Ugandan Writers: Meet Jackee Budesta Batanda
The 2003 Africa Regional Winner in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition
"Our teachers are unwilling to take on new books to teach."
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First published: February 3, 2006
Ugandan-born Jackee Budesta Batanda lives in Kampala. An undergraduate student at Makerere University, she was also one of the few Ugandan writers mentioned in Beyond Borders Festival press release as a promising writer under the British Council-Crossing Borders programme. The Beyond Borders Festival: A Festival of Contemporary African Writers was held in Kampala, Uganda in October 2005. Beyond Borders is part of the British Councils Interaction initiative, an ambitious pan African programme which promotes a new generation of African leaders as they face the challenges of the 21st Century.
Participating writers including Moses Isegawa, Anne Ayeta Wangusa, Susan.N.Kiguli, Violet.R.Barungi Nancy Oloro, David Tumusiime, James Ocita, Taban Lo Liyong, Veronique Tadjo, Chika Unigwe, Helon Habila, Brian Chikwava, Nick Elam, Becky Ayebia Clarke, Dr. Graham Mort, Valerie Bloom and Sara Maitland were drawn from across Sub-Saharan Africa and the UK. The participating African countries were Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Botswana, Cameroon, Ghana, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Namibia, Nigeria, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The Blue Marble
Budesta Batanda's book, The Blue Marble was selected among a few other books from Africa to be published and illustrated at the first Workshop for author's illustrators and publishers of children's books which was held in Windhoek, Namibia, from 13 - 22 September 2004 for Anglophone Africa. The idea was to create a childrens picture book which covered the UNESCO theme of tolerance, cultural diversity, understanding between peoples, peace etc. Authors and publishers were asked to send unpublished manuscripts which were related to any of the above themes to UNESCO for consideration and selection for the workshop and Budesta Batandas book was selected.
The same book, The Blue Marble was short listed for the 2004 Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa, which recognizes unpublished African fiction for children and young people. She was nominated for the Junior award, for an original, unpublished story in English for children between the ages of 8 and 12 for her childrens book.
Jackee Budesta Batanda was also selected as a writer in residence at the University of Lancaster, UK. She joined the Department of English & Creative Writing from January to March 2005. This residency was a partnership between Litfest and Lancaster University and was funded by the Arts Council North-West, the British Council and Lancaster University. While Jackee was resident at the University she was involved in writing commissions for Litfest and the Crossing Borders African writing project. Jackee worked with students of Creative Writing and African Literature in the Department. She returned to the UK to perform at Litfest in November 2005. She is going to start her MA in Forced Migration Studies at in at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Jane: Jackee, its a great pleasure for me to be able to interview you. In writing circles, when one talks of good Ugandan writers, your name always comes up. In fact Monica Arac de Nyeko, another excellent Ugandan writer describes you as a grand writer. When did you first have that inkling that you were going to be a writer?
Jackee: Thanks for the compliment. I am a sucker for praise. As a child, I read a lot and what went through my mind was wow; I would like to create stories that captivate and enchant readers around the world. My first conscious decision to write with intention to publish was when I was 14. It was an exercise book novel that never found its way to print eventually.
Maybe there is still hope for that novel. Its never too late. Did your teachers in primary and secondary schools recognize your literary skills?
No. Unfortunately they did not.
What about your parents? Did they encourage it?
No. My parents did not know about my literary aspirations. Their contribution to it was unintentional. The best gift they gave me was introducing me to books at an early age and that shaped my view of the world and cemented my desire to join the group of unique individuals that create characters and places and events.
You are such a captivating writer. I have read your Postcards Home, little snippets you wrote when you were writer in residence at Lancaster University via the British Council-Crossing Borders website. What struck me was what an amazing writer you are. What inspires you?
I am inspired by everyday people and the mundane things in our lives. That is what drives me to capture them into fiction, breathe life into them and make them eternal.
What was your writer-in-residence experience like at the University of Lancaster?
Challenging. But worth every minute of the time I spent in Lancaster. My experience informed my view of other things a writer can do besides writing like running writing workshops in prisons and communities. We dont have such opportunities for writers in Uganda so it was a learning experience. Well it also gave me, to quote Virgin Woolf, Money and a room of ones own. to write and carry on with my research for my novel.
