Moulding female writers in Africa

Friday August 17 2012

Hilda Twongyeirwe, coordinator at Femrite. Summoning the Rains is the latest publication out of the organisation’s residency programme.  Photos/Morgan Mbabazi

Hilda Twongyeirwe, coordinator at Femrite. Summoning the Rains is the latest publication out of the organisation’s residency programme. Photos/Morgan Mbabazi Nation Media Group

By GAAKI KIGAMBO

In another four years, Femrite, the bastion of female writing in Uganda, will mark 20 years of its existence, and hopes by then, it will have completed its transformation into a Centre of Excellence for Women Writing in Africa.

Hilda Twongyeirwe, its co-ordinator, said the Centre will create and strengthen structures that will help female writers across Africa improve their skills.

“We will replicate Femrite’s experience across the continent, leverage funding opportunities, as well as strengthen and support women by forming writers’ associations,” she said.

Femrite accounts for much of Uganda’s literature of recent years, and is to the country what Kwani? and StoryMoja are to Kenya or Kachifo Ltd to Nigeria.

The women who run the association have tried to keep the faith, even as publisher interest in non-educational material declines, and the public space for, and interest in creative works of the literary kind shrinks.

The makings of the centre of Excellence are reflected in Femrite’s writing residency for African female writers, now in its fourth year, attracting participants from across the continent.

They spend two weeks serving as each other’s sounding boards for either new or existing projects with guidance from an old hand at writing.

Every residency produces an anthology of short stories. Summoning the Rains is the latest publication out of this arrangement. It contains 20 short stories from 11 African nationalities.

But funding remains a challenge for Femrite.

Until last year, when it entered into partnership with DOEN, a Dutch Foundation, Femrite has subsisted on scanty funding from different partnerships since its inception in 1996.

While the leaders kept it going somehow, the uncertain funding has affected visibility, clout and the creative energies that used to fill up its offices.

Take for instance, this year’s Week of Activities, an annual event Femrite uses to promote reading and writing and to talk about challenges in producing Ugandan stories and how best to tackle them. 

Only slightly more than 100 people attended the public dialogue, which is usually the week’s highlight. Far fewer, in fact hardly any, knew Francesca Beard, the guest writer/performer whom Twongyeirwe described as “an exceptional poet based in the UK.” 

It hasn’t always been like this. Uganda’s supposedly poor reading culture has nothing to do with it.

Even if the dialogue has never been a national calendar event in the same way as, say, the beauty pageant, not long ago it was an event worth looking forward to within and slightly beyond literary circles, if for nothing more than the guest speaker’s presentation since it used to attract such big names as Taban Lo Liyong, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ama Ata Aidoo.

This turbulence has weakened Femrite’s monopoly as other literary associations have sprung up and taken some of its space. Yet to its advantage, they have forced it to quickly review its relevance and future.

“Having other players isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Twongyeirwe shrugged off the competition, which has mostly come from a strong poetry movement headlined by the likes of the Lantern Meet of Poets, Poetry in Session and Kwivuga Poetry Night.

“We try to see what we can learn from them like the use of social networking sites. But it has also helped us harness our strong organisational advantages and focus more on our niche; to strengthen the quality of the written word,” she added.

These movements have harnessed their abilities to work today’s ways of getting word about them around on a budget — think social networking sites, integration with other forms and spaces of expression and entertainment, and swaps with radio stations.

Femrite can’t be commended for being this deft because it has premised its survival mostly on funding, for which it has attracted fierce criticism.

Notably, if it isn’t that they pander to their funders’ expectations at the cost of freely expressing themselves; it’s that they don’t subject their members’ manuscripts to rigorous scrutiny; or that they target foreign awards as the primary motivation for writing.

But Femrite disputes all these claims.