Soft, spoken and very caring, Christopher Okemwa began writing poetry when he entered high school. He is a husband, father, teacher and working on his doctorate dissertation. He is very giving, has big dreams, and is willing to make the necessary sacrifices to transform dream into reality, hence the realization of the Kistrech Poetry Festival in Kisii, a remote city, in Kenya.
Okemwa says, ‘I conceived the poetry festival in 2005, but didn’t know how to start it; I didn’t have the funding, and I had not attained a degree in Literature yet. After I participated in the Medellin Poetry Festival in Colombia, in 2010, and in a Biennial poetry event in Belgium in 2012, I told myself thus: “I should start it now, I shouldn’t wait any longer, it doesn’t matter whether I have the funds or not.” I wrote to my friend, Niyi Osundaye (Nigeria), about the idea. He wrote to me, thus: “How dare you want to hold a poetry festival without funding? How can you bring poets to Africa without funding?” With these questions, I almost got discouraged. But I was determined, no matter the outcome. I went ahead and wrote to friend-poets I had met in 2010 in Medellin and 2012 in Belgium, asking them to participate in a festival in the remote area of Kenya. Most were excited about the idea. I set up a website. I posted the photos of those who applied on the site, and indeed they came. These included Prof. Sukrita Paul Kumar (India), Prof. Malashri Lal (India), Prof. Arif Khudairi (Egypt) Prof. Pornpen Hantrakool (Thailand), Vytautas Suslavicious (Lithuania) Sarah Poisson (Lithuania), Jasonas Stavrakis (Cypress), Onarinde Fiyinfoluwa (Nigeria), Asanda Vokwana (South Africa), Indra Wussow (South Africa), Lauri Garcia (Mexico).
“When they came to participate in the 2013 inaugural festivals, I had no funds. Some poets decided to pay for their own accommodation and buy their own foods. It was very expensive for me, being an assistant lecturer who earns little. I made banners and posters using my own funds. I paid for food and accommodation for some of the poets, paid for transportation, as well as for the hall for four days during the entire festival, using my own funds. I paid for everything, used up all my savings. It was extremely expensive and I almost gave up this idea of a poetry festival.”
But Christopher Okemwa did not give up, and based on the enthusiasm of the first festival, he forged ahead and planned for the second in 2014. It would seem his efforts were paying off as he got some support. Kisii University sponsored transportation, Goethe Institute made banners for the festival, Nsemia Inc. Publishers gave Ksh. 5, 000 ($50.00 US), Upfront booksellers gave Ksh. 1, 500($15.00 Us), and Mozamad gave us Ksh. 5,000 (Us dollar 50). The County government also promised to sponsor the festival, but could not be reached nor did they responds or help in anyway with the festival despite their pledge. Again, Okemwa had to dig into his own pocket to pay accommodation and food for two poets, as well as pay for the festival magazine, which cost Ksh. 180, 000 ($1, 800 US). He thought about abandoning his dream of the festival due to the expense, but decided to give it one more go.
Kistrech Poetry Festival, 2015 received some support from Kisii University in the form of transportation and lunch for poets, space for the festival and also the university funded the festival’s magazine and stationery. However, the university did not provide accommodation for two poets as promised, but in all their support made a big difference, and Okemwa financial output was as he says, “almost nothing compared to the previous two years.”
But for a variety of reasons, the festival did not garner the same participation, and many of the expected poets, receiving no financial support from their home institutions, were unable to attend. Coupled with other logistics, including attendance, Okemwa is not sure where to go from here.
I asked Okemwa: What help and support do you need?
Reflecting and weighing all the pros and cons, Christopher states: “Having done 3 festivals, with no consistent, adequate support, especially for accommodation and food, I would like to stop here and take a rest. I have done my best. I have spent money meant for my family, and without funding, I don’t see myself improving the festival and bringing it to the standard and level of other international poetry events. However, my effort in organizing this event has left many poets, local people, students and writers very happy. I ask myself why should I strive to bring art to the people, create a platform for poets to meet and interact, but I end up not being happy? These and many other questions have made me stop and think. If I get adequate funding, I can carry on with this noble dream that I began in 2013.
“I feel terribly sad and it pains me, and defeats the objective of holding such an event when I, as the organizer, cannot provide for my guests. My inadequacy to provide adequately for the poets and running a penniless festival leaves me with a low self-esteem.”
Yet the benefits of bringing international poets to Kisii seem so obvious that the local government and other international organizations should jump to underwrite this festival.
Okemwa agrees, and elaborates, “The social and cultural interaction and exchange is a great benefit. Our students and emerging poets learn a lot by interacting and networking with the international poets. The festival creates platform for African poets to have their works published. The event enables village people, staff in our University and local people to learn new cultures and opens up opportunities abroad for their children’s education. The festival creates numerous opportunities for educational and cultural exchanges among lecturers and students of Kisii University. The Community has responded positively and has always looked forward to participating in the event every year. Most are thirsty for information and knowledge these visiting poets have and share.”
I want to encourage Christopher Okemwa not to throw in the towel yet, but to keep forging ahead by building a team to help plan and implement the festival. I am sure Kisii University will continue to lend greater support to the festival in the future. The management is aware of the immense value and benefits this kind of event brings to the institution, in terms of exchange programs, as well as more opportunities to staff and students for various academic, cultural and literary exchanges.
But there are also personals benefits for Christopher Okemwa, himself a poet. “I learn a lot from other poets in the world. The festival helps me to discover new poets and share them with my MA and undergraduate students. Through such visits, students of Literature discover new works and new materials for research. For instance, after this year’s festival, I gave Patricia Jabbeh Wesley and Opal Palmer Adisa’s poetry books to MA students. Some are considering studying these poets for their MA thesis. Also, we shall consider including these two poets in the reading list of the courses, “Literature from the Rest of the World” and “Caribbean Literature.”
Let Me Know
By Christopher Okemwa
(From The Gong)
If I ever offended you
Discuss it with me, dear love
Don’t keep it in the heart for too long
Let me know of the mistake
I have made, dear love
That makes you pale, mute
If I once shouted at you
And you were flustered, dear love
It is because I cared, or so I thought
Let us talk with open minds
Of the flaws, the pitfalls
And mend the broken fences
Bring to an end this silence
And hear your voice again, dear love
As it always came to me.
I hope you will be interested in helping to continue this important and worthy festival. Do contact: firstname.lastname@example.org to lend your support. The Kisii community of Kenya needs and deserves to have Kistrech Poetry Festival an annual, well-funded event. Support Now!!!