Patrick Alfter learnt about the 4th edition of the Uganda International Writers Conference (UIWC) purely by coincidence, which he is rather very thankful for.
A postgraduate student of English Literature and Culture at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, Mr Alfter was in Uganda a month before the Conference opened on May 15, 2019 to research on contemporary Ugandan literature, from a Cultural Studies point of view, and to gain a deeper understanding of the concepts of identity in these works for his Master’s thesis that he is currently finishing.
The inspiration to research on his subject of choice stemmed from an extensive reading about Uganda more as a tourist destination. Along the way emerged a curiosity about the country’s cultures and then, he says, he “was literally infected by the variety of works that have been published and wanted to delve deeper into the Ugandan literature scene.”
While he went about collecting first-hand accounts from contemporary authors, both established and those up and coming, about how they perceive and address issues of identity in their creative works, “One of them posted something about the Conference on social media, thus I became aware of it. As the Conference’s topic was exactly pointing at my research focus (identity), I straight away changed my flight details, so that I could include the Conference in my research trip,” he explained.
Running under the theme ‘The Right to Write: Self, Identity and the Contextualisation of Africa’, the three-day Conference drew established and new writers, poets, playwrights, bloggers, publishing professionals, critics, academics, journalists and other book enthusiasts from Africa and its Diaspora.
Alfter, a freelance musician and creative artist in his own right, says what struck him the most about the Conference was the warmth, collegiality and the breadth of viewpoints and perspectives the Conference stimulated from when it opened until it closed on May 17.
“It seemed rather like a “family gathering” than sometimes anonymous conferences tend to be. People were interacting and talking about their projects from the moment they arrived, and the general atmosphere was simply very friendly, while being a very productive and creative one!
“Secondly, the discussions were oftentimes taking very different approaches to a rather narrow topic, which made them even more enjoyable. That was, as far as I could tell, also due to the great mixture of the audience. By deciding to not only let established writers participate, but also bloggers, upcoming writers, academics, literary editors gave the conference its very own creative backbone!” he pointed out.
“The conference’s event-structure, using a charming and entertaining moderator, holding readings and performances in the evening made it a little less serious in terms of input, but in a good way: Attendees had the option to relax and enjoy themselves instead of staying focused without a single break,” he added.
By being generally receptive to an eclectic mix of participants, including even “outsiders” who are not actively writing yet like himself, Alfter believes the Conference distinguished itself from others like it as it easily blended the old and tested hands, the up and coming stars and those still wet behind the ears in very intelligent ways that undiminished either category but rather allowed them all to feed off each other, just as a well thought-out creative collaboration process does.
Perhaps in no other session was this displayed the most than the one which focused on writing in the age of social media. As lively as other sessions before and after, it was headlined by some of the exciting up and coming writers like Harriet Anena; winner of the 2018 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. The session brought into interaction ‘digital’ writers, those who have multiple online platforms to publish their work, to easily interact with its consumers and to seek quick validation for it, and ‘analogue’ writers from a gone by era of a narrow band of publishers and arrogant, impatient editors who, quite often, ended writers’ careers even before they started. While their experiences obviously differed, both sides at least agreed good, successful writing still requires nurturing through patience and hard work. A desire for quick validation carries the risk of distracting and distorting the writer’s true identity.
In terms of networking, obviously the typical aspects of any conference were also present at UIWC such as most plans for support, work collaborations were talked over during the lunch breaks, or to say it in the words of one of professors: “If you’re at a conference to do networking, you don’t have to attend the event, just the meals. However, if you want to open your mind further you should keep your brain at 110% all day!”
According to Alfter, attending the Conference broadened his perspectives and refined his research focus in ways he could not have imagined before.
“As the principal reason of visiting the Conference was to get new ideas for my research, more input on aspects of the Ugandan book market and writing/publishing in Uganda in general, attending the Conference was surely a big step forward in terms of my research structure and further questions that arose. Some mere sentences that came up during discussions and panels sent my mind into totally new directions, that was far more than I could have hoped for,” he explained.
“Apart from that, I got in contact with some of East African writers and researchers and I’m glad that, despite the distance, we’re planning on collaborating on some upcoming projects. So, being back in Germany doesn’t mean that my engagement with Uganda has ended. It really has just begun, although on a different level,” he added.
Some of the projects currently in the works include supporting a Ugandan writer who is about to publish his first novel, both as a volunteer editor and consultant. Others, he says, need to be kept under wraps in order not to extinguish their elements of surprise.
The Conference is biennial event that began in 2013 to bring together African writers on and off the continent, to curate their experiences and opportunities, to promote literature, and to develop talent in publishing because of its organisers’ strong belief in the power of the written word to change the world. As the chief convener Goretti Kyomuhendo noted at the opening of the 4th edition, “Literature confronts, it interrogates, it connects and it fascinates. Literature is crucial to building and sustaining the soul and spirit of any community, and writers are an integral part of that society. Writers articulate and interpret the world for the rest of humanity, which enables us a deeper meaning of what it means to be human.”
Alfter couldn’t agree more with Ms Kyomuhendo. In his own assessment, Ugandan, and indeed African literature generally, has huge potential to do all that and more given its high quality were it to gain the requisite recognition and support both at national and global levels.
Patrick Alfter is a freelance musician and graduate student of English Literature and Culture at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. His thesis focuses on how Ugandan writers interpret and present issues of identity in their creative works.
Gaaki Kigambo is a freelance journalist in Uganda.