6 am in Kampala, My World Stretches by Natasha Muhanji

Natasha Muhanji having a photo moment with renowned Ugandan novelist, Goretti Kyomuhendo

For some months, I have been finding it slightly hard to write. I have spoken to those close to me severally about this, citing burn-out. I have sat at my desk several times with a pen in my right hand, or fingers above my keyboard, feeling my breath thin. I felt it escape my grasp and had to slow down to manufacture new breath for my lungs! My brain has been taunting me. So you’re a writer! Write something! School too, was on my neck for my final semester and so, when I read the email inviting me to Kampala for a seminar by African Writers Trust, sponsored by the CC Adetula Creative Writing fellowship for African Women Writers, it seemed unreal. I read and re-read the email severally, waiting for it to settle into my brain but it tiptoed for hours, taking delicate steps like a ballerina’s.

I was somewhere on the westside of Nairobi for my Rotaract induction and it was raining heavily when the news finally settled into my brain, and I shared it with my family. My heart dropped since I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to attend, having my finals that week. There was a chance my last exam would interfere with travelling and this stressed me out. What I didn’t express openly though, and what made me more stressed, was the crippling anxiety at the thought of travelling a long distance entirely by myself. As I ran around Nairobi preparing for my trip, I whispered to myself repeatedly: “We need to stretch to grow”. It is my daily mantra whenever I feel my chest tighten with fear.

My breath thinned as the days moved closer and I finally finished my exam the day before I was to travel. I’ve been told before, that I seem calm and collected but the war going on inside me during the travel was something for the books. It felt turbulent but once I safely got to Uganda, my feelings evened out and in their place, rose a colourful excitement.

Sometimes, when I experience something extraordinary, I feel my eyes “zoom”. My vision shakes and I feel slight goosebumps (something about jitters, I assume). I felt it when I got off the taxi at Ndejje and walked to the reception at Hot Springs Villas. Coincidentally, I met Goretti at the reception just as I arrived and immediately felt her warmth from her greetings. As we exchanged pleasantries, I felt my world of possibilities stretch wider, looking forward to the next day even as I received my copy of Whispers from Vera and started on it, drawn to Vera’s voice.

That evening, there was a wedding at the garden where we had dinner. While music blasted, we spoke of Kinshasa, a place I’ve never been to, and I felt my world stretch further with new characters and figures. The conversation jumped around playfully as I listened, dropping a comment here and there, feeling my eyes water ever so slightly with awe I didn’t openly express, holding it close to my heart. We spoke of how the Congolese have dancing in their blood and I kid you not, I was there briefly with them, dancing to music in the streets of Kinshasa. We spoke of different cultures and exchanged jokes over some similarities and differences, settling down towards the end of the dinner when we got to hear the bittersweet story of CC Adetula after official introductions.

Natasha reading Goretti Kyomuhendo’s acclaimed novel, Whispers from Vera

The first evening ended with my awe at the lights of Kampala. I was thrust into the milky way by the city lights, mesmerized by how they surrounded the hill and I expressed my wonder severally, soaking in the beauty even as I went off to bed.

The next morning, at 6 am in Kampala, my world stretched even wider and I opened my notebook to write. We spent the day learning and I got to learn so much about self-publishing that I had not explicitly considered before, and being in a room full of people with similar interests made it easier and more engaging. All the sessions with Goretti, Susan and Bieke over the days were all extremely insightful and I felt really guided, the stories accompanying their experiences over the years struck me as a budding writer, firing up my love for the craft even more.

Did I mention that on the second evening we danced? My world continued to stretch within the music and we danced, celebrating fifteen years of African Writers Trust. Celebrating ourselves too. I left the dance floor late into the night feeling renewed and bursting at my seams with new words I couldn’t wait to express. I felt at home. I still felt at home even as my days there came to an end.

I’ve been fumbling with these words over the past few days since I got back home from the seminar, trying to verbalize my experience but the words bubbling out of me have largely been those about what’s currently going on around me since I arrived.

Writers from different African countries interacting and forming partnerships

My home is heating up. Slowly bubbling like a pot of water over three hot cooking stones in a kitchen. Things have slowly been heating up but the frog in the pot has not felt it, he is making a dish of himself. I heavily think of a section of Goretti Kyomuhendo’s novel from which I learnt the word Simanyi as I watch the heat increase.

Simanyi there’s police spraying peaceful protestors with colored water, lobbing teargas and firing at them with live bullets. Simanyi the citizens of a sovereign nation are being fired at by those who claim to serve the people. It is shameful. Simanyi the apex of the nation is at a graduation ceremony, feigning ignorance, numb to the water heating up around him, a frog ignorant to his boiling. Simanyi the apex is making agreements with other states, greedy fingers probing at the deflating body of a nation, taxing it to ashes. Simanyi the Directorate of Criminal Investigations is abducting key social media personalities from their homes for interrogation and intimidation. It is dystopian.

As the youth rise to the task, my form of protest is to write.

“Things have changed. You can no longer decide what information not to disclose. The youth know. They can go out of the home [makes sound of someone typing on keyboard] and they find out… it’s only a matter of acceleration now…” – Binyavanga Wainaina

Natasha W. Muhanji is a Kenyan writer whose work has previously appeared in Brittle Paper, The Kalahari Review, WSA-K Magazine, Sxynergy Collective, WhoWhatWhere KE, SecondSkinMag and the first and second editions of the Qwani Anthology among others.

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