6 August 2007

Ugandan Women Writers Shine But Where Are Men?

Kampala — WHEN Ms Monica Arac de Nyeko won the Caine Prize for literature a few weeks ago, she was the first Ugandan to receive such prestigious international literary recognition of late.

Ms Hilda Twongyeirwe, the co-ordinator of the Uganda Women Writers' Association (Femrite), was happy for Ms Arac, but her happiness stopped at a certain point.

"When someone has won an award, it is an inspiration," said Ms Twongyeirwe. "It makes us say to the other writers, 'When is your piece coming out?"

Since its inception in 1996, Femrite has encouraged Ugandan women to tell their stories. "These girls who have won are working very hard," said Ms Twongyeirwe. "And there are stories in Uganda to tell." In the past, says Ms Jackie Budesta Batanda, another recognised Ugandan writer who was short-listed for the Macmillan Award, "Uganda as a literary voice didn't have the same impact as Zimbabwe, Nigeria or South Africa."

According to Makerere literature scholar Susan Kiguli, "Before there was a sense there was good writing but not great writing. People cling onto one name - Chinua Achebe.

But we've been able to put Ugandan writing back in the limelight. We're establishing ourselves in the world as writers worth our salt."

Ms Arac is evidence of that as is Ms Batanda and a handful of other names, all worth their salt. The thing that's changed, however, is not just the recognition, but who is getting recognised. For once, the women are at the head of the pack and the men are limping behind, manuscripts in hand.

"The men are too busy running after money, politics and drinking beer in bars in the evening," said Mr Austin Ejiet, a published writer, newspaper columnist and former literature teacher at Makerere. "The ladies were clever when they started Femrite to articulate women's writing and have work published. They got a lot of money and support."

Ms Twongyeirwe, however, does not attribute it to the money and the support as much as the hard work and dedication the women of Femrite have given to their craft.

"Femrite began another phase of writing in which the women's voice came boldly on the scene," said Dr Kiguli, who is a former chairperson of Femrite. "Women were not going to be in margins."

Mr Ejiet said he knows lots of men with manuscripts sitting in their desk drawers, waiting to be published. "Men don't have the equivalent of Femrite.

Even if they did, I don't think men would come every Monday [when Femrite meets]. They would rather go to a bar."

The manuscripts Mr Ejiet referred to are waiting in the offices of Mr Alex Bangirana of Fountain Publishers, located on the campus of Makerere University.

"The challenge is the market," he said. "We get manuscripts but we don't sell great quantities of those we have published. We print 2,000, sell over time, but it's not in one or two or even three months."

Mr Ejiet said Fountain rushes to do orders for the Ministry of Education and the forthcoming Commonwealth Summit before literature because they sell many more copies than literary books. Mr Bangirana confirmed this. "Do we have the money to buy the books? Money goes to school fees," he said.

However, everyone agrees that part of the problem is that schools are not using Ugandan fiction books as part of their curriculum. "Now the Ugandan education system needs to read their own," said Dr Kiguli. "Kids will be excited to know it's not only Shakespeare who has written - dead and male and white."

Ms Arac, however, disagrees that people are not reading Ugandan literature. She thinks the problem is that there isn't enough information about the books getting to the people who are hungry to read them. "It's easy to say people are not reading," she said. "But I think people are keen to see literature which reflects them.

Students are thrilled about books. 'This sounds like someone I know,' they say. People want to read good literature but also about themselves."

Ms Arac said it would be great if thousands of books got bought but added that despite all that, people are buying and reading.

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