Did I tell you that I did not attend the famous Makerere African Writers Conference in 1962, although I was only 10 miles away, as the crow flies? My excuse then was that I was preparing for my Cambridge School Certificate examinations at the prestigious Namilyango College.
Well, there was another International Writers Conference in Kampala last week, and I hardly attended it, owing to an energy and organisational crisis that I have been undergoing of late. But I could not fail to detect the vibes of the fête and its significance.
I noted that this event was not held at Makerere but at a lovely “middle-aged” establishment just above the Central Kampala Golf Course, and appropriately named the Fairway Hotel. I feel that this signalled a move away from the rarefied “academic” connotations of the Makerere campus towards the practical hands-on, performance-oriented affair that this conference turned out to be.
Indeed, the Fairway encounter, though intellectually high-powered, was more of a workshop where literary practitioners at different levels of achievement and aspiration in their careers shared and compared their experiences, techniques and tactics.
This was a decisive shift away from the ideological speculations that characterised such conferences in the past. The clearest marker of this shift was a dedicated masterclass on creative writing, led by star author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.
Ms Makumbi had earlier launched her latest book, Manchester Happened, in Nairobi, her other East African city (remember it is the Kwani? Trust that first published Kintu, her now international bestselling novel). Her presence at the Kampala conference was also iconic, I think, of the decisive shift of the East African literary initiative to our sisters.
I do not want to disparage the contributions of our brothers at Kampala. Certainly, the appearance of eminent practitioners like my friend Abdulrahman “Abu Amirah” Ndegwa of the Mombasa Kiswahili Hub, the academic, writer and publisher Danson Kahyana and the virtuoso stand-up poet Ngobi Kagayi were some of the highlights of the event. Abu Amirah even mentioned me in his presentation!
But our women were the heart and soul of the party, all the way from the organisation of the conference to the pyrotechnic live performances by the likes of Harriet Anena, winner of the 2019 Wole Soyinka Prize, Susan Kiguli and the exceptional Nigerian-Scottish poet Jackie Kay. This was just one of the high points of a long but steady process of the Ugandan woman’s self-assertion in creative writing over nearly a quarter of a century now.
The biennial Uganda International Writers Conference, of which the Kampala event was the fourth edition, is the brainchild of the African Writers Trust, which is also celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The Trust, originally based in London but now with a firm base in the suburbs of Kampala, was founded by Goretti Kyomuhendo, who was also a founding member of the Uganda Women Writers Association, FEMRITE, and its first chief executive for 10 years. Indeed, FEMRITE, under Hilda Twongyeirwe, Kyomuhendo’s successor, worked closely with the Trust on the programmes of the conference.
I think Kyomuhendo, novelist, “literary activist” and writers’ mentor, is the undisputed diva of Ugandan literature. She is certainly a living illustration of why Ugandan creative writing today is dominated by women like not only Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi but also Doreen Baingana, Monica Arach de Nyeko, Glydah Namukasa, Susan Kiguli and Harriet Ber Anena. They have been working systematically and diligently towards the “centre”.
The other shift that I noted in the literary thrust at the conference in Kampala was a generational one. Indeed, it was this particular outlook that intimidated me into resorting to following the goings-on from a respectful distance. We old-timers are particularly averse to “quitting”. But my brief peep into the conference on the morning of the second day left me feeling that I did not quite fit in, either as a participant or a facilitator.
But the signals are clear that we babus and nyanyas should gracefully pass the baton on to the new luminaries of our craft and enjoy the spectacle from the sidelines. That, indeed, is what I plan to do, maybe after I have shared my Kampala experiences with my young colleagues in Nairobi, especially my friend Lydia Gaitirira’s AMKA literary group that meets at the Goethe Institute every last Saturday of the month.
Speaking of the AMKA group, last week ended on an indescribably sad note for all of us when news spread of the death of our colleague and ardent adherent Wakini Kuria. This young woman was the chief editor at the Writer’s Space Africa online magazine, and I had met her only a couple of times, at most. Yet several friends in my social media groups have sent me personal condolences, and I am deeply touched and grateful.
My friends’ sympathies have been due to the sheer shock, sorrow and sense of loss that I felt, and expressed, at the departure of Wakini Kuria, and this in turn was mainly due to the inexplicably positive first impression that she made on me. Eager, articulate and exuberantly humorous, Wakini struck one as the quintessential competent communicator.
Since her death, on May 16, I have learnt a few things about her from her friends and relatives, including the fact that since childhood, she had struggled with a congenital arthritic condition that eventually ended her life. You would never have guessed this from her calm, ever-smiling, lively external appearance.
Maybe I should also reveal my belated admiration for Wakini when I learnt that she was an editor. The truth is that most of what we read in books, articles or journals is actually created by editors. Loudly as we writers might boast about our work, we know that without patient, sympathetic and perceptive editors, the likes of Wakini Kuria, there would be nothing for us to boast about.
“Makiwa!” as we say in Kiswahili, to Wakini’s people and to the writers whose work she nursed to publication.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]