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Monday, December 22, 2014

Tapping into Uganda’s literary treasures


In 1965, Uganda was described as “a literary desert” by Prof Taban lo Liyong, a literary author. Today, 49 years later, it is right to flip the coin and say Uganda is a literary oasis. Literary creativity is high and acceptance and appreciation of Ugandan literature locally and beyond the borders is becoming the norm.

Writers like Dilman Dila and Jennifer Makumbi had their stars shining brighter this year. Mary Karooro Okurut released Potiphar’s Grand Daughter. A poetry anthology, A Thousand Voices Rising, compiled and edited by Beverley Nambozo Nsengyyunva of the BN Poetry Awards fame, caused excitement. Victoria Atukunda Abigail emerged as the writer of romance to watch with her second novel The Edge, while Evelyn Kasamba proved we can stand to be counted among the best motivational writers with her book School Room for Life. Then Dr Sr Dominic Dipio published an important book on African cinema, and Dr Aaron Mushengyezi on oral literature for children. Oscar Ranzo has proved himself as Uganda’s most prolific children’s author by releasing three more titles this year.

Back to Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. First, her short-story Let’s Tell This Story Properly won the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Then her first novel, Kintu, was released by Kwani? The 442-page volume, described by author Jamal Mahjoub as “an ambitious modern epic that takes in family saga and history of Uganda, fusing the urgency of the present with the timelessness of myth”, was launched in Kampala in June. It sold out immediately, punching holes in the boring dirge that Ugandans do not read.

The best thing that happened to our industry
But the best thing that happened to Uganda’s book industry this year is the crackdown on pirates that infringe on the copyright of authors by illegally reprinting and selling their books cheaply, thereby choking the market for genuine books. It is the major reason Ugandan authors remain poor. Even the government loses revenue since these pirates do not pay taxes. The Uganda Reproduction Rights Organisation (URRO) takes the plaudits for the commando-like-operations in which more than 80,000 pirated books worth Shs1.8b were impounded.
 According to Charles Batambuze, URRO’s executive director, our printing and publishing industry has lost at least Shs10 billion since October 2013 alone through piracy. URRO, which has the official mandate complete with the no-nonsense inspectors reminiscent of the “yellow boys” of KCCA, will with the cooperation of authors, genuine publishers and booksellers, crack the whip more in 2015 until the evil of piracy that has opened the floodgates of substandard books on the market is uprooted.

All the new books will in 2015 be affixed with holograms to distinguish them from fake ones. Anybody caught selling books without holograms will be arrested and the books impounded. URRO will continue to hold workshops to promote awareness against piracy.

Femrite’s role
Some of the Caravan writers ready to set off
Since 1996 when it was founded to give a voice to the woman writer, Femrite - the Uganda female writers association - has continued to be a major player in the growth of our literary industry. This year, it run a set of literary activities but what stood out is the February Uganda Writers Caravan, the first of its kind, which saw a carefully selected group of fine Ugandan authors trek through 10 districts: Kampala, Wakiso, Luwero, Gulu, Oyam, Lira Ngora, Kapchorwa, Mbare and Jinja to promote writing and reading.

“Even us prisoners we have stories to write,” a prisoner in Loro Prison, one of the Caravan stopovers said, “thank you for coming to encourage us to write our stories.”

In July, Femrite run its annual week of literary activities that included a reading with Mellisa Kiguwa for her new poetry collection, a public reading at Hotel Africana on the theme: “African Women Speaking for Themselves - What Difference does it Make?”, a public reading at National Theatre and the week was crowned with Poetry Night at Uganda Museum under the theme: “Redefining Womanhood: A Celebration of Maya Angelou”.

In the same month, Femrite held the “Writing for Social Justice” workshop in which 20 women from different African countries shared on expressing themselves freely and learnt how to identify and respond to issues of social justice. The workshop will take place again in July 2015, and the participants will use the opportunity to publish for the social justice cause.

In October, Femrite launched a new project with the Danish Centre for Culture and Development— Developing a New Reading and Writing Generation, the major aim being the establishment of 20 creative writing clubs in 20 schools (14 schools in Gulu and six in Kabale). Each club owns a notice board and they post their creative works weekly. These clubs are more like an extension of the Femrite Readers Writers Club, which provides mentors to nurture writing talent, as well promote a reading culture in these schools.

According to Femrite Coordinator Hilda Twongyeirwe, 2015 will be a busy year for the organisation.
The Writers Caravan will head to western Uganda, the Femrite Regional Residency will this time be held in Gotland Island at the Baltic Centre in Sweden, the reading tents will be pitched for primary school children in Gulu, and the Week of Literary Activities will happen in mid-year, among other activities.

Other players
In keeping Uganda’s literary flag flying, Femrite has found a competitor in the Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE) that has since 2012 identified, mentored, published and promoted emerging African writers through literary festivals, creative-writing workshops, online mentoring, publication of flash fiction in newspapers, publishing an annual anthology of short stories, and running short story prizes under the “Writivism” programme.

The fact that Okwiri Oduor won the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing while Efemia Chela, participant in the 2014 Writivism workshop in Cape Town was shortlisted for the same shows the potency of this initiative. In fact, some of the Writivism-associated writers, including our own Glaydah Namukasa and Okwiri Oduor, were named by the Hay Festival Africa39 initiative as writers who shall shape the future of African writing.

According to Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire, CACE’s Programmes Director, expect more fireworks in 2015 as more than 50 talented emerging writers are going to be identified around the continent through five creative writing workshops in five different African cities. The best 25 of those will be helped to develop their craft further through mentorship. Then an anthology of 14 short stories will be published, and best five rewarded.

The highlight of 2015 will, however, be a literary conference expected to take place at Makerere University, bringing together writers, publishers, academics, readers, book distributors and the media around the continent.

--Saturday Monitor, December 20, 2014