For this interview, I met Jackee Batanda at her office in Ntinda. She had had a busy day, but she waited patiently for me. “I have refreshed my makeup so that my pictures will be beautiful,” she said as I walked in. She was dressed in a peach tight-fitting dress with black shoes.
“You know, you could write an article without interviewing me because you know almost everything about me,” she said. And she was right. I know about Batanda’s struggle with writing, the joys of success and challenges.
The Batanda I know
I have known Batanda for more than 10 years. We met at Femrite-Uganda Women Writers Association, where we were all trying to write. Batanda was born in Kampala but her family comes from Busitema, Busia district.
“I grew up in a very large family and I am among the youngest children, she says, adding; “My elder siblings always read novels and narrated to me what they had read. That was the beginning of my love for the written word. I wanted to create the same worlds that I saw authors create with their writing. ”
The Batanda I met at Femrite was always an avid reader. She holds an MA in Forced Migration Studies from Univeristy of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, a BA in Communication Studies from Makerere University and a diploma in Education from Kyambogo University. She studied literature in O and A level at Mary Hill and Bweranyangi Schools.
Batanda started writing in her notebooks at an early age and it was when she joined Femrite that her dream of writing came true. Now, Batanda is an award-winning writer, speaker, and enterprenuer with bigger dreams.
“At Femrite, we dreamed of winning the Booker prize without publishing the novels, because we were young and had wild imaginations,” she recalls.
Right from the beginning, Batanda knew that she wanted an international breakthrough in her writing career.
Batanda’s first short story to get published was A Job for Mondu in a collection of short stories by Uganda women writers: Words from a Granary, in 2001. The anthology was launched by the British High Commissioner then, at Hotel Equatoria, and we all had to wear African dresses. We signed autographs and we seemed like stars.
“I didn’t know that writing came with pomp, but I knew that this is where I wanted to be,” says Batanda today. After the publication, Batanda used to go to Femrite offices and sometimes ISIS WICCE on Bukoto Street, because they had free internet for women to use to surf for information on publishing opportunities.
First foot on the world stage
Her first international acceptance letter came from Win Magazine for her short story, Radio Africa, a first person narrative about a boy who survived getting burnt in Kichwamba Technical College in 1998. She received $100, about Shs250,000 for her story, of which she says, “For me, that was a lot of money”.
She then received fan mails from different people around the world. Some people thought she was the one who had survived the inferno so they sent her consoling mails. “That is the power of a story,” she adds, reflectively.
Batanda wrote and sent out stories to different journals like Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Wasafiri Magazine. “I had nothing to lose. The opportunities were a mouse click away,” she said laughing, and adds; “In retrospect, my writing hadn’t developed yet. If I had been an editor, I would also have rejected them.”
Socially, Batanda is, free-spirited, friendly and speaks to people for the first time like she has known them all her life. She laughs loudly and confidently, as if she has no care in the world, and is health-conscious. She loves coffee and some wine. But she is hardworking and determined. She is very disciplined and a big dreamer who works hard to achieve them.
Eventually, her efforts started to pay off. She benefited from literary activities supported by the American Centre and British Council, through which she met accomplished international writers like Paul Theroux.
She was one of the pioneers of British Council’s Crossing Borders, an online mentoring programme where upcoming Ugandan writers were linked with established British writers. Batanda always thought that her English was perfect. This was until she met her mentor, Catherine Johnson, who told her she wrote in Ugandan English. “This opened my eyes to different English dialects and that our cultural upbringing influences our English,” she shares.
The wins start coming in
For her work Dance with Me in 2003, Batanda won the Commonwealth short story prize while a student in Makerere University. She earned £500, equivalent of Shs2m. That, she reveals, was the highest amount she had ever earned from her writing at the time. She used the money to pay her tuition for a whole year so that she could focus on her writing and studies without any worries.
She is grateful for the space the media houses provided her articles, among them Sunday Monitor. “This writing experience led me into writing for more established media houses,” she says. Later, Batanda would write for New York Times, Boston Globe, The Global Post, The Star- Africa Edition, The Mail, and The Guardian.
The impact of Batanda’s writing
These days, Batanda receives requests for media interviews around the world, and is featured in PhD thesis for students in Germany, USA and UK. “These were things I hadn’t envisioned when I started writing and I didn’t know my writing would be studied as text,” she says. Batanda’s non-fiction writing, “For Our Children” brought Molly Grace Kyarisiima, an orphan, to get help.
Her writing saw her travel to USA many times as a peace writer at the Joan B Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego, for the story “Seeking Freedom among Ruins”. She was selected by the International Women’s Media Foundation as the 2011-2012 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow, which gave her prestigious study opportunities. Now, she was recognised and selected for Africa 39 project. “I am working on a new book, A Lesson in Forgetting,” she says.
“I have been writing professionally for over 14 years now. I would like to share my knowledge with people that have stories in them and do not know how to go about it. I am, therefore, working on organising writing workshops for both fiction and non-fiction, through my newly-formed company, SuccessSpark Brand, a communications and educational company.”
Early this month, Batanda was selected by Africa 39 project with two other Uganda authors among Africa’s most promising authors. Her short story will be featured in an anthology titled, AFRICA 39: New Writings from Africa South of the Sahara.
The anthology will be published by a prominent UK publishing house, Bloomsbury, by October 2014. Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize winner, will write the foreward to the anthology.
Batanda will also be invited to the Port Harcourt Book Festival later in October and to other literary events across the world like the Manchester Literary Festival from 2014 through 2016.