Precious Williams: The warmth of Nairobi people

Precious Williams: The warmth of Nairobi people

Precious Williams is the daughter of a Nigerian princess who was brought up by a white foster mother in West Sussex, England. Her memoir is Precious.

‘Ben Okri said of last year’s Storymoja Hay Festival, ‘Iit’s an almost magical experience to be here.’  I disagree – it’s not almost magical, it is magical to be here.

It’s my first time in Kenya and my first taste of Nairobi is the relentlessly cheerful street-hawkers weaving through traffic and trying to sell us everything from squirming puppies to vibrant chiffon scarves.  Arriving at the Storymoja Hay Festival I’m dazzled by the enthusiasm (and politeness) of the dozens and dozens of schoolchildren milling around the National Museum grounds.  One young woman runs up to me and asks me if I’m Precious from the Academy Award winning movie.  I tell her I’m not that Precious, I’m another Precious.  I hear her murmur to her friend, “They made her look sooo different in the film”.

A young man in a smart school uniform asks me to sign a copy of my book for him.  Only problem is there’s no sign of my book at the festival’s book stall. Bloomsbury, my publisher, shipped copies several weeks ago but they’re not here. Will they not be on sale at all then?  “These things take time,” I’m told. (The books appear the following day and appear to have sold out within a few hours.  Nobody can say Kenyans don’t read books).

If I had to describe the vibe of the festival in two words I’d choose the words authenticity andaccessibility. It’s almost as if there is something missing – the self-consciousness and the slight (or not so slight) pretentiousness you often encounter on the UK literary scene.  Not a sign of that here.  At the Storymoja Hay, in a single afternoon, you’ll see school kids under the tutelage of a local artist called Boneless, practising dance steps to blaring hip-hop under the blazing mid-afternoon sun.  And members of Nairobi’s gay community discussing their lives. And Jung Chang chilling in one of the lounges, wearing a huge floppy hat and a warm smile.

Favourite moments for me are a panel where Nigerian writer Jekwu Anyaegbuna says of writers too concerned with winning literary prizes,  “If they are not shortlisted, what will they do?  Go and commit suicide? ”  And Lola Shoneyin’s session where she tells us, “Sometimes you meet random people who are so mental that you just have to put them in a book.”

The people we meet in Nairobi, random or otherwise, are no madder than people anywhere else in the world.  But they are far warmer.’