Seven Days in Kampala: On Writivism 2016

by - 18:20

I'm not the first one to say this - I've read it a number of times, heard it a few times and even seen it tweeted quite a bit in the last year, but it really and truly is a beautiful time to be alive for African literature. And I got to witness a bit of this excitement two weeks ago when I was in Uganda -  Kampala to be precise - for the 4th Writivism Festival. 
Hello Kampala
It was my first time in the city, in the country - and as mentioned in an earlier post, I had no idea what to expect. I will admit, I had been given prior warning that on the logistics side things won't be that great, but I am someone who likes to go into things as open as possible, and with an unbiased mind. So I chose to go to Writivism that way, and to judge the festival and my experience once there based on my own views and not others. So how was it? 

First, I should say this is not my usual write-up of festivals - where I go session by session. I was initially going to do that, but I decided against it in the end. Instead, I wanted to capture the spirit of Writivism. I won't lie, on a logistic and organisation level Writivism did have some problems, many of which festival guests shared with me over the course of the festival, such as scheduling two prominent events simultaneously (something which is not necessary for a small festival such as Writivism, and would enable guests to participate more). There are also some areas in which the festival can be improved. There was also a question of audience participation - it was rather unclear what the ratio of invited guests to public guests was, and if low what could be done to address that.

Still, there is something that cannot be denied from being in that space, and that cannot be taken away from  Writivism - its vision and what they are trying to achieve. This to me is more important. Because I would like to think (and hope) that while over time logistical and organisational issues can be resolved, fixed and even improved, ideas and innovation and bringing people together are all priceless. Indeed, I had read that the previous edition of Writivism had suffered from organisational woes. Yet, what I experienced was much better than i) what I had been told and ii) what I had read. From airport pick-ups (although I might have not been picked up if I didn't spot a familiar name on the pick-up list), to hotels (there were all 5-10 mins walking distance to the venue), to the venue (it was in one place - the Uganda Museum), to name tags - it seemed that Writivism had improved since 2015 and which is why I am optimistic that the next one would be better on the logistics and organisation side.

Back to the festival. The theme was restoring connections - and I honestly felt it did more than that, and in a way strengthened existing connections, while at the same time building new ones. Writivism also laid the foundations for its hopes of being a bilingual festival this year, by bringing together Francophone and Anglophone Africa - as a way to restore connections (based on the festival's theme) and discussions between the two. We might be separated by our languages, but there is plenty that can be learned from both. And Writivism has bigger dreams for the future to also include Portuguese- (Lusophone), Arab- and Spanish-speaking African countries. 

At the festival itself - the venue, the Uganda Museum (let's hope that partnership continues) - I came face-to-face with so many wonderful initiatives taking place on the continent. Some of which I knew about already, and some of which I learned while I was there, such as the publishing house, Huza Press - which is trying to make Rwandan literature more visible in literary spaces. It was also there (well, not at the Uganda Museum, but during our dinners), I first saw the book covers of both Richard Ali A Mutu and Ayobami Adebayo's forthcoming novels.

I also got to sit in and observe the arts and entrepreneurship workshops organised in collaboration with the Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE), the University of Bristol and Stellenbosch University. With sessions on organising a literary festival, to translations, to managing a literary prize and finally running a book distribution business, practicality was the key. This wasn't a purely theoretical based workshop,but one over four days which asked participants to really think about their literary initiatives. 

Participants and Facilitators at the Workshop
So you want to create a literary prize? What's the focus? Who is your target audience? What's the prize money? Will the winnings be monetary? Sponsors? What's the timeline? The milestones? And judges? Who will they be? How will you convince them to judge your own prize? These practical exercises were coupled with talks from experts in the field - judges of prizes, translation experts, people in the book distribution business. That Writivism has this element in their programme is one that really needs to remain - providing knowledge to future art entrepreneurs. I would love to see future workshops exploring themes such as literary magazines, blogs and even issues such as being a literary agent. 

Still, as interesting as the workshop and the sessions were - the Long story SHORT staged readings of Tropical Fish, the book launches, the readings - it was also the conversations in between, which comes about because Writivism creates a space that brings artists (writers, poets and so on), activists, academics both on the continent and beyond together to meet and discuss. There are of course old friends who meet up - there is no doubt about that. But it was in that space where I finally got to meet for the first time - after many years only ever knowing each other via social media, Dzekashu Macviban of Bakwa Magazine; where I finally got to hang out and speak with the awesome trio behind Afrikult.; and then there is my other 'modest' Naija sister (supposedly the wrong Nigerians were sent to Kampala) - I am extremely happy that we got to meet and bond while in Kampala. 

My favourite times, however, mornings. On the balcony in our guest house, Kampala City View Guest House (aka Child Welfare Guest House). We spoke about history, knowing our history, reading our history, writing our history, on French and English speaking Cameroonian literature including Imbolo Mbue, on Achebe and Soyinka and Oyono (there was a shared love for Houseboy), on movies and more. We talked about any and everything, and I listened, absorbed and took it all in. The breakfasts weren't great for this non-egg eater (bread and butter and tea, with fruits sometimes was my go-to) but the conversations more than made up for it. 

Then there were the school visits. I know the guests are meant to inspire the students, but I was left inspired. The day I went was to Hana Mixed School, a boarding school probably half an hour to 45 minutes from the Ugandan Museum. There we meet students from Uganda (of course), but also Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi. There French speaking students got to speak their language and discuss literature with two of the Francophone guests. 

While, I and another guest, answered questions from our group of students about screen plays, script writing, blogging, metaphors, adapting from book to film and so on. The head teacher wanted us to stay for lunch - I wish we did, the pots of food we passed by as we left his office looked good - but we had to head back to the festival. Still, the school visit is definitely another highlight of my trip, and one I know many other guests at the festival were particularly fond of. 

All this is to say is that the energy of Writivism is what stood out for me, and it was a pleasure to be a part of it. I honestly left Kampala feeling inspired following the many conversations I had. Still, there is one thing I would like to request from Writivism for future events: please schedule some day trips. A few of us ended up creating our own little excursions - within Kampala (the National Mosque aka Gadaffi Mosque is stunning), and further afield - Ssezibwa Falls and Jinja. This would be a great addition to the festival to enable guests to also get a sense of the country beyond the vicinity of the venue.

Stunning Ssezibwa Falls

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