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Saturday, February 4, 2012

The literary giant intrigued by medicine


The life of Goretti Kyomuhendo is a story of discovery, sheer determination, commitment and relentless love. She was first introduced to the art of storytelling by her grandmother, but it was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) that made her fall helplessly in love with reading and writing.

“It created in me a sublime feeling of what it means to be an African,” she says. “Most crucially, it inspired me to start writing my own stories.”

Ms. Goretti Kyomuhendo
Without the benefits of either a first degree or any formal training in writing, Kyomuhendo relied on sheer determination to produce her first novel, The First Daughter, released in 1996 when she was just a Diploma holder in Business Studies.

She was one of the founding members of the Uganda Women Writers Association (Femrite), serving as its Programmes Coordinator (1997-2007) and becoming the first Ugandan woman writer to be awarded the International Writing Programme Fellowship at the University of Iowa (1997).

The First Daughter, which is still among the few well-known works here, blazed the trail for Ugandan female writers, and its good reception inspired Kyomuhendo to write more. She followed it with Secrets No More (1999) which won the National Book Trust of Uganda literary award for Best Novel of the Year.

Always on the lookout for opportunities, Kyomuhendo landed a scholarship to study for a degree in English Studies in South Africa, and followed it with a Masters degree in Creative Writing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (2005).
It is during this time that she embarked on her fourth novel, Waiting, published in 2007 by the Feminist Press of New York. This short novel about the effects of war on the rural people is Kyomuhendo’s most critically reviewed book internationally.

“Already, about four academic papers have been published in books and journals on Waiting,” she reveals, “and it is now taught, and, or, used for research by a number of PhD students in America, Germany, Netherlands, UK and others.”

A short, motherly figure with a warm disposition, Kyomuhendo was born and raised in Hoima District, which explains why most of her works have rural settings, and are inspired by real life events, with women protagonists that endure many hardships on their road to achievement.

She has also written prolifically for children, but her greatest achievement, arguably, is establishing the London-based African Writers Trust (AWT), in 2009, purposely to create space and opportunities for African writers in the Diaspora and on the continent, to interact, share resources and experiences, and enhance learning.

It preoccupies her; she travels a lot; organising literary workshops and writing whenever she can. She just completed a Writers Manual for African Writers, and is soon completing her fifth novel, based on immigrant experiences of Ugandans, and other Africans in the Diaspora.

It is because of her contribution to the literary world that in 2009 she was nominated by the U.S.-based UTNE Reader as one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World”.

“It was humbling, really, and totally unexpected especially considering the other Visionaries I shared the space with that year, such as The Dalai Lama,” she says modestly.

But it has not been easy. She has had her fair share of rejections from publishers but that has not daunted her spirits. She says as long as she has issues that bother her; things that lie deep in her heart, she will always write, inviting and persuading others to view every world she creates with her pen.

The 46-year-old advises budding writers to strive for stories that speak to readers profoundly; that stick with them long after they have finished reading them and that make you cry or laugh.

When the interview drifts to Uganda’s poor reading culture, Kyomuhendo readily relays an antidote -we must socialise the reading activity, hold more public events where the writers get to read with the readers, and share and talk about their works.

“I dream of the moment when we shall regain our rightful position in the literary world as the producers of some of the best writing, and writers, from the continent,” she says longingly. “You know, the days of Song of Lawino, or when Uganda was the hub of literary activities on the continent, like when we used to host Transition magazine in the 1960s, when we hosted ACLAS (Association for Commonwealth Language and English Studies) gathering of writers and scholars in 1972, and the African Writers Talking Conference of 1962, and when Makerere was home to some of the leading African writers of today…”

But to get there, she adds quickly, “We need to create supportive structures such as grants and fellowships for our writers, we need to build and develop further our publishing infrastructures. We also need support and encouragement from our government when it comes to home-grown literature.”

Kyomuhendo cherishes privacy only revealing that she is married with children that are not “keen on literature –they are more into sciences.”

I wonder out aloud if she, too, has some science blood flowing through her veins. She laughs softly: “I sure would be a doctor if I had had the brains for it,” she says with more mirth in her eyes. “Medicine really intrigues me!”

Sunday Monitor, January 29, 2012