On Tuesday, May 15, the Uganda Female Writers Association (Femrite) celebrated 16 years of existence. It was a real “sweet-16” birthday party, complete with a cake whose icing was the launch of the latest short-story anthology, Summoning the Rains.
But for me, it was a time to reflect on the evolution of Ugandan literature in the last 50 years of our independence, and Femrite’s part in the whole equation. When Mary Karooro Okurut (‘Mother Hen’ as she’s fondly known at Femrite) founded the organisation in 1996, the Ugandan woman had no literary voice.
No simple journey for female writers
In the 1970s, Elvania Namukwaya of the famous play When the Hunchback Made Rain (1972) and Jane Kironde Bakaluba of the satirical novel, Honeymoon for Three (1973), had held the banner for women writers. But the candle had waned and finally been extinguished when President Idi Amin started killing artists.
Moreover, there were few educated women, and society was still strongly patriarchal. In 1976, Okot p’Bitek set the bar very high with Song of Lawino, and from then, the roosters did not look back. They dominated and devoured all the glory of the golden years of Ugandan literature from mid 1960s and the 70s.
After the ouster of President Amin, it took over 10 years before the literary echoes could be heard again. Of course, gender discrimination had been suffering a slow but steady death, and the government and civil society had put a premium on the education of the girl-child.
Encouraged, women put pen to paper and published works of admirable quality. Jane Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Farewell (poetry), Lillian Tindyebwa’s Recipe for Disaster (novel), Mary Abago’s Sour Honey (novel), Violet Birungi’s The Shadow and the Substance (novel), Jane Kaberuka’s Silent Patience (novel) plus Hope Keshubi’s Going Solo and To a Young Woman (novels) were all released between 1994 and 1999.
Still, “Mother Hen”, then a lecturer in the Literature Department at Makerere University, felt local publishing firms showed gender bias, and so gathered a few literature ladies, Jocelyn Ekochu, Goretti Kyomuhendo, Lilian Tindyebwa and Hope Keshubi among others, and formed an organisation purposely to support and nurture women writers in Uganda.
Two years later, Femrite released two short story collections (A Woman’s Voice and Words from a Granary), two novels (Mary Karooro Okurut’s The Invisible Weevil and Memoirs of a Mother by Ayeta Anne Wangusa) plus Susan Kiguli’s poetry anthology, The African Saga, which sold out under a year because of its sheer quality and power of its relevance.
At the age of four (2000), Femrite in partnership with Alliance Française de Kampala, released the first Creative Writers Directory with information about Ugandan writers, dead and alive with excerpts from their works. The vintage booklet was another of the novelties that showed the pragmatic approach Femrite would continue to employ to grow while growing the industry as well.
This is when Austin Bukenya commented, “The advent of Femrite and its associated publishing wing has led to a productivity in Ugandan writing, which is likely to affect the whole writing and reading culture of the country.” This productivity today is epitomised by 32 publications and the organisation’s monthly online writers’ journal. This has however not helped improve the country’s flagging reading culture. Book sales are still low, and in a population of over 30 million people, the best selling newspaper on a good day sells just about 50,000 copies.
However, Femrite is not deterred, and continues to popularise Ugandan literature through literary partnerships and activities. Its Monday evening Readers and Writers’ Club is more vibrant, and numbers soar at the Club’s Author-of-the-Month session.
And the Femrite annual week of literary activities every July is now established on the literary calendar, and three years ago, the Femrite Residency for African Women Writers was born. It has since birthed three books, including Summoning the Rains – a collection of 20 short stories launched on Tuesday.
The residency is what former Femrite chairperson, Jocelyn Okochu, likened to the female version of the Big Brother Africa for uniting women writers from different African countries. The third edition had 15 women from Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Botswana, Malawi, Tunisia, South Africa, Namibia and the host country Uganda overall.
Femrite chairperson Doreen Baingana said it’s at the Residency that the writers get to concentrate on writing, grapple with their experiences, compare notes from such a diverse audience and mentor each other. By working hard and strengthening collaborations, the women writers have made enviable strides, no doubt.
However, you have to pose questions on the power of Femrite publications to inform and reform society. Do they have a connection with our daily realities? Can teachers of literature proudly teach these works? Can they inspire or stand the test of time? That’s another hot discussion altogether! For now, join the literary cognoscenti that filled a Hotel Africana hall to congratulate Femrite on its 16th anniversary, and pat the organisation for maturing from a chick to chicken that has given women writers in Uganda and Africa a formidable voice.