Resident Travel Blog March 20, 2013

March 20, 2013 by Vijay Narendran

Vijay_NarendranI've been connected with the cultural and artistic wayfarers in Kampala, by a chance meeting with an amazing poet/writer who sat in the seat next to me on the plane from London to Kampala. His name is Nii Parkes, a writer/poet originally from Ghana, moved to London and then Ghana again after a short stint in the food safety industry, and quit and became a writer. Shortlisted for the Commonwealth prize, he lives in London and is now an educator, writer, poet, and host of a live evening of literature and interview called African Writers' Evening in London, held monthly in an auditorium to much acclaim. He was asked by the African Writers Union to come to Uganda as part of a series of workshops to help budding Ugandan writers navigate the various difficulties and hardships they encounter as they pursue a career in literature.


An exerpt from a poem of Nii's called "The Makings of You" from a book of his poetry by the same name...

"you will tell no one of the day when,
as an ashy-kneed eleven-year-old boy
in boarding school, you surreptitiously
sat on the concrete steps of your classroom
block to pick up a groundnut you had spotted

earlier, cleaned it against your brown shorts
and slipped it in your mouth where you let it sit
for an instant, before you chewed it for six slow
minutes, so you could fool your own stomach
into thinking that life was better than it was."

from "The Making of You" by Nii Parkes

We talked on the plane mainly of economics and development, such is my interest these days. I was reading a book that caught his eye called "Why Countries Fail" (amazing book, I'll speak more about it another time). But, before leaving the plane, he was quick to give me his card, and to get my email. He came to Kampala and invited me out to an event that was part of the workshop called African Writers' Evening, where we heard pieces from, and he interviewed, various African writers. Very cool, chill evening, followed by an elite group of us being invited to a pork barbecue at a little hole in the wall place down the street. There I met a lot of women writers from the Kampala Group FemRITE, a danish lady who was a representative of the DOEN group funding the conference, and a couple of really cool people excited about arts in Uganda.

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The Arts in Uganda, as I've gleaned from my very brief experience, and from hearing talk at these events, has been largely marginalized excepting the last 6-7 years, when they've experienced a rebirth. FemRITE is a novel organization in Africa, and since its inception, has been playing a role in giving women voices, at least initially, to deal with the war and violence experienced very recently in the north of the country. Indeed, women, hearing of FemRITE in Uganda, have made their way from all over the country to the offices in Kampala to find a safe-haven and sometimes even a safe place to sleep. Since humble beginnings, FemRITE has now produced literary prize winners and honorees and is a large and stable organization. Also another organization, Baima, has started a series of arts festivals throughout the country, and these organizations continue to grow and to include more of Uganda.

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It's been very interesting to see these Kampala artists struggle to get Uganda to appreciate the art. In a way they are celebrating some semblance of stability and development in Kampala and focusing on the betterment of a community. Kids don't really participate in the arts as part of their school curriculums, there's no real art galleries or museums here supported at all by the state, and here they are, in active dialogue every month to make these institutions happen. I'm going to take my parents to a production of Macbeth, East Africa style, when they come visit next week... Truly an admirable happening in Uganda.