A Writers’ Residency bearing fruits

Front cover of the collection "World of Our Own and other stories", published by Femrite Uganda, 2011.

By definition, there might not be an accurate answer to what a writers’ residency is. What is definite though is that it provides a time and place for writers to meet, share ideas, learn from each other, and consequently write more.

Many writers will attest that their normal schedules allow for little or no time at all to write, so the opportunity of being a part of a residency is a writing haven to most writers.

Written by Lillian A. Aujo

Hilda Twongyeirwe, a founder member and the coordinator of Femrite, had something like this in mind for women writers in the African region, when she thought of creating The Annual Writer’s Residency for African Women Writers. The idea came to her at a time when funding for the arts in the African region were dwindling, particularly in Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Kenya.

”Much as it was not part of the 2007-2011 Femrite strategic plan, we had to look for a way of supporting each other as writers in the region. So I thought about a residency in Uganda and we began it in 2010,” Hilda explains.

This writers’ residency, organised by Femrite (Uganda Women Writers Association) in partnership with The Swedish Institute, is the first of its kind in Uganda. On the whole, it has been a successful endeavour. For the year 2010 it was held in Jinja. It attracted participants from Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, and of course Uganda.

World of Our Own

The fruits from the 2010-series are documented in a publication by Femrite: ”World of Our Own”. This short story collection was launched on November 24th 2011.

It can be argued that this anthology is different from other Femrite publications, and that it offers a richer variety of writing to choose from for fiction lovers.  The writers’ different backgrounds no doubt played a part in this, but more importantly, the well honed craft they displayed is what made each story unique.

The themes explored in this collection are universal and have been written about before, so kudos to the writers for putting fresh embellishments on them to sustain the readers’ interest.

They include war and its effects, racism and segregation, love and marriage, power and ambition, culture, tradition, modernization, and politics. One would be ill advised to skip any of the stories since each one is memorable. Even the ones that start out predictable pull up a trump card unexpectedly.

Rehabilitation gone wrong

Author Elizabeth Namakula.

The title story by Elizabeth Namakula Lenana is an example of this. It is a story about rehabilitating child soldiers, and it shows you what could go right or wrong with such a noble endeavour.

Some would argue that the tragedy of African child soldier is an overly done subject, but this story will tell you that it isn’t; every child soldier has their own story to tell. And you will agree, as you see the grotesque colours of life through the eyes of Okumu and Rocky.

The writer says her journalistic background compelled her to write this story:

“As journalists we are trained to ask questions, and not let things be the way they are. So having worked with two children’s organisations opened my eyes to working with children from different backgrounds, and dealing with their problems as particularly as possible. So that is how I thought about writing ‘A World of Our Own’,” Elizabeth explains and continues:

”I wrote it in first person narrative because it was a comfortable voice for me, plus it creates more intimacy with the readers.”

The traumatised child soldier returning

Author Beatrice Lamwaka.

Lamunu, another child soldier, is the heroine in ‘Butterfly Dreams’.  The narrative voice is second person, but even then the readers are spared nothing of Lamunu’s harrowing experience. This voice works because she is so traumatised. She cannot be fully aware of her surroundings and how her absence for so long and sudden reappearance makes her family feel. Through the second voice, the alienation, pity, relief, and affection that Lamunu’s family feel towards her is revealed.

The conflict in this story is gripping; what does society do with a tortured ‘adult-child’ who has been forced to commit atrocious crimes, and who is also a victim of some of those crimes? Although she is back home, she seems to still be lost in the battles that she fought with the rebels.

Like her family, we – the readers – can only imagine what those horrid experiences are.

Another plus for this story is Lamunu’s hope and determination to go on with her life, and the community’s willingness to help her do exactly that. This story takes on many different dimensions, and some might feel it is its undoing.

Nonetheless, it is well written, and we can see why it has been lauded in some of the most prestigious literary circles worldwide. Written by Beatrice Lamwaka it was nominated for the 2011 Caine Prize.

”The nomination has given me confidence as a writer,” Beatrice told startjournal.org in a recent interview. ”Now I know that if I put all my energy into the writing, lots of good compositions will come out of my pen.”

Beatrice Lamwaka was interviewed for startjournal.org in Issue 014.

