Ugandan Writers: Meet Nancy Oloro Robarts
"Most of my plays on the emancipation of women; I was raised to believe that men and women are equal in the sight of God."
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First published: August 20, 2006
She is one of Uganda's most known published female writers and a former fellow of the British Council Crossing Borders Programme for writers. Her first published works, which mostly specialize on children's literature, include: The Golden Bangle and Mother Eats Her Son (1992). Her work was published by Heinemann UK. Her book The Dancing Suitcase has been translated into French. Recently her short story, Witness was published in an anthology Michaels Eyes The War against the Uganda Child.
Nancy Oloro Robarts was born and raised in Teso, Uganda in a village called Opot. She went to primary school in Akarukei Primary school in Ngora, later moved to Kisoko Girls Primary School in Tororo and finally studied for a year at Ngora girls primary school. She then joined Tororo Girls School and later Makerere University. Oloro Robarts has a BA, Diplomas in Journalism and in Community Oriented Education.
Oloro Robarts was forced to leave her home place Teso in the mid 80's and moved to Zambia where she lived for 10 years. It was there that she taught literature in English and served as a vice principal at Banani International School in Zambia. While in Zambia, Oloro Robarts also wrote and produced TV series called Radio BISS, as well as several stage plays. She returned to Uganda in 2004 and currently works part-time with Telemedia. She is National Coordinator of Uganda Bahá'í Institute for Development.
Sources used for some of the above: British Council: Writers' Biographies
Jane: Please tell us more about Nancy Oloro. Who is she?
Nancy relaxed as she tries another artistic point of view Hair Dressing.
"I love to braid, twist, plait my own hair."
Nancy: I grew up in a very loving and close family environment. I have two brothers and three sisters born to my dad and mom. However, I grew up in a full household of cousins, aunties, uncles, and friends. Our home was always full to capacity and during the school holidays as most of us were in boarding schools, we would tell endless stories by the cooking fire. Laughter rang deep late into the night, as we quenched our thirst for stories. Since then I knew it was my fate to tell stories for the rest of my life.
I am now married to a handsome architect, we live in Uganda and are working towards creating a life learning centre for junior youth founded on spiritual principles and accompanied by selfless acts of service to the communities from which the youth come from. Of course we are writing... will always write. Look out for life enriching stories from us.
Nancy Oloro with husband.
You have led an interesting life. You lived in Zambia for 10 years. What was that experience like? Did you learn any Zambian dialects?
Zambia was a lifetime experience. I went there originally as a youth year of service volunteer in a newly opened international secondary school. Little did I know that by the time I would leave 10 years later I would have held every position in that school!!! I love Zambia. It gave me an opportunity to learn how to work with people from multicultural, multiracial, religious, tribal, national backgrounds, however you may name it. But above all, it helped me learn about me. I was lucky because I had the honour of interacting with the Zambian people from all walks of life, right from the ordinary man, the elite, through to the ruling class.
Nancy Oloro and some of the teaching staff of Banani International School in Zambia on Traditional Dress Day.
Nancy Oloro in the center as patron with members of the Drama club of Banani International School in Zambia.
Zambia is richer than Uganda in dialects. By the time I left I could understand Bemba and Nyanja. I could get along in a mixture of the two but could never tell which was which to me they were all Greek.
You served as a vice principal in Banani International School in Zambia. How did you get the job?
Well, I went to Zambia as a volunteer. I am a Bahá'í and in the Bahá'í Faith, youth are encouraged to devote a period of voluntary service to the community before getting caught up in the day-to-day busy schedules of life. After completing my first degree in Makerere University I felt that it was the best time in my life to devote some time to voluntary service before joining the long queues in search of a full time job.
Banani International School students doing a gum boot dance, originally from South Africa by miners, during a school production on International Women's Day.
Banani International Secondary School was just being opened then and they were in need of young women who were flexible and willing to help out in various positions in the school. I sent in my application and I was taken as a volunteer for a period of one year. In the course of that year I worked as librarian and a teaching assistant. When I completed my youth year of service I was offered a position as a fulltime paid teacher, which I graciously accepted. Later I was promoted to senior teacher, then vice principal and for about a year acted as principal. It was the most enriching experience as I grew on my service in Banani.
What are the similarities between Zambians and Ugandans?
