Swahili Literary Festival 2020

The Swahili Literary Festival 2020 was held at the Swahilipot Hub, Mombasa from March 4-8, 2020.

The Swahili Literary Festival, a brainchild of the Abdulrahman ‘Abu Amirah’ Ndegwa led Hekaya Arts Initiative, was first hosted in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa in 2019. The second edition that ran earlier this month with panels, keynote addresses, an exhibition, and a spelling bee was received with even more enthusiasm. Here is a snapshot.

The Swahilipot Hub.

The festival was hosted at the Swahilipot Hub, an innovation hub for technology and the arts in Kenya’s second-largest city. Founded by Mohamud Noor, it is the workplace of many artists in a variety of disciplines and a workspace for those who need office space with an internet connection. The venue can hold events in the main building as well as in an outdoor facility with a capacity of 1300 guests. If you want to do your event in Mombasa, you want to check out the venue for corporate events and artistic gigs.

The Spelling Bee – Wednesday to Friday, March 4 – 6.

In the previous edition of the festival, young people were engaged with an event where high schools competed to see who gave the best mashairi (poems). In this iteration, pupils showed their skills in a Spelling Bee conducted in Kiswahili, English, and Arabic over three days.

Opening Ceremony – Friday, May 6.

The first official evening had an opening ceremony with shairi recitations at the Swahilipot Hub. There were also the addresses “Building a culture of documentation” by Madam Sumayya Hassan Athmani and “The Golden Age of The Swahili” by Judy Aldrick. The evening also saw the launch of Kas Kazi, a novel by the Hekaya Initiative that won the African Writers Trust Publishing Fellowship in 2018.

Panels – Saturday, May 7.

“Je, Waswahili Ni Nani?” with Prof Rayya Timammy, Prof Ahmed Mohideen, and Prof Mohamed Hyder.

There were two panels at this literary do. The first of these was “Je, Waswahili Ni Nani?” (so who are the Swahili) with Prof Rayya Timammy, Prof Ahmed Mohideen, and Prof Mohamed Hyder as discussants. It wasn’t your traditional panel where folks sit next to one another and then discuss the topic at hand. The strategy here was for panellists to stand and give their opinions on the topic.

Prof Rayya Timammy, the University of Nairobi don, made the case for the existence of the Swahili as a community. Being able to speak the Kiswahili language, she stated, didn’t mean that one was part of the waswahili which is what was happening at the moment. She also urged those who were there to take the Kiswahili language seriously as there were many opportunities that the locals had never taken advantage of. Her fellow panellists also gave their addresses before the audience members shared their opinion on a topic that has been close to the hearts of many present.

Here are some videos from the addresses given during this panel.


“Writing The Coast & The Question of Identities” with Khadija Ali Bajaber and Michelle Angwenyi moderated by Frankline Sunday.

The second panel was “Writing The Coast & The Question of Identities” organised in conjunction with the Down River Road journal team. The session was moderated by Frankline Sunday with Khadija Ali Bajaber and Michelle Angwenyi as panellists. The two writers both based in the coastal region read from their work before talking about their processes and the influences of living and working in that part of the country. Khadija spoke about her Graywolf Press Africa Prize 2018 win and how her upbringing influenced her writing in the past and in the now. Michelle who had been living in Nairobi before relocating to Kilifi County spoke about how that affected her work.

Below is some video that we recorded from this panel on our trusty cellphone.

Celebrating Maalim Ali Abubakr – Sunday, May 8.

A tradition that is starting to do quite well with festival goers is the session where those who have contributed to Swahili literary culture are celebrated. That honour this year was accorded to Maalim Ali Abubakr the first person from the coastal region to attend Makerere University. Maalim influenced scholars like Prof Mohamed Hyder, Prof Ahmed Mohiddin, Sheikh Abdillahi Nassir, the late Ali Mazrui and a whole lot of others from the same generation. At the event in honour were his son Mzee Ali Abubakar Ali as well as Sheikh Abdillahi Nassir, Prof Khalil Timammy, and Prof Hyder Jamshed Abubakr.

Here are some videos from the event captured on our trusty cellphone.



There was an exhibition at the venue of photographs that belonged to Charles Albert Cornell who was a District Commissioner in the region before independence. The photographs, in an album recently discovered in Lamu, depict life in the coastal life in the 1930s.

Please note that you can check out all the videos that we recorded on the Swahili Literary Festival 2020 at the following YouTube Playlist. Please remember to subscribe to the channel for the latest in shaky hand cam videos from the African literary scene.