Mark Renja

Storymoja Festival 2015

John Sibi Okumu beckons to members of the audience to move closer to the stage. “Sitting at the back of the class doesn’t quite work,” he says to those under the marquee. Michela Wrong is here at the Storymoja Festival at Nairobi’s Arboretum Park to launch her debut novel, Borderlines, described in the programme as a “taut legal thriller, rich with the Horn of Africa’s colours and aromas”.

Saturday’s book launch, on the penultimate day of the festival which began on Wednesday, draws a large and diverse audience; roughly half of whom are Kenyan. Mr Okumu, after introducing Ms Wrong and reading passages from the book, set in a fictitious African country involved in a border dispute that eventually finds its way to the International Criminal Court, moderates the question and answer session. “I don’t wear a watch as I find time… intrusive,” he says to some amusement, “So tell me when to stop.”

An American in sunglasses tells the author that despite not being particularly fond of fiction, he decided to buy the book the moment she described it. An Australian therapist mentions how  several of her expatriate patients, conflicted and distressed, wonder what they’re doing here. Ms Wrong’s response is that there is a perverted relationship between Westerners and the continent, with some feeling that they are coming to ” save” Africa, a point of view that appears to irritate her greatly.

After authoring successful nonfiction books, why the genre change? “I’ve done 15 years of journalism, of writing nonfiction. I wanted to do something different,” she replies. “There’s a huge swathe of readers you cannot reach writing nonfiction. Fiction is a very competitive market, but with a potentially larger audience.”

Someone, perhaps concerned by Ms Wrong’s new writing direction, asks whether she’ll abandon nonfiction entirely. “I will go back,” she replies reassuringly. “Nonfiction is what comes to me most naturally. The fun of writing nonfiction is the research; there is a lot of interaction with a lot of people. Writing fiction, however, is much more lonely.”

After the session, audience members are invited to purchase Borderlines, copies of which are being sold at the festival. Indeed, there is a well stocked bookshop at the event, something that comes as no surprise since one  aim of the Storymoja Festival is to promote a reading culture in Kenya. From Wednesday to Friday, learners from a variety of primary and secondary schools participated in programmes tailored to their needs. Read Aloud sessions, where children join a “reading ambassador” to read aloud from the same text, all at the same time, are the best attended and most engaging events, a Storymoja staff member informs me. Anto Neosoul leads Friday’s Read Aloud. The children are exuberant.

Now in its eighth year, the festival has grown far beyond the form it started in. Originally known as the Nyama Choma Fiesta which was attended by 300 people in its first edition, last year’s event, according to the organisers, attracted 6,005 attendees, 3,248 students, 234 artists with 13 countries represented and 171 events produced.

Michela Wrong’s book launch was just one of the numerous attractions at this year’s festival, whose patron is Auma Obama. One of the big draws on Friday afternoon was Jeff Koinange, who was immediately inundated with autograph requests from students and pupils barely able to contain their excitement. Mr Koinange, alongside former Washington Post reporter and Tampa Bay Times editor Stephen Buckley, conducted a highly informative and very entertaining Journalism masterclass, just one of a series of such classes where enthusiasts and professionals receive training and advice from those at the very top of their fields.

So superb was the masterclass lineup that one would be reduced to lamenting their inability to be in two or more places at once; the Online Content Creation And Monetisation masterclass in partnership with the Bloggers Association of Kenya, for instance, ran concurrently with the Journalism masterclass, much to my chagrin. BAKE’s excellent interactive blogging session on Saturday morning did offer some consolation.

Friday was not without a few surprises, such as the fascinating project by the ICT Authority to make available to the public, via a soon to be launched website, more than 30,000 historical photographs going as far back as 1936. Low resolution photos will then be available for free download for noncommercial use. Video and documents are also being digitised, and all of this material will go live on December 5th.

Also exhibiting was online retailer Mzoori, who sell and deliver a variety of books from an ever growing stock currently numbering about 3,000. The website, www.mzoori.co.ke, was started in 2010 and shifted its focus to selling only books in the first quarter of this year. For deliveries, a member of their logistics team will telephone you to confirm where you want your book dropped off, and if you are in Nairobi and place your order before 3:00pm, you can expect same-day delivery.

