29 July 2007

Uganda: It Was a Long Wait for Caine Prize Winner

Nairobi — When Ugandan fiction writer and poet, Monica Arac de Nyeko, was recently declared the winner of the 2007 Caine Prize for African Writing, her first reaction was a feeling of triumph.

Her many years of trying to bring the Ugandan woes to the 'conscience of the world' had finally paid off.

"From the early 1970s, there were hardly any writings from Uganda because of wars and conflicts in our country," Nyeko told the Sunday Standard in an interview.

"Historical archives with their rich treasures were destroyed, artists were targeted, and hence many went into exile. Women writers were nowhere to be seen," she said.

Nyeko is among the many Ugandan writers who shared their experiences during the conflicts, weaving them into beautiful and at times emotional tales for the world.

Like others, she was determined to walk in the footpaths of her country's literary giant and fellow Acoli writer, Okot p'Bitek.

Uganda's literary trend changed drastically in the early 1990s, and has continued to do so.

"It has been an exciting time for us, especially women writers. Another great writer, Doreen Bainganya, was recently nominated for the Commonwealth Literary Award and was bestowed with the Associated Writing Programme (AWP) Award in 2003," Nyeko says.

This is proof that Ugandan writing is coming of age, rising from the many years of conflict, and like a phoenix, its writers have been rising from the ashes.

During her acceptance speech, Nyeko said the prize was a "very exciting time for Ugandan fiction". She also saw it as an achievement beyond her country's boundaries.

"It shows that great stories come from East Africa where many young writers are hungry to capture their day-to-day experiences," she said.

The writer took a swipe at Taban Lo Liyong's long held notion that East Africa is a "literary desert". "The region is definitely experiencing a form of renaissance in terms of the arts."

Nyeko beat the continent's seasoned artists like Uwem Akpan, E C Osundu and Ada Udechukwu, all from Nigeria, and South Africa's Henrietta Rose-Innes.

Her winning story, Jambula Tree, was considered a bold tale touching on a taboo subject in Africa - a sexual relationship between two young girls in a country where homosexuality is unfathomable and only whispered in social settings.

The chairman of the judges' panel, Jamal Mahjoub, from Sudan, described the story as "a witty and touching portrait of a community which is affected forever by a love that blossoms between two adolescents".

Yet this was not Nyeko's intention. "I just wanted to write about pure love between two young girls living in a complex society," she says.

Nyeko is amazed at the different interpretations her story has elicited. Arguing that there are many things people need to talk about, she advocates for openness as opposed to building "walls of emotion on some issues touching society".

Jambula Tree is a story of love, that brings to mind other emotional stories like Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter, Ngugi wa Thiongo's The River Between, Grace Ogot's The Rain Came and Wangui wa Goro's Deep Sea Fishing.

In Jambula Tree, the innocent love between two girls quickly evolves into something more. When the community finds out, its reaction is quick and unforgiving. Their families react harshly and the girls are ridiculed and despised. One is quickly dispatched to London to keep the two apart.

Nyeko writes with a touch of simile, enriching her language. One is easily reminded of our rich oral repertoire. Revenge in the book is "sweet and salty like grasshoppers seasoned with onion and kamulari red, red-hot pepper".

Unlike Nyeko's earlier stories, Jambula Tree was a change of tact.

This is understandable given that Nyeko, 28, hails from Kitgum District, Northern Uganda, which has been affected by war since the 1980s.

The holder of an Education degree from Makerere University and an MA in Humanitarian Assistance from Groningen University, Nyeko sees herself as a new generation of African writers seeking a voice in the continent.

"Writing gives me an opportunity to challenge, shout and make demands whenever things go wrong. It gives me a right to poke at others' thoughts and offer my views," she says. "I write about all the things that affect me as a woman, an Acoli, a Ugandan, a daughter and an aunt."

What steered her to writing?

"I used to read a lot as a young girl. The ladybird series, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, were some of my favourite stories among others. But I never thought I would become a writer," says Nyeko.

At school, she would write compositions about the stories she read in the books. "I used to write about snow and horse chariots, things I had never seen."

Later, works by the continent's greats like Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Chinua Achebe, Okot p'Bitek and Alex La Guma spurred her young mind.

She nevertheless credits much of her growth to Uganda Women Writers Association (Femrite).

"Writing is a lonely process, and the organisation brought me into contact with many other prolific writers who challenged and inspired me," she said.

For Nyeko, Femrite helped bridge the gap and brought in women writers to the literary landscape through seminars and workshops. The organisation had a room christened 'The Den of Wisdom' furnished with a computer, mattress and blanket only.

"We would go in there and literally close the world out, just thinking about the stories we were working on," she recalls.

This helped consolidate their creative ideas and impulses.

A former Literature and English language teacher at St Mary College, Kisubi, in Uganda, Nyeko's great moments have been few and far between.

"Being short-listed twice for the Caine Prize and winning it this year tops everything."

And this is not her only award. She won the first prize in the Women's World Voices in War Zones, for her personal essays In the Stars. She was selected for the British Council Writer's scheme, Crossing Borders, to link Ugandan writers with established ones in the UK.

Her fiction and poetry has appeared in publications in different countries. Her short fiction, Back Home is forthcoming in the New African Writer's anthology edited by Helon Habila and Khadija George. She is currently working on a novel titled, Small People.

The award winner appreciates the change of attitudes towards artists in Uganda. "Long ago when you told people you were a writer, they thought you were a failure and had nothing better to do. Today, writers alongside other artistes like musicians, are respected," she says.

Nyeko's family has been the pillar in her writing career. When she was declared the winner, her first call was to her sister. "I told her to stop praying, because she had been on her knees for a long time, intercessing for me to win something," she says.

With the Caine Prize came an award of £10,000 (about Sh1.4 million) and a month's stay at Georgetown University, Washington DC, as a writer-in-residence.

"With my full time job at a humanitarian organisation in Nairobi, I hardly get time to write. The residence will provide a great opportunity to catch up with my writing," she says.

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