About a year ago, I received an email from the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg requesting a meeting to discuss their literature programme. They asked me what I thought the ideal literature project for the sub-Saharan Africa region would be. I said a continental project that produced young adult literature.
My observation was that the 13- to 19-year demographic is often forgotten. I suggested that we have short stories of 3 000 to 5 000 words.
Thus the Afro Young Adult project was born with eight Goethe-Instituts on the continent hosting workshops in three languages —English, French and Swahili. With the help of the institute (and their funding), I designed the programme to be in three phases: call out, workshops and editing and translation. After each stage, some people would be dropped.
And so it was that, between September and December 2018, we started to receive emails from across the continent, with attachments.
About five years ago, I was one of 39 sub-Saharan African writers under 40 believed to have the potential and talent to define the literary trends in the region. I say this less to brag and more to highlight that it was among this community of 39ers that I got one of my greatest comrades for this project: Renée Edwige Dro from Côte d’Ivoire. Not only did she generously agree to do one of the workshops in Lomé, Togo, but, while I did the admin of the English submissions, she did one of the French submissions.
A Tanzanian brother I had met in Dar es Salaam during a road trip southwards from Nairobi last year became the third of our trilingual trinity by taking care of Swahili. He would also do the only Swahili workshop in Dar es Salaam. The workshops took place in the same week in February.
I didn’t realise we would have so much work because I had expected about 100 stories and we got 435 submissions from 28 countries.
And so it was that Edwige, Elias and I spent the first weekend of December sending “we regret” emails to those who had failed to adhere to basic rules such as keeping the stories within the word limit or who had submitted essays, poems or plays instead of short stories.
Together with the other five facilitators, including South Africa’s award-winning Mohale Mashigo, we spent December sifting through the stories to select workshop participants.
I didn’t want any risk of bias on the part of facilitators and so, at least in English, each facilitator was responsible for electing workshop participants for a city they would not workshop in. Mohale chose stories for the Nairobi workshop and Ghanaian Mamle Kabu read submissions for the Kigali workshop.
After the selection, we had more than we had bargained for — and the Goethe-Institut had budgeted for. There were more writers selected from outside the host nations than expected. Johannesburg, for instance, had two South Africans, a Motswana, a Mauritian, a Mozambican and two Zambians. The Kigali workshop had two Malawians, three Ugandans and one Rwandan. The Swahili workshop in Dar es Salaam had seven Kenyans and one Tanzanian, and the Lomé workshop had two Beninois, three Cameroonians and one Togolese. Logistical nightmare though this was, it was admirable how the Goethe-Instituts came on board and made a plan for flights and accommodation for the writers from outside their countries despite probably not having planned financially for it.
The workshops went well and from them we were able to select 17 short stories from 13 countries for the anthology whose expected date of publishing is September. The anthology will be published in English, French and Swahili and will be available in the eight countries that took part in the workshop.
I am grateful for this anthology and awed by the Goethe-Institut’s faith in us. But I also can’t help wondering, yet again, why African governments have ministries of arts, because they don’t seem to put as much energy or funding into the creative industry as the Goethe-Instituts of this world. We may soon need to revisit why they exist at all beyond giving comrades salaries.