When I received the invitation, I had no idea where Kisii was located. It had been twenty plus years since I visited Kenya, so I was anxious to return and see what development had occurred since that time. I said yes, even though funding was unsure, and I did not know who were the other invited poets. However, I liked the theme: “The Word is not Alone. It is part of the Whole: Orality & Poetry.” As a poet, I often feel very much alone as writing poetry is a singular, secluded activity. Yet the notion that the word is not alone was comforting for this is the irony of the creation of a poem — written in isolation, intended for an audience, which makes it public consumption.
Held from August 5-10, the Kistrech Poetry Festival is the brainchild of Christopher Okemwa, poet, husband, father of two, and a lecturer at Kisii University, completing his dissertation. Kisii, located in southwestern Kenya, is the urban and commercial center in the Gusii Highlands. Gusii is the name of the group of people and the language they speak, in addition to Swahili and English, Kenya’s official languages. Geographically, an incredible lush and fertile region, getting there means a drive through the Rift Valley. The people are gentle, soft-spoken and everyone smiles. While many of the poets listed were not in attendance, due to lack of funding, among those present were Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Liberian who lives in the USA and read many poignant poems that document the war in Liberia that she survived. Erling Kittelsen, from Norway, funny, quiet, and engaging. Rosemarie Wilson, African American, also an amazing singer who appealed to the students with her spoken word, personable style, as did Palesa Sibiya, and Ziphozakhe Hlobo, vivacious, young South African spoken word poets with their political, woman-gendered messages. Additionally, there were performances by Godspower Oboido, emerging Nigerian, with sure-footed poems, Katharina Koppe, Germany, a student, just finding her voice, and who spent the year studying in Kisii, Tendai Maduwa, Zimbabwe, offered inspirational messages, and of course myself, representing Jamaica and the Virgin Islands, with my island, worldly poems. We were also joined by Obediah Michael Smith, Bahamian, Susanna Sacks, graduate student from the USA, Dr. Professor Joseph Muleka, University of Nairobi, who presented a very engaging paper on “African Oral Poetry,” and Dr. Evans Gesura Mecha, Kisii University, delivered an animated and fascinated presentation, “Orality and Cognition: A Biolinguistic Approach.” In addition, there were solid, thought-provoking poems by Christopher Okemwa’s students, who were present throughout the festival.
The first two days of the festival were held in Nairobi, the capital, less than a week after president Obama’s auspicious visit. In addition to reading and talking about our works, Director Okemwa asked both Wesley and I, since we are also academicians, to present papers for the benefit of students and faculty at Kenyatta University and University of Nairobi, Kikuyu campus. Patricia Wesley gave a talk on “The Beauty and Difficulties of Writing African Poetry in America,” and I delivered my paper entitled, “Maroonage in the Poetry of Jamaican Women Poets,” to an attentive crowd of about 80 students and faculty, who stayed for the entire 3-hour presentation of papers and readings, which included performances by students of both universities, Q & A and a reception afterwards.
The remainder of the festival was held at Kisii University, which provided the poets with transportation and meals. However, it was finals week so attendance was poor and many of the events began late. Nevertheless, the highlights of the festival included a visit to Ekequbo village, where it seemed, the entire village came out to greet us, singing and dancing and hugging us as they led us to where we gathered on chairs in a semi-circle. There were performances by high school girls, so poised and professional, I felt compelled to thank the teacher and congratulate them on doing such an incredible job, afterwards. A young man from the village led the call and response songs while playing the Obokano, which is similar to a guitar. The songs and dances were lively and upbeat, and are usually performed during rites of passage ceremonies, so done by girls, then boys, separately. After the performances and many pictures taken, the elders, seated in a circle, invited us to share some maze wine from gourds, and the women fed us peanuts, which they grow and boil as well as very sweet, middle finger-sized bananas. Present were a host of children from the village who sat quietly, some looking at us curiously, others seemingly oblivious to our presence, enjoying the entertainment just like us. After the villagers performed, each poet was asked to get up and share something about her/his culture, which Okemwa translated. I did not need a translator as they all knew about Jamaica from reggae and Bob Marley, and sang a few bars of what they knew. I ended with everyone joining me in the refrain, “On heart, One love, let’s get together and feel all right…”
Other highpoints of the festival included: a visit to an elementary school, where students again performed; a trip to the Soapstone village of Tabaka, where they make amazing carvings with basic tools; and a trip to Lake Victoria. I enjoyed the intimacy of the ideal number of poets, listening to poems by students from Kisii University and offering feedback, and sharing stories about our lives and poetry. Although there is a great deal that needs to be done to expand and improve Kistrech Poetry festival, I applaud Christopher Okewa’s vision, and now that Kisii University is supporting this festival, I know it will continue to grow, and both visitors and locals will have the opportunity to converse and recognize the commonality that makes us all human, and lover of words that are not alone.