Love stories, domestic issues and walking down memory lane

On a good note however, even the brilliance of ‘Butterfly Dreams’ does not manage to steal the shine from the other stories in this anthology. The Fulani by Nigerian Yaba Badoe is written with the skill of an orator spinning a tale. It is a modern love story with ties of the mystical traditional heritage, and the result is entrancing.

‘As If’ by Hilda Twongyeirwe is a seemingly mundane scene that explores conflicts as deep as home and international politics. The story is told in the third person, and it is interesting to delve into the random thoughts of a sleepless married career woman.

Colleen Higgs’ ’Chasing Butterflies’ is a memorable snapshot. It captures tidbits of the past and weaves them into the present to create the perfect picture. It is interesting that we are able to learn so much from Jake, who is waiting to have lunch with his friend Alice. Although he is much older than her, he is endeared to her because she reminds him of his late wife. Alice is a married woman, so we are left to wonder at the restrictions, confines, or freedom of both parties in this odd but charming relationship.

The racial perspective

Mamle Kabu’s ‘Colour Seperation’ is a well-written, easy-read story that captures you from the first word and only lets you go until the last. The nameless main character’s narrative is easy, candid and earnest, a quality that makes you turn the pages in Mamle Kabu’s story.

Arguably, this is the most well-written story in this collection. It tackles the issue of racism differently. This time, a ‘white’ person is on the receiving end. She is a nameless mixed race Ghanaian, who refers to herself as a ‘colourful jailbird’. It is easy to see why she is conflicted and frustrated that most of the black people around her do not see her blackness.

The beauty in this story lies in the fact that the colour labels can also be attached to black people; instead of the derogatory term ‘nigger’ being the issue, this time it is ‘broni’.

Also, what makes it a compelling read, is the fact that the writer does not foray into other issues – she sticks to ‘racism’ and does not let you forget that this is what she intended to attack.

‘Leaving Oxford Street’ by Molara Wood, also has an interesting twist to racial segregation. It is a story about Nigerians in the United Kingdom, and how they try so hard to fit in. While some of the characters hold on to their ‘blackness’ tenaciously, others are trying with as much intent to let it go. The parallelism of characterisation is what makes one remember this story.

Lillian Tindyebwa’s ‘Endless Distance’ is about the affluent and the bitter truth that vice thrives, even among rich Kampala suburbia lives. This is what Lillian said about her story: ”I was inspired by the current situation in our nation, where parents are too busy with their different jobs to find time for their children. They believe that making money is more important, since they are giving their children the best material needs. But the truth is different.”

The story is narrated by the maid, and Lillian says she chose to use her voice since in such situations, they are the ones that are charged with the actual parenting.

Other voices

‘Burial Rites for Tisa’ by Mary M. Sililo is a serious sad story that you would not expect to be amusing till you have finished it.

‘Master Class’ by Kerstin Norbog is about the intrinsic nature of music, teaching, and learning.

Author Constance Obonyo

‘Journey to Loliondo’ by Ayeta Anne Wangusa and ‘Torpedo’ by Constance Obonyo are good examples of documenting historical events in fiction. These two stories come out credible and interesting without sounding like facts from textbook.

‘Agony in the Silence’ by Elieshi Lema is a story about HIV, and the stigma attached to it.

‘The Rythm of the Drum’ by Philo Ikonya explores the hypocrisy that is at times shrouded in religion.

Therefore, ‘World of Our Own’ will give you glaring comparisons of fiction writing in Uganda vis-à-vis fiction writing in other African countries.

Lessons learned from sharing ideas

Indeed, most writers say that the residency gave them a different insight into writing, since they had mentors and met writers from different settings.

One of the writers, Elizabeth Namakula Lenana, said that interacting with experienced writers was helpful, and it inspired her to write more. Being featured in the anthology was also of great inspiration:

”I felt honored to be in company of so many experienced writers, this endorsement is a great motivation for me to write more. It was also a new experience to get feedback from the readers. When the story was published I got questions and responses I really didn’t expect. Some readers also identified with the story and its characters and appreciated that these topics were written about.”

Lillian Tindyebwa and Beatrice Lamwaka also said that they enjoyed the residency and it was productive.

On the whole, I am inclined to believe that residences are a learning experience to writers, and usually, they are the hub of new ideas.

Lillian A. Aujo is a poet, a fiction writer and a freelance writer.