Very similar, especially in the areas of hospitality and friendliness; I felt at home and Zambia will always be home to me. Their staple food is posho (nshima) as it is known there. They grow lots of beans and eat plenty of fish (kapenta). Some of our traditional vegetables are found in Zambia too. Where I lived we could often access a lot of game meat. However, one thing I was not very comfortable with, were the caterpillars that were sold in sacks-full in the markets. I am a very daring person, but in that area I bow down to weakness. No caterpillar whatsoever found its way into my mouth. Even one time when we travelled to the north western part of the country, and they mixed the caterpillars into the rice, served by candle light, I was still able to sense the presence of the caterpillars in that meal. I happily chose to sleep hungry.
Zambians love their beer, the famous mosi named after the mighty Mosi-o-Tunya falls (Victoria Falls). As someone who was raised not to treasure alcohol, I found this love of alcohol a menace. I guess Ugandan's are quite close to that level these days too from my observations. However, Zambians are very peaceful people and dedicated to soccer unlike the Ugandans.
How did the Zambian literary scene influence you as a writer?
I was patron of the drama club and all the performances we staged were scripted by me, in that respect my playwriting skills developed. We ran a radio and television drama series focusing on issues that affect women and children. I also had the privilege to co-produce a play with one of Zambia's outstanding women writers Mulenga Kapwepwe. On one occasion I was able to attend a writer's workshop and this enabled me to connect with several writers in Zambia. But overall, because of the demands of my position as vice principal, it was very hard to focus on my writing much as I would have loved to. But all in all, Zambia itself is an inspiration for any determined writer. It is rich and diverse in culture and traditions.
Nancy Oloro with some of her Zambian family in Zambia.
How early in your life did you begin writing?
As early as I could compose stories in my head. I don't know about the rest of you, but I started as a little child and I am proud to say even now, but of course it is becoming less and less, I would create stories in my head about endless things. In these stories I would often be the heroine, right in the thick and middle of it. So really for me writing has happened in my mind as long as I can remember.
However, one distinct story still comes to mind even to this day. I must have been in grade 6. I was in a boarding primary school in Tororo called Kisoko Girls School. Anyone who has been to boarding school in primary can relate to what I am talking about. Life was very hard, and I mean really hard. I was homesick and just hated everything about this new life. One day the teacher asked us to write about our lives. But as many teachers do, they limit the children's creativity by saying the famous phrase "in no more than 250 words". I did write that composition in no more than 250 words. However, little did my teacher know that she had kindled a fire in my mind; I wrote pages and pages of my life. I shared it with a few friends. I remember reading that story over and over again. I called it, "The Story of My Life". It was not fictitious so to speak; it contained a whole lot of truths, especially about things I detested in my school at that time. I lost that story when we lost almost everything in the civil war that broke out in our home in the mid 1980's.
Tell us about Radio BISS a TV series you wrote and produced while in Zambia.
Radio BISS originally was a stage production. I wrote it as an attempt to create awareness amongst my students and the neighbouring schools about the effects of drugs, alcohol, peer pressure, indulgence in sex outside the institution of marriage and several other issues that have come to mark the lives of teenagers as challenges.
Some of the cast of the play Radio BISS by Nancy in action.
When we first staged the play, it was at the celebration of the International Women's Day that was hosted by Banani International School. Several NGO's and schools were present. The director of one of the NGO's, Women for Change, fell in love with the production and they commissioned us to make both a radio and television series. I re-wrote the script and it was adapted for television and radio. The play focused on the challenges that continually torment the girl child in any given community.
What inspired you to do stage plays?
Most of my plays focus on the emancipation of women. One of the scripts that was especially written for the inauguration of Banani School is called The Chains. The play is about the plight of the girl child and how easily society will bend laws and traditions to sacrifice the girl child. One of my core beliefs is that men and women are equal in the sight of God, thus each must be allotted equal opportunities. And not just that, in the case of the education of children, if parents cannot afford to educate both their daughters and sons, preference should be accorded to the girls because they are future mothers and will have the duty of raising children. If a mother is educated, children have a better future as they will be first educated by their mothers. By virtue of being mothers, women are the first educators of children.
You mention that the emancipation of women is an important theme for you. Why is that?
Women for a long time have been denied equal opportunities in vast areas of society in comparison to the men folk. And most important for me, as a Bahá'í woman, this is a key principle in my beliefs. It is therefore my duty to make a contribution to my society through creating awareness that not until women are welcomed into equal partnership with men, will the men achieve that greatness that might be theirs.
