established writers and hearing them speak. But it was more of a sketchy, hazy, far-fetched idea of how it will turn out to be.
At 11 a.m, I was seated at the Storymoja tent ready to listen to Abdelkader Benali, a soft-spoken, humorous writer, and Peter Moore, the writer of Swahili for the Broken Hearted. Benali talks about traversing the cities of Africa. He tells us about the story of Didier Drogba and of his role in shaping the politics of Ivory Coast. Didier had played in the war-torn Bouaké which is located centrally in Ivory Coast. He had wanted to promote peace and send a powerful message of unity. I listened intently to the football story and its ability to connect people and promote unity. “Football story is important for self-empowerment”, said Benali.
It was a journey to Mali, Ivory Coast, South Africa. Abdelkader reminds us of Michael booth, the only white in the soccer team of South Africa who was always cheered and loved. The question was thus whether football bridged colour lines especially when he had witnessed Bafana Bafana play with Jamaica and listening to commentaries being done in English, Zulu and Xhosa.
But as the conversation drew to the end, Abdelkader recounted the tale of a 28 year old Ghanaian man who had passion for football and dreamed to go to Europe but couldn’t play much. I found the story of the young man intriguing. Here was man who loved something and could do anything that it would have taken to accomplish his dream to the point of having all the travelling documents set. But ironically, he had no talent and couldn’t make it anyway. But as Benali thought, he would have done well in other fields because he had the drive and the right mental attitude.
At some point, Benali gave me something to think about. He was in Macedonia in a boat and all of a sudden his strange host a bit far screams, “…Beirut…India…Pakistan…Poof poof (gesticulating a gunshot)…problem…no problem”. What do you do in such circumstances? More importantly, what is the message? That is a food for thought. But Benali found those kinds of dialogue most interesting and memorable.
What I captured from Peter Moore was the labyrinth of his travel chronicles. But what I had to record was what he said about travel writing. He said that it must have a theme and angle which were the keys to hang on the story. As to the carefully laid out travel outcome most travel writers suffer from, he advised people to “let things happen”. Sometimes great stories are born out of twists and turns and not patterned processes.
The first session was over.
In the second session, seated a metre away from the British High Commissioner, Rob Macaire, Abdelkader Benali and Paralympic champion Mary Nakhumitsa, I drank from the words of these great people. The highlight of the interview was the inspiration that Nakhumitcha drew in her story of having won 12 gold medals, 11 silver medals and 6 bronze medals, despite her disability. Through her story, she helps us look at persons with disabilities from a different light—that of strength and not weakness, that of champions and not losers. Further commenting on the perceived ‘weaknesses’ of persons with disabilities, Benali stated that ‘nobody is able’ and that ‘we have talents and weaknesses. We get closer to talents and further from weaknesses’. Further, he stated that ‘the more disadvantaged one is, the further one goes”. I found that to be profound.
On his running career, Benali describes ‘second breath’ as the defining moment in one’s victory, a point when one sprints to victory in the last 50 or so metres away from the finishing line. I thought about second breath we need in our various spheres of life. May be a second breath in our writing life? A second breath in our relationships? A second breath in our careers?
But even more inspiring and a bit confusing is what he had observed among great athletes who ‘ran well and rested better’ which enable their bodies to recover. This, according to Benali, set apart a professional athlete from an amateur—professionals knew when to train hard when they were supposed to train hard and trained easy when needed.
On what inspired him to write, Benali was hard put to explain this. He had been raised in a Moroccan village where in their home they only had two books: a Qur’an and a telephone book. When he moved to Rotterdam Netherlands, he was awed by life there and wrote to ‘surprise people’. He could write well to catch the attention of his teachers of him as this ‘Moroccan boy’. He said that language is like law and that it can change somebody’s life. His phrase ‘dictatorship of modern life’ that calls for one to exercise wisdom in picking one thing to do in life is something worth pondering about.;
In the evening, I listen to Sitawa Namwalie and Yusef Komunyakaa after a glowing introduction delivered by Keguro Macharia. And it doesn’t disappoint. Sitawa reads us her poem ‘We Thought We Had Arrived’, an emotionally difficult poem that revisits the 2007/2008 Post-Poll Violence. She also reads a similar piece ‘Would You?’ which asks the most fundamental questions of our existence. Yusef, referred to as a “Jazz/blues poet’ by Keguro, speaks of a type of poetry known as ‘music of meditation’ as one that challenges one’s emotions. This, he adds, are the ones with longer lines. He also views poetry as a ‘celebration and confrontation’. Sitawa sees poetry as both whimsical and dry-eyed technical; whimsical in the sense that it puts down random thoughts without regard to form and structure and technical in the sense that a poem would be then crafted to better structure and form.
As both of these great living poets continue to read and recite their poetry, I am seated there amazed at their sizzling talents. They entertain as well as challenge me. I see myself seated there reading my own poetry from my own book. I see myself grappling with my life’s questions that I can’t answer.
When the events of the day climax with R-rated story-telling from Nick Hennessey, Mugambi, Muraya, Anne Moraa, the presenters of East FM, amongst other talented writers, I could not help but think about the talent exhibited by these souls. In a span of a day, I had acquired so much, had fun and mingled with the stars!