The first decade of the 21st century saw a number of prestigious literary prizes come Uganda’s way. According to some commentators, this signaled that writing was finally returning to the preeminent position it once held among the Ugandan arts. Then, in the years leading to and a decade after independence, we boasted of talents like Okot p’Bitek and a locally-founded publication – Transition Magazine – that attracted internationally renowned contributors (Paul Theroux, Wole Soyinka, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, V. S Naipaul, etc) and was a forum of “intellectual debate and cultural exchange” on the continent.
It was a premature call. Although our writers have improved, and become more visible worldwide as a result, we still have some distance to travel before we attain the repute of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Kenya, which between them have won the Caine Prize, Africa’s most prestigious literary prize, nine times out of the 13 years it has been awarded (Nigeria thrice, the rest twice each).
The award winning Jambula Tree
Uganda’s sole win was in 2007 when Monica Arac de Nyeko won the award, which is given annually for the best original short story by an African writer, for Jambula Tree. The short story was described by the 2007 Caine chair of judges, Jamal Mahjoub, as “a witty and touching portrait of a community which is affected forever by a love that blossoms between two adolescents.” Boyd Tonkin, a literary editor at Britain’s Independent newspaper and a judge in a number of prizes, including the prestigious Booker, called the affair an “earthquake which shakes the moral foundations because the shocking couple are two girls who love without shame.”
A Western prize, albeit for African writing, awarded to a writer who celebrates homosexuality inevitably plays into the hands of moral crusaders who say that such relationships are not only African, but are also being imposed on our cultures by Westerners. It neatly adds up! Arac de Nyeko was well aware of all these concerns but, in an interview with The African magazine, said she had to “move away from that because it’s very restrictive.”
The power she holds as a writer, she said, means that she has to “present these things,” some of which “are very crucial issues, and we need to talk about them.” And “talking about” these “very crucial issues” for Arac de Nyeko meant exploring love regardless of the orientation of the characters. In her own words, “Love is love. It doesn’t matter if it’s between two women, two men; it’s an experience.”
The loudest of loud voices
Yet, de Nyeko was not the first Ugandan to be associated with the award: Doreen Baingana had already been twice shortlisted in 2004 and 2005. And in 2011 Beatrice Lamwaka, a frequent contributor to this newspaper, was also shortlisted for the award, which was eventually won by Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo.
The three were all at one point members of FEMRITE, a women writers association founded in 1995 as an NGO to “promote women writing in Uganda.” In an interview she gave to the BBC, Arac de Nyeko had this to say of the association; “FEMRITE has obviously had a positive impact on the Ugandan literary scene, particularly in forging a space for women’s voices to be heard.” And of those women, Arac de Nyeko’s voice was heard the loudest when she won the Caine Prize.
Arac de Nyeko joined Femrite in 1999 while in her second year at university. Then, she revealed in an interview, she “didn’t even know” that what she was doing “was called writing” and it took her joining FEMRITE to identify herself as a writer, a communicator, and, ultimately, realise the power that status conferred upon her.
A mirror of society
That empowerment led her to confront an issue, same-sex relationships, that is a taboo in the country. Even then, what Arac de Nyeko wanted us, the society that condemns same-sex relationships, to see in her story is its innocence and honesty. It is an impossible thing to ask for, of course: reactions to a work of art are as varied as the people who interact with it. And in that interview she acknowledges it saying “it’s part of the whole dialogue and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Art, like the truism goes, is a mirror of society. Arac de Nyeko is an undoubtedly talented and flexible writer – her 2004 Caine shortlisted story is about the war in northern Uganda – and is not afraid of pointing out the contradictions many of us would rather sweep under the carpet or, that failing, draft draconian laws against. That, partly, has always been the heavy responsibility all worthy artists have to bear. And perhaps, in the laudation we always reserve for the best artists, we are thanking them for daring to go where we cannot.
For Arac de Nyeko and her contemporary Ugandan writers, it is exploring the divide between our traditional cultures and the modernity we cannot escape. Our artists might choose to concentrate on one over the other but, ultimately, they cannot escape the clash between the two.
• Born: 1979
• Graduated from Makerere University and Groningen University with a BA in Education and a MA in Humanitarian Assistance, respectively.
• De Nyeko won the Caine Prize for her story “Jambula Tree” in 2007. The story was published in African Love Stories: an Anthology, edited by Ama Ata Aidoo and published by Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd. Another of her notable stories which was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2004 is “Strange Fruit”