Finding money for the arts
By Goretti Kyomuhendo
In my 15 years as a cultural worker, I don’t remember any one moment when I found it easy to raise funds to do my work. It has always been a struggle. Culture, and any work related to it is always pushed to the periphery. What is given more priority is usually work related to issues such as democracy and good governance, water and sanitation, agriculture, and now, climate change.
At the moment, it is unprecedentedly difficult, almost impossible really, to find money to do cultural work. In Europe and America, where we traditionally fundraise, money is tight in these hard economic times. Everyone is talking of austerity measures. Even in Britain they are closing bookshops and libraries. With limited avenues for resource mobilisation, the urge to give up is simply irresistible. What makes the situation worse is the general lack of political will from most African governments to support and promote the cultural sector. As a result, a lot of the cultural work in Africa is dependant on the financial support from non-African actors.
In 2010, African Writers Trust (AWT) was awarded a small grant by the Commonwealth Foundation to train and mentor 18 emerging Ugandan writers in professional writing skills. I co-facilitated the workshop with Sade Adeniran, a British-Nigerian award-winning writer, whose first novel, Imagine This, won the Commonwealth prize in 2008. Sade lives and works in the UK. Participants were drawn from three of Uganda’s premier universities. Sade and I were completely overwhelmed by the lack of some of the most basic writing skills among the participants, the reason for this being that only one of the universities in Uganda offers creative writing courses. We were also appalled by the poor reading culture exhibited by participants, largely because young writers have limited access to books.
However, we were also excited by the keen interest most participants showed in wanting to learn and to read; and at the end of the four-day training workshop each had produced a short story.
The plan had been to publish the short stories in a low-budget booklet but the stories required an enormous amount of work before they could reach acceptable publishing standards. So I promised the participants that the AWT would try to raise more money for a follow-up workshop in which they would fine-tune their stories to the required publishing level, or write entirely new ones. And this time round, the stories would have a theme so it would be easier for facilitators to make suggestions and give guidelines from one perspective. We also agreed that the workshop would be residential in order to give participants ample time to interact, share experiences and concentrate on their writing.
But AWT failed to raise the funds to conduct the follow-up workshop in 2011 despite the submission of numerous proposals to different funding agencies. When I communicated this sad development to the participants, they were extremely disappointed but not ready to admit defeat. They suggested to me that they would each contribute about 10 USD from their meagre students’ allowances to the costs of running the workshop. I knew this money was too little to sponsor a workshop but how could I let them down? One of the participating universities upped up its students’ contributions and some more money was raised from two Ugandan well-wishers.
And so we held a single day’s writing workshop. I co-facilitated the workshop with Dr. Susan Kiguli, a Ugandan poet and senior lecturer at Makerere University and I invited Jackee Batanda, a Ugandan writer to give a motivational talk. The facilitators agreed to conduct the workshop probono and even bore some of the workshop related costs.
Goretti Kyomuhendo is the author of three novels and has been engaged in the cultural sector for 15 years now: as a novelist, a cultural activist and as director of FEMRITE – the women writers’ support group in Uganda. She is currently the founder and director of the newly established African Writers Trust (AWT) a body that links and coordinates African writers in the Diaspora and writers on the continent in a bid to facilitate the sharing of skills, experiences, information and books.