Most writers, even the popular ones, started small

Thursday October 12 2017

Philippa Kabali-Kagwa is a LifeLab Associate, a

Philippa Kabali-Kagwa is a LifeLab Associate, a facilitator, executive coach and storyteller. PHOTO| DAISY OKOTI 

By DAISY OKOTI
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Over the last 17 years, Philippa has developed her expertise in the areas of leadership, focusing on personal mastery, creativity, and learning. She currently practices as an Executive Coach, Storyteller and facilitator of leadership programmes and change processes.

What would you say are the top three steps for a young writer trying to get published?

Firstly, keep writing, have a writing mentor, or a writing group where you can share and critic each other’s work. Don’t give up if you are rejected the first time. While waiting for the big break, send your work in to be published in journals, anthologies, on-line journals and respected blogs, but make sure you maintain the copyright.

How would you compare the literary landscape in Kenya with Uganda and South Africa, especially regarding works by young writers?

I am not very familiar with the literary landscape of Kenya, and I am just starting to acquaint myself with that of Uganda. What I would say, though, is that there seems to be a rise of writing collectives and literary festivals. The spoken word movement is quite powerful all over, and there are many collectives that are encouraging young people to write powerfully in their own voice, to critic each other’s work, to perform their works.

You are a storyteller, a writer, a poet and a singer. How do you merge all these talents? Speak to a young person who has multiple talents and interests; how can they merge?

Mostly, I listen to what the work I am doing is asking me to do. Sometimes I learn something new from working with other artists or from observing. I would encourage young people to develop all their talents, also, pay attention and look for the synergies between things.

Who/what have been the main influences in your career?

My parents. Ms Cole – a music teacher I had when I was in Kenya High. Folktales and songs have been great influences in terms of form. Watching people who dare to do things – like my friend Getrude Matshe who has published many books, and has encouraged many people around the world to write.

Would you say that writing (and actually getting published) is an area that is open to young people, especially at a time when publishers tend to favour more established writers?

Most writers, even the popular ones, started somewhere. They worked at their craft, found spaces where they could publish and share their work. The most popular ones, or maybe the most profound ones, did not do it to make a name. They listened to the art that wanted to come out of them and did it.

You have vast experience working as a leadership coach in different countries on the continent of Africa and the UK. What would you say is the problem of political leadership in Africa?

I think that there is a crisis of political leadership all over the world right now. We need leaders who get us back to a vision of what we want as nations; leaders who think about what the impact of what they are doing will be on generations to come.

You have lived in Uganda (where you are originally from), Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia and South Africa. What impact has this had on your life?

There is always a sense of loss when one moves from one place to another; a sense of being uprooted, of having to start again; putting things you took for granted in place, like friends. The advantage is the exposure one gets to new places, new people, new foods, new ways of being.

I learnt to live with loss, to not be afraid of new things.

For students interested in a career in storytelling and performance, how do they get themselves ready for the field?

Start performing. Join groups that perform – or create them if there are none in your area. Ask people to mentor you, to teach you, to give you feedback. Go to as many performances as you can. Sign up for courses. Be clear about why you are doing it.

What is your fondest undergraduate memory as student at Kenyatta University?

Performing the Opera, Dido and Aeneas, in my last year at KU. Jackie Muuya was the lead, Dido, and I was Belinda, her lady in waiting. I loved being on stage; the last performance was magical. We had a wonderful review in the Daily Nation. I have not been back to KU lately, but I hear it is a very big campus now.

Poetry and written literature in general, is not very popular among young people. Why is reading necessary when we have Twitter with just 140 characters, and the hashtags?

Poetry and written literature are just different ways to express oneself. My experience is that many young spoken word artists are using multiple platforms to share their works (and we older ones are learning from them). They use the stage to perform, they record and share on various online platforms, they write blogs, share on platforms like Instagram, Tumblr and so on.

Your memoir, Flame and Song, explores, vastly, your family life and your realities. What sparked your interest in writing it?

When I started Flame and Song, it was just that; a personal process to explore my identity, being an insider outsider. I wanted also to understand how the political situations around me had shaped me, and how I had responded to them.