Writing was always my first love – Kyomuhendo

Goretti Kyomuhendo is a force in Uganda and Africa’s literary scene. She is the chief judge for this year’s AKO Caine Prize for African writing.

By Desire Mbabaali

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  • Literacy advocate. Goretti Kyomuhendo is a force in Uganda and Africa’s literary scene. She is the chief judge for this year’s AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. 

If you are familiar with the literary world, then you have probably heard the name Goretti Kyomuhendo. Meeting and interacting with the self-made novelist for the first time is telling of the wealth of experience the 55-year-old literary activist has, having been at her craft for almost three decades. 

The writer was recently appointed chief judge of the upcoming AKO Caine Prize for African Writing 2021. 

“It was humbling when I received the news because of what the Caine Prize is, what it signifies and what it means for African writers,” a happy Kyomuhendo replies, elaborating further on what chairing the bench of judges means to her. 

The Caine Prize – she notes – is the biggest literary prize for African writers. It has been called the African Booker; a prize that changes people’s lives, so much that even being on the shortlist is big enough. It is a very popular and largely endowed literary prize for writers on the continent and in the diaspora, with a money reward of about Shs50m, a fellowship at one of the universities in the US and promotion of the writer that shines a spotlight on their work, to mention but a few. 

“For me to be named not only judge but the chair of a panel of other distinguished judges is a great experience,” she finally says.  

This year, 153 short stories from 22 African countries were submitted for the AKO Caine Prize and as chair, her role is to guide deliberations and the process of choosing the winner, guide the panel through the process of reading them in accordance with the guidelines, chairing meetings and announcing the winner. The winner of the prize is expected to be announced sometime this month. 

Kyomuhendo is a force on Uganda’s literary scene, she is a freelance writer who has done fiction writing for both adults and children. 

“My first novel – First Daughter will make 25 years in December, so that is a long story,” she says, her smile never wilting, and she dives in.  

“I had always been interested in reading – it is my first love. I was born and raised in Hoima which was at the time a very small, dusty and tiny town. I can’t pinpoint where I got the love for reading because it wasn’t an in-thing, nobody in my family was into reading or writing, not even at school. I must have had that interest myself because I used to look for books to read and, in the process, I would just read anything,” Kyomuhendo says.  

With only a small library in Hoima town, at 12 years old, she would go in from her village every now and then to read the few old, torn and overused books there was to feed her reading urge. Over time, she knew the stories in the books by heart from reading them over and over.

As she grew older, and progressed academically, she knew she wanted a course that would allow her to read widely. Her O-Level teacher recommended Law. Unfortunately, she never made the points to get into Law School. With only Makerere University in the country at the time, the alternative was to go for a business course at Nakawa College – current Makerere University Business School. 

As fate would have it, when she was done with college and in search for a job, New Vision newspaper advertised for people who could write fiction as they were rolling out their Sunday Vision newspaper. 

Kyomuhendo jumped at the opportunity and started writing for New Vision  and later Daily Monitor newspapers in the early 90s. The editors loved her stories. 

“That was the beginning of my writing career. Subconsciously, however, I was writing long short stories, and then the editor (at New Vision) would cut them and I would complain. She told me that my stories were too long and should just be written in a novel – that’s how my first novel The First Daughter came to be,” she explains. It was published in 1996.

Kyomuhendo has written three more novels including Secrets No More in 1999, Waiting in 2007, among other literary works.  

She went to the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa for her MA in Creative Writing in 2003-2005. She is also the first Ugandan woman writer to receive the biggest, oldest and most prestigious fellowship – the International Writing Program fellowship at the University of Iowa. 

The literary activist

Kyomuhendo says, writing her first novel made her realise this was what she wanted to do with her life. “But I also remembered how I had struggled to write my first novel and later publish it; which took about four years after it had been approved for publishing by Fountain Publishers, the only mainstream publisher at the time. As a young writer, I struggled to write, publish and fit into society. I was alone and with no support structures,” she recalls.  

It was on that backdrop that Kyomuhendo and other female writers led by Mary Karoro Okurut founded FEMRITE in 1996: a group of women writers to bridge the gaps they themselves had experienced and be the support structure, especially for young female writers. Kyomuhendo became the first director of FEMRITE from 1997 to 2007.

“For me, this was not a job. It was my activism and a way of offering the much needed support structures that I wished I had as a young writer. I knew how important it was for a writer to have these structures: a place where you are going to feel safe because writing is a very isolating activity,” she explains.

With all these issues in perspective, FEMRITE sought to have writers converge, talk and write in a place where they felt safe, understood, respected as professionals and supported.

In 2008, she moved to London and there, she started the African Writers Trust that aimed at bringing together African writers on the continent and those in the diaspora. 

“In London, I was meeting and interacting with many African writers who had left the continent. These were more successful, had won major literary prizes but didn’t know the writers on the continent, although were still writing stories about Africa. On the other hand, the writers on the continent – who are not as celebrated were disturbed that people who no longer lived, and haven’t been on the continent for many years or even ever set foot there were writing things about the continent and representing them internationally,” she says.  

The differences aside, Kyomuhendo noticed that these writers too were struggling to get published, acknowledged and accepted as black British or African American writers, the same issues they too were grappling with on the continent. 

“So I thought about having a structure, an organisation that addresses those issues and brings the two groups together so that instead of resenting each other, we instead help each other and become better together,” says Kyomuhendo.

For the last 10 years, she has been at this; inviting African writers like Jennifer Makumbi living in the diaspora for workshops in Africa to talk about writers’ issues, pairing promising young writers all over Africa with established writers for mentorship online among other activities. 

“My activism is to bridge these gaps that divided us. That’s why I started the African Writers Trust,” she concludes.

 Kyomuhendo believes that she has witnessed Uganda’s writing  landscape changed for the better. 

“Growing up, I had never met a writer in person. Today, I think Uganda has one of the most vibrant literary scenes with so many literary initiatives: Literary magazines publishing, both online and in print, writers’ organisations and festivals, writing workshops, poets associations, book fairs and exhibitions to showcase books, book clubs, spoken word events… there is everything that a writer needs to grow their craft,” she says confidently. 

 Kyomuhendo is a mother and wife.

This article appeared first on The Daily Monitor on Sunday 6th June 2021.

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