Can a writer earn a living in Uganda?
Can a writer earn a living in Uganda? Who is a writer anyway? Does a journalist qualify as a writer?
Written by Iwaya Mataachi
In Uganda, yes. Most Ugandan writers have “graduated” from journalism to the state they aspired to in the beginning.
So the question remains; is it possible to earn a decent living as a writer in Uganda? By decent, money enough to afford two meals a day for themselves and their dependents, rent or live in a neighborhood that does not just escape the tag of slumming suburbia. And also, be able to go for the necessary medical checkups and afford competent medical care. Furthermore, if they wish, drive a car or ride a bike or even use the public means of transport without too great a strain on their resources.
Most important of all; be able to pour their best into the actual work because they are not too harried by the stresses of running around town “chasing deals” to enable mere survival.
In the beginning was the word… and the word became flesh
It is not a question many people—venturing into writing—ask themselves. Yet they ought to. Especially after comparing what a writer in Uganda can expect to earn with other callings, many of which they could just as comfortably fit into.
Doctors, lawyers, engineers, and IT professionals hold some of the most admired positions in Ugandan society right now.
A qualified doctor or person in the medical field can expect to earn, at the beginning of their career, Shs. 700, 000 (approx. $280) a month. A lawyer at a good firm in Kampala might earn up to Shs. 1,000,000 ($400). Engineers’ and IT professionals’ earnings, depending on their specialty, will also begin with Shs. 1,000,000 ($400) a month.
With that earning power in mind, reflect on this too:
- The most reasonable piece of land on sale in Uganda (100ft by 100ft) on the outskirts of the city can cost about Shs. 8,000,000 ($3,200), for the writer who wishes to own their own idyllic retreat. These prices are volatile by the way. (Source: jomayi.co.ug)
- A second-hand Japanese car like a Toyota Cresta may cost a buyer about Shs. 7,400,000 ($ 3,000) tax inclusive.
- Primary school enrollment of the offspring in a reputable primary school (private of course) will set any parent or guardian a good Shs. 1,000,000 ($400) per school term. This is not counting all the other scholastic requirements that come with being in a school of such standard. (Kampalaparents.com)
Where does a writer’s earnings fit in all this? The Ugandan writer lives in a country with such expenses, such expectations.
Can a Ugandan writer then not just survive, but thrive in such an economy and make a living at their craft?
The cost of pen, paper & ink
Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva has a lot of faith in writing. She is a believer in the power of words to hurt and heal. But more than that, she is a believer that words can create whole new worlds. She is such a believer that in August 2010 she founded the first only female literary award in Uganda, called the Beverley Nambozo Poetry Award (BNP).
It was a daunting step but two years later, against a very strong tide, the BNP is still going on. Somehow Beverley has managed each year to find just enough companies and individuals to sponsor the award ceremony and offer some financial recognition to the three winners.
But ask Beverley if it is possible for an arts enthusiast, a writer, to earn a living from their craft in Uganda, and she will not mince her words. It is near to impossible. Not totally impossible, but it is a very trying journey:
“I am fully aware that if I spend all day everyday writing poetry, stories and a novel, unless I win a very major award or get a big publishing deal, I will not earn anything from it. I aspire towards that, but it is not happening now.”
Ten Years After
It is a view shared by another recognized Ugandan writer, Jackee Batanda. Currently a research and writing fellow at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand and editor with the Global Press Institute (GPI), Jackee says:
“I have been asked many times if it is possible to earn a living as a writer in Uganda. I often tell people that this is not possible. Let us not be fooled. No one wants to pay writers in Uganda, especially not writers of fiction.
Ask yourself how many fiction books hit the shelves in Uganda each year? The numbers are sadly shocking. Whenever you tell people that you are a writer, suddenly they will want you to write or read or edit their work for free.”
Jackee actually makes a crushing admission: “I have been writing fiction professionally for over ten years in Uganda; and I have not made any substantive money from it. Any form of payment I have received for my writing has been from out of Uganda.”
