The Stray Bulletin

Arts and culture in East Africa and beyond

A short history of women’s writing in Uganda. November 27, 2009

Filed under: History — Sophie Alal @ 11:59 am
Tags: , , ,

In post independence Uganda, the literary and intellectual scene was crackling with ideas about challenging colonial bias, and “Transition” magazine, founded by Rajat Neogy and published independently, was the forum that brought them together. Launched at Makerere University in 1961, it became the heartbeat of the literary movement. It hosted some of Africa’s finest writers like Nuruddin Farrah, Ali Mazrui, David Rubadiri,  Okello Oculi, Ngugi wa’ Thiongo, John Ruganda, Peter Nazareth, and Okot p’Bitek, as well as internationally acclaimed authors such as Paul Theroux and V.S Naipaul who were then working at Makerere University.

While Makerere became a focal point for writers, it also eventually became the core of the women’s movement in Uganda as women scholars realised that the country had almost no visible creative literature written by women. As Goretti Kyomuhendo had put it, “the focus of literary activity remained masculine.”

Fired up on the gains of the women’s movement since 1986, it was inevitable that women writers started yearning for a platform of their own. Founder Member and current president, Honourable Mary Karooro Okurut simply termed it as, “the need for women in Uganda to have space of their own, to encourage one another and be able to shed their inhibitions in order to be able to write their stories.”

The first FEMRITE meeting took place in 1995 the office of Mary Karooro Okurut, then a lecturer in the Literature Department of the Faculty of Arts at Makerere University, who had already published two books. Also present were the published authors Rose Rwakasisi, Lillian Tindyebwa and the late Prof. Rose Mbowa. Some students such as Hilda Twongyeirwe also tagged along. Other founder members like Hope Keshubi, Ayeta Wangusa, Susan Kiguli and Goretti Kyomuhendo were then still stuck with their unpublished manuscripts. Other writers like Regina Amollo, were looking for editors to critically appraise their manuscripts before publication.

From FEMRITE’s inception in 1996, the Green Room of the National Theatre was a meeting place in the interim until they found a single room office on Shimoni Road in 1997.

Only a year after FEMRITE was founded, Violet Barungi’s play, “Over My Dead Body” won the British Council International New Play Writing Award for Africa and the Middle East. This inspired the younger members and set in motion a spate of national and international awards that placed FEMRITE in a position of honour.

It follows that a string of brilliant young nobodies took Africa by surprise. Most remarkable was the rise of Monica Arac de Nyeko, whose essay “In the Stars” won the first prize in the Women’s World essay writing competition in 2004. In the same year, her short story “Strange Fruit” was short listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing. In July 2007 “Jambula Tree” went on to win the 8th Caine Prize for African writing.

In 2004 Doreen Baingana’s debut fiction, “Tropical Fish” won the Washington Independent Writers Fiction Prize and got shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African writing the following year.

Glaydah Namukasa’ s first novel “Voice of a Dream” won the Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa, Senior Category in 2005.

Behind the fine writing and rosy outlook, tears and sweat always flowed from the writers’ pens as the young and underfunded organisation suffered a scarcity of resources. They published two foundering magazines and relied on subsidies from funders. But with a timely intervention by the Dutch Embassy in Kampala, FEMRITE Publications Limited was established in 1998. Subsequently it became the publishing division of the organisation.

From July 1997 to 2002, New Era magazine was published by FEMRITE. However all that’s left of it now is an artist’s painting on the wall enclosing the current offices on Plot 147, Kira Road, Kampala. Out of its ashes rose a print journal Wordwrite, which fared no better and had its last copy in print circulated in 2004. In 2010 a digital uprising saw the resurrection of Wordwrite as an e-journal.

“FEMRITE is not as it used to be,” says Regina Amollo, the author of “A Season of Mirth”. A bizarre string of events has plagued the work of FEMRITE, and when examined closely present the picture of a membership grappling with diverse issues that unfold from uncanny interpretations of Intellectual Property Rights to miscommunication and a noticeable lag in the body of new work. One of the curiosities was the current president making a break from publishing with FEMRITE, when her book “The Official Wife” was published by Fountain Publishers in 2003. Heavy reliance on funding from external sources for the support of creative projects also entail that writers are forced to continuously pander to the thematic and structural constraints imposed by the funding partner. This is perhaps illustrative of the current popularity of anthologies, whereas books singularly authored have been far less in number.

In the members’ conscience was the obscure outlook that writing carried. Burdened with school, professional careers and or domestic responsibilities, many members neither saw nor believed themselves to be writers. For it was regarded as a solitary, time consuming leisure activity that was so often misunderstood by the general public. Davina Kawuuma, a young member recalls that on considering taking up writing full time, a friend assured, “Why are you wasting your time?”

FEMRITE has raised its profile by continuously engaging in networking activities like reading tents, book fairs, public readings and the Annual Literary Week, which in the year 2000 was graced by the distinguished Ghanaian author and playwright Ama Ata Aidoo.

Reluctant writers have had numerous training workshops to put them back into shape. The boldest came with the regional women writer’s residency from 15th to 23rd November 2008, which brought together a cross section of women writers from all over Africa. It lived up to its theme of “Shared Lives: Strengthening the Women Writers Movement Across Africa,” and its success paved the way for the first Ugandan women writer’s residence facilitated by the American novelist Tayari Jones from 12th to16th January 2009.

Another remarkable achievement is the annual Poster Poetry Project, which is currently in its third year and has two poetry anthologies. With its target of secondary school students, it has kept fanning the flames of the growth of a robust reading culture. Volunteers on this project regularly undertake trips to far flung schools holding creative writing workshops and for the students as well as distributing free copies of books.

FEMRITE is also a social club that shares some writing opportunities with male writers, by hosting members of the public, published authors, and upcoming writers. Every Monday, the Readers’ Writers’ Club meets to discuss works of poetry, fiction, drama and occasionally non-fiction, interrupted only by a tea break which heralds the end of each session.

Recently FEMRITE experienced another pleasant first of its kind in Uganda, with the Beverley Nambozo Poetry Award for Women. On Friday 21st August at the Prize giving ceremony at Fang Fang Restaurant, Beverley Nambozo-Nsengiyunva who recently quit her job to raise her daughter and work on her writing could only look back in amazement:

“Deep down inside of me that December in 2008 I knew that something had to happen and I was not sure what. Questions like, Will anyone believe me if I say I’m starting an award? When I send a call out for submissions for a poetry award, will anyone in their right mind respond? If I walk up to FEMRITE and tell them that I need 2 judges to look through the submissions, will they just dismiss me as someone with dead ambitions?”