The first time I ever breathed Ugandan air was on Sunday, 21 August 2016. As I walked across the tarmac, the Warm and dry morning breeze suggested that my sweaters would stay packed on this trip. On my way into Kampala from Entebbe Airport, President Yoweri Museveni drove down to meet me.
Okay. Let me try that again.

A kind fellow named Bony drove up to Entebbe Airport to fetch me and my expectations. The plane I arrived in had aborted the first landing attempt, circled once and then touched down. As it circled, it came down low over the banks of Lake Victoria, which borders the runway. I picked out what seemed to be fishermen’s cabins, with simple fishing canoes moored on the lake’s shores. The scene was charming. The blue expanse of the lake is startling, its beauty vivid.

Bony is driving us up the narrow single carriageway between Entebbe and Kampala when a police sedan comes screaming down the middle of the road, forcing us to pull over. In quick succession, an array of vehicles in the president’s motorcade hurtles down towards the airport. In jest I ask Bony if I can shoot a video of them. He sternly advises me against it. Beauty and force, placed side by side, is something I am keenly aware of as a Zimbabwean and they would be present throughout my week in Uganda.

The organisers aim ‘to bring together established writers from the African continent and beyond to groom young talent in the writing craft

I was in Kampala for Writivism, an annual literary festival organised by the Centre for African Cultural Excellence. The organisers aim ‘to bring together established writers from the African continent and beyond to groom young talent in the writing craft and also to engage in workshops and panel discussions revolving around critical issues on creation and dissemination of African literature’. The fourth edition was held in Kampala from 22 to 28 August 2016. This year’s theme was ‘Restoring Connections’.

School visit

The festival’s outreach programme detailed school visits for the first five days. On the Tuesday I squeezed into a van with a motley crew of writers from Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, the United Kingdom and Rwanda. We drove out to Buwagga Senior Secondary School, a village school located an hour from Kampala. The writers paired up and moved away with a small group of students. Once the students had gotten over their nervousness, we had lively interactive discussions on African literature and how they could be a part of it. We were taken on a tour of the small school library, which held mostly textbooks but also a collection of English literature classics. There was a notable absence of African literature.

The many books that were on sale. Photo: Africatoday
The many books that were on sale. Photo: Africatoday

Two comments from the students in my group were interesting: The first was that they did not consider writing in Luganda, their native language, as ‘literature’. They were lively when they narrated stories and events in Luganda but considered these as a separate concept from ‘literature’, which they understood as English and therefore a foreign concept. Duduzile Mabaso and I were glad to clear up the misconception and introduce the idea of writing in Luganda and/or translating literature from Luganda.

The second was a question from one student to our group on how she could go about becoming a successful author, ‘like us’. The question had the group fumbling for a response, reflecting on what it is to be a successful author, whether we deserved that designation, and how to avoid showing the aspiring writer that her heroes and heroines are mortals figuring out our way through this art.

Book launches and events

At the Okot p’Bitek Prize for Poetry in Translation award ceremony, Katlego Kai Kolanyane-Kesupile’s slogan ‘Bereka Mosadi’ (Setswana for ‘Work, woman!’, a rallying call for women to control their narrative) rang out in her recital. The significance was not lost in a country where she had to dress down to conform to a ‘normal’ gender appearance. The previous day, in a panel discussion on ‘Sexual Harassment in the Creative Space’, she had turned the discussion on its head when she asked, “Are men always consenting to sexual advances from women?”

We were taken on a tour of the small school library, which held mostly textbooks but also a collection of English literature classics. There was a notable absence of African literature.

Stanley Gazemba is what I consider an ‘author’s author’. An accomplished writer, he has chosen to live in the ghettos of Nairobi as a way of breathing authenticity into his literature. It came through in the excerpts he read at the Bahati Books reading.

