This past weekend the South African creative calendar featured the much acclaimed Abantu Book Festival, in Soweto, Johannesburg. I knew I had to go. An annual event, this was its third serving, with its debut one having been held at the same time in the year, in 2016. I had missed both that one and it's second, with a sore heart as they clashed with my annual December East Africa travel. I switched plans around to slot in this much talked about literary event. All I know is I should have done with both the years I missed. It ran four days from 6th December till the Sunday of 9th December 2018. The four days were full from start to finish with poetry performance by Mxolisi Mtshali and music performance by Zuko Collective on opening night, and Bra HotStix and Simphiwe Dana at close and Ringo in one of the evenings. The moderators and authors names were as diverse and as colourful as the colours of a Zulu and Masai beading combined and from the West and East and South of the continent. It promised to be a fulfilling four days with topics just as diverse ranging from all struggles including that of land, racism, patriarchy and its vices, the much talked about violence on women including rape and also on the much talked rainbow nation fallacy. Fiction and non, academic and not, light and heavy, gripping and easy, all was served. The name Abantu should strike you, I'm sure its intentional. This space came about because Thando Mgqolozana saw a gap, and was not happy that the reading and writing landscape in South Africa did not care for black readers and writers. In his welcome message in the very elaborate program he writes; "Three years ago I thought I was establishing a literary festival for black writers and readers, but I've been told many times that what I have done instead is start a profound social experiment. I tend to agree with that. Indeed while the book remains a central medium, Abantu Book Festival has morphed into an alternative reality so vivid and so heartfelt; it has become a shared reality among people across the world. At its core, it is about holding a safe space for the sharing of visions and the hearing of voices that would otherwise not be heard. I'm very proud of that" As he should be. And yes, it is only for black people, and unapologetic about this. How is it possible that one may give a fitting tribute to the works of Keorapetse Kgosietsile, the South African poet laureate in spaces he would have nodded to, living? A few weeks leading to Abantu they dropped that Chimamande, an internationally acclaimed Nigerian US based writer, would grace Abantu, on its second day. My squeals of delight woke my sleeping nephew that evening, much to the annoyance of my sister. My daughter quipped "but I thought you were annoyed with what they called irresponsible utterances from her on transgender women?" "Maybe that's why I'm excited. This gives us the opportunity to hear her first hand, if I get the mike that is the question I'll ask, though in fact I don't think as non-transgender woman herself she should be asked or even expected to make decisions on issues that do not affect her directly. But remember also we can't just write her off and cancel her? As humans we're all fallible, and expectation from people that being well versed in one area makes you an expert in all maybe a set up on those with expectation on both sides in the spectrum. Also this doesn't take away from that she is an amazing writer who fuses her fiction work with times in history in her land of birth, as beautifully as she does. Child, I wanna see Chimamande, okay?" I said dancing. It was not to be, I missed her Friday session, because, well life. I also missed the Thursday opening session that included key note address by Nigerian born Dr Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, as I didn't travel to Johannesburg the morning of that Thursday as had been the plan. I mentioned; life gets in the way. But I would travel for and experience late Friday afternoon, to the last minute of the festival on Sunday. I asked those who managed to make it to the jam packed Chimamande session, which was full two whole hours before it was due to start but none of the ones asked were keen to discuss but I also sensed disappointment on their part. Ah well, there is a whole two and half more days to enjoy! Johannesburg is five hours from my city of Gaborone and this meant all morning of Friday on the bus to there, and lodge seeking and all else later means I found the first part of Friday with an hour to go. The days were in two parts, the day activities held in a large marquee and another in a hall at Eyethu Lifestyle Centre in Soweto and the evening events happening at the Soweto Theatre. I could have made it to the two sessions that were just starting at the time I got there, and running concurrrently in both the marquee and the main gallery. One was titled "Self-Publishing" featuring Tumelo Moleleki, Dudu Busani-Dube and Monde Nkaswane moderated by Thabiso Mahlape. The other was run by Phemelo Motene, unpacking Tjieng Tjang Tjerries, a collection of stories and Jolyn Phillips debut. Nope, I refused to rush it, and turned to observer outside the sessions, out here. As I alighted from the Uber and said my siyabongas I was failing to keep my jaw intact. I feel like I need to tell you this slowly because maybe this is the only way I'll be able to capture aptly for you the things I felt as I saw the scene in and around Eyethu Lifestyle Centre. Also I must tell you one thing I have always been struck by, with Joburgers, even though this festival had gotten people from all over South Africa and beyond, case in point myself. Joburgers are electric and colourful and this is what hit me just as I got there. They may not yet be Uhuru but their freedom to dress in whichever way they wanna strikes always without fail. Conform; I don't even know to what isn't even a vocabulary they know. Please also note this is a girl from conservative Botswana, albeit South African. I decided my first right thing to do was to appreciate this colourful, pulsating crowd that this festival had pulled, young and old, and in all the variations you can think of if you let your mind not limit you. I must have looked foolish because I was alone and grinning like a fool, but it was in agreement that this is the best decision I have made in all of 2018 yet. I decided I would start being in sessions with the next one that was at the theatre where now people were packing up from here to go to. I remember murmuring to myself "This is a whole lifestyle bethuna!" Now if I tell you that topics of discussion and authors were diverse I mean just that. Poets, literary scholars, activists, journalists, writers and aspiring writers! Topics engaging, illuminating and sparking controversial conversations, all in a safe space! Listening to Helon Habila tell of his journey as he wrote "The Chibok Girls" an account of the 2014 Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria, solicited aaahs and shocked oohs from the crowd and goose bumps on my skin. I'll
admit some of the book sales, even though always encouraged, were brought about by accounts of these revelations from the authors themselves, be it shock, anger at systems, curiosity, elation, or whatever else emotion evoked. I have said in one of my Facebook posts in the weekend that Thando (Abantu brains) and his team deserve prizes beyond the Nobel. I wondered throughout the weekend what it must have taken them, time and resources and of course passion to pull off such a well- organised and hiccup free, four day-long event. Did I mention we had entertainment fit for ancestors, all days of the event? On the Saturday when Ringo Madlingozi packed a whole mini show in the little time he had, sending the entire Soweto theatre in ecstatic screams, my eyes stung in appreciation. It was amazing!
