These Cultural Activists are Leading a Cause through Arts Gatherings

The rise of literary festivals has given voice to various pressing African social issues, from creativity and language to identity and positive narratives. With a diverse array of brilliant minds converging in one space, these events offer a unique opportunity to explore the ways in which art can play a functional role in promoting the rich cultural heritage of the African continent. From shared moments of inspiration to thought-provoking dialogue, these festivals shape the cultural landscape in exciting and meaningful ways.

As we traversed the vibrant literary scene across Africa, we caught up with three of its most visionary curators. From the ancient, storied doors of Maiduguri in Nigeria to the sprawling plains of Kaduna, also in Nigeria, and all the way to the far western tip of Banjul in the Gambia, the ingenuity and resilience of these cultural catalysts struck us.

Despite their many obstacles, from funding challenges to deeply ingrained societal norms, the young people behind these festivals have exhibited a boundless determination to bring their visions to life. In doing so, they have unleashed the transformative power of art to build stronger, more cohesive communities. It is a powerful reminder of the capacity of creative expression to heal and inspire.

These festivals are gaining traction and making a real difference. However, there is still a long way to go in shaping how the media portrays Africa. It is time for a new narrative reflecting the vibrant, dynamic, and culturally rich continent that we know and love.

Sa’id Sa’ad, BOBAFEST Curator.

Borno Book and Arts Festival

For years, the media has painted a bleak picture of Maiduguri, a city in North-Eastern Nigeria. However, Sa’id Sa’ad, a writer and storyteller, felt inspired by attending literary festivals and programs in other parts of Nigeria. He began to think of creating a similar festival in Borno State, recognising that if any state in Nigeria deserved a literary festival, it should be one recovering from a decade-long insurgency and often associated with negative narratives.

Sa’id initially hesitated to embark on his dream due to limited financial resources and other factors. “We understood that we are some not-very-rich young people, and a festival like this requires solid financing,” he said. “This and other factors made me scared to actualise the dream. But after conversing with some people, like my friend Mohammed Bukar Umara. Concerning the possibility of actualising such a dream, I glued my decision with the motivation from Maryam (Cutee) and decided to act. Within 24 hours, we made an open call for volunteers. In 3 months, we successfully had the maiden Borno Book and Arts Festival bringing about 700 attendees from around the city and beyond.”

Sa’id emphasised that despite the challenges faced by young creatives in Borno State, they have an invaluable resource. “I believe that young people, if they have the will to go for it, also have one of the most effective tools to depict the positive narratives of Borno State, which is their creativity,” he said. He also emphasised the need for support to help these creatives bring their ideas to fruition, stating that “all they require to come up with good strategies that will help them to actualise their dreams is what I call ‘peanut support’.”

“I think a lot of the individuals and organisations promoting the positive narratives of Borno are not tapping into the potential of the creative industry. What better way to tell the story of a place, its people, and its culture than through the words of its writers, through the voices of its poets, through the lyrics of its artists, and through the canvas of its painters?” said Sa’id.

The first Book and Art Festival in the history of Borno state recorded some significant accomplishments which brought huge and immeasurable success for the state. ”We have created a maiden public platform for dozens of young creatives craving that,” Sa’id explained. “For instance, about ten artists had their first exhibition, and ten young entrepreneurs displayed their goods to our hundreds of audiences. About 25 young poets from the state performed at the capacity of a literary festival for the first time. Above all, 90% of our panellists are from Borno State, which was intentional to show what we have and what we can do from Borno. Through all these, we owe many thanks to our partners and sponsors who helped us to achieve that.”

Kadija Sesay, Mboka Festival Curator.

Mboka Festival of Arts, Culture, and Sport

Despite the life challenges that came knocking on our doors during the pandemic in 2020, Dr Kadija Sesay, a writer and curator in Gambia, did not relent in her efforts to promote the history and cultures of The Gambia through literary festivals. That moved her to curate the Mboka Festival of Arts, Culture, and Sport — believing that such a platform can help increase awareness in people to invest more in reading and writing and instill in them the “oneness” that Mboka stands for.

“It is essential for us to undertake work in our mother tongue,” Khadijah said. “We translated Ngugi’s short story “The Upright Revolution” into the three Gambian languages of Mandinka, Wolof, and Fula because we think releasing works by internationally renowned authors in their mother tongues can do more to strengthen a culture than anything else. And recorded it orally but also published a print edition.”

While The Gambia’s literary festival organisers have successfully brought famous international writers like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o to the country, they have paid attention to indigenous writers in their programming. As the festival evolves and seeks new possibilities, opportunities, and funding, it aims to become a more Pan-African event that showcases Gambian culture and creates a platform for artists from different parts of the continent to collaborate with as few restrictions as possible.

The most crucial aspect of any endeavour is the vision behind it. “Essentially, our long-term objective is to develop and grow a festival that will become part of the nation’s cultural events,” Khadijah concludes. “To essentially build and give employment to young Gambians in the country. The aim is for it to be a beacon of responsible tourism.”

Sada Malumfashi, HIBAF Curator. Credit: Ikleemah Abubakar

Hausa International Book and Arts Festival

In a conversation with This Is Africa, Sada Malumfashi, a writer living in Kaduna, Nigeria, expressed how he grew up reading Hausa books in a library filled with literary and critical texts on languages. So that was what fashioned his interest in the intricacies of languages — and the inspiration that drove him to initiate the Hausa International Books and Arts Festival.

The festival was motivated by the desire to promote writing and literature in African indigenous languages and establish a platform for discussions on the interconnectedness of language across borders and nations.

When we engaged Sada in a conversation about how the festival could preserve the language and traditions of the Hausa people, he said that “At HIBAF, we show the exciting cultures of the Hausa people. We explore the spaces in between; spaces of origin of people and language; spaces of being and becoming; spaces of our stories; the diversity of spaces of our humanity; how we embrace the layers of spaces within our identities in literature and creativity. We sandwich culture amongst book chats, panel conversations, traditional food-tasting events, and a massive book fair. We hold panels on the language of African writing, as well as gender and narrative in Hausa literature, to explore the spaces of language and literary activism in Africa as a whole.”

It’s always possible for young people to create more platforms to promote their cultures. The possibilities lie, in Sada’s words, “in cultivating a passion for our languages and cultures, developing skills in programme management to be able to activate our cultures and languages into festivals, events, and curated engagements.”

In response to a question about whether the festival would hold in nations other than Nigeria in the future, Sada stated that “the plan is to have HIBAF as a world cup of Hausa literary events moving across Hausa cities and states, across West Africa, and the Hausa diaspora outside the continent.” ∎

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