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Ugandan authors coming up but questions on quality remain

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Aruu County MP Odonga Otto looks at the books during the Book Week at Railways Grounds in Kampala on September. 17. inea photoIt is 3:25pm. A drizzle disrupts the bright Wednesday afternoon. Four white tents stand in one of the few remaining green areas in the city. We are at the Railways Grounds on Jinja Road.

Tens of children clad in their respective school uniforms can be seen in a small tent, some reading others staring. “This morning I read Kimera Learns a Lesson. It is an interesting story book,” says Jesse Banganzi, a P.3 pupil attending the Book Week festival. He studies at Kampala Quality Primary School in Kawempe. In the biggest tent are literature materials exhibited by publishing companies, booksellers and authors themselves fill it to capacity.

The other white tent, medium sized, has a handful of book readers, writers and publishers who constitute the audience at the opening of the 17th National Book Week festival on September 16. Surprisingly the majority of audience members in this tent are from Kenya and Tanzania. Few Ugandans are attending the festival. Those present are mainly people who have a stake in the industry.  

The following day, there is the authors’ public reading of some their works at National Theatre main auditorium at 4pm. One would expect the crowds to be spilling over, but alas about 40 seats remain empty throughout the session.

It’s also an occasion that brings together some big names in Uganda’s creative and fiction writing industry such as Dr Susan Kiguli, Dr Patrick Mangeni, Lillian Tindyebwa, and Mary Karoro Okurut among others.

At the end of every reading the audience is thrown into a thrilling bout of applause. “Writing is coming home. People can now hear us in more familiar terms,” declares Sister Loy Nakiwala of Kyambogo University after listening to Dr Susan Kiguli’s powerful Luganda poem: Omutti.

James Tumusiime, the chairman of National Book Trust of Uganda (NABUTU) which was one of the organisers of the Book Week, was happy that over 15,000 schools across the country had joined in celebrating the festival. However some observers say the quality of local literary works still has holes. Some say the books have low reader appeal. Others say the books are even expensive.

NABUTU brings together people involved in publishing: printers, librarians, sellers, writers and readers. The weeklong festival is one of the NABUTU’s major efforts to raise awareness on reading and appreciation of literary works.

This year’s theme: “A reading parent a reading child” was informed by the fact that children learn their first words from their parents and family members.

Dr Patrick Mangeni, author of Operation Mulungusi and The Prince, who also heads the Music Dance and Drama department at Makerere University, says: “The fact that Ugandan authored books are accepted pieces of literature on the school syllabus is a testimony of great writing in the country,” he said.

“Austin Bukenya’s The Bride is a good piece. And the likes of Julius Ocwinyo are coming up. We need to identify such potential and strengthen institutional structures such as nurturing young people to read,” Dr Mangeni told The Independent. 

 Joseph Mugasa, a teacher of literature and English who has taught since 1990 and chairs the Literature Fraternity of Uganda, says teachers have partially contributed to undermining local books by preferring teaching books they read long ago. A play like Upon this Mountain by Timothy Wangusa had to stay on school library shelves for at least a year as teachers preferred the much familiar book, The Concubine by Elechi Amadi from Nigeria.

Hilda Twongyeirwe, coordinator of Uganda Women Writers’ Association (FEMRITE), says they have succeeded in having Ugandan- authored books on syllabus but the struggle shifts to having more female writers’ works on secondary school set books as the docket appears to male dominated.  “I don’t have a yardstick for measuring quality. But I think they are giving out quality because they write about things which are relevant, things of Ugandan life,” Twongyeirwe says. “If you read the work and find some gaps you can get back to the writer. In this way the readers would be contributing to development of literature in the country,” she counsels.

Mugasa says one of the impediments to the publishing industry is funding and people’s mentality to read only what is offered at school. They don’t read other books on their own initiative. However he says there have been some improvements since 2000. He says at least four Ugandan authored books (Fate of the Banished by Julius Ocwinyo, Kosiya Kifefe by Arthur Gakwandi, The Bride by Austin Bukenya, A Season of Mirth by Regina Amolo, and Black Mamba by John Ruganda) have made it to the secondary school curriculum. This is improvement, Mugasa says, compared to only three Ugandan authored books (Song of Lawino, The Floods and The Burdens) that had made it to the school syllabus in 30 years since independence.

 “When you are working within a limited budget you run the risk of poor spelling, poor sentence structure. The writer of Arrows of Rain had his book rejected six times but organised to have the 6th revision sent to 11 readers in English speaking countries to restructure it and later it was published. Ugandan writers don’t have all that liberty to do this due to limited resources,” he adds. “One time someone gave me a book to edit for Shs 20,000 which he later never paid. This cannot encourage one to do a good job and it will impact on the sale and readership.”  

Timothy Kalyegira, a journalist, seems to capture this well in one of his columns saying that the newspapers in Uganda have tried all within their means to push up circulation. He says they have gone daily, introduced early editions, bought their own printing presses, launched loud and expensive promotions, billboards erected everywhere, created whole sections devoted to the English Premier football league, specialised pullouts for women, business, children, and 100 other efforts to increase newspaper readership. But the result is that none of these efforts has made a noticeable difference in the number of newspaper copies sold.

To corroborate Kalyegira’s observations, Mugasa says there is a book which sold only 13 copies in 2000. What we need is to cultivate and entrench a reading cultural among the young generation.


Comments (3)Add Comment
Bonne's Art
written by Asiimwe T Bonnetvanture, April 12, 2010
I think that a bad reader can not make a good writer and the fact that Ugandan's reading culture is still poor;we should little expect good writers and i think this could be the very reason as to why i find it easier to remember a line from say Sembene ousemane's 'Gods bits of wood' than i can do about an upcoming Ugandan writer.All in all there is hope of Uganda improving on the quality of writing since we already have the fully established authors.Young writers can start reading works of Ugandan writers as the source of inspiration
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On the quality of books written in Uganda
written by MULUMBA IVAN MATTHIAS, October 07, 2013
Every time someone talks about writing in Uganda, we are quick to rise the point of quality. I am not saying that the quality is very good. Let's ask our selve: what solutions have we come up with? One of them is that writers should work harder and improve the quality of their work. They should spend more time working on their scripts, readly broadly and shouldn't expect every book they write to end up on the school syllabus.

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