I am an avid reader and let me tell you about the pleasure of finding a session on a book you've read. It gives it a whole newer meaning and you sort of understand the book and its narrative even more. You even feel a prerogative some sort, I laugh out loud. When Lola Shoneyin came to the first of its kind Gaborone Book Festival in September this year she did a reading from her "The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives" in her Nigerian accent, hilariously, and that had me buy the book. The delight I felt when I saw her again and hear she was going to discuss it again? Unbelievable! I am not embarrassed to say I convinced many a sales at the book store queue each of the nights as I gifted myself and my book shelf two books a night. Memorable! The messages were all clear, even from Ringo "keep writing, we will keep singing". And he must, he's talented. I digress. Bra HotStix closed the weekend for us on the Sunday afternoon, beautifully! The crowd saw him and screamed the house down and he smiled and said "Kumele nonke nibe ni so sontweni" (You should all be in church) We chorused back like we'd been in rehearsal "Yilo le isonto" (This is church) Then he starts his saxophone on a church Melody "Ke na le modisa" and you know blacks can sing yeah? The church took it, we swayed and churched!!! "This is the first time I have ever seen so many black people in one place in the longest time, if ever. You know I have performed many times in these streets of Soweto but this...." he says as he points at us and we scream back. "This man.." he says pointing at his bass guitarist "is the guitar that you hear in Brenda Fassie's 'Weekend Special'" he says as he finishes making mention of all the blacks who are the heartbeat of African music in the land and as he says this the man starts his guitar on the song and we're screaming and dancing to 'weekend special'. When 'Jive Soweto' came, visions of my mother and father in bell bottomed pants in their prime flashed as I danced and danced and danced and it hit home that what I read earlier paying tribute to Abantu Book Festival was true "Abantu is a space of healing for black people. There is so much power and delight about a literary event that allows black people to be themselves freely, with all their cultural idiosyncrasies and without compromise. To see this can be emotionally overwhelming" This also brought to fore discussions among Abantuans that it is all disrespecting to decide as oppressors that the hurt of the oppressive system can be decided by them, but not by those they hurt. As the one who hurt me, you do not get to decide how much you hurt me or how long I should decide I'm still hurting. All of that rests with me, the hurt. To want to opine that 'get over it already' is a bit much. The struggle songs, of land mostly were a big part of the program in the entire weekend. Books written and with crazy catchy names such as "Rainbow Nation my Zulu ass" by Sihle Khumalo truly deserved to be a part of the festival. To want to compact the Abantu Book Festival into a newspaper column will be irresponsible of me and there can only be so much that I can narrate here. What it illuminated for me for our literary space here in Botswana is that its kind or smaller several spread in the country, gradual of course, are needed. I would like to commend the curators of the Gaborone Book Festival that debuted in September of 2018, the Phele sisters, Kenanao and Keikantse for a stellar job. For a first one it was great and I hope they can infuse all they learn in the continent as they have been book festival hopping (I want their lives) to bring it all home even bigger. It would not hurt as the people who read and write in our city and even in the country to have smaller literary events that lead to this bigger annual one. We are busting myths; they will not hide anything for blacks in pages of books – no longer! Black folk read, and as proudly as I stand here black folk write, in ways amazing and more! The Abantu Book Festival prides itself as a safe space. This is evident in it also being family friendly as it was open even to children, who had a full program in the day running simultaneously as the big people's sessions. The story telling, in diverse South African languages, was engaging, as it was enthralling and fully entertaining. It was a marvel to watch. Start them young, it hit me. This sure would set the literary space in the future in far better possibilities than the struggles and the unjust that the festival is currently fighting. Making their tagline all too powerful – “Imagining Ourselves into Existence!" I am looking for a way to unpack my suitcase with tact so my children don't interrogate me about my Abantu Book Festival purchases. But I beg show me a person who returns from a book festival without a book, or two, or nine! To happy reading, and writing black people!