The rolex and the boda boda

The boda boda is a motorcycle taxi that is common in East Africa. They are omnipresent on street corners or efficiently weaving their way through congested traffic. The boda boda is also the most hazardous contraption in Kampala since the invention of internal combustion engines. Outside of combustion engines, the honour goes to assault rifles. There is a startling amount of armed police and security personnel in Kampala. Yet they are not the bravest – this honour goes to boda-boda drivers. The Writivism Festival pamphlet advised: ‘Always use a helmet when using a boda boda.’ This is a sensible precaution, if one was lucky enough to chance upon a boda boda that had a helmet for the passenger. Sacrificing wisdom at the altar of excitement, I hopped on a boda boda to go everywhere, every day, sans helmet. They are cheap and a thrill that connects you with the pulse of the city.

On Friday morning I set my alarm for 5:00am. This was the ambitious side of me, of course. A late-night, Bell Lager-fuelled pan-Africanist literary banter session is a taxing affair. The alarm failed in its job. I was awakened by what I assumed was an Islamic call to prayer. I quickly (in my mind) slipped on my running gear, stuffed a UGX5000 note in my pocket and stepped outside. The call echoed a melody in the cold early-morning stillness. I set off. The morning traffic was only starting to build up. Even on the narrow roads, drivers acknowledged me and the two runners I passed. Boda-boda drivers did not. My route went past the Baha’i House of Worship and a co-ed Christian school before turning back to Mawanda Road via the Old Kira Road. Uganda is a place of many religions. After 11,85km I was broken but did not succumb to using the boda-boda emergency fund that I had stuffed into my pocket.

Stanley Gazemba is one of Kenya's young literary lights. Photo: Gazebo/Twitter
Stanley Gazemba is one of Kenya’s young literary lights. Photo: Gazemba/Twitter

Excluding the outreach programmes, all festival events were held at the Uganda Museum. An enterprising chap named Alex heard that writers were meeting at the museum and swiftly arranged for a makeshift bar, serving three types of beer and three types of soft drink. Stefano, Alex’s assistant who was in charge of the bar, a delightful chap by all accounts, promised me that he would begin work on his book as soon as the festival was over. It was a respectable attempt at bumping up his turnover. Alex had another assistant who worked on a charcoal grill, serving up a Ugandan culinary institution, the rolex, which should not to be confused with the luxury watch. This rolex sets you back only UGX1 500,00 or US$0,50. The culinary influence of Indian migrants from the 1900s is still strong in Uganda. The rolex is named for the way ‘rolled eggs’ rolls off the tongue. It is made by preparing a soft chapatti and then frying an omelette before rolling both into a single wrap. It tastes really good when you are really hungry.

A few niggles…

There were a few logistical problems during the week. The airport/bus station collections were not efficient. Daily dinner for guests, as stated on the pamphlet, was abruptly withdrawn. Some recommended lodgings were below standard and one lodge, Safari Homes, was almost a 15-minute walk away – a challenge in the midday heat and late at night. Some of the events were run simultaneously, thus splitting attendees. And there were low numbers of the general public at the event.
The festival organisers received all concerns graciously and took steps to work through these challenges throughout the week.

Connections made

For seven straight days I had at least five African countries at my breakfast table. What the guesthouse sorely lacked in cuisine, it made up for in lively literary discussion and witty banter. Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, DRC and South Africa – all stereotypes confirmed and debunked in a beautifully contradictory array of creative personalities.
I went three-on-a-bike with Stanley Gazemba to Wandegeya to sample cheap downtown market food and to have a post-meal roadside Waragi and Bell lager at the tiny market stalls. I was in a late night expedition that discovered China Plate – a delightful garden restaurant with Chinese and Ugandan cuisine which became a de facto post-festival dinner place. The poor staff handled the 18-strong pan-African invasion as best as they could. During the day, at the Uganda Museum, alliances were forged over Mike’s rolexes and Stefano’s warm beer.

Restoring Connections was the theme. Writivism 2016 did one better and Created Connections.