It’s four o’clock, my regular boda guy is late, I’m tapping my foot impatiently under my desk as my eyes turn back to the code I was troubleshooting. You see I am a writer of software by day and a writer of fiction by night. After one last satisfactory glance, I start to pack up, I don’t want to miss the keynote- but clearly I am going to be late. I don’t like being late, especially when it is not a weekend morning. When he finally gets to the office, he apologizes – traffic he says. Apprehensive at the thought that I am going to be further delayed, traffic means weaving through mildly irritated Ugandans driving at the mercy of the officer in white. When did I get so impatient, I wonder!
I finally get to the museum, geared and ready for Day 5 of Writivism – on the line up: a keynote by Zukiswa Wanner titled ‘Decolonizing African Literature’; another triple book launch: Ghosts of 1894 by Odour Jagero, A Poetic Duet by Jane p’Bitek and Sophie Bamwoyeraki, and 100 Days by Juliane Okot Bitek; Femrite at 20 hosted by Afrikult and a performance of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.
I think you understand why it was important not to be late or tarry anywhere, least of all be interrupted by traffic.
Tiptoeing into the room, I found a chair next to Ntwatwa (of the Nevender fame), right behind Nyana (of the Soo Many Stories fame), and in front of Nwokolo (author of How To Spell Naija II, launched on Day 4). Little did I know, this was to be the fate of my night, rubbing shoulders with the greats. Lugging my helmet, jumper and a 1 litre jerrycan of honey, I sit as quietly as I can.
Wanner was speaking, so effortlessly and poised – it’s hard not to give her your full attention. The topic of her address, Decolonizing African Literature. To be honest I was a skeptic until today, perhaps it is the use of the term decolonize. All week, I have found myself alienated from this term. In the discussion after the keynote, Chigumadzi (author of Sweet Medicine, launched on Day 3) asked a question that dealt with the fact that different parts of Africa were dealt with varying degrees of the white gaze. In one part of the continent, they will exclaim – ‘ah! just move on‘ and in another part not so much. I found myself in the first category until today, you see, life has a whole host issues that grab at me, demanding for my attention. Attempting to add Speke and Grant to the list seemed unnecessary – however, remember the multiple facets?
So what changed today? Today, I remembered the first story I ever wrote. I was in P5 and the characters in my story: all young girls who were best friends, they had bluish green eyes with pale blond hair. Sound familiar? Let me tell you about the story that I wrote in my S4 vacation, a princess born in a poor family who is madly attracted to the crown prince. However, the queen dislikes her immensely so she finally gives up and joins the royal air force.
Get the point? How easy it was for a young version of me to relate to characters the look nothing like me? Very easy. That is what I was surrounded with – Bradford, Steel, Follet, Archer, Clancy, Grisham, Sheldon and the characters that they gave birth to. This was my perceived definition of story telling. This was the definition of story telling according to them, to these authors.
And I wasn’t the only one in this boat, in fact, the only reason why I remembered my old stories was because someone in the audience mentioned the exact same thing, writing about blue eyes and blond hair. How then can we change? Someone asked, after all it hasn’t taken just one person to get here, nor did this never happen overnight. How do we change the minds of publishers and distributers, making them more willing to give African themed literature a chance? How do we convince schools that as much as Ngugi wa thiong’o will always remain a timeless classic, there are other noteworthy books that can be added to the curriculum? How do we convince book clubs, within our own continent, on this rock that we call Africa – how do we convince them that African published books are not to be shunned?
What would happen if we got together, bought copies of our five favourite books, and donated them to our high schools?
– Zukiswa Wanner, Writivism 2016
The next session was chaired by Henry Brefo and Zaahida Nabagereka of Afrikult – the Femrite at 20 session! On the panel was Hilda Twongyeirwe, Harriet Anena and Bonita Arinaitwe. We were taken on the journey of Femrite from the beginning, focusing on the main idea that the founding members had when starting the initiative. A place that encourages and supports Ugandan women in their writing. Femrite has two types of memberships, Monday club which is open to all and the second a more formal membership which includes a nominal subscription. At Monday club, texts are submitted anonymously and then critiqued by the entire group.
Arinaitwe, a young girl who published her first book when she was 10 – and currently has two books out, told us that one of her inspirations is her father. He recognized her talent and told her if she wrote a book, he would go ahead and publish it. She laughed as she said, I thought he was joking.
Her father, who was also in attendance remarked on the impact that Femrite had on his daughter. Reminiscing about the first time they went for Monday club, the members treated Arinaitwe as though she was a writer. He said he held his head in his hands as he listened the barrage of questions that were being fired at his girl, every now and then wanting to protest, asking them if they couldn’t see that she was a young girl. However, to his surprise and to her credit, Arinaitwe rose to the occasion and gracefully answered everything that was asked of her. He applauded them for the support that they have shown his daughter on her literary dream.
Anena talked about her journey to publishing and about how she took the road of self publication because she got rejected by publishing houses. When asked about the cost, she said something that I found to be profound: she saved towards her book. You may roll your eyes all you want, but people saving towards projects in Uganda is not a very common phenomenon.
While Femrite is boasting of a growing base of members, initiatives like this need ideas on how to remain sustainable. So incase you have any ideas, do reach out to them. A question was asked on whether they would consider focusing on playwrights as well and not just novels and poetry. To which Baingana (author of Tropical Fish) answered, she encouraged people with a passion for playwrights to join in on Monday club and take part in the discussions. Thus helping create an atmosphere where other playwrights can engage but also exposing their particular style and art to the poets and novelists.
Because the Femrite at 20 session was happening concurrently with the triple book launch, I was only able to catch the end of the book launch.
That included a reading by Jagero out of his book Ghosts of 1894 and listening to a discussion on A Poetic Duet by Jane p’Bitek and Sophie Bamwoyeraki.
Both p’Bitek and Bamwoyeraki, read three poems each and you could tell they both had their own distinct voices. This in turn raised the question on why a duet, and how they managed the dynamic of two writers each with their own distinct voice. From their camaraderie and how they seemed to have an air of ease about them; made me begin to consider partnerships.
They mentioned that one thing that helped them was having a theme as the central idea that they both focused on but each interpreted in their own style. Which is really interesting when you think about it, I’ve taught myself to believe in following and adhering to certain structures and rules – which I now believe has led to my unwitting participation in censorship.
Sadly, I was unable to go for the performance of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, but hope that I will get a chance to own a copy of the book
The Writivism Festival is an initiative that brings together established writers from the African Continent and beyond.
It will be happening this week (22nd to 28th of August) at the Uganda Museum.
Monday – Thursday: 6pm – 8pm;
Friday: 12pm – 8pm;
Saturday: 10am – 8pm;
Sunday: 12pm – 8pm.