By Kalungi Kabuye
Two, unrelated, things happened several years apart but which brought the state of writing in Uganda into sharp focus. It might serve to explain our rather unenviable state of writing.
Six years ago, I was part of a group of Old Budonians, who went to the school to meet its writers’ club. They were really enthusiastic young girls and boys, and I was impressed that it was not only those doing the arts that belonged to the club, as traditionally it would have been. Indeed, the chairman was pursuing PCM (Physics, Chemistry, mathematics) at A-Level.
They introduced us to their publication, a magazine with quite an unpronounceable title, and of which thus I cannot remember. But they seemed to be very proud of it, which was of course all wrong.
In my brief address to them, I explained that a writer cannot leave without being read. We write for the people, who we hope will read our works, otherwise, we should just keep diaries. Trying to isolate ourselves from the rest, believing that because we are writers so we are superior beings and should be in our secluded cocoon with other writers, is all wrong. Arrogance in a writer is very ill-placed.
That same scenario came to mind last month, when the UK-based Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, launched her book, Kintu, at the National Theatre. Unfortunately, I did not attend the event due to unavoidable circumstances, but the cream of Ugandan writers attended, I am told.
I also have not read her book, but I intend to do so at the earliest opportunity. But during an interview with the BBC, she is said to have announced that the ‘literacy desert’ in Uganda was over. This was in reference to Professor Taban Lo Liyong, one of Africa’s best-known poets and fiction writers, who, in 1969, is said to have declared Uganda a literacy desert.
So, 45 years later, Makumbi declares that her very first book has delivered Uganda from that desert. I am still to meet Dr Makumbi, and I am sure she is a nice person. But to declare that she is some kind of prophet the country has been waiting 45 years to deliver us from a desert is typical of the arrogance that bedevils Ugandan writers.
I have many friends, who are writers and some of them founded and still belong to FEMRITE, the Uganda Women Writers Association, formed to develop and publish women writers.
They have done a tremendous job, and published many books by women writers. But they are increasingly looking like an exclusive golf club, members only. I would like to know how many Ugandans have ever heard of FEMRITE, or read any of the books the organisation has published.
There are a number of writers groups on social media, and some of the members are obviously talented writers. But they keep it to themselves, revelling in their special status as writers, different from the common, middling masses, milling in their ignorance. But probably very afraid to face the reality of what the public would actually think about their writing.
About a decade ago, the British Council started the Crossing Borders programme, which mentored young Ugandan writers with experienced British writers and novelists. I attended a kind of passing out for some writers that had participated in the programme.
Some of them read from the pieces they had written during the programme, and they seemed to be really proud of what they had done. I was not impressed, just as I was not with the young writers in Budo.
They were just writing for themselves, I wrote in a review, and earned many insults for my efforts. One of them wrote that I knew nothing about creative writing, that I should stick to reviewing concerts and Congolese bands. I wonder where they all are now.
You can follow Kalungi Kabuye on Twitter @KalungiKabuye
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Tribulations of being a writer in Uganda