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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jane Rogers, the acclaimed author, playwright, editor and professor

This year, nothing has excited me more than being mentored by this literary legend during her recent visit to Uganda, where she participated in the campaign against domestic violence, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

The acclaimed British author spent three weeks in Uganda and eluded her fans and book club members without even trying! Jane Rogers is the author of eight novels on top of short stories and several radio and TV plays that have aired on BBC and other international channels.

Her literary proficiency has won her notable accolades like the Somerset Maugham Award, Writers’ Guild Best Fiction Book while Dawn and the Candidate (1989) won her the Samuel Beckett Television Award.
Roger’s 1999 novel, Island, about a young woman hunting down her mother to kill her, was turned into a radio drama and has recently been turned into a film.

An editor of the Oxford University Press Good Fiction Guide (2001), Rogers has a novel set in Nigeria as well, The Voyage Home (2004). No wonder Chinua Achebe is one of her favourite authors.

Anyway, the 58-year-old mentored me on an upcoming radio soap opera about bride price and domestic violence and when I boasted to my friend Lauryn Ntare, UBC’s hotshot Vogue Magazine host, she whooped with envy and begged me to get her an autographed copy of Roger’s best-selling novel, Mr Wroe’s Virgins (1991).

It’s a true story of ‘a charismatic church leader who tells everybody to join his church, citing the world’s imminent doom”. Mr John Wroe touts himself as God’s mouthpiece and gets his massive followers to give unrestrained money with which he builds a mega church and then demands seven virgins to work as his servants. But when one of them gets pregnant, his followers are riled and banish the hypocritical preacher, who runs to Australia and builds another church that still exists.

The novel was turned into a TV serial directed by Danny Boyle –the famed director of the popular movie, Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

Most authors, like parents, are often ambivalent about their favourite child or novel. But not Jane Rogers! Her favourite “baby” is her third novel, The Ice is Singing (1987), about a poor woman who abandons her twins. “I like it because it’s quite sad but ends happily,” she says, adding, “And it’s very well shaped.”

Roger’s journey into authorship began with a love of reading that knew no bounds from as early as she could remember.

“When I was little, we lived in the countryside, where a library van full of books would come around every once in two weeks; we were allowed to take six books,” she says, brightening up. “I used to choose the six fattest books in the van because then there was more reading in them. I would then read them in about two days and wait for the van to come back.”

It’s while waiting that Rogers would find herself writing vigorously in her journal, inspired by the stories she read. It grew into a habit she found hard to break.

“And when I was at the university (Cambridge), we formed a group in which we performed our own writing; reading to an audience. It became quite popular, so I had things published in small magazines and then I wrote my first novel, (Separate Tracks, 1983).

A professor of writing at Sheffield Hallam University, she says the art of writing is not easy but quickly tells budding writers it’s a worthwhile venture if they give it their all.

“Each of my novels has taken between four and five years to write, a lot of that time being spent re-writing it; changing it and revising it,” she says. “People say writing novels is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration and I think that’s true - you have to work hard; you have to revise, revise, revise and the rewards will be greater.”

Interestingly, Rogers has not been as much inspired by literary sages of old as she has been fascinated by the works of 2007 Nobel Laureate, Doris Lessing, particularly her first book, The Grass is Singing (1950), about a relationship between a white woman and her black houseboy, set in pre-independent Rhodesia.

A first time visitor, Rogers talks fondly of the “incredibly friendly” people of Uganda, her Tororo Rock climbing experience and how the women of Kirewa County in Tororo gave her a new name, Nyakecho, which is Japadhola for “born in the season of harvest.”

Married with three children, Rogers, who lives in the north of England, promises to return to the “Pearl of Africa.” Hopefully next time round, fans like Lauryn Ntare will get that much needed autograph!

