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Saturday, December 13, 2008

This is the age of the Ugandan woman writer

In a world where patriarchy rules, literary works of female writers have often been underlooked and men given more ownership in writing and publishing but this trend is soon to change writes Dennis D. Muhumuza.

There used to be an exciting literary time for the Ugandan male writer, especially following the publication and immediate success of Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino in 1966. In all literary genres, names like John Nagenda, Okello Oculi, Henry Barlow, John Ruganda and Richard Ntiru among others, added meaning to the words: prolific writer.

However, in this age of local literature, the woman writer was conspicuously absent. As Austin Bukenya, in the Ugandan Creative Writers Directory (2000) puts it, “…the insidious manipulation of patriarchy did not promote publication of their work.”

Even in the then literary productions, women were given minor roles that would not permit them to develop as today’s woman. It’s after the publication of the epic poem with its heroine Lawino that the wind of change began blowing.

“Okot p’Bitek had uncannily succeeded in giving the Ugandan woman a literary voice…” writes Bukenya. “After Lawino, women writers began to make themselves heard with impressively strong voices…”

Among them was the deceased dramatist, Rose Mbowa and Jane Kironde Bakaluba who authored the satirical novel, Honeymoon for Three.

Whatever happened, the enthusiasm of the male Ugandan writer has long waned. Today, the predominance of their female counterparts cannot be disputed. To put it clearly, this is the golden age of the Ugandan woman writer.

Femrite, the Ugandan women writers association founded in 1995, has since published over 20 books and 10 of its members have won national and international literary awards.

It must hurt the nation’s manhood that it’s the women (in the Femrite July 2008 week of literary activities) that challenged the Education ministry to harness Ugandan literature by considering much of it on the national school curriculum.

It may be true that few local publishers publish creative writing but what have the men been doing while the women lobbied and organised creative workshops and literary discussions to further their goals?

Femrite recently organised the first Regional Women Writers Residence in Africa and Uganda, from November 15-22 that brought together some of the best female writers from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Ethiopia.

Do you see the irony in the fact that the chief guest on the opening day was Prof. Timothy Wangusa? He addressed the guests on ‘Overcoming the barriers in the art of creative writing” which must have amused the women because the “barriers” he shared have not stopped them from writing unlike their male colleagues.

Prof Wangusa who has been writing for 40 years and said he only recently finished his second novel 20 years after he wrote Upon this Mountain, seemed to plead with Femrite to do something about “its aggressive and gender-sided publishing programme” and consider publishing “something by a gender-sensitive gentleman writer.”

From his presentation, it appears the males have been waiting for the spirit of creativity; the so-called muses believed to inspire writers in third century Rome. That is why, as someone joked, “the woman is busy telling Herstory while the man tells History”.

The residence was organised to promote intercultural literary dialogue among female writers and create opportunities for promotion of new African literary women’s voices and generally to have African women writers inspire and support one another to be able to “cause meaningful change in the social and political environments that continue to humiliate, dehumanise and gag women.”

Sponsored by Africalia and The Commonwealth Foundation and running under the theme ‘Shared Lives,” the residence had women engage in creative writing, the results of which were shared with the public during a reading session at the Makerere University last Wednesday.

“All the stories from the residence will be published by Femrite in an anthology,” said Femrite Coordinator Hilda Twongyeirwe. “Femrite has also established a literary award that will be awarded to the best story. The award is open to all the writers in residence and to other Femrite members that will submit stories.”

Femrite founder Mary Karooro Okurut reiterated that African women have from the stone age era been known as natural storytellers but this should extend to women worldwide. Remember the best-selling novelist of all time, according to The Guinness Book of Records, is Agatha Christie, whose books have sold some two billion copies in 44 languages.

So while men wait for the muse, one of our women could be on her way to winning a Nobel Prize in literature. It’s debatable that women are more talented than the men but seem to have learned to put into practice the famous words that writing is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration.

--Saturday Monitor, December 6, 2008