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Monday, May 16, 2011

Lamwaka: Our Caine Prize nominee


It was February 2009. The excitement was palpable in the Femrite boardroom! Beatrice Lamwaka had just received good news from South Africa; she had just been short-listed for the Pen/Studzinski Literary Award, for her short story, The Star in my Camp.

Beatrice Lamwaka
“I want to win this because I made a resolution at the beginning of this year to win a literary award,” she told me at the time. “But even if I don’t, there’s the Caine Prize for African Writing!”

Well, she won nothing but can today celebrate with extra oomph seeing her Caine Prize dream begin to take shape after getting nominated for the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, for her story, Butterfly Dreams.
Interestingly, the narrative has nothing to do with butterflies but tells of a former child soldier trying to fit in after returning home from the bush.

“I got the inspiration after visiting one of the rehabilitation centres in Gulu and listening to what the former child rebels had gone through,” says the author. “It was initially titled Then He Returned but I thought that was not catchy enough, so I changed it to Butterfly Dreams.”
Growing up in northern Uganda, a region that until recently was ravaged by war, and therefore drawing largely from the trying reality of life there, explains Ms Lamwaka’s vivid exposition of the predicaments in society and the things people do to forget their distresses.

Her first story, Vengeance of the Gods, (from Words From A Granary anthology -2001) is for example about mob justice; a jealous woman bewitches her co-wife to death and is in turn lynched to death, while Queen of Tobacco (2001), is a moving account of a woman who abandoned by her children, finds solace in her smoking pipe but her obsession with nicotine combined with her deprivation leads her into the hands of brutes who satiate her craving but make her pay for it viciously.

The uniqueness of the author is in her ability to craft dark stories crisply and empathically, the kind of distinctness with which Butterfly Dreams deflected competition from 139 manuscripts from 17 African countries to make it in the top five works whose quality and ambition, according to the lead judge, Hisham Matar, “Represent a portrait of today’s African short story: its wit and intelligence, its concerns and preoccupations.”

A robust woman of easygoing disposition, Lamwaka was born in Gulu District some secret years ago, the daughter of a retired Medical Assistant and housewife, in so big a family she approximates her father’s children to be 22, but is the fifth of her mother’s seven children. Her father’s compound turned into a refugee camp, which explains the tensions of displacement and the futilities that suffuse her works.

Her intercourse with books began in her early formative years at Lacor Primary School, where she got fascinated with story books so much that she began scribbling in her own exercise books, and has never looked back.

At Nsambya Girls and Namugongo Senior Secondary schools where she completed her secondary and high school education, she was known for the naughty habit of nipping novels from her friends and classmates which she read quickly, sometimes staying awake all night long to complete a big volume, before returning them. She also had an obscure reading corner in the school library where nothing could distract her.

A holder of a Makerere University Education degree with a concentration in Literature and English, the dark-skinned author joined the Uganda Female Writers Association (Femrite) in 1999, which she plaudits for the learning opportunities, the critiquing and the motivations that have since combined to mould her into the writer she is. She also benefited from the British Council Crossing Borders writing programme, from which she learned about focus and rhythm of writing and as well drew inspirations from the works of South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee –the twice Booker Prize winner, her homeboy Okot p’Bitek, and Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

In spite of her accomplishment as a teacher, researcher, poet and short story writer (she has 12 works published in several anthologies of acclaim), Lamwaka has not been as lucky in matters of love. That she was in a marriage that didn’t work is all she divulges. She didn’t however shoot herself or become a recluse as some writers have.

Rather she quit her teaching job to concentrate on writing and research, became the General Secretary of Femrite, and wrote more. Her children’s book, Anena’s Victory (2008), one of the Fountain Junior Living Youth Series, is taught in primary schools in Uganda, and her latest work, The Hair Cut, about an adolescent girl disconcerted by a pimple that “sits carefully on my forehead like a pot,” is arguably the best from the latest Femrite anthology, Never Too Late (2010).

Her literary prolificacy saw her form a book club that today boasts of 12 members, who meet monthly to discuss books and analyse their works. In fact Lamwaka brooks nothing on how they helped her spruce up Butterfly Dreams, the story that’s on the verge of revolutionising her writing career.

The jolly writer says writing demands strict discipline, which is how she has managed to be an administrator, author, researcher, freelance writer (with Daily Monitor, and the Press Institute) on top of pursuing a Masters Degree in Human Rights at Makerere University.

She has been to Italy, Switzerland, Cameroon, South Africa, Sudan and the US, on research and writing projects, and is working on her memoir, The Market Vendor and also collecting her short stories for an upcoming anthology, The Garden of Mushrooms.

Butterfly Dreams has already generated profound anticipation, no doubt many will be waiting with bated breath on July 11 for the winner of the £10,000 (Shs38m) to be pronounced in Oxford, UK. It’s a stiff race with the Ugandan daughter pitted against two South Africans, a Zimbabwean and Botswanan but one that is not beyond attainment, seeing that Monica Arac de Nyeko did it in 2007. Whatever the outcome, the international cameras will be on Uganda as, and this time not for police brutalising walkers, but something noble that Beatrice Lamwaka will continue to be remembered for.

--Saturday Monitor, May 14, 2011