--Sunday Monitor, December 5, 2010

Of understated beauty and Mifumi’s boogying women

Having imagined that Tororo was a boring place, I was in for a surprise; I was captured by the quiet, all-green beauty of the area and had to tear myself away after my sojourn, writes Dennis D Muhumuza
An opportunity to spend a fortnight in Tororo District had me packing a couple of classic novels as an antidote to probable boredom, having decided this place had little else to offer beyond the hulking Tororo Rock.

But cruising into Mifumi Village after a 40-minute drive from the municipality, I was captured by the quiet beauty of the area. It’s all flat and green; guava, papaya, jackfruit, avocado and mango trees, plus all forms of flowery dot every field, providing a picturesque view.

Up in a giant tree in my host’s compound, weaverbirds taught me a lesson in industriousness! We were here to write an upcoming radio soap opera on domestic violence and child abuse, but instead of sprucing up my work, I would burn my free time watching them twitter and weave their dexterously entwined nests.

The feel of the morning air bursting through my bedroom window, fanning my face while the roosters crowed away, was delightful. This, and the colourful birds and rare specie of little butterflies became my muse as were the aromatic fields and natural aura of romanticism surrounding the entire village.

Skittish calves caper with zest in the morning sun and bulls bellow in the distance. At noon, little white clouds race in the clear skies with wild abandon. As dusk approaches, a dozen or so men are seen at the local pub, sharing a pot of malwa from wooden straws, as fireflies illuminate the night.

Strolling through the village, I met a woman, a child strapped to her back, riding a bicycle. I expected the fringes of her long dress to stray into the spokes and probably cause a tragedy, but she disappeared round the corner without this happening.

Life here is so laidback that even at the local market, customers laze about from stall to stall. Sellers are not heard advertising their merchandise in sugary tongues and exaggeration like their St Balikudembe market counterparts.

In all, you would think life is great here, but don’t be duped. Poverty still looms large and women have long been victims of domestic violence and abuse, as deep-rooted as female genital mutilation is in the neighbouring Kapchworwa District. In fact, about 200 cases of domestic violence are reported to Tororo Central Police Station every month. Gnawed by poverty, parents marry their daughters off from as young as 15 to get bride price.The girls find themselves in unhappy, abusive marriages, which they cannot stay in, yet their parents won’t let them return home for fear of being forced to refund the bride price, as has been the tradition.

However, a local NGO called Mifumi, founded by Ms Atuki Turner, has been fighting for gender equality and it’s through their lobbying that the Tororo District Bridal Gifts Ordinance was enacted, making it illegal to demand bride price refund in case a marriage breaks down. The organisation has also established amenities like schools, health centres, markets and adult literacy centres in the whole of Kirewa sub-county.

It’s at one of the advice centres that a woman recited a poem in Japadhola about bride price: “…you can get married for five cows and tomorrow he’ll be beating you because of those cows… I don’t hear what Adam gave to God for giving him a bride. We shouldn’t put a price on our girls…”

As she recited it, I could have sworn that even the heavily hunched bull under the mango tree outside Mifumi Advice Centre stopped chewing its cud and spread its ears as if not to miss the emotional musicality of her voice.

Still, the women of Kirewa know how to boogie! They welcomed us with song and ululation; wiggling their seemingly boneless waists and pulling some good strokes, their breasts heaving and jouncing beneath bras like they wanted to be set free! It got so contagious that one of us jumped from her seat and joined the dance; shaking her butt like it had caught fire!

Watching them, it was almost inconceivable that they had gone through hell here on earth. One of the women said her husband once forced her down the hole of a pit latrine and when her waist couldn’t go through, he left her dangling there; commanding her to stay there till he came back.

Hearing the tremor of her voice and seeing tears in her eyes as she retold her ordeal, I knew she couldn’t have coined such a story. But like many others, Mifumi has given her a voice and resurrected her confidence, all the pain of the past forgotten.

It’s a tradition here that esteemed visitors are honoured with new names. So, I was given the name Kisangala, which is Japadhola for “happiness.” I had such a good time there that when my sojourn ended, I felt sad.

--Sunday Monitor, December 5, 2010