There was a time when Uganda was an acclaimed literary powerhouse worldwide.
The 1960s and 70s was the period in which Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino was published (1969), the period that shaped writers like Ngugi wa Thiongo (he studied at Makerere between 1960-1963), Arthur Gakwandi, Timothy Wangusa and Austin Bukenya among the golden era of Ugandan literature that led to the production of work whose force and relevance remain unsurpassed.
Sadly, times changed and famous literary magazines and journals like The Dhana and Transition folded, creative artists were harassed in the repressive times of Amin, some killed, and Ugandan literature suffered a stroke. Then the boisterous late 1980s and early 90s birthed showbiz with the flocking in of western entertainers that saw many abandon books for hedonistic fun.
It was not until the formation of the Uganda Female Writers Association (Femrite) in 1996 that Ugandan literature started waking up from its limbo. Since then, a couple of writers like Doreen Baingana and Monica Arac de Nyeko have won literary prizes of international acclaim like the Commonwealth and the Caine Prize for African Writing.
It also helped that the British Council initiated the Crossing Borders programme in which our sons and daughters like Julius Sseremba, Glaydah Namukasa and Patrick Mangeni outed books of outstanding merit.
Upsurge of readers
Today, people are writing with consuming fire. There are more blogs and websites displaying Uganda’s creative writing talent as well as reviewing it. The Uganda Modern Literary Digest at ugandadigest.com and the Reader’s Café at readerscafe.co.za have some of the finest creative writings in the land.
There is also an upsurge of readers and writers’ clubs today than before, run by individual writers and literary organisations.
The annual Book Week by the National Book Trust of Uganda and Femrite’s week of literary activities, plus the monthly Authors’ Forum have all popularised Ugandan literature and contributed to its slow but steady acceptance.
But it is the spurt of training opportunities Uganda’s creative writers are enjoying lately that could transform our industry by giving writers hands-on tips to produce works of global appeal as would top best-seller book lists and rake in millions for authors.
In September, British Council Uganda, partnered with Femrite for a creative arts workshop to assist upcoming writers to develop effective writing skills in the fields of short story, drama and poetry. By the end, the over 20 participants produced works of publishable quality most of which will be submitted for international writing contests like the Commonwealth Short Story writing competition.
And hardly a month later, the London-based African Writers’ Trust (AWT), was in Uganda to train and mentor promising writers to stretch their imagination and strive for international breakthrough, and to link writers on the continent with African writers in the Diaspora.
“Whether we live here or in the Diaspora, we all face the same publishing challenges as African writers, so we think these groups should be meeting more regularly and in a more structured way to share skills and experiences and enhance learning and knowledge,” says AWT founder and director, Goretti Kyomuhendo.
That this year’s training is facilitated by award-winning UK-born Zambian author Ellen Banda-Aaku, whose first novel Patchwork, won the 2010 Penguin Prize for African Writing, tells much about the determination to help Ugandan writers write internationally competitive books.
Ms Banda was joined by Dr Susan Kiguli of Makerere University’s Literature Department and Ms Kyomuhendo, herself a holder of a Masters degree in creative writing and author of well-known novels like The First Daughter (1996), Secrets No More (1996), and Waiting (2007).
This is the second AWT workshop in Uganda. Last year’s was facilitated by UK-born Nigerian award-winning author Sade Adeniran who worked with young emerging writers from Ugandan universities.
This year, the AWT is continuing with those students alongside other independent writers who certainly can do with help from their more learned and experienced counterparts in the Diaspora, on how to find a publisher in the developed world, get a literary agent and generally write a work of compelling quality.
The winner of the inaugural BN Poetry Awards (2008) Lillian Aujo, says she now has better insight into creative writing, and is foraying into short-story and novel writing, thanks to her participation in both British Council-Femrite and AWT workshops, while blogger Ishta Nandi called her participation in the AWT workshop “a major milestone” because it not only got her work evaluated and critiqued but also helped her learn that it’s not enough to have talent; “you actually have to work; make the time to write and rewrite” till the work meets the best standards.
Ms Kyomuhendo says it’s a good time for African works today because their demand in America and Europe is high if they pass the test of quality, the kind of quality those participating in these literary meet-ups are hopefully attaining, and the kind of quality that will reawaken the greatly missed golden era of Ugandan literature.