Swahili Literary Festival: Building a Generation of Critical Thinkers

The annual Swahili Literary Festival happened from 4th to 8th March 2020 under the theme “Identity Politics”, seeking to understand, or at best commence a discourse on what it means to be a (M)Swahili, a term that has been understood in different ways over space and time. This was as a result of the post-2019 conversations we had with our wazee and the need to demystify the term Swahili and Waswahili.

Gratitude is also in order for the many individuals who made the event a success. We are immensely grateful to the wonderful team from AFECOD (African Education & Community Development) who worked tirelessly and selflessly to ensure that the entire event ran smoothly, especially the handling of school children and the Spelling Bee competition. We are proud to have partnered with the team on this and we anticipate more collaborations in future through the school reading program under Soma Sana Initiative.

We also wish to thank our elders Mwalimu Abdilatif Abdalla, Prof Ahmed Mohideen, Prof Mohamed Khalil Timammy, Prof Mohamed Bakari Saggaf, Bi Latifah Chiraghdin and Prof Mohamed Hyder for their continued support and counsel. The festival is what it is because of their valuable guidance.

Our gratitude to all the scholars who heeded our call, most of whom I had not met in person before but for the respect and adoration accorded to Prof Hyder who introduced them to us, they showed up and made the event a success, and even those who couldn’t make it due to unavoidable engagements sent in their apologies and we hope to engage with them in the “Intellectuals in The Swahili Coast” discourse and future festival installments.

With the help of Prof Hyder who passed away on Thursday 23rd April 2020, May Allah forgive him and have mercy on his soul, we have reached majority of intellectuals in the Swahili coast.

Many thanks to SwahiliPot Hub in general, and specifically Mahmood ‘Mentor 001’ Noor, Firdaus and Shufaa Yakut for providing us with the venue, believing in the value of the festival and most importantly holding our hand and literally being there for us even when it was clear that the funds that had been pledged to pay venue charges were not forthcoming. Ahsanteni sana. Many thanks to the energetic youth groups who turned up for the Kas Kazi book launch and we cannot thank you enough for the cheers, the support, the love….the camaraderie- Husny, Shufkat and team, asanteni sana.

We also than Judy Aldrick for her support and coming all the way form UK to share with us her incredible knowledge on Swahili Identities. You can purchase her book Sir Ali Bin Salim and The Making Of Mombasa in our bookstore.

Asante sana Dr. Aurélie Journo, English Department, Université Paris 13 for her continued support and her active propagation and usage of our lovely language Kiswahili.

Our appreciation too, to Honorable Najib Balala, CS- Ministry of Tourism for attending the festival, and his pride in his Swahiliness. One thing I have come to know trough conversations I have been part of is that our Swahili wazee really appreciate Honorable Balala’s commitment to the propagation of Kiswahili, making most of his public speeches in this beautiful language, eloquently without tainting it with English terms. Of course we also thank our dear friend Ibrahim Babaginda for informing Honorable Balala about the festival and attending as well. We met Babaginda at the first installment of the SLF in 2019.

Many thanks to our dear friends from the coastal art and literary family. Salma Abdulatif, Lubnah AbdulHalim, Fatma Shaffie, Hemed Mwajamanda, Kant Stationers, Sumeyya Ali, Dr Suleiman Audi, The Muslim Media Company, our capable Mcee Nageeb Juma Bhalo, our photographers Mwatsahu, Yassir and Abdul Heartsigraphy, Miss President Kwale County Nzani Kassim, young poet Suleiman from Magaoni Base high school and his teacher Shaffie for honing his prowess at writing and performing poetry.

Asante sana Madam Sumeyya Hassan, Executive Director at Takaful Insurance for her keynote address during the opening ceremony of the festival and taking time to share her knowledge with us in spite of her hectic schedule. Many, many thanks to Muhaimin Khamisa for providing us with the photos form his family collection to exhibit at the festival, and Judy Aldrick for captioning each and every photo.

Last but not least, we wish to thank Sheikha Bodour AlQasimi, VP International Publishers Association and Chairperson of Kalimat Group and Sharjah World Book Capital. I have known Sheikha since late 2018 when she invited us for the IPA Nairobi seminar in mid 2019, according us a huge opportunity to tell the world about Hekaya, and we are happy that through her commitment to building a generation of readers, we are currently working with Kalimat Foundation for Children Empowerment to push Arabic reading initiatives in schools within the Kenyan coast. Kalimat Foundation has provided us a library of Arabic books for children and Young adults. When I sent her a long, very long message after it was clear the people who had pledged were failing on delivery, I was at the end of my patience, and perhaps the only thought at that moment was that the festival needed to take place, that it ought not fail because of failed pledges. All Sheikha asked was “what do you need?” and in a short while Marwa AlAqoubi of SWBC was already in touch and just like that we were able to pay all our debts. Yes, we were running the festival on credit and the goodwill of suppliers, volunteers, decorators, photographers etc!

Putting these festivals together is a mind-draining endeavor, and when such commodious people like Sheikha Bodour and organizations like SWBC come in and save your ship, words would never be adequate to express gratitude. Thank you, thank you, thank so very much.

James Murua, I can never thank you enough for always showing up, always supporting us, always spreading the word about SLF on your website. Through your influence, we have started conversations with the literary space in Mayotte and even though we weren’t able to bring Dr Martial over this time, I believe we will be hosting him soon! Ahsante.

I know there are whole lot of people who worked in one way or another to ensure the festival ran smoothly, and even for those we may not have mentioned their names, ahsanteni sana!

This year’s festival kicked off with a three-day multilingual spelling bee competition, the first of its kind to have children between the ages of seven to 14 engage in an Arabic, English and Kiswahili spelling competition. This was largely made possible by the multilingual nature of the Kenyan coast with either all or at least two of these languages employed in our schools.

Language is an interesting tool. It has the potency to escalate cohesion between multiple spaces especially through translations and art exchanges. In the grand scheme of things, one of our objectives as a collective is to use the languages at our disposal, first to build a cohesive structure within the Swahili coast and open our literature to the world by engaging in translation projects. If we are to consider the numerous cultures- Arabic, Indian, Portuguese, English, German, Persian, French and to a large extent Italian (mainly through tourism, not colonialism) which have had influence on our own culture (Uswahili) and language (Kiswahili), then we must appreciate the level of global cohesiveness through art and literature that can be achieved by opening our literature to translation.

By engaging children in a multilingual spelling bee, we are also in a way building the literary translators of the future, and thanks to Kalimat Foundation for Children Empowerment, we now have a proper library of Arabic books to run a yearly reading program.

The program has of course been heavily affected by the closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic but we are currently working with Muslim parents to run the same reading initiative with kids at home.

Through the spelling Bee competition, we cited the challenges facing young readership in the Kenyan coast and partnering with like-minded people will really change the reading landscape in our space, a decade from now, we firmly believe that we will have created a generation of reader and critical thinkers through the reading program. The enthusiasm for the participating schools and children was a huge motivation and we look forward to not only the next multilingual spelling Bee but the multilingial reading program as well.

Abdilatif Abdalla, hon Najib Balala, Kalimat Foundation for Children Empowerment, prof Hyder, Sharjah World Book Capital., Swahili coast, Swahili culture, Swahili Literary Festival, swahilipot hub

Hekaya Initiative

Writing the East African Coast.

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