Ugandan Writers: Meet Sam Okello
"Despite the huge economic, social and education difficulties of many African nations, there is much to celebrate in a creative energy and idealism that places literature in the vanguard of social change…"
Graham Mort, Crossing Borders-British Council.
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First published: December 26, 2005
It is not surprising that the British Council held a festival for African writers in Uganda in October 2005. Uganda has a thriving writing culture that is bursting at its seams. As more writers gain notoriety it is clear that under the vibrant Ugandan pulse is a plethora of talented writers. Writers like Mildred Kiconco Barya, Anne Ayeta Wangusa, Susan Kiguli, Doreen Baingana, Mary Karooro, Goretti Kyomuhendo, Moses Isegawa, Okot p'Bitek, Okello Oculi, Timothy Wangusa, Mahmood Mamdani, Henry Barlow and Rajat Neogy are among the better known Ugandan writers but there are lot more that may not yet have received the exposure and publicity that these writers above have.
Despite the lack of access to education for young writers, a lack of publishing opportunities, isolation of emerging Ugandan writers, little government support, limited access to contemporary literature in English and inadequate media exposure there is a growing crop of talented writers from generation x who have their own rich, individual stories which reflect their own realities and experiences. Because of the challenges of getting published by a major publishing house and eliciting interest in African-written literature, when one Ugandan writer gets published-self publishing being more of a realistic avenue for many African writers-it is worth celebrating. One of these emerging Ugandan authors worth celebrating is Sam Okello.
Sam Okello was born in Kenya, East Africa. He went to schools in Uganda, Kenya and the United States. He went to the University of East Africa, Baraton where he majored in English. Upon his graduation he began teaching English and African literature in various schools. He then moved to the USA and later on, he graduated with a Masters in Divinity from Andrews University in Michigan. A meticulous storyteller, he's the author of Lulu's Grip, The Night Bob Died, A Crown of Fire and I Watched An American Sunset. He is the founder and CEO of Sahel Books, Inc. Sam currently lives in South Bend, Indiana, with wife, Hellen, and two sons, Garrie and Prince. It was with great pleasure that I was able to interview him on Friday 23rd December 2005.
Jane: When did the writing bug start to bite you? How early in your life was that?
Sam: I was in grade 7 (P.7) when I first got interested in writing. My English teacher praised a composition paper I wrote and since then I haven't looked back.
What inspires you to write?
I have an intense passion to help society reflect on the decisions we make. I want people to laugh, cry, think, and see the results of our actions through the mirror of a story.
I read on your site that your books are Afrocentric. That's a theme that fascinates me as well. Why is there a special emphasis on that theme?
As an African writer in the Diaspora, I find it impossible to resist the temptation to write on purely international themes; to stop being parochial, however, I find it more fulfilling when I discuss how the African of the Diaspora fits into the global scheme of things. That's why my stories have an international flavor, but are rooted in African thought.
You also taught one of my favorite subjects, African literature. What do you think is the future for Ugandan literature on the international scene?
I think the time has come for a different kind of writing. Most of the earlier writers dealt with pre and post-colonial themes. They did a masterful job. I humbly submit that Uganda, like other African nations, is dealing with issues far removed from the white-inflicted pains of the colonial times. I trust that Uganda will produce effective writers...who'll bring the new themes on the table.
I definitely second that. Emerging writers cannot perpetually live in the shadow of writers of other generations, even if there is a lot to learn from them. How influential were your literature teachers in pushing you towards writing?
My teachers were critical to my choice of writing. I would never have had the confidence to write were it not for the encouragement of one of my teachers called Mrs. Serunjogi. I owe everything to her.
What about your parents? Did they support this dream?
My parents wanted me to be a lawyer. They're coming around now!
Publishing is a very tough, frustrating business. It is especially tough for Africans. It seems that more writers are turning towards self-publishing. What was your experience?
It was tough to get started. Some of my earlier books were not well edited. They were structurally weak. I've been told by friends to release second editions, but I feel they are a reflection of where I've come from. One thing I've learnt with self-publishing is they way to get started, once you get noticed, it'll be easier to join the big league.
Can you tell us more about Sahel Books?
I founded Sahel Books to help push my novels. The long-term plan is to venture into publishing other writers. I estimate that it will be another two years before we're fully capable of meeting the rigorous requirements of mass production publishing that new authors crave.
Can you please tell us more about your book Lulu's Grip? What is it about?
Lulu's Grip is my effort to link Africa with African-America. It discusses the viability of the notion that African-Americans can return to Africa and settle in their ancestral land. It leaves it up to the reