Rejected at home, feted overseas. That is how Margaret Mukuru – a Ugandan teacher and children books writer – feels after winning this year’s African Authors Award for her environment book series.
Johannesburg-based social enterprise AfriCan Child: Your Time Is Now, which also runs African Authors Awards, presented Mukuru the award during the third edition of the event held on July 31, 2020, noting that her five book series “Man in His Environment” is an “inspiring and environmental empowerment” voice to young people, particularly school children.
According to Anthea Thyssen-Ambursley, founder of AfriCan Child: Your Time Is Now and host of the Awards, the organisation looks out for self-publishing local authors writing for children and car boot sellers that inspire and contribute to the literary world.
Ironically, since 2016, Mukuru has struggled to convince schools in Uganda to take upher books as part of their reading list.
“After securing my copyright I embarked on peddling the books to various local schools who, unfortunately, rejected them for various reasons. Some said the English was complex. Some said the National Curriculum Development Centre was the one which recommended what books to use. Some said they had never seen such books and so wondered how to use them.
“At the same time I had to hide my irritation when some teachers could not read the titles,” she says, explaining that she then decided to write a Readers Guide as part of the set.
Because of this, she got an idea to write a readers guide to enable both parents and teachers to read with children at home and school.
Written in simple poetry and fable storytelling format, the books are instructive on things environmental, and include four story books and a readers guide, sold as a set, at Ush50,000 ($13.6).
The school option having failed, in 2016 Mukuru sought partnerships with government agencies and non-governmental organisations involved in environmental work.
She reached out to the Water and Environment ministry for which the books were especially relevant, and met the director for Water Resource Management, Ms Florence Adongo to interest her in the books.
“I was planning to hold a book launch so I requested her to grace the occasion as Guest of Honour. After reading the books she accepted my invitation. She expressed to us that her dream is to see more of child involvement in environment management since they will be here longer when we are gone,” Mukuru recalls.
The book launch took place at Hotel Africana in Kampala and attracted many guests, including friends and well-wishers.
Later that year Ms Adong launched again the books again at the joint sector review under Ministry of Water and Environment. This second launch was done in a bid to stir up interest among other stakeholders to support environmental awareness among children by reaching schools with the books.
The breakthrough came in 2017, when the Austrian government funded a pilot project through local NGOs Uganda Water and Sanitation Network (UWASNET) and Agency for Cooperation in Research and Development (ACORD) to distribute 5,000 sets for use in 10 schools in Isingiro and Mbarara districts under Friends of Water clubs.
In October 2019, Mukuru posted pictures of her books, stirring interest among her old schoolmates from the 1970s, after a reunion in Kampala. Thereafter, one of schoolmates Agnes Kamya Kijjambu showed the pictures to Barbara Lawrence-Strydom, a South Africa based environmental conservationist, fondly referred to as “garbage queen” for her role in mobilising communities to practise proper waste disposal.
Lawrence-Strydom, who has written several books for children and is also the ambassador for Feed a Mind, an organisation that brings African authors together, urged Mukuru to submit her book series to the African Authors Awards.
“I sent my books by DHL and soon after, a message came from Anthea Thyssen-Ambursley, who congratulated me upon my achievement and said to wait for the big day in July. I did not take it to heart until the day before Awards day when she sent another message reminding me to be online at 1800hrs to hear my name announced and that the trophy would be sent to me in Uganda.
“This is when it dawned on me that I had won an award. That I was not just a local author but a continental one,” she recounts, adding that her trophy arrived by courier, exactly one week after the awards ceremony.
Despite the excitement, Mukuru nearly missed her moment in the sun, after failing to get internet connection on her phone.
“As I was giving up, my son who had managed to log in arrived just in time for me to hear my name being announced…after a couple of other authors, ‘…number six is from Uganda, Margaret Mukuru,” she recalls, adding that the book titles were read out one by one.
Mukuru shared the awards joy with another Ugandan winner Irene Bukirwa Kamara, whose winning story is about rising out of poverty through hard work.
But self-publishing comes with many pitfalls that curtail ambition.
For instance, Mukuru now needs Ush10 million ($2,724) to cover printing expenses alone for more copies, yet since publishing, her book series have barely sold 5,000 sets – even that, a result of the Austrian government’s benevolence – which fetched about a quarter of this budget.
The Rainforest is the first book(2008), inspired by continuous destruction of Uganda’s rainforests.
In The Great African Sea (Book Two), Tilly the Tilapia laments about the choking Lake Victoria where she lives with siblings Til, Appie, Lappie and Pia.
Puff! the Man-made Cloud explores the risks humans pose to the ozone by cigarette smoking, fossil fuels, bush burning, setting plastics ablaze, in addition to factory fumes all making God-made lungs sick.
Mt Refuse traces the journey of karoli invasion of Kampala from 1972; back when everyone knew where to dump their refuse. Completing the set is the Readers Guide.