On Guest-Editing Wasafiri 104: Human Rights Cultures
We spoke to Billy Kahora and Zoe Norridge – our guest editors – about curating, compiling and commissioning Wasafiri 104, our special issue on Human Rights Cultures. You can read their print editorial, ‘What Is Seen and What Is Said’, and other free access materials, here.
Wasafiri: Please tell us how you came to co-edit Wasafiri 104: Human Rights Cultures together.
Billy Kahora: Zoe Norridge mentioned the idea to me a few years ago when she asked me to be part of a panel based on a short story I’d written called ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’ which is about post-elections violence in Kenya also touches on the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda—the story being relevant to her larger project which included an exhibition on Rwandan photography on the genocide. In a way that project was a snapshot of this issue in terms of content and theme.
Zoe Norridge: Well remembered! So that initial conversation would have been in April 2014—the event was held in the ‘Rwanda in Photographs’ exhibition that I curated with Mark Sealey for the twentieth commemoration of the genocide. You spoke about the ways in which the violence in Rwanda affected writers across East Africa. I remember later that year we talked about the practicalities of a potential special issue of a journal at the African Studies Association of the UK meeting in Sussex, where you were giving the literature stream keynote.
Initially we were thinking about East African intersections between literature and human rights. Then, when I began collaborating with Argentine photographer Lucila Quieto and writing about Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s ‘Rwanda Project’, we decided to explore the intersections between Latin America and East Africa. We thought Wasafiri might think this was too ambitious but they agreed to take the risk!
What inspired you to do this issue?
BK: I was very attracted to the idea of working with artists and writers from Latin America which we eventually narrowed down to Colombia and Argentina.
ZN: For me it was a question of widening the ways in which we were conceptualising memory and human rights internationally. Rwanda has been very influenced by ideas and practices that stem from commemoration of the Holocaust. Much of this work is inspiring and generative. But it sometimes sits uncomfortably in the artistic sphere alongside legacies of colonialism. When I was collaborating with Rwandan artists who were looking for new ways to approach aesthetic questions about memory, loss and human rights, turning to work from Latin America added a new dynamic, a new range of expressions and contestations. Alfredo Jaar had already manifested this in his work but there seemed to be very few other examples of artists looking from Latin America to East Africa and back in their explorations of legacies of the difficult past even though both regions are haunted by disappearances, lost childhoods, broken families, displacement and protracted conflict. This special issue felt like a new conversation.
What was the selection and curation process like?
BK: It was great. There is just so much from Colombia and Argentina that spoke to the themes of the issue and then placing these in conversation with the material from Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. It was a pity that we only had such limited space even if there were so many artists and writers we liked.
ZN: Yes, this is a drawing together of years of work! Many of the African writers we knew from previous projects. For example, Billy had worked with the Kenyan poets during his time at Kwani? and I translated Yolande Mukgasana’s memoir Not My Time to Die. We did some work specifically to encourage new writing from Rwanda. Billy and I ran a Human Rights Cultures workshop with writers and photographers as part of the Kigali Photo Fest in Summer 2019. From that workshop, we received numerous really strong short stories and selected Alain Hirwa’s for publication.
With the Spanish language texts, our brilliant translators Sarah Moses and Cherilyn Elson were key. They helped us identify and shortlist writers, negotiated rights on our behalf and of course translated the pieces, engaging with our edits and questions.
Throughout we tried to draw connections. Sometimes we chanced upon them during commissioning: for example, we learned that Ugandan writer Juliane Okot Bitek first met Rwandan survivor-writer Yolande Mukagasana in Colombia when we’d already begun planning the issue. At other times they were more engineered: Kara Blackmore, an East African arts and transitional justice researcher specifically travelled to Colombia to conduct interviews for her Art Piece.
Bringing everything together during Covid-19 wasn’t straightforward. We were each living through lockdown with kids at home, and many of our contributors were struggling with the health, social and economic impacts of coronavirus. Sadly because of Covid-19 difficulties we lost two academic pieces by Kenyan writers and one of our interviews. Looking back I’m amazed that we all managed to draw together and get the special issue out on time. The Wasafiri team were wonderful.
What is the significance of this issue being published now?
BK: It is so important to reinforce how important human rights issues continue to be in different parts of the world even as mainstream media seem so subsumed by current global politics of populism and extreme right wing conservatism.
ZN: I agree. There is a layering of difficulty right now. Violent unresolved legacies of colonialism, the more recent traumas of political violence, an ongoing sense of potential change mitigated by despair at global politics, and as Billy said, the rise of the far right. The issue invites us to reflect on how these layers of the past continue to surface in the present and inform the current crisis.
If you could summarise the issue in one sentence…
BK: A conversation between East African and Latin American writers, artists, activists and academics on global human rights issues.
Billy Kahora is a Kenyan writer and former Editor at Kwani?. Publications include The True Story of David Munyakei (2008) and The Cape Cod Bicycle War (2019). He wrote the film Soul Boy and co-wrote Nairobi Half-Life, teaches creative writing at the University of Bristol, and is a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester.
Zoe Norridge researches cultural responses to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Recent projects include translating Yolande Mukagasana’sNot My Time to Die (2019), presenting BBC Radio 4 documentary‘Rwanda’s Returnees’ (2019), and programming events for the Kigali Photo Fest. She is a Senior Lecturer in African Literature at King’s College London.
Photo Credit: Jacques Nkinzingabo