#CreativesAcademy: A haven for cohorts

By Diana Mukunu

Dyanne and Oyunga1Creatives Academy is the first class I have been to that provides avenues for networking with the moguls in my industry – that of actors, writers, bloggers, poets and media. By the end of an approximate period of twelve weeks, a student rubs shoulders with relevant bigwigs and broadens career prospects.

Oyunga Pala himself said to me in one of the classes last year that we, the students, are privileged to have such a rare opportunity to mingle with the greats. And I concur. I was then barely a second year university student and I already had in my wallet contacts from the likes of Terryanne Chebet, Jackson Biko, Chris Lyimo and Muthoni Garland – all household names in my fields of interest.

In a world where sciences and business courses are enshrined at the price of the arts, individuals like me, who are more inclined towards the latter, wilt in the shadows of deprivation and prejudice. Creatives Academy offered validation. It was a haven for cohorts, for building associations with kin – aliens cut from the same cloth. It was an instrument for resounding our existence in a country that looks down on our kind, and was a means to gain mentorship, guidance, to celebrate ourselves and our crafts, while spurring each other towards world-changing deeds.

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How much is your writing worth? #CreativesAcademy

CA Week 12 poster There are many lessons that we learned when we hosted the first Creatives Academy last year.

One of them was that we gave Marisella Ouma, the Executive Director of Kenya Copyright board, too little time to talk about the rights of artists.

When she came last year, we programed the celebration of the finale of the Creatives Academy with her presentation. Maybe we did that because we thought she would just give us a list of the rights of writers. We thought wrong.

Dr. Ouma’s presentation was exciting and animated, because she talked more of the spirit, rather than the letter, of intellectual property law. There were some ideas we struggled with. For example, many of us writers do a lot of writing for free for different magazines and publications. We think that we need the platforms so badly, in fact we should be grateful that anyone would want to publish us. To which Dr. Ouma replied: what do you believe your writing is worth? Because if you believe it’s valuable, you’ll charge appropriately for it.

A year later, I still don’t how to translate her challenge into practice. I’m still spending a lot of time writing and editing for different publications and getting nothing but a thank you. So if you’re like me, you must attend this Saturday’s session on copyright and protecting your work.

See you there!

Telling our Truth – #CreativesAcademy

DSC_0056On 7th March, we continued our conversations about how our experiences as men and women interact with writing. This time we were privileged to have as our guests Doris Mayoli, Sitawa Wafula and Bonnie Kim, writers who have overcome adversity, and have encouraged others by telling their story.

But while their experiences sound triumphant, these writers also have struggled to open a space where stories like theirs can encourage others going through similar experiences.  Continue reading

The pain, tears and realities of publishing

CA Week  8 posterA few years ago, I was determined to teach Stan Gazemba’s The Stone Hills of Maragoli in my East African literature class. I could not get the book on the shelves. A colleague of mine, who knew the publisher personally, called the publisher in my presence. I was asked how many copies I needed and they would be delivered. They never were.

For a moment we were tempted to use bootleg copies, but (un)fortunately for me, this friend who knew the publisher was also a member of KOPIKEN, so I was given a small lecture on respecting the rights of the writer and publisher.

I didn’t get a copy of the book until its reprint by Kwani?. Continue reading

MenTalk: Expanding the space for men’s voices at #CreativesAcademy

Although the conversation on the Future of men at the Storymoja Festival last year didn’t quite materialize as expected, a number of us felt that this conversation was too important for us to give up on. So we hoped to continue the discussion at the Creatives Academy with the topic “Careers in Writing,” which we held on February 28th.

MenTalkThe guests of the day were Oyunga Pala, Jackson Biko, Chris Lyimo and Mwalimu Andrew. For each of the four men, writing does pay some – if not all – their bills. Joel Amadi, one of the students of Creatives Academy, has penned an article on just how inspirational the meeting was.  Continue reading

John Sibi-Okumu on ‘What language to use when writing?’ at #CreativesAcademy

Good people, perhaps talking to young people, there is only one debate we should present as a non-debate and not spend too much time on it. This has everything to do with this issue of the choice of language. Do excuse me if I sound like am speaking Queen’s English, Oxford English, it is a historical construct, I didn’t want to be born this way but what to do.

I think that I myself, am, capable of expressing myself in quite a few languages. If I speak Kiswahili people say, “Ooh you speak Kiswahili as well.” if I speak Olinyala….they say, “Oh my God we thought he was Luo.”

But look at this very insidious thing that is happening, when I speak my mother tongue and the digital clock goes to say, “We thought he was Luo.” Does that mean I should be ashamed?

Historically, building into the whole sphere of ethnic dialogue the minute I cease being Luo, and suddenly become Luhya, then all of a sudden, two great mass of Kenyans have gone up a knot. We are heading to the concentration camps people. Beware of this attachment of positing language as a form of identity.

As I walk across this room and I look at ‘daktari’ (doctor) and her culture, there is nothing about her aspect, there is nothing about her mode of dress that tells me she is intrinsically…I don’t know what she is intrinsically and I have no desire to know. So beware.

The other thing is this idea that there must be an element of craft, not only of storytelling but of craft. For whatever historical reason, you must pervade your craft in the language which you can use with as much certainty, with as much nuance. We have gone from the stage where grandma sat with the pot and said, “How did the zebra get his stripe?” If you are a two year old you say,” The zebra was walking along the bush and then somebody came and scratched him on the back and that is why.” Is that what you want to make your millions from, from whatever press? Surely not. Choose the language which you know best. Once you have chosen a language, you have to work really, really hard at being a master of that language. A lot of our books are written in English, but I am as black as coal, Some of that English is quote and quote, bad incorrect English. So there is another argument to be heard about which language we have mastered. If you reckon Kiprop that Kalenjin is the language which you speak best, abandon English, write your book in Kalenjin, let it be translated into good English. I will do the translation and then all of us can read it.

John Sibi-Okumu’s introduction at #CreativesAcademy

Young ladies, young gentlemen, it’s nice to be here. My name is John Sibi-Okumu. I come here as a writer and more specifically, a playwright. My great love throughout the years has been for theatre, which is an emotional space which obliges us to take on identities of other human beings, to pretend to be other human beings. So in the course of this academy, one of the things that is going to become clear is that there are many ways of telling a story. You can decide that you want to be a poet and string words together in such fashion… ‘I love you Julie and you love me, when I see you, I see me’ and everybody will say, “That is a fantastic poem, let’s have it printed.” You can decide that you want to start off with ‘One fine day, the sun was shining, Mr. Kamau got out of bed …’ and string that out for three thousand pages in order to get it printed. Very specific when writing a play, which I will talk about when my big moment comes, is that this are real people, talking real sentences. There is no attempt to obfuscate, this dialogue has to be real dialogue…

I would like to say thank you to Kinyanjui Kombani, specifically, because it is in the amount of time that I have known Kinyanjui that this kind of event has come to be organized. We Kenyans as a group of people are very good at ‘pull him down mentality.’ It comes hand in hand with this idea that if I own my little plot here and it is ten times bigger than your plot there then I will one day come over and buy your plot and make it bigger…that kind of valuing. It speaks to a society which in effect, for my preoccupation as a writer, is not yet, to my mind truly a unified nation. I would sustain that argument for a lifetime but because it is a bit like having a mummy and you know that you love your mummy, but you have to accept that in some way she is not a good cook. You have been to somebody else’s home and somehow somebody else’s mummy ‘karangas’ (fries) very nicely. And your desire as child is that one day mummy will rise to the occasion and cook in a like fashion, learn some skills, to make good sauce. We Kenyans have to work at making a good social sauce and a writer comes in, in a very minuscule, unquantifiable fashion to make people think. All this grandeur statements, whenever I hear fellow writers saying, ‘We writers we are going to change the world.” Well, I don’t think so. I think we are going to change the number of people who expose ourselves to our art.

