Monday, July 4, 2011

In praise of Ugandan women…..writers

This post is a celebration of the talent, energy and determination of some of my Ugandan friends, young women writers whom I have met through the book club to which I belong.  The leading lights of the book club – which every month also transforms into a writing club – are Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva and Beatrice Lamwaka.  Beverley writes poetry as well as running workshops, encouraging emerging writers and generally contributing enormously to the cultural life of Kampala.

Friday evening was a splendid occasion: it was the 3rd award giving ceremony of the BN Poetry Award (no prizes for guessing what the initials stand for!).  Guests were entertained by well-known poets reading their work, including the amazingly energetic Prophet from South Africa and last year’s winner, Sophie Alal, another member of the book and writing clubs, who read a moving and original poem.  Susan Kerunen gave a magnificent performance in Acholi of part of the Song of Lawino by Okot p’Bitek (subject of an earlier blog of mine, Are we speaking the same language...?), accompanied by traditional music. This was followed by an equally impressive recital by Pamela Elizabeth Acaye, herself a multi-talented and published poet, of the same verses translated into English.  Oh, and by the way, Pamela is also a member of the book and writing clubs.

The first prize was won by Sanyu Kisaka, for her poem on this year’s theme, Hope.  You can read her poem, Handswing of Disguised Depravity on Beverley’s blog about the BN Poetry Award. Altogether about 40 young female poets entered the competition and nine received awards, public recognition of the talent and enthusiasm of young Ugandan women.

Hon Joyce Mpanga on the left and Beverley Nambozo on the right
Nevertheless, it was a rather older Ugandan woman who also impressed me. The Honourable Joyce Mpanga is a veteran MP who has championed the cause of Ugandan women for many years.  As Chief Guest she gave a very interesting speech in which she recalled (and recited, and sang) traditional poems which are part of Baganda culture.  In addition to a lovely lullaby sung by mothers to the babies strapped on their backs, she amused the audience with examples of satirical verses which people used to sing from hill to hill and which record incidents in the life of the Royal Family of Buganda.  Rather like British nursery rhymes (e.g. 'Georgie Porgy pudding and pie’), these ‘nonsense’ verses give accounts of actual events in a form which removes any suggestion of disrespect.  For example, the reference to a fox cooked in dried banana leaves (an’ impossible’ recipe) is an allusion to the first ever remarriage of a Queen Mother  – an ‘impossible’ event.

Sophie Alal reading her poem.
However, there is one very important person whom I haven’t talked about so far, despite mentioning her right at the beginning of this post.  One of the readings at the BN Award Ceremony was by Beatrice Lamwaka, an extract from her short story Butterfly Dreams.  Beatrice has been shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize for African writing in English, the African version of the Booker Prize. This is a wonderful achievement, for it is not often that a Ugandan writer reaches the shortlist.  It tends to be the South Africans, Kenyans and Nigerians who dominate African writing. Beatrice comes from the north of Uganda and her story is about a young girl, Lamunu, who returns to her family after being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army.  They have spent five years hoping to hear her name mentioned on the radio as one  of those rescued from Kony’s rebels. The story , told by her sister, describes the pain of Lamunu’s  family as they struggle to help and understand their traumatised daughter and sister.  This summary may sound quite sad and depressing but, despite the grim events it alludes to, the story is one of hope.  The winner of the Caine Prize will be chosen in London on 11th July, and Beatrice will be on her way even as you read these words.  Fingers crossed, Beatrice, your book club friends are thinking of you!

Beatrice Lamwaka
The writers I have written about in this post are all strong talented young women.  That doesn’t mean that everything has come easily to them.  English is their second language and even though many of them are to all intents and purposes bi-lingual there will always be many challenges in writing in your second tongue.  In an earlier post I mentioned some of the differences between Ugandan and British English.  Such differences make it difficult to write convincingly in English and to make one’s mark on an Anglophone world.  Another member of the book club who is on her way to doing just that is Jackee Batanda, a journalist who has just been awarded the 2011-2012 Elizabeth Neuffer fellowship, by the International Women's Media Foundation. This academic research fellowship will be based at MIT, with access to Harvard and Tufts universities and internships at the Boston Globe and the New York Times. 

Often what writers need is a ‘break’.  Women such as Sophie, Sanyu, Beatrice and Jackee have struggled – and continue to struggle - hard for their ‘break’.  Beverley, a writer herself, understands the commitment and sheer hard work which writing requires.  Through the BN Poetry Award, she provides a precious opportunity for other young women to break through to a public audience and readership.  Femrite (the Uganda Female Writers Association) also provides invaluable support and encouragement to writers and helps them rework and polish their writing through its workshops.  Almost all the writers mentioned in this post have either worked for or benefited from its support, sometimes both. All of them deserve respect for the determination and commitment they show in following their chosen art.

You may also like to read:

Unjumping by Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva, erbacce-press 2010
Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol by Okot p'Bitek, East African Publishers Ltd
Dawn of the Pearl: A new sun rising over Uganda, by Acaye Elizabeth Pamela, KEBU Advocacy thru Art Initiative, 2006
Butterfly Dreams and Other New Short Stories from Uganda (World English Literature), ed Emma Dawson, Critical, Cultural and Communications Press, Nottingham 2010
To see the Mountain and other stories (Caine Prize 2011)
Femrite: Ugandan Women Writers' Association
BN Poetry Award blog


  1. And in our latest, you can read Beverly's interview with Beatrice:

    Thomas, editor

  2. Thanks, Thomas. It's an interesting interview.