Now the way the Crossing Borders Writers Programme works, is that Ugandan writers are paired up with UK writers in a literary mentorship programme. Catherine Johnson was your mentor on Crossing Borders for two years. Can you tell us a little about your relationship and how you benefited from this programme?
Crossing Borders operates like any other online tutorial service. Student and mentor meet in the virtual world. Assignments are sent back and forth and sometimes lasting relationships are built. Catherine Johnson was marvellous and we made a good pair. I realised my strengths and weaknesses and in the process grew.
Would you refer the programme to other Ugandan writers who would like to be included in the programme?
With a few adjustments to the core programme, I would recommend Crossing Borders to other Ugandan writers. However, I am aware that the programme is coming to an end.
Your childrens book-The Blue Marble was shortlisted for the 2004 Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa. What inspired it?
It was inspired by the child labour rampant in Uganda. Like I said earlier, I am inspired by mundane people. While a student at Makerere University, we used to gather in the quadrangle between the Main hall, St, Francis Chapel and St. Augustine Chapel for discussions during examinations time. Children from the neighbouring slums in Katanga and elsewhere poured on the campus grounds selling boiled maize (corn) to students. My story was inspired by these little boys and girls who braved each evening to come and make a buck for their families. The Blue Marble is a tribute to those children, because the characters in the story also sell foodstuffs to university students. It was my way of immortalising them.
Is it ready for sale yet? Where can we buy it?
Yes The Blue Marble has been released by UNESCO-Paris and Sub Saharan Publishers- Ghana. It should be available for sale on the net soon. I am waiting to hear from the Ghanaian publisher about the sales outlets.
Jackee, you are the type of writer who has accolades following you. You were the 2003 Africa Regional Winner in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. How do you keep abreast of all these prestigious competitions?
Well I keep abreast with what is happening in the writing world. I read the net a lot and have a copy of the Artists and Writers Handbook. I believe if one is in a discipline, it is ones duty to discover what opportunities are available to you and how you can make use of them.
Lets talk about your story, Remember Atita which is on the Author-Me.com website. You wrote about something which people rarely think about when Gulu comes to mind-love. Its a story about love and hope in a war torn area-Gulu. The love between Laker-who is admitted at Gulu Hospital and Atita-who is visiting her is so touching. It gave a human face some of the people in Gulu who are suffering, making us realize that they have lives as well in the midst of all the injustices. Was it emotionally difficult for you to write that story?
Jackee in Naivasha, Kenya
Remember Atita has been one of the hardest stories I have written. I was trying to capture the emotional pain and physical suffering of a people. I did ask myself what right I had and whether I was portraying or writing their story well. I would like to say that I have been successful and I hope that their story is told on for years. I heard from Oxford University Press which is interested in abridging the story for their book worms series for learners of English as a foreign language. That means that Remember Atita will be read around the world and people will know and remember about a people in a country far away from their home that lived bravely.
Remember Atita was highly commended for the Caine Prize for African Writing, adding you to the list of Ugandans who have had this honour. How did you celebrate that achievement?
I did not really celebrate being commended. The prize administrator told me I almost made the shortlist but almost does not count. It was a pat but not celebratory.
Its still a good nudge in the right direction. The publishing world is very aware of you. Did you get a lot of phone calls and emails congratulating you for that?
I got a few calls and an interview from the BBC World Service.
Personally I do not think that its enough to be acknowledged as a writer. I think that whenever a Ugandan writer gets that kind of success the government should jump in and boost their sales by introducing their books into the education syllabus. What do you think?
Yes. But it is more complicated than that. Our teachers are unwilling to take on new books to teach. They would rather have the old books and use 20 year old notes and use teaching guides too. So it is more than just our government. Well the government does not support the arts. I have not heard of any arts support given to us.
Do you think that there is space on the international market for Ugandan stories and Ugandan writers? Is the world ready for our stories?
Yes. The world is ready for our stories.
Who are your influences as writer?
I cannot instantly point influences as a writer. The different books I have read have inspired me. Some writers more than others.
Any tips for the youth?
Follow your dreams and work hard because it is the right thing to do. And dont hang around with people who demand so little of you.
What is next for you? Any other manuscripts in the works?
I have completed a collection of short stories. I am working on a novel and starting on a new collection of short stories.
Thank you Jackee for taking the time off your busy schedule for this interview.
It was my pleasure!
Her articles have been published in The Monitor, The Sunday Monitor and The Sunday Vision, national newspapers.
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First published: February 3, 2006
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.