The faces of the children seated in front of us froze. A boy who just narrated a fictional story about a child living in poverty seemed to be lost for words, the other children looked puzzled too. A poster of Harry Potter’s face hung on the wall to the right, while rows of American books were on the shelves towards the left. Was it possible that at some point in life, the writer they held to high esteem, Ms. J.K. Rowling, shared something in common with them? They found it hard to believe when I told them in Swahili – alikuwa masikini – that she was poor. Was she really that poor when she created Harry? Wazungu are never poor, not that poor. Yet the answer to that question made all the difference. If Rowling, a poor woman in Scotland at the time, could create Harry, could a poor African writer do the same?
“But we do not have Hogwarts here,” one boy said.
“Nor did Ms. Rowling in Scotland,” responded Tendai, one of the fellow 2017 Caine Prize workshop writers. The room fell silent.
Three of us from the workshop were at the English Medium school in Bagamoyo, a town located about 75 kilometres from the big city, Dar es Salaam. In my group was Tendai (Zimbabwe), Lizzy (Caine Prize Director), Darla (Rwanda) and Elias, a Tanzanian writer based in Bagamoyo who tagged along. It was the first time the children had met writers from different African countries. The children were lively, well updated on current regional affairs. They had a few comments on Nkurunziza, the President of Burundi. Some of them said they read The Citizen, the newspaper I write for, which was impressive. However, they didn’t know their geography well. They were amused with Tendai’s long well-groomed hair, but weren't sure where Zimbabwe was when he asked. ‘West Africa?’ one guessed, and another, followed by a couple more, wrong guesses were made in the room. Mugabe they knew, but Zimbabwe? Not exactly.
Tendai was the last one to present. He introduced a game where everyone had to narrate a small part of the story and pass the storytelling along to the person next to them. It was a ghost story the children chose to tell. Their skills in storytelling were impeccable. If nurtured, we could get a number of bestsellers just from that one class. However, at some point, it was obvious that one child tried to retell the ‘Ghostbusters’. Characters were described as white with blonde hair. And at another point, the hero became a white man with a bodysuit. Bagamoyo was hot like a sauna. Why did the hero have to wear a tight bodysuit?
Our venue was the school library. Unlike what I had envisioned, it was big, widely spacious with shelves full of books. However, moving closer we realised that 90 per cent of the books were American literature. Talking about J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter made the children excited. They knew Mr. Miyagi and Vampire Diaries. Yet when we asked them to name just one South African writer, or Kenyan, or any African writer, they could not.
What if Harry Potter was African?
Most of the children couldn’t see how that was possible. Can an African writer create Harry Potter? It was a big question. The question wasn’t whether or not it was possible to copy and paste this character, since we already knew that they were capable of that (with how they told the ghost story). The question was, can there be any creativity coming from Bagamoyo? Can they tell their stories, in their context, without making a work of fiction feel like a bad essay? It was a stretch for the children to think that they could use the things they saw every day in their stories – a coconut tree, women dressed in kanga, a witch on a winnowing basket instead of being on a broom.
That Harry was fictional, was hard to grasp. That Harry himself was poor, did not seem to have registered well. Although this demonstrates what a great writer Rowling is, to create such real characters, it also shows that there is need to deconstruct some preconceived ideas that the work of fiction from the West is of higher standard than ours, especially among the young writers and readers. There is a need to construct a new possibility. And this can only be done with telling our own stories well, and more workshops such as the one we were able to do.
The 2017 Caine Prize Workshop was the first time that I was stationed in one place for 10 days with no other agenda but to write and workshop others’ work. It was a great opportunity for me to taste the possibility of being a full-time fiction writer. Everything was cared for, all I had to do was write.
Every evening, we worked on each other’s stories before sitting at the table for dinner. We got to know each other a little more every day, the 11 stories we produced became ‘our’ stories. And we bonded in such an amazing way as brothers and sisters in African literature. I think what stood out for me was how different we were – in culture and background – and yet we had one thing in common, we were all young writers from Africa. And all our stories were different. Some futuristic, other went back to the past. Some were fantasy, while others philosophical. It is a rich anthology that portrays how writers of African descent are free in their thinking. And perhaps other writers, and readers can be freed in their thinking as well.
I hope that there are more of our stories in bookshelves like that of the school we went to in Bagamoyo. I hope that our stories inspire people to read, to write, to live. I hope that this anthology would be something worth reading, worth keeping, worth sharing. It broke my heart to see how even if the children wanted, they couldn’t access the kind of stories they needed to read. How can they know the potential that lies in them as storytellers if they do not read stories that they can relate to? I hope that we keep telling our stories until children are no longer bothered by the question: Could Harry Potter be Musa Juma, an African boy from Bagamoyo?