Writing a bodaboda to Rideavism

At the Writivism festival last week, in Kampala, Uganda, a certain conversational form played itself out over and over again: I know you from the internet, it’s so wonderful to finally meet you in person! I spoke variations on that theme to various people, people spoke it to me, and I overheard people speaking it to each other. Many of the guests at Writivism had already met each other, of course—there was a small reunion of some of the Africa39 writers, for example, who had all met at Port Harcourt last year, and many of the guests came with already-assembled cohorts (the Nigerians who came together, the Kenyans who took a bus from Nairobi, etc). But bylines and facebook profiles and author photos travel much faster and farther than bodies do, those sweaty meat-sacks which lag behind struggling to catch up. When you meet people you know but don’t know, recognition is always tempered by the surprise that they are who they turn out to be. They are the person you thought they were, but they are also… more. Sometimes less. And then there’s that disorienting delay while the two parts come into focus, as your brain struggles to process the fact that no, this person is the same person as the person who wrote that.  There is a gap, a lagging behind. People are always a little bit too much or a little bit too little.

Is the work of a festival to harmonize those dissonances or to making music out of the cacophony? Maybe those gaps and surpluses are the point. Why else bring a group of Nigerians to Uganda, if not to explore what that ostensibly nominal distinction feels like in practice? “Africa” is one word for one continent, but if pan-Africanism was the thesis, nationalism was the antithesis, the vocabulary through which so much of the festival was articulated. “The Nigerian Literature Conversation.” Or maybe Writivism was the synthesis: Friendships across borders, but also clarity about where those borders still cut deep.

The internet is easy, after all, much too deceptively easy in its borderlessness. I was already facebook friends with many of the people that I met at Writivism, and there’s been a flurry of friending-ing in the days since the festival ended. It’s easy to do that. I’ve since tracked people down on twitter, and been tracked down, belatedly connecting electronically with people who hands I shook, or hugged, or simply poets whose performances were particularly electrifying. All you have to do is type and click and it’s done. But at the festival itself, when I would strike up a conversation, I found myself so often unsure whether I had already followed/friended them (and vice-versa); It is good to meet you! I would say (Do I already know you? I was afraid to ask.) Several times I thought I knew someone when I didn’t, or vice versa, and the only way to work through it was to awkwardly be awkward. Facebook makes it easy to know if you are friends with someone, and it’s rarely awkward. You’re rarely exposed.

Festivals are difficult, first and foremost, because of bodies. The primary organizational disaster of this particular festival was having it spread across Kampala, at three different venues separated by hours of snarling traffic. Bodies are the problem, even if we call that problem “traffic.” Too many bodies, and the lag in moving them to where they should go, when they don’t always want to, when they are hungry or tired or hot. There are a lot of bodies in Kampala. It’s a city in desperate need of multi-lane roads—that is, if it is to operate efficiently—and at the present time, it lacks them. (Though China is coming!) As a result, you can spend hours in traffic like it’s nothing, and although motorcycle taxis—here, called “Boda bodas”—are hardly a Ugandan innovation, there are so many of them because of the desperate need to increase the carrying capacity of over-swelled roads. If the traffic is jammed, a boda boda weaves through the gaps and gets your body moving. The price is that it exposes you: your body might be overturned and broken. An absolutely appalling number of people are injured and killed by boda boda accidents, but if you need to get where you need to get in time, you don’t have a lot of options.

In practice, this festival did not move bodies through space with anything like efficiency. And for a start: if there is one way not to organize a festival, it’s to not try to place different events at different parts of the city and then try to shuttle participants between them. You need to let those bodies find their own time and place and their own pace. You need to let them find the pathways and roads and tangents that are most comfortable for them, and to use those perambulatory digressions to find new communities. The last thing you want to do is micromanage movements in a city whose arteries are so sclerotic and unpredictable.  You’ll fail, and it will irritate people, especially when they’re hot and hungry and tired and confused. A firm organizational hand goes well with traffic that runs on time; when it doesn’t, you might find that a much looser grip gives people room to breathe. If you push them, they get angry; if you put them on a boda boda, things get dicey. What if they fall off? They are exposed.

“Boda boda,” I’m told, is a name that derives from the word “border,” and from the vehicles which people would use, in the 60’s and 70’s, to cross the Uganda-Kenya border without passing through official border crossings. It was for smuggling, or just for getting around the arbitrary lines that separated people whose lives and communities had always been complexly interrelated, and remained so, no matter what it said on maps. When Uganda and Kenya stopped being “British” in the 1960’s, the East African Community was the structure that was to lead to regional integration, but it didn’t, for lots of reasons. And while it’s a complicated, messy story, the end result was that regional connections were blocked and clotted; bicycle taxis, boda bodas, sprang up as a workaround. People find a way to get where they want to go, no matter where they are supposed to be and stay.

Festivals are notoriously difficult to write about, as an editor told me, when I was offering to write about this one. You can write a description of what happened, calling on names and panels and schedules and quotes, and you can produce a picture of the whole thing that will cohere into some kind of narrative of how it all happened. You can also produce a narrative—stripped of names and details—that will describe how it didn’t happen. I’m sort of delighted by the fact that the same person produced both narratives for the Star, in Nairobi, on the same day: The Writivism Festival 2015: Exploring all things and How to Not Organise a Literary Festival. Are these articles describing the same festival? But of course they are: festivals are difficult to write about because they are always, both, the dissonance and consonance at once, the coming-together and the pulling apart. So maybe you don’t write about them. Maybe you just go, listen, speak, and come back.