Men and women are like the two wings of a bird. If one wing is slow or weak, the bird cannot fly and soar into the skies. If women who constitute more than half of the world's population are left to lag behind, then how can we make any progress as a society? The world of humanity will be tottering around like the lame bird that cannot fly.
In my humble way I hope that the words of my pen will serve as an inspiration to both those men and women who have chosen to dedicate themselves in the building of a new world civilisation.
Your story The Dancing Suitcase was published by Heinemann in the UK (JAWS). What is it about?
The Dancing Suitcase by Nancy Oloro.
The Dancing Suitcase now translated into French La Valise Ensorcelée is about rivalry between two cousins growing up in the same household. Lilai, the heroine, is an orphan and is given a hard time by Ationo who is not willing to share her parents' affection and love with her cousin. Ationo's hatred for Lilai gets her into serious trouble as she becomes an outcast from her community when she inherits a suitcase full of snakes, a sign of her insatiable greed. It is a modern story with lots of traditional ingredients woven into it.
You also wrote the book, The Mother Eats Her Son. What inspired that? Is it allegoric?
Yes, Mother Eats Her Son is an allegorical story. It is to caution any of those mothers who mistreat children who are not their biological offspring. In this story I convey the message that children are treasures from God and we should treat all children as precious jewels. When I grew up in my little village in Teso, I felt that I was a child of the community. I felt safe and secure and the virtue of trustworthiness was inculcated into me.
Finally you are also the author of the Golden Bangle. Can you give us a brief summary of the book?
The Golden Bangle is about a young orphan girl, a daughter of a chief who is abused by her relatives once her parents both die. They even try to stop her from marrying a son of the neighbouring chief, her childhood betrothal and her birth right. She comes out of it successful through amazing interventions of nature and she assumes her rightful position in her community.
Where can those interested in purchasing the books find them?
The Dancing Suitcasenow also translated into French La Valise Ensorcelée can be obtained from any Heinemann Publishers representatives. Mother Eats Her Son and The Golden Bangle are published by Fountain Publishers in Uganda and can be bought directly from them.
How has the British Council-Crossing Borders Programme helped you as a writer?
Mother Eats Her Son and The Golden Bangle by Nancy Oloro.
Michigan State University Press
The British Council's Crossing Borders writing program has been a mine rich in gems of inestimable value for me. My writing career has been completely revolutionized. Before I joined the Crossing Borders writing program, I did writing merely as a hobby. But since joining the program, I am beginning to take my writing more seriously. I am more confident of what and how I want to say what is in my mind. I have developed discipline in getting stories that I start working on completed. I am thankful to the mentors and friends I have made through the program.
If you were chosen as a tourism representative and your job was to invite tourists to Teso, what Teso assets would you share with us?
Having grown up in Teso, I can comfortably say that Teso is very rich in culture which has gone unexploited. Our way of life - we are pastoralists and subsistence farmers could pass for a model community way of life. Unfortunately this is all being left to die a natural death.
The beautiful traditional marriage ceremonies are no more. In a traditional Teso marriage one went through phases of beautiful ceremonies such as introduction, determining the dowry, viewing the dowry, taking the dowry to the bride's home, wedding, first trimester of the pregnancy, birthing ceremony, naming ceremony. All these are very rich cultural aspects that enhanced community ties and relationships. By the end of all these ceremonies the two families will have indeed become one family, thus advancing the principle of the oneness of humanity.
I do agree that there are some aspects of culture and tradition that are negative and have to be gotten rid off but what we seem to have done is sacrifice the beautiful aspects of our culture in the name of modernisation. So as a tourism representative, I would first of all revive and re-awaken what Teso is letting slip away, and combine this with the few traditional dances and rich family lifestyles I would win the tourists hearts to Teso.
What is next for you?
I have endless dreams. I am working on a collection of short stories, biographies and several other things at the same time. My passion for young people still burns hotter each day. I am working with an age group of 11 to 15 year olds in developing their full potential as junior youth through the realisation of their moral capabilities geared towards selfless community service. Recently with several other Ugandan authors, I have had a short story, Witness published in an anthology Michaels Eyes The War against the Uganda Child. I hope to have more of these happen in future.
Thank you Nancy for the interview!
It was my pleasure!
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First published: August 20, 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.