FEMRITE-Uganda Women Writers Association is holding the seventh Regional Residency for African Women Writers in Kampala (February 12-22, 2018). The residency provides an opportunity for women to take time out from their professional, family and social life and write.
The programme was launched in 2008 with the aim of promoting intercultural literary discourse and to provide a conducive atmosphere for women to grow and groom their writing skills. But the most important objective of the residency is to find new literary voices through which the stories of Africa can break out into the international arena and to celebrate the women who have walked and left a mark on the African literature scene.
The six previous residencies have culminated in anthologies whose titles include World of Our Own and Other Stories, Summoning the Rains and Nothing to See Here. FEMRITE is a home-grown, non-profit membership organisation whose objectives are to publish, train and promote books, short stories and articles written by Africans, especially women.
RISING ABOVE THE RAT RACE
The residency is a good reminder of the struggles of women to rise above the “rat race” and find time to articulate the issues that affect them, across geographical boundaries and cultures, above economic and social status and across generations. At this particular residency, Nigeria, Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya are represented.
The writers are an amazing mix of a dignified retired civil servant, a robust university lecturer, a gusty film-maker, a soul-searching NGO worker, a courageous lawyer, a president that rules no country, a retired secretary, a stay-at-home mother who craves white privilege, a preoccupied journalist and the third eye who is now writing about everyone else.
And this is just the beginning. There are many other women who are not represented and who do not get the opportunity to write their stories themselves. But talking about them here will have to include the politics of inclusion, identity and representation, which is a whole other discussion.
Women over the years have used the pen to resist oppression and the alienation of their rights from those of other humans. Writing by women has special qualities, as it tells stories that are an indication of and directly impact the challenges that they confront daily, either as individuals or as members of a society.
It has been and will continue to be one of the best ways that women can and should break the silence on physical and emotional abuse, loneliness, subjugation in society and the workplace, female genital mutilation, race and gender relations and all forms of discrimination.
These issues are anchored in the culturally assigned roles of women and writing about them has been associated with feminism. In the theoretical framework, feminism is seen as anti-establishment, anti-male and many times against religion as well.
These are flawed premises, as writing simply gives a woman the privilege to take responsibility for her experiences and to express herself in a manner that is appropriate in her cultural context. Many times the pressure for a woman writer to declare her position on feminism is a failure to recognise her as first a human being and then a woman.
WAR AND INSECURITY
One of the most important aspects of this residency is that literature affecting the lives of African women in the diversity of their experience will be generated and will hopefully be shared with other publics in Africa and elsewhere in the world. I expect a number of the issues that gripped my attention, through the interactions and presentations, will come up.
They include the place of sexuality for young women of the current generation, the institution of marriage and the changing roles of women in it, how migration and or immigrants affect women and the new roles they play as immigrants that many times force enculturation.
Other issues will be war and insecurity in Africa and the particular affects that the already vulnerable populations have to endure. The psychological and emotional health of women is likely to be included.
ENCOURAGING CHILDREN TO READ AND WRITE
A very important aspect of the residency was a visit to a Ugandan school, where writers were expected to encourage children to write and tell their own stories. I cannot over-emphasise how important it is to impress upon children the value of reading and writing. Africa has been under-represented in literate society, since most of our knowledge was heavily invested in our oral literature and intangible heritage.
The adoption of a formal system of education has not really opened up great doors for Africa as literate societies. Children must be encouraged not only to read and write but also to aspire to be writers.
The Grace Ogots and Muthoni Likimanis have already made a footprint in this field and the Yvonne Awours and Chimamandas are walking in these footsteps. But we certainly need more people to fly this flag high for Africa.