There is so much to see here, whether your are interested in books, career advice, storytelling, poetry, music, theatre, dance, art, advocacy; there’s something for everyone.

Day tickets are available online via www.ticketsasa.com and www.buymore.co.ke and can also be purchased at the venue for Ksh 1,000 each. The Storymoja Festival concludes on Sunday September 20th.

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What Twitter Can Be.

LOWERCASE capital

Disclaimers: 1) This is a very long read. Thinking about a company and using its product obsessively for nine years straight will do that to you. 2) My funds and I own a lot of Twitter stock. 3) I do not speak for Twitter. 4) I have no inside information about Twitter. The company could already be building all the stuff below. I sincerely hope they are.

Summary For Executives And Non-Executives Alike:

I believe in Twitter. The company itself is improving, not worsening. The stock market doesn’t get that because Twitter has failed to tell its own story to investors and users. Here is how I think that story could unfold:

Hundreds of millions of new users will join and stay active on Twitter, hundreds of millions of inactive users will return to Twitter, and hundreds of millions more will use Twitter from the outside if Twitter can:

  1. Make Tweets…

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Big Vegetables

In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. Paperback. Author: Michela Wrong. www.goodreads.com

In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. Paperback. Author, Michela Wrong. goodreads.com

Title: In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo (2001)

Written by: Michela Wrong

Published by: HarperCollins

There are times when, while reading this informative and entertaining book, I felt very disappointed. Apart from being a tale of one of the continent’s most notorious rulers, it is also a story of how this vast and potentially rich country — known during the Mobutu years as Zaire — has been failed by those in charge. Large swathes of it lack a steady supply of electricity when the country is capable of exporting power to the region. Minerals lie beneath in quantities and with purity that, to paraphrase a geologist in the book, are scandalous, yet its economy has been in decline for decades. It’s difficult not to despair.

And now Mobutu. A man widely suspected of having looted billions of dollars (the exact figure has eluded authorities) and hid that wealth around the world. A man who lived in shameless luxury — mansions and villas at home and abroad, pink champagne, a presidential yacht and more — while the currency used by ordinary Congolese became increasingly worthless as inflation spiraled out of control. A man who as the decades passed became increasingly out of touch with the people he was supposed to lead, choosing to spend his final years hidden away in a complex hundreds of miles away from Kinshasa. A man who bent the system to his will, using money to buy opponents off and grease the wheels of the farcical political machine that existed at the time. A man who reduced state companies, such as Gécamines and Miba that mined copper and cobalt, and diamonds, respectively, to nothing, seeing no difference between the nation’s money and his, sending lorries to the Central Bank to fetch funds for him to personally spend. A man who encouraged corruption on a mind-boggling scale.

Wrong reveals, somewhat surprisingly, that Mobutu didn’t want to rule in the first place. Political wrangles between President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba had descended into pantomime and in what the author calls a “surreal” moment in the nation’s politics, each, in the space of a few hours, went on radio and announced they had sacked the other. Mobutu, then head of the army, was pressed into intervening, and reluctantly did so. Eventually, he was in power, where he remained for thirty two years.

The account of what followed is both distressing and comical. From the Presidency downwards, stealing was considered normal. Mobutu stole. The elite — businessmen, politicians and the moneyed clique around the top known rather amusingly by Congolese as les Grosses Légumes (the Big Vegetables) — stole as well. The increasingly bloated civil service stole from the people they were meant to be serving in the form of bribes and all manner of unofficial charges and levies.

As Mobutu famously advised in an address to public servants broadcast live on television: “If you want to steal, show a minimum of intelligence. If you steal too much to become rich overnight, you’ll be caught.”

Says Wrong in this Washington Post article: “…The principle of corrupt self-enrichment governed virtually every significant business decision made in the country.” And so it was.

Will the stolen money ever be recovered? As my next book review will show, such a task is exceedingly difficult.

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