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Qwanibok: The Kenyan Gen-Z Literati Movement

On the 22nd of July 2023, brimming with joy, Keith Ang’ana stood at the entrance of Alliance Française, Nairobi. The literati group he had set up, Qwani, had just achieved another milestone. The book discussion of Qwani’s first anthology had just concluded, and he smiled at how a gaggle of writers, readers and literary enthusiasts turned up in numbers. Later on, after asking him what this signified he gave a rather implicit answer; “ You’d rather try something and fail, rather than not try it at all, because of the regrets that come with the question “What If . . .?” are worse than the failure itself.”

Ang’ana had formed Qwani as a challenge. Kenya is a country where opportunities for young writers within the Literary stratosphere are limited. The few present are also challenged by the constant demise of the pre-existing spaces. A vestiges nature that Prompts long-serving Kenyan literati, Gloria Mwaniga, to describe the modern literary scenery as a ‘literary graveyard’. Qwani was formed as a challenge to try and go against this prerogative. 

Inspired by the heroics of Binyavanga Wainaina and the formation of Kwani?, Ang’ana took the cue to try and come up with a similarly impactful project. He would first read all the editions that the now-defunct Kwani? had released. Something that Journalist and Qwani affiliate Lewis Miller Kaphira describes as an attempt to learn how one takes account of a literary platform and uses it to liberalise and open up the literary space. But unlike Kwani? For those who were concerned with featuring only the best of Kenyan and African writing, Ang’ana the aim was for Qwani to act as a first step for young writers who were getting into the world of literary publishing for the first time.

He says, “ There aren’t any opportunities for the upcoming writers in Kenya. Every other literature project aims to take only the best in the country, leaving out the raw ones who are always the young writers. Qwani decided to exist as a space for those writers the Kenyan Literary ecosystem leaves out. The young ones who are raw but with potential. The aim is that they may get some exposure through Qwani, learn and grow through it and finally maybe get a chance to hop onto the mainstream platforms as well. What we aim to be is like a football talent academy, for example, where young talented kids are spotted and nurtured, before finally being taken to the big clubs. Where the young writers are spotted and natured before finally, people take notice of them.”

In an essay, Kenyan writer and Journalist, Carey Baraka, alludes to how every few years a new group of kids come up and decide that the lit scene in Kenya does not work, that the gatekeepers are gatekeeping and that new names are needed, so they start something new. Kaphira says while the formation of Qwani doesn’t necessarily mean it is the ‘new group’ who have decided the literary eco-system does not work, it might as well be representative of this sentiment slowly building up among a section of the young generation of Kenyan writers. “ Qwani came into being because a new generation of writers (Gen Z) felt that they had something new and different to say, in their very own way that is not necessarily being seen.”

Qwani though, wasn’t warmly received at first. Writers part of the mainstream Kenyan literary scenery raised questions (mostly through Twitter) over the inferred borrowing of the name Qwani from Kwani. the non-clear masthead at first and the protocol of the call out for its first issue.

Kaphira speculates on the reasons for this, “ Qwani was a new thing with no popular name or face behind it, and given the coming and going (mostly within a short time-frame) of lit magazines and organisations in Kenya, one might have been tempted to think this was just another passing cloud at the bidding of some delusional university kids. And not many would trust a bunch of Kenyan university kids to know what they were doing. But whether this is a passing cloud is entirely dependent on the masthead of Qwani. What is their vision? Are they resilient enough to weather the storms? Only time will tell.”

This resistance hasn’t deterred Qwani though from embarking on the projects they aspired on from conception. Since its inception in 2022, Qwani has published a multilingual anthology, -encompassing a variety of genres ranging from prose, poetry, scholarly think-pieces & music reviews-, organised meet-ups for young writers in the form of adventure hikes, book discussions and open mics events as well.

In a country where writers are relegated to be non but artists who keep themselves in the shadows, never to be seen until maybe a rare lucky break, Qwani aims to exist as that movement to change this. It seeks to be embolic of Gen-Z curators trying to push an egalitarian agenda within the Kenyan and African literary scenery.

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