Beatrice Speaks to Hilda Twongyeirwe
Hilda Twongyeirwe.

Beatrice Speaks to Hilda Twongyeirwe

So you ask where the men are. And for many other international anthologies, the main contributors are women writers.

By Beatrice Lamwaka
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First published: March 6, 2009

The day was brief for Hilda Twongyeirwe when I showed up for my appointment. She was working on Farming Ashes, an anthology of stories from women caught up in armed conflict in northern Uganda, Poster Poetry Project, an anthology that combines poetry and art that will be launched on 12 March, reports to donors... and on Women's International day is just around the corner.

Twongyeirwe, the co-ordinator of FEMRITE (Uganda Women Writers Association) was born in Kabale district, south-west Uganda. She graduated with an honours degree in social sciences and a master's degree in public administration and management from Makerere University. She has published a children's book Fina the Dancer (2007) and other books in Runyankole Rukiga for primary one and two. Her poetry appears in various journals and magazines including The Threshold by the Nile in the Poster Poetry Project anthology. Twongyeirwe has also published two short stories with FEMRITE: Becoming a Woman 1998 and Headlines 2001. Her forthcoming short stories include; The Pumpkin Seed to be published later in the year in a FEMRITE anthology.

Women's day is fast approaching (9 March). As a women's organisation; what is FEMRITE organising to celebrate the power of a woman?
FEMRITE will be part of the activities that the German Cultural Society and Alliance Francaise will organise in Nakasero for women NGOs and individual women to showcase their work. We will display our books and some FEMRITE members will read from their works. The readings will mainly focus on women as silenced victims and women's triumph (success stories of women).

When did you join FEMRITE?
I joined FEMRITE in 1995 as it was being formed. I had been told of Mary Karooro that she was looking for women writers in order to form Uganda writers' organisation. I was lucky that when I joined Makerere University, she was my lecturer for drama and so I spoke to her and we soon started having meetings and looking for an office.  I'm happy that I met most of the founder members of FEMRITE (Mary Karooro, Ayeta Anne Wangusa, Goretti Kyomuhendo, and late Rose Mbowa) at the time when I was gaining confidence in my writing. The year before, I was one of the winners of a playwriting competition in Uganda. I went to Nairobi for a playwriting workshop where I met playwrights from the other African countries. I was sure I wanted to be part of this organisation.

Hilda Twongyeirwe
Hilda Twongyeirwe.

I wrote plays and they were frequently acted in schools. I also wrote the play Demolised which was acted in the National Theatre by Teamline, a group that consisted of Godfrey Kisiki, Charles Mulekwa, Willy Ewal, Lucy Ofuti, Micheal Musoke, and Harriet Sakira. They have all gone into different fields now. To me, this was a success! There was a large audience and I got the big cheque which I never thought I would get.

You have been the Coordinator for FEMRITE, a group of very vibrant and creative women, for close to five years. How is organising such a group?
My work is very exciting. FEMRITE is an association of women writers. It's a group of women who saw the need to write and excel as writers. They know what they want and they work hard to achieve that. Most of the members are involved in FEMRITE's activities and also want to see that we succeed as writers. Most of all we celebrate our work especially successes. Over the years most FEMRITE members have become close friends and so this makes it closely a knit association.

Most of the members are professionals in different fields and so they offer their services to FEMRITE to make it a better organisation. These are the reasons why most of our activities are a success.

Most critics' slate that FEMRITE members write women's stories i.e. very trivial issues like women's chores, husband problems issues. How do you defend the women?
People write what is close to their hearts. We women experience labour pains and we may write about that. Do you want me to ignore that.. write about men going to work? This is a special and unique feeling that every mother has got to go through.

The fact is that women writers in Uganda are getting national and international recognition for their creativity. This means that there is something newsworthy about what we write. Whoever says what we write are women issues let them go and read international best sellers and find out what is being written if these are not the same things that Uganda women are writing about.

The recently published Dreams, Miracles and Jazz is an anthology of young African writers, edited by Kadija Sesay, a UK based editor of the literary Sable Magazine, and Helon Habila, a 2001 Caine Prize winner. Uganda is represented by FEMRITE members; Monica Arac de Nyeko, Jackee Budesta Batanda, Glaydah Namukasa, and Mildred Kiconco. So you ask where the men are. And for many other international anthologies, the main contributors are women writers.

