Anne Moraa is a writer, editor, playwright, performer, soon-to-be novelist, feminist, and the newly proud COO of a storytelling agency called Oil Creatives. That morning in Nairobi, we sat on the garden of a local café. I’m amazed by the story of this energetic woman. There’s something about the short-hair and sharp gaze. She is wearing a Kenyan designer poncho.

We had first met at the Alchemist Bar on a Book Bunk African literature panel featuring influential women.

Wanjiru Koinange and Angela Wachuka (at the forefront), Book Bunk founders, make-up artist Sinitta Akello, fashion stylist Anyongo Mpinga, education consultant Nicola Milnes © Sylvia Houahu

Anne Moraa’s career so far has been a rollercoaster ride to literary stardom. After a year studying law at the University of Nottingham, she turned to creative writing. In a world where female voices were starting to matter more, Moraa saw an opening and began to envision her career as a tool to address African women.

Kwani as a launch pad

Her journey began with Kwani Trust where she started out as an editorial assistant. Little did she know that working at the Kenyan imprint—which is among the most influential in sub-Saharan Africa—would expose her so quickly to the kind of writing and writers she had long wanted to be around. “Kwani was created by Tom Maliti at a time when writers needed a literary space,” Moraa recalled.

Yvonne Adhiombo Owuor’s critically acclaimed novel Dust was published by Kwani in 2013, as was Kintu, which Moraa helped edit. Kwani’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize-winning novel by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was hailed by The Guardian as “the great Ugandan novel”, leading the author to state that “it proves Uganda is not a literary desert.”

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, won the Windham-Campbell Prize © Martin Harris Centre.

“We just wanted to put-out stuff and write cool shit”

Kwani Trust inspired Jalada, a pan-African collective which was founded by a group of writers who had met during a creative workshop in Nairobi. Moraa joined Jalada and never looked back. “We wanted a space where we could write without wondering what it means, put-out stuff, and write cool shit.” Jalada works with contributors from all over Africa and the African diaspora. Founded by Zimbabwe-born Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, with writers Nadifa Mohamed and Adam Foulds, Jalada has become a beacon of light on the African literary scene. Allfrey said that the ambition came from “a desire to form an eclectic and supportive community of artists.”

Jalada 5th issue with Transition, a Harvard publication

“I don’t know if I’d make the same choices today”

Moraa’s next move was to enrol on a creative writing program at the University of Edinburgh. There, she committed to a variety of projects that drew on her attraction to the broader arts, from creative fiction all the way to drama. Exhibit B was an art show in Edinburgh that was later banned from the Barbican in London and the Gérard Phillipe theatre in Paris. The year was 2014, and the show faced a serious wave of indignation among black communities. It was called “racist” and “humiliating” as South African director Brett Bailey originally intended to engage audiences in scenes of black human zoos, with people who were “displayed” as objects of curiosity in 19th and 20th Century in America and Europe.

Moraa, a performer in the show, broke it down for us. “There would be a scene related to the colonial area, another with an airplane with immigrants tied-up, so you could see the pile of connections way back to all the treatments of immigrants and black people and colonized groups up until now. Very powerful.”

Exhibit B by Brett Bailey, 2014 © Auke-Schuettler

“I speak to black women”

Moraa’s eyes lit up when we talked about her inspirations. She looks up to her “fierce” mother and grandmother, who were both “bad bitches in their own rights” and made her the woman she is today.

She first fell in love with literature when she was introduced to Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga. She admires the author for her talent and proceeds to describe a series of emotions, “I was blown away because on the first page, she was writing about a girl in Zimbabwe and it was me. The background, the angle were different, but that was… me. There!”

That early influence inspired her own brand of African feminism. “I’m talking about women and girls, that’s who I’m interested in and it’s made my writing better.” She has consciously applied that lens to her writing career, and she’s made her choice clear. “I speak to black women, I’m not particularly curious about how white dudes respond to my work. I don’t actually care.” Straightforward.

Moraa went on to explain how important that audience is to her. “Authors like Tsitsi Dangarembga choose to write for girls like me,” she revealed, possibly as a way to tie her prose back to her origins, or perhaps to compensate for the cultural sins of the past. “Those are the people I want to nurture, the ones I want to really engage with my work. I am conscious of what I say and how I say it. But there are so many voices in literature and art that have been exclusionary to that audience, deliberately damaging.”

Anne Moraa leading a focus group with young girls for Nia Project © Zana Africa Foundation
"Moraa leading a focus groupe with young Girls for Nia project ©Zana Africa Foundation"

“It is through stories that countries formed their perceptions of heroes that defined their future”

Moraa co-wrote the fourth edition of Too early for Birds with Aleya Kassam and Laura Ekumbo. It is a terrific play staged by a 22 woman cast. Moraa is proud that it was written, performed and produced by Kenyan women. People have praised Wanjiku Mwawuganga’s stage direction of Too early for Birds for its creative approach to tackling feminism through hot button issues. Originally, the play was based on the Kenyan history blog Owaah, which “emphasises the untold stories of Kenyan history and culture.” Abu Sense and Ngartia decided to pick stories from the blog, on the occasion of the written play’s first edition.

By the fourth edition, the three playwrights had decided to write and bring to life Kenyan women’s untold stories as well as their unsung heroes. “This type of work is important,” says Laura Ekumbo, “because it cancels out all the white focused history we learned in school. We begin to learn the truth about where we’re from and what our heritage is.”

Too early for Birds, 4th edition, Nairobi National Theatre, © Sylvia Houahu

“I speak to them, not for them.”

While I find Moraa’s literary voice liberating in its commitment to outspoken black women, it is equally important to state that Moraa stresses she is not writing in their name. “I speak to them, not for them.” Ultimately, what she is saying is that every woman has a voice and a role to play. With that, she mentions, not without emotion, the quiet contribution of women, those women who are often invisible to the public. The support of these women is what keeps Moraa going. “For me, it’s just find your way to speak, whatever that means. It’s the most important thing.”