Op-ed – Femrite survey report on Ugandan literature is tear-inducing but…

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By Bob G. Kisiki

The mention of the term ‘Literature’ usually elicit in many a Ugandan brain volumes of novels from Victorian England that students of Literature in English carry to their dormitories. Very few will think of their folk culture; their performance poets and their theatre artists. Yet literature is that broad. Literature represents the culture and traditions of a given language or a people.

Because literature has been misconstrued in Uganda, it has suffered at many levels, including production, dissemination, promotion and even consumption.

It is for this reason that the Uganda Women Writers Association (Femrite), in partnership with the Danish Centre for Culture and Development, commissioned a mini-survey to sniff out attitudes and views regarding the literary environment in the country.

The survey, led by Pamela Batenga (as lead researcher), was mainly done in western, central and northern Uganda. The results are, unfortunately, tear-inducing to anyone who cares about the arts. But before we go there, we need a quick recap of the literary environment in Uganda over the years.

The executive summary of the survey report shows that in 1966, a scholar named Rajat Naogy founded a literary magazine called Transition. It was the biggest thing on the continent, attracting Africa’s biggest and best literary and academic brains – Ali Mazirui, Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Christopher Okigbo, Ezekiel Mphahlele, V.S. Naipaul and a fleet of others in their ilk. You could tell the continent was headed somewhere. But as the political weather got turbulent in Uganda, Transition transited from the country, and with it, literary enthusiasm. Fear of literary creativity (which was mistaken for political activism) possessed many writers and the curtain came down prematurely on vibrant writing action. Transition is now produced at Harvard University in the US. It only returned to Uganda a few years ago to celebrate its 50th birthday and then retreated to the US, just like many of Uganda’s best brains have done over the years.

In the late 1960s, one of Uganda’s literary giants, Taban Lo Liyong, wrote a damning but nonetheless apt indictment on Uganda’s creative culture: He said Uganda had become a literary desert! There was no more writing going on and, as a consequence, no reading culture to be spoken about. This trend persisted till the late 1980s, when things began to look up, and in the 90s, relief arrived. One of the most notable changes was the founding of Femrite in 1995 by then Makerere University Literature don, Mary Karooro Okurut, together with a few other colleagues. Now, a handful of other bodies have come up to produce, promote and disseminate literature. The Babishai Niwe Poetry Awards; the Writivism Literary Festival and many other smaller but nonetheless effervescent groupings, some dealing in live poetry performances. You can safely say we’re back on the road…

…Till you read the survey report, that is. No, it is not all doom, because as I have pointed out, efforts are running to make things work afresh, but the stakes are still stacked against literary vibrancy. We will get to that soon. But as pointed out earlier, Femrite, with support from the Danish Centre for Culture and Development, are conducting a number of literary activities across the country, against which background this survey was conducted. The survey, taking both a quantitative and qualitative approach, set out to investigate the state of literature in Uganda, with particular focus on access to markets, income generation through literature, analysis of key audiences/markets for Ugandan literature, as well as the contribution Femrite could have had on Uganda’s literary sector thus far. It also set out to determine the hindrances and challenges affecting the vibrancy of the reading culture in Uganda; and determine possible strategies to address the situation.

And this is what they found: One of the biggest hindrances to the growth of writing in Uganda is the high cost of producing literature. Because literature has not sold itself as something one can live off, it does not sell, and so producing it is more costly than what the average Ugandan can afford.

Secondly, because literature has been portrayed as an unmarketable course for one to take at university, numbers of students taking it at A-Level have drastically dwindled, against subjects such as History, Economics, Entrepreneurship and others.

Thirdly, Ugandans have very low levels of linguistic competence, both in English (the country’s official language) and their mother tongues. This, of course, would affect the quality of writing.

Fourthly, many people interested in writing don’t know or understand the publishing process. When they write, they do not know what their stories will go through before they become consumable products. This is not helped by the very bad blood that exists between writers and publishers, with each camp demonising the other.

Oh, there was something positive. The survey found that there is an increase in the volume of literature being written by Ugandans, though not all of it is of high quality.

Someone had better pick interest in this survey report, because it addresses things education officials, culture enthusiasts and stakeholders in the publishing and literary circles would be wise to look into.

Unfortunately, the report is in written form, yet one of its findings is that Ugandans don’t read as much. So…

Read the Femrite survey report here

Bob is publisher, writer, columnist and trainer