After ten years of its existence; do you feel that FEMRITE has achieved what it set out to do?
At the time FEMRITE was established, only a handful of women had managed to have their works published. Some of these had been published in the 60s and 70s, when there were a lot of writing activities taking place in the country. The majority, however were published in the early 90s, when the then only mainstream indigenous publishing house, Fountain Publishers, embarked on publishing local authors. So far, FEMRITE has had 23 publications, five more anthologies are forthcoming. Soon we will be celebrating 28 titles in 12 years. Most of FEMRITE members are published with other publishing houses within and outside of Uganda.

Several researchers and academics also study FEMRITE books for their various degrees, in different areas both here in Uganda, and outside like in Kenya, South Africa and the USA. An example here is Memoirs of a Mother, by Ayeta Wangusa, which is used as Readers Supplement in some secondary schools in Uganda- for young adults, and Secrets no More, by Goretti Kyomuhendo, which is studied by some students in the Department of Black Studies, California State University, Long Beach, USA.

The health booklets series: Your Companion in the Absence of a Doctor have also been very useful to health providers, schools, adult learners and the grassroots people who have limited access to medical facilities.  

The Invisible Weevil, by Mary Karooro Okurut, is used by many schools, policy makers, and other groups involved in the campaign against AIDS/HIV to illustrate the evils of the disease. This is a story about AIDS.

We have held public readings were held, at the German, French, British, American cultural centres and outside Kampala. The reading in have attracted most of the general public.

Meetings of the Readers/ Writers club were held at FEMRITE offices, which bring together both up-coming and established writers to share literary information and criticism.

Members and staff have received national and international recognition. FEMRITE books are studied in various institution of higher learning.

Hilda Twongyeirwe
Hilda Twongyeirwe.

We have organised the first ever regional women writers' residency in Kampala; where we had writers from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. An anthology of short stories created during the residency will be published later this year.

FEMRITE has invited international writers in Uganda, including; Tayari Jones, Ama Ata Aidoo, Okey Ndibe, Taban Lo Liong, Ellen Banda. We hope to invite more writers like Sindiwe Mangona, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie among others.  

We have documented voices of other women who may not be able to tell their stories; Tears of Hope (2003) a collection of recorded experiences that reflect the pain and courage of south- west Ugandan rural women, I Dare to Say (2006) a collection of five stories of varying experiences and style knit together by the storytellers desire to speak out about HIV and AIDS in order to make a difference, and Farming Ashes (2009) a collection of recorded experiences of resilience and survival in armed conflict, a collection of women's experiences of genital mutilation will be published later in the year. FEMRITE hopes to record women's experiences on rape and defilement, women prisoners on the death row, success stories of the girl-child and is still looking for donors.

And we continue to do more!

You are a mother of three children and a husband. How do you juggle work, family and writing?
I write very late in the night or very early in the morning when my family is sleeping and I have completed my chores. Sometimes, I wish to take some time off from work so that I can give my writing another big kick start... especially my novel.

Literary events are not given much attention in the media; what is FEMRITE doing to educate the media the importance of literary activities in the country?
FEMRITE has contacted the National Book Trust of Uganda (NABOTU) so that they support us in giving literary reporting prizes to journalists to encourage them to report on literary activities. This is still work in progress. I hope that it works out.

Is FMERITE open to all women who want to join the association?
FEMRITE is open to all women who have the basic skills and talent to write, but have failed to start the writing process, either because of lack of space, facilities, inspiration, commitment or encouragement and women who have written, at times as many as two or three manuscripts, and are looking for ways of having their manuscripts published. Some of them even lack the courage and confidence to bring forth these manuscripts for evaluation fearing that the critics will dismiss them as not good enough. I guess most women writers belong to this category. They are all welcome. FEMRITE provides the space, training, resources and books for these writers.

Thank you for your time and all the best in your writing.
You are welcome.

By Beatrice Lamwaka
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First published: March 6, 2009

Beatrice Lamwaka
Beatrice Lamwaka is finalist for the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award 2009. She is the author of Anena's Vicory, one of Fountain Junior HIV/AIDS Series, a supplementary reader in primary schools in Uganda. Her published short stories have appeared in Gowanus Books, Women's World website, WordWrite-FEMRITE Literary Journal, as well as anthologies such as Words From a Granary, Today You will Understand, Aloud: Illuminating Creative Voices, Michael's Eyes; The War against the Ugandan Child FEMRITE publications. She was one of the pioneers of a British Council writing scheme that links Ugandan writers with established writers in the UK, and she is a member of Uganda Women Writers' Association (FEMRITE). She is currently working on her first novel and a number of short stories.