So the next time I write a play, I wish for you to come and see it. We are into this sort of thing of; I write a play and I write to Dr. Walibora and I am saying, “Ken please come and see my play.” And am writing to Julie and am saying, “Would have time to come and see my play.”  Before the play goes on, I have to send at least a thousand emails, 500bobs worth of SMSes to all my chums. When they come, they think that they are doing me a favour. They say, “John you know what, I managed to see Kaggia, it was really good, you should do more of that. I am a banker, I am an industrial developer, I am a chemist … am really too busy, but now that I have managed to come see your play, I thought it’s really nice.”

We have to build a culture where the art is part of our mental skew. Otherwise, we are left behind by other parts of the world where it is part of the skew. Kenyans, I am mean to our society, we have to up our game on a spiritual, soulful level. If we upped our game in that spiritual soulful level, and the cadre here that Julie has brought upon this area, surely this room should be full. Don’t you think? If we had a global view of the opening of Creatives Academy?

I speak a lot. Words are my trade.

This lady called Julie Gichuru

julieWhen Kinyanjui Kombani told me that Julie Gichuru was interested in helping facilitate the Creatives Academy, I could not believe my ears. When I was in high school, interacting with a number of children of famous Kenyans had taught me a valuable lesson: don’t say hi to people above you until they say hi to you. So I was nervous that we would have a facilitator whom I could not speak to.

I decided that I would gate crash on a briefing that Kinyanjui would have with Julie the day before the launch of the Creatives Academy, so that I would gauge if I should keep my distance on Saturday.

Julie was nowhere near what I had imagined. She was friendly and even told me how thrilled she was to be part of the class. She laughed when I told her that I had come so that I don’t have to be nervous the next day.

The next day at Creatives Academy launch was wonderful. Julie helped us settle by asking participants to talk about why they were attending Creatives Academy. What was amazing was that the persistent theme in each introduction was that people wanted to tell their stories, to tell African stories. It was a good start that tied well with Julie’s passion for African issues and African leadership. When we brought the cake to launch Creatives Academy, she was the one who cut it into pieces for distribution.

So I’m moved by her humility and I’m grateful to God for such a moving start to the second edition of Creatives Academy. Let’s tell our stories and enrich the world.

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People lead as good as they read

A student at Daystar once told me that he eventually wants to become the president of Kenya. I asked him what he wants to do for Kenya, and sadly, he could barely articulate that. I then asked him what his strategy was, and he said it was to start getting into the political circles and networks so that he can know the godfathers that matter.

This was just a year or so after Obama went to the White House, so I asked him: why not do things differently, the way Obama did? Introduce yourself to the world through avenues other than patronage, so that you owe your loyalty to the public, rather than to another politician. I asked him if he’d  read Obama’s story in “Dreams from my father,” or Obama’s political perspectives in “The Audacity of Hope.” The young man did not even know that Obama had written books.

And that’s a story I encounter often. Students who want to be leaders but don’t take courses in writing or in history. Aspiring leaders who don’t read, and so wont write. Yet Africa’s best leaders were writers. Leopold Senghor of Senegal made his mark as a poet of the Negritude movement. As far as I know, he was the first African president to voluntarily step down. Julius Nyerere continues to inspire us with his humility and ideology. He wrote his ideas and translated two Shakespeare plays into Kiswahili (“Mapebari wa Venisi” and “Julius Kaisari”). As I’ve said, Obama endeared the world through his two books.

So Creatives Academy isn’t just for creative writers. It is for people who want to inspire in thought and leadership. Writing helps us make what we think clearer, not just for others but for ourselves. We are able to articulate and define issues through writing.

And so the principles of creativity, audience, love for language, but most of all, love for people, cut across the disciplines. How can you say you want to change the living conditions of Kenyans, if you can’t describe the life of a woman in Mathare, a girl in Turkana, a young man in Homa Bay, a landless family in Kwale? Those are the people who inspire our stories, and also our drive for social change. That’s why we hope to see more leaders attending Creatives Academy this Saturday when Kinyanjui Kombani, Kap Kirwok and Richard Crompton take us through a discussion of “Finding Inspiration.”