The Uganda International Writers Conference was held from 15th-17th May 2019 at Fairway hotel, Kampala-Uganda under the theme :“The Right To Write: Self ,Identity and the contextualisation of Africa.” The conference attracted more than 100 delegates comprising writers, poets, bloggers, playwrights, publishing professionals, critics, academics, journalists and book enthusiasts from Africa and its Diaspora. Headlined by Jackie Kay, the multi-talented, award-winning Scottish/Nigerian poet, novelist and playwright, the conference offered an eclectic mix of literary activities including book launches of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s new book: Manchester Happened followed by a Q&A with the author, and New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent (2019) edited by Margaret Busby. Participating delegates were drawn from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Cameroon, Germany, UK, Malta, Ethiopia, USA, South Sudan and South Africa.
Here are the Stories of Transformation from some of the conference delegates:
The Right To Write by Tim Agaba Baroraho
I’m new to this whole thing of being a writer. When I’m introduced as one, or, as is most often the case, I introduce myself as one, there’s an inner glee that I get to do this. To call myself this. It’s a thrill. As such, when I attended the African Writers Trust (AWT) 4th biennial Uganda International Writers conference, held from 15th-17th May 2019; and had a name tag which marked me as a delegate, of course I was screaming inside. This is real. This is my new life now. This is real. This is my new life now. It became a mantra. This is for real.
I met Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi for the first time, and that’s when I realized what her writing means to me. Reading stories about places I know, people I recognise. Stories in which we are the centre: the point. In all of our messy glory. She wrote me the coolest message when she signed her latest book for me. No, I won’t share it. In her conversation with Doreen Baingana, she spoke about drawing a balance between her Ugandan, African and international audiences. The necessity of African editors in doing so. She was so easily herself—a trait that will always endear me to almost anybody. When asked about the limits of tradition in her work, i.e. what she felt she could or could not say, she said that nothing is unsayable. Nothing is off the table. It resonated with me.
There were various panels with wide-ranging topics. Like the role of social media for writers. Lulu Jemimah spoke of her excellent use of the platform to create a crowdfunding campaign that has enabled her attend Oxford. Harriet Anena reminded us that exposure is not a currency, writers deserve to be paid for their work. The Talkative Rocker highlighted the significance of passion as a guiding star for any writer. A presentation on the colonial legacy in contemporary Buganda by Apollo Makubuya (based on his book, Protection, Patronage, Or Plunder? British Machinations and (B) Uganda’s Struggle for Independence) grappled with some serious social, economic and political questions. The launch of the New Daughters of Africa anthology, which features 13 Ugandan writers, prompted a robust discussion on gender and writing in Uganda. This included readings from Jackee Budesta Batanda, Goretti Kyomuhendo, Jennifer Makumbi, Hilda Twongyeirwe, Doreen Baingana, Dr. Susan Kiguli and Harriet Anena.
A harrowing memoir by James Luyinda-Miti, 90 Days in Hell, of his experience of the Rwanda genocide led to a consideration of memoir writing as a way to heal. Professor Sandra Adell’s intimate and triumphant memoir, Confessions of a Slot Machine Queen, underlined the need for self-care while writing memoir. As a memoir essayist, besides my fiction, these bits were meant for me. Honestly, at many moments throughout the conference, I was struck by the serendipity of the discourse; it’s precise relevance to issues I was pondering. This is the fundamentality of community. A recent essay of mine left me drained and I understood exactly what Prof. Adell was referring to about having breaks when writing pieces of this sort. It had also been very cathartic. It changed me. A way to heal indeed.
A panel on the use of language to keep others quiet was an inspiring account of how writers literally keep cultures alive. Abu Amirah spoke of his experience mobilising Swahili writers in Mombasa; Corneli van den Berg shared the work of an initiative she coordinates, the Free State International Literature Festival in South Africa; while Nesto Ngong Dzenchuo called for unity amongst African writers to fight for our freedoms after having missed two days of the conference due to political unrest in his country, Cameroon. I was ashamed about how little I knew of what was going on elsewhere, much less the reasons why. Appreciative for this opportunity to make continental connections. Challenged to do better. Be better.
Especially heartening was the presence of so many young writers, of all backgrounds, across borders. Our generation is frequently dismissed as self-involved and tech-addicted; unable to see what’s going on around us. As if we’re the ones who threw this lousy party. We’re a generation brave enough to do what really matters to us. To insist that that’s important. These are my people. In a space where writing meant everything.
Jackie Kay. As writers who occupy marginalised bodies and identities, there is a violent silence that comes with that. Don’t say that. OK, we’ll let you, but you must say it like this. Who do you think wants to hear about that? The Scottish Poet Laureate summoned the spirit of Audre Lorde (her late friend) by stating we don’t have to choose between identities: it is crucial to keep our distinctions so that our identities are not erased. Most remarkably, she said we have the right to tell the truth. In her saying no to the bullshit of being silenced, I felt a freedom to do the same. I am a writer. It’s getting less complicated. I’m saying the things I want to say.
The conference ended with a literary evening with performances by, among others, Kitara Nation, Harriet Anena and Jackie Kay.
Tim Agaba Baroraho is a Ugandan writer and human rights lawyer. He is a 2018 alumnus of the Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In these times we live in, he is finding radical vulnerability a most crucial strategy. He’s crazy about scented candles, making contact with aliens and long walks.