Uganda has never been known as a literary powerhouse, but times the times are a-changin’, as Bob Dylan sang. In the past 24 months several notable autobiographies, memoires, poetry anthologies, books of narrative nonfiction and award-winning literary works by Ugandan writers have raised the bar for the country’s budding authors.
Integral to this revolution are a group of ambitious, creative people who are shaping the conversation about writing in Uganda and enabling the next generation of Okot p’Biteks to find a voice. Among them is Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire, the 27-year-old force behind the Centre for African Cultural Excellence and project Writivism.
ACME sat down with Mr Mwesigire for a chat to discuss on his experience of managing the Centre for African Cultural Excellence, as well as his predictions on the future of new writing in Uganda.
ACME: Why did you start Center for African Cultural Excellence and the project Writivism?
Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire (BM): Naseemah Mohamed, Kyomuhendo Ateenyi and I started the Center for African Cultural Excellence (CACE) as a way to boost African soft power which is essential for the intellectual, cultural, economic, and political, emancipation of African peoples living on the continent.
Writivism is the organisation’s first and most important project. It focuses on literature produced on the continent. This is because the production of culture is as important as its consumption. We are interested in how literature is produced on the continent and eventually how it is consumed, again by Africans resident on the continent.
ACME: What is your experience of running the Centre and project Writivism?
BM: The highs of running Writivism are many. So much goodwill exists among major players on the African literary scene for initiatives such as Writivism. Many of these, from individual writers, institutions like Kwani, Book Buzz Foundation, to the Caine Prize and others, have been generous with advice, information and partnerships.
We have very strong and reputable writers and literary scholars on our Board of Trustees, we have almost each important name in African literature on our mentors’ list, and all this goodwill we have received is because these good people believe in the production and consumption of literature on the continent. It’s such a high to be able to rely on such in-kind support to do what would have cost thousands of dollars in cash.
The lows are dwarfed by the highs. They do not even merit mention. Occasionally, there will be an unserious emerging writer seeping into our mentoring programme and dimming our morale. But again, these are not many and so we don’t allow them to soil the mood.
ACME: How are writers benefiting from the Writivism programme?
BM: I am not the best placed person to say how writers benefit as I have not gone through the programme as a mentee. If I say things, it may be because I really want the programme to sound successful. For us, that in such a short time, some writers as Melissa Kiguwa and Vincent Nwoli among others, who were mentees on the programme, attended our workshops and now have published books (very important: the books are published on the continent) is something we think is beneficial.
When we started in 2012, we did not know that it would take a short time to start seeing such tangible products of the programme. Because of the nature of the programme, we can’t map all the benefits and products. Friendships, networks, opportunities and other things that are beyond our monitoring have happened. Some writers met their editors through the programme. Some secured writing programme sponsorships through the programme. Others just gain confidence to pursue writing by associating with those who are pursuing the craft. That counts too.
ACME: What should we expect from Writivism 2015, especially the short story prize?
BM: Writivism 2015 is going to publish more than it did in 2014. The prize remains at $400 for the winner and this time, the rest of the shortlisted writers receive $100 each. Of course the prize is open to emerging writers from the entire continent. We shall publish two anthologies. Our annual compilation of all the long listed stories for the short story prize and a flash fiction anthology to be published in collaboration with Jalada. We shall also publish an annual Writers Diary, that will include flash fiction, profiles of the various Writivism associated writers and important dates on the African literary calendar for the June 2015 – June 2016 period. The festival will be more interesting than last year’s. And much more.
ACME: If you were to paint a picture of Uganda’s literary scene five years from now, what would it look like?
BM: Uganda is slowly regaining its place as a literary hub. I guess in five years, people will refer to Kampala as a literary powerhouse. I see more quality creative work being published and read here and more literary events being held in Uganda. I am proud that writing, publishing and reading in indigenous languages is picking up. We shall see more written work in these languages.
ACME: If you were to change or improve anything about Uganda’s creative writing industry, what would that be?
BM: The discipline and professionalism of practitioners in the industry would be the only thing. I have a grudge against people who do not invest as much time, energy, effort, and commitment to their creative careers as they would to any other career and yet demand professional treatment that they do not deserve. A mindset change is one thing I want to see change.
ACME: What are Ugandan writers doing right or wrong?
BM: Some Ugandan writers are investing and have invested big in their writing careers. They will reap big in all ways. Because a cow you do not feed is incapable of feeding you. It is admirable how committed to craft and the art some Ugandan writers are.
I think some Ugandan writers are mounting the bicycle from the handles. The arrogance, ego derived from aggressive self marketing at the expense of actually writing and producing worthy work is a bit distracting. The noise is too much at times. I do not know how many times I see someone describe themselves as a writer on their social media and then on searching for their written work, (a writer produces written work) I fail to find anything to spend an hour consuming. Why are we so eager to become writers and tell the world, without putting in the work it takes?
But again, there are a number of writers now, that are actually writing and are committed to their craft than their brands. And that’s so encouraging. Saves my saliva from being spent on the narcissistic vain wannabe writers.
ACME: What have you written/published in the past?
BM: Because a lot of focus is now on teaching, and running CACE and Writivism, which is already too much work, creative writing has taken a back seat. I’d be an impostor to claim that I am a fiction writer. Promoting Literature, organising events etc is in itself serious work, as serious as creative writing. As a result, I have more nonfiction and journalistic work published than creative work.
I have contributed to most Ugandan newspapers, African literary journals like Chimurenga as a book reviewer, commentator, and interviewer. I have a column at www.thisisafrica.me and some of my work has been republished by The Guardian among others. My short fiction has been published by Saraba, African Roar, The World To Come, Kalahari Review among others but that was largely before I started teaching and running CACE on a full time basis.
ACME: Are you working on anything at the moment in terms of your creative writing?
BM: There is a lot of micro and flash fiction, narrative poetry and meta narrative in Rukiga that I am working on. But those are not major projects. Again, much work goes into promotion of literature and working behind the scenes than actual creative work.
I am running a Made in Africa series with This is Africa, in which I interview major players in the African literary sector, with a focus on being based on the continent. So far, interviews with writers on the continent have been published, and currently, interviews with publishers are being run. Next will be other categories of stakeholders in the sector, and at some point all these interviews and profiles will be published as a book. I’m also working on a collection of interviews on Law and Literature. My concrete projects are creative nonfiction, academic essays and literary journalistic work. But all this is creative in a way, isn’t it? I agree with Jamaica Kincaid’s breaking down of the barriers among the forms of writing.
ACME: Which five books by Ugandans have you read and recommend?
BW: Five is a small number and so I will recommend three titles by a single author. That’s Okot P’Bitek. The titles are, Artist, the Ruler: Essays on Art, Values and Culture: Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol and Two Songs: Song of Malaya and Song of Prisoner. The other two are Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu. This should be a sort of Bible for every Ugandan. Finally, I loved John Ruganda’s The Burdens. I tried to include an academic text, poetry, drama and fiction. Obviously there are more Ugandan books that I recommend. I think the ones I have singled out form the Ugandan canon in some way.
Who is Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire?
In addition to his work with CACE and Writivism, Mwesigire is an academic, teaching at Makerere University and several Ugandan universities. He also contributes to various online and print magazines, journals, and other publications. .