Jackee believes that, in spite of the fact that Uganda has produced an internationally recognized writer like Okot P’Bitek (Song of Lawino, Song of Ocol) and authors on international best seller lists like Moses Isegawa (Abyssinian Chronicles), there is still a fundamental ignorance of writing and what a writer does in Uganda.
Jackee argues: “We do not seem to understand as yet that writing can be a profession. That it can and must be respected, and writers need to get paid their dues. The days and hours someone puts into their craft needs to be respected and paid for.
They invite you to speaking engagements and will pay all other service providers but forget you as the writer.”
The Piper’s Tune
It is a state of affairs poet Akiyo Michael Kasaija is intimately acquainted with. Writing is what he would love to do all the time, but he has had to seek other employment:
“Ugandans hate deprivations, so we juggle many things with writing and end up backing more on those things. The biggest challenge is publication without pay that makes one dip only one leg in writing. Self-publication needs advertising money, which we don’t have.”
Author and journalist Joachim Buwembo does not quite agree. Joachim comes closer to the “typical” Ugandan writer. A man gifted enough to “write serious stuff” that could make a book, but who through most of his career has been a practicing journalist.
The author of How to be a Ugandan (2002) and The Ugandan Paradox (2012) does believe it is possible to earn a living as a writer in Uganda, “but not of books. For newspapers, yes, but not books.”
Joachim does cite an anomaly: “Book writing can make money if attached to another activity. Professor Dumba Sentamu made a package from his Economics books, but it was tied to passing exams and everyone knew he was the authority in Economics coaching.”
First make cash, then write
The columnist of Books They Read in Saturday Monitor, Beatrice Lamwaka, has a whole different experience even when it comes to book writing:
“No way, unless they have a family fund they are relying on or don’t need money to survive, otherwise they will not write and have to actually work to get the money for survival.
It is not possible to earn a living as a writer in Uganda; no one should even dream of doing it. One can do so after one’s fifth book, considering they are not published in Uganda, so that they can rely on their royalties.”
For the majority, Akiyo believes that “Ugandans are retirement writers. Make cash, go upcountry and write. Life can be petty for a writer who has not attained Maslow’s self-actualization yet.” Akiyo muses rather morosely: “Are 21st century Ugandan writers one-hit wonders? Get a Caine Prize or nomination and then rest on the laurels?”
Beatrice agrees with this statement and advises: “You need to have a real job and then write while still working and there is no way out of this. For those who are lucky, they should have jobs that give them a lot of free hours to work.”
No one gets out of here alive
Jackee Batanda urges the Ugandan writer not to be constrained by geographical boundaries: “You can earn a living as a writer, not from Uganda, but from various other places. We live in the internet age and one cannot be limited by time and place. One needs to slowly build the contacts for places where one gets work published and then you can sit anywhere in the world and write, even from Uganda.
But is a journey and does not happen overnight. The rest of us have to work twice or thrice hard in order to be successful.”
Akiyo Michael Kasaija thinks that more aggressive self-promotion could be just what Ugandan writing needs: “If, say, five writers pushed out books all the time—every year—we could get acceptance and survive. Mass circulation would make us hard to miss or forget.”
Beverley Nambozo has even more practical steps an aspiring Ugandan writer who is starting out can apply: “Facebook has a number of writing groups like bestsellers, books they read, mic fusion, poetry in session and FEMRITE. Get involved, read a lot of material from the continent and abroad and write!”
Joachim Buwembo, a long-serving editor of national newspapers in three East African countries, sounds a note of caution to dispel any glamour notions an aspirant might harbor:
“Before one becomes a writer, one must have something to say, something to write about, not writing for the sake of it,” Joachim emphasizes and this may work as a final remark to nearly all writer’s classes in the world.
Startjournal.org will emphasize that this publication currently pays freelance rates for articles, ranging from Shs. 50,000 to Shs. 100,000 depending on length. Any writer is welcome to submit their writing or ideas for articles to editor-in-chief.
Writers getting paid goes together with readers willing to pay to read. Are there enough paying customers in the East African literary markets? Or will the readership only appear with the kind support from donor foundations or with publishers presenting intruding banner ads or full-page posters to the readers?