Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The African Writers' Conference: African countries could borrow a leaf from Ethiopia

When I received the invitation to attend the African Writers Conference in April this year, I was excited. I had not heard of any African Writers Conference since the renowned Makerere University Literature Conference at which Uganda was referred to as a literary desert. The conference organized in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Ethiopia Writers Association, run from 2nd to 4th May 2011 under the Theme; From the independence of the continent to the liberation of the mind: The unfinished journey. The main venue was Akaki Campus, Adis Ababa.

When we stepped off the plane in Addis Ababa, there was a small drizzle and the air was freezing. For a moment, I worried because cold weather was not what I had prepared for. Frantically, Walabyeki Magoba and I looked around for someone holding a placard with our names, but there was none. A driver that had come to collect someone must have noticed our anxiety because he immediately offered to help. He made a phone-call to Sefanit, one of the conference organizers whose number I fortunately had. She gave us instructions to wait where we were.
Sefanit (middle) and Fanaye (right) at the Hotel. Sefanit was one of the key persons on the organising committee.
In four or five minutes, two gentlemen appeared and they took us to the VIP’s Lounge where we found a few other writers from the continent. There, we were met by the Executive Board of the Ethiopia Writers Association and other dignitaries from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. From that time on, we had VIP treatment, sometimes escorted by a VIP motorcade. A welcome dinner was organised at state house in honour of the African Writers. 

H.E the President of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia, Girma Wolde-Giorgis, also one of the Founding Members of The Ethiopia Writers Association was very hospitable and he had a lengthy chat with Prof Atukwei Okai, the Secretary General of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA). We did not meet H.E. Ato. Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister but we were meant to understand that he too was very supportive of the conference. The state of Ethiopia gave substantial financial and moral support towards the conference. 

I strongly felt that the Uganda government and other African countries could learn a lesson or two from Ethiopia. For instance, Ugandan writers have excelled in many ways winning regional and international writing awards but no official from the relevant ministries has said anything to encourage the writers and inspire other aspiring writers. Ethiopia is aware that writers are a very important factor with regard to promoting the social, moral and political fibre of any nation.

The central aim of the conference was to instigate African writers to bring forth ideas and experiences that may contribute original ideas to facilitate the growth and development of the African continent. The organisers wanted to provoke the indomitable African sprit through discussion of African literature, African languages, and African politics, culture and philosophy, as the main sub themes covered by the presentations. 

Relaxation time with Banchi (right) at Akaki Campus

The period of stay for the writers in Ethiopia was in two engagements; the conference and a National tour of Ethiopia’s most beautiful cultural sites. During the conference, over 40 papers were presented in seminars and plenary sessions. Sometimes there would be full house listeners of Ethiopia’s academia and the ordinary people during the presentation. My presentation was titled: The Dependent Literary Culture Vis-à-vis a struggle for the Liberation of the African continent: A case of selected areas. After my presentation, Prof Eke from USA, but of Nigerian descent, commented that Africans should not be burdened with expectations of writing to preserve memory and culture but they should just write those stories that make sense to them. This was in response to one of my suggestions that African writers should make an effort where possible to integrate their cultural values in their creative works in order to preserve the African cultural memory. 

At the end of my session, I took the opportunity to distribute copies of FEMRITE’s publication; Beyond the Dance, with a hope of making a contribution to the fight against Female Genital Mutilation which is very prevalent in Ethiopia.

In addition to the main presentations, there were other discussions organised in universities between students and writers. One such discussion centred on the theme; Pan African Solutions to Africa’s Problems. You bet none of the speakers gave a concrete suggestion. The discussion eventually turned to causes and effects of war and a call to African writers to make a deliberate effort to construct narratives that promote peace and harmony instead of narratives that might promote divisionism and hostility. It would have been a depressing discussion if it had not been proceeded by a visit to Emperor Haile Selassie’s magnificent palace that stands way ahead of its time.

The Emperor's bed has remained cozy several years after he left it.