Ugandan Writers: Meet Mildred Barya Kiconco
"Reeba nimpindura byoona bisya omumagara gaawe."
"Ask of me, and I will give nations for thy inheritance, the ends of the earth for thy possession."
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First published: March 10, 2006
Mildred Barya Kiconco
Writer and Psychologist, Mildred Barya Kiconco is the author of Men Love Chocolates But They Don't Say, the first collection of works by a Ugandan woman poet who has been published in the USA and in Uganda. It's a book which depicts how some males are bashful to ask for chocolate because the patriarchal society they live in has dubbed chocolate as 'feminine'.The work is divided into sections entitled: 'Poems of Challenge'; 'Poems of Sunshine and Loveliness'; 'Poems of Loss and Contradiction'; and 'Poems of Release'. The title poem is a humorous contemplation on the dual-natured personality of man, on the one hand, the masculine identity he presents to his friends; and on the other, his softer side which endears him to women.
Jane: What was your childhood like?
Mildred: As a child I was extremely playful and active in outdoor games though I always ended up curled with a book at night. I admired nature, loved to listen to the sound of waterfalls, collected fallen leaves and matched them against their different colours, swam in the river at home, walked in the rain, climbed trees and also participated in farm work, gardening; stuff like that.
We Seek a Face
Your story, We Seek a Face was published on AuthorMe. I notice that a few Ugandans have been published there, some even going to win awards and nominations. What attracted you to the site?
For the simple reason that it was free. Most sites and publications ask for a submission fee but authorme.com favoured authors like me who consider it a joy to save a dime and still have your story naked to the world.
Please tell us more about the story, for those who may have not read it yet
Well, you're putting me to task Jane but in brief, I should say the story covers a number of themes, spread across the transition from a naughty childhood to maturity. With this comes the realization that life has been an affair of collective memory, but it must be redefined and gain recognition in an individual's consciousness after embarking on a self discovery journey that a person must take alone. How to remain continuous, have a face and a legacy becomes a challenge beyond justifications of culture and folk wisdom. In We Seek a Face the individual strives to rise above rootless ness to claim an identity that is neither culturally imposed, nor socially defined. Wholeness appears through embracing the simple mundane things like sharing a cup of good coffee, listening to jazz and chatting with a neighbour. Brokenness, courage and pain of loving lead to something bigger than life. Once more, the familiar is celebrated and a hope that does not give up on individual choices becomes a new inheritance.
You are a member of FEMRITE, the Ugandan women writers' group. How did you become a member?
Mildred Barya Kiconco
I woke up one morning and discovered that I needed a job. I was a second year literature student at Makerere University. The year was 1998. I asked myself where I wanted to look for employment. My dream since childhood had been to work in a publishing house. I recalled that a bunch of FEMRITE women had visited the literature department and had spoken of their passion for writing and publishing. An idea came to my mind; 'why don't you go to FEMRITE offices and say you want to work with them?' That's precisely what I did. I remember knocking on FEMRITE's door and facing a pleasant woman with a smiling face and short curly hair.
"I have come to work," I said.
"There is no job here," she responded.
"I am not looking for a job. I am looking for work."
She took me on. I volunteered my time, and learnt the technicalities of writing and publishing. That pleasant woman was Goretti Kyomuhendo, the Coordinator of FEMRITE. From her, I did not only acquire knowledge in publishing dynamics, but my writing improved, my poetry soared to the skies, I was set free, so I flew. I have been spinning since then.
What does membership entail?
It's categorized under three types: Full membership for those writers who actively participate in the activities of the organization and attend general meetings as planned. Associate memberships for writers who may be physically absent from the organization but from time to time make meaningful contribution to the organization. Then finally honorary members who are either male or female but are individuals of good will and have significantly contributed to the well-being of FEMRITE.
I Will Be**All the poems above are by Mildred Barya Kiconco, from her new poetry collection; 'The Price of Memory' which is forthcoming.
I am the inch pin of your memory
Without me you cannot be
You may deny me existence
And shut me in your backyard
You may steal from me motherhood
Lie that I am not the woman of your children
You may spray dirt on my face
To cover your own shame
I have lived a thousand times
I'll live again
I ve made a pact with destiny
Nothing you do can weaken me
I will be.
Without me you cannot be.
We are a continuous stream,
Not a classification
There isn't a you, me or the other,
We are us.
Before time began
Now the cord is broken,
Dismembered from the source.
Connect us again
We cry for you.
Do not Look for Me Among the Broken Pots
Do not look for me among the broken pots:
My place is in the skies
Long ago I chose the rainbow for my skin,
And lightness for my soul
I am the torch of a million stars,
The radiance in your dreams.
Do not look for me among the ruined huts
My seat is at the Chief's table:
Elected before time began
Brother, sister, do not weep
I am the fortified path,
That bears your footprints home.
When did you start writing poetry?
From the time I was as tall as my father's boots. I didn't know it was poetry then. I knew I wrote words.
