Creative artists

The importance of being heard

The stories African women tell are part of the history of a society and a nation. They can be rather political too, as often they highlight social issues such as female genital mutilation, rape or injustices in jurisdiction women in many parts of the continent have to face. Yet, in Uganda – as in many other countries – male writers dominate the literary scene, few women are ever published. In 1995 the Uganda Women Writers Association Femrite was founded in order to promote, publish and support female writers.

[ By Hilda Twongyeirwe Rutagonya]

When in 1995 Mary Karoro Okurut, a lecturer at the Literature Department Makerere University at that time, realised that there were no women’s voices in the literary discourse both at the university and in the literary community in Uganda, she founded Femrite.

There were only a handful of published women in Uganda by then, but their presence was not felt. Male authors dominated the literary scene. Most novels, plays, poetry and supplementary readers on the teaching lists at universities and in schools were written by men. Up to now, there is no Ugandan woman on the examinable lists of secondary schools.

Literature is part of culture. A woman’s literary voice is relevant as it tells the woman’s story as a part of society’s history. The Commonwealth Culture Toolkit asserts that issues of culture are moving fast up the political agenda. Creative industries are now, more than ever before, being recognised as playing an increasingly important economic role. The question of how such industries can best be supported to make their full contribution to development demands urgent investigation (Commonwealth Foundation 2007).

Literature, both as fiction and creative non-fiction, is a vital link in the socio-political development chain. People are formed by what they read. What we read coins a big part of our knowledge which in turn impacts on our mindset and approach to issues. The socio-political agenda is informed by various sets of items, literature inclusive.

As Irene Staunton of Beaver Press asserts in “Courage and Consequence”, good literature or fiction forms part of a country's heritage, a reflection of its society, its culture and its history (African Books Collective: 2002). Therefore, if women’s voices are not strong enough on the literary scene, the story is not complete. In order to complete the Ugandan story, Femrite trains women in creative writing skills, publishes women’s literary works and lobbies for women’s literary space on the national agenda.

Socio-political vibes

As stated above, there is no Ugandan woman on the examinable literature school syllabus. But who sets the agenda? Some of Femrite books have accused Femrite members of writing on women’s and domestic issues instead of important issues such as politics. But what is not political about a woman and women issues?

Politics have underlying vibes, and if we care to do so, we shall feel them in various seemingly simple stories by women; a story that describes how a woman was raped repeatedly while in prison (Beyond the Dance; Femrite; 2009), how women prisoners share a cloth pad round the cycle of the moon (Milking a Lioness; Karoro Okurut; 2001), how a young girl in court is being asked by the magistrate to describe a rape encounter and prove the rape (Pumpkin Seeds; Femrite 2009), how the law looks on as a young widow is stripped naked by her husband’s relatives because she does not belong to the clan (A Woman’s Voice; Femrite 1999), how a widow is stigmatised and accused of bringing HIV/AIDS and all her land is grabbed without guilt about the little children she has to feed and fend for (Tears of Hope: Femrite 2003).

All these stories bring out the socio-political vibes at the centre of women’s writings. Demere Kitunga in APNET News Vol.11 No 6, wrote that the creative writing process is not a neutral process. The creative writer draws from her social experiences, personal values and ideologies to come up with a product branded fiction. Every story therefore is important and should be given the opportunity to be heard for it to make its contribution to the development process.

Uganda’s current examinable syllabus for O&A Level includes the following Ugandans; Timothy Wangusa, Austin Bukenya, John Ruganda, Julius Ocwinyo and Okot p Bitek. A miniature achievement for the Uganda Women Writers Association however is, that among the two women listed on the non-examinable texts, is Regina Amollo with her book A Season of Mirth (1999), which is a Femrite publication. The other Author is Connie Hab’lyemye.

It is very important for Ugandan writers to be on the school syllabus because most reading takes place in schools. With a poor reading culture, which is decried by the book industry, it is not easy to break even unless schools buy your books. A Season of Mirth, although not on the examinable list, contributes to Uganda’s literary heritage and to the national literary dialogue within the school system.

Avenue for expression

To motivate Ugandan women writers to tell their stories competitively, Femrite organises personal empowerment workshops to give them skills to deal with censorship and voice. It has just concluded a project of recording stories of women voices on female genital mutilation (FGM). When Claudia Chekwoti from the Reproductive Education and Community Health Programme (REACH) read the stories, she exclaimed: “My God! These women wrote everything!” REACH is a community-based programme that was established in Kapchorwa, Eastern Uganda, to eradicate harmful traditional practices. It also aims at women and girl-child empowerment. The ironically beautiful book, Beyond the Dance is a catalogue of evil against womanhood, which tells about a savage war on women’s sexuality that the scriptwriters wrote without being gagged.

Many of us have heard about FGM but it passes as an issue of women somewhere in some far away obscure places. In African society women are brought up in a culture of silence, so creative writing becomes an important avenue for expression. Femrite is using this book as a tool of expression, to campaign against FGM in communities where it is practiced. It is intended for girls and women to read and demystify the shrouded messages that surround FGM. The testimonies target men too, to make them join the fight against the practice and advocate having a full woman.

On the other hand, the book provides women activists and policymakers with first hand information. Beyond the Dance is Femrite’s fifth publication of creative non-fiction. The other books are:
– Tears of Hope, which tells of experiences of women and the gender insensitive Ugandan laws,
– I dare to Say, a book about stigma and other unwarranted experiences of women under the HIV scourge,
– Farming Ashes, talking about women’s experiences in armed conflict situations with a focus on women in Northern Uganda,
– Today You Will Understand, is a set of radio testimonies that were co-published with IRIN, and also focuses on women’s experiences in Northern Uganda.

This kind of creative non-fiction is about making the stories of marginalised women heard. The books are also used to lobby for the creation of gender-sensitive policies on issues that affect women directly or indirectly. The next two publications will be on women in prison and women’s experiences of climate change.

Interaction with students

In order to help creating a sustainable literary community in Uganda, Femrite also takes writers to schools to interact with pupils, students and teachers. This is important to decolonise the young minds. All too often, young people consider books and writers as foreign issues because most books they read in school were not been written by Ugandan authors. When they get the opportunity to meet Ugandan writers, they realise that they could become writers too. To explore this potential, poetry writing competitions are being organised and the first three winners get prizes.

During the visits to secondary schools, the association donates reading materials such as novels, short stories and poetry. In primary schools about 100 children daily visit our Children’s Reading Tents (CRTs), supported by the National Book Trust of Uganda. Workshops on teaching reading are also organized for teachers.

In addition, Femrite is trying to initiate a pan-African women literary movement through a network of women writers associations. It organises literary festivals with public readings, literary presentations, literature seminars, public dialogues and seminars, where other women writers from Africa are invited to participate (see box).

The women are aware that if one wants to be a successful writer, one has to be committed to writing and also needs to be professional and have integrity in order to avoid issues as plagiarism, copyright violation and other embarrassing issues. Sisterhood ties the writers together to look out for one another and to encourage each other in terms of professional growth.

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