You have a poetry book called Men Love Chocolates But They Don't Say. That's an interestingly eye-catching and humorous title. What inspired you to use that title?
Society prejudice inspired me. I considered those so-called feminine things that men love but are shy to acknowledge publicly. Chocolates proved symbolic.
The book I am assuming is about men. Do you think that men would identify with it?
Mildred Barya Kiconco
Allow me to differ from your view. The book is not about men. It's about humanity. It touches issues in which both sexes can discover contradictions that we carry from our past into our being and belief system. That is what I challenge in my poetry. The defined state as opposed to what is or can be. I believe all human beings, no matter what the sex would identify with the realities shed in my poetry.
Who did the art on your cover?
A gifted artist called Nuwa Nyanzi. He has done most of the book cover illustrations for FEMRITE.
Where can those who are interested in it purchase it?
The book or Nuwa's artwork?
How about both?
Well, Nuwa has a stall at the Cultural Village located at Uganda National Theatre. As for the poetry book, it can be found with Amazon.com and most of the leading bookshops in Kampala. Also, ABC (African Books Collective) is our agent in UK. It distributes and sells copies on behalf of FEMRITE.
Men Love Chocolates But They Don't Say
Michigan State University Press
You write poetry and prose. Is there a preference for either one?
Yes. Poetry is my first love, God's gift to me. It called up to me like deep calls to deep, and I embraced it. Prose is my gift to the world. I had to learn it, it did not come to me open-handed. I waited for it before it could be true. For a long time the ache for prose lodged between composition and procrastination.
Tell us about your story Effigy Child. What is it about?
It's a story about an ingenious young boy Yakobo, who is faced with the challenge of survival in a place of lack. He thinks of earning a living by chasing birds from a farmers' sorghum fields. While he's in the field, an idea occurs to him to make scarecrows or effigies out of banana fibres. He makes and sells the effigies to several owners of sorghum fields. In the end the birds are kept away from the plantations and Yakobo is paid for his creativity.
I heard from the grapevine that you are working on a biography of the late Philly Bongoley Lutaaya- the first prominent Ugandan to go public about his HIV/AIDS status. Is that true?
I am writing the biography, I must confess it's proved a slow process, but an exciting one nevertheless.
What led you to write about this Ugandan icon?
The courage of Philly Lutaaya's soul. The simple candour that he dared to face the world and say; 'Look here, I am HIV positive' at a time when a mere whisper about the strange illness was taboo. He put the world's acceptance or should I say denial of truth on trial. He used his music to create awareness about HIV/AIDS. We all have got gifts to use in the fight against AIDS. I am using my pen to write stories of such heroic people. If I do it well, I will not have failed at making a contribution.
I heard from the same source that as you are also working on a novel called "River of Souls" based on the Kanungu Doomsday cult in Uganda.
Hahaha, you've changed my title! It's Soul of Rivers. It's a work of fiction based on the Kanungu doomsday cult in which hundreds of people died. Sadness catches my attention, you know. Everywhere you look, there is a toothless neighbour who cannot enjoy meat, a beggar on the street, homeless orphans huddled together for warmth, frustrated men or disappointed women searching for a place to lay down the pain. My way of touching them, feeling their despair is by capturing their desolation, shame, life, love and hope.
Why do you think that right now there are more women writers published than men?
Women are more obedient when it comes to following the writing muse. Men are busy fighting bush wars, at least a case for Africa. Elsewhere they are busy grabbing oil.
That's funny. The publishing industry is very tough anywhere, let alone Uganda. Without venues like FEMRITE, many writers, especially females ones would not have been published. How do you think that we can improve that situation as a country?
By seeking the good will of policy makers who will support us in promoting local writers onto school syllabus and education curriculum. Then we will have many people, especially the young, not only reading but also finding role models in their national writers. Since writing goes beyond the individual author to embody a whole country or continent, the general public then becomes aware of the value the educators attach to their nationals' publications. That would boost the publishing industry and promote reading and writing.
Do you think that writers are responsible for how their words affect others whether it is negatively or positively? Why?
As writers- they are not. They shouldn't even think of being held down by inhibitions that might stop 'those astonishing stories' from being released. As social beings- they are since they have a social role to play and an image to protect. But along the way we've learnt that image is nothing, words can be everything.
Any words of advice for those following your footsteps?
Yes, they should tread carefully not to step on my heels! Anyway, on a more serious note, to echo words of Zora Neale Hurston, "There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you." So those writers who believe they have got a story to be told should not sell out or settle for less, but should go ahead and tell it.
What's next for you?
The Price of Memory: After the Tsunami
My poetry collection; 'The Price of Memory' (the collection gets its name from one of the poems dedicated to 'After the Tsunami') has been accepted for publishing by Mallory International Ltd, UK. It thrills me to the core, and I look forward to sharing this additional book with the world.
I also write features, travel pieces and short stories for the Sunday monitor.
The following short-stories have been published in The Sunday Monitor, Ugandan Newspaper.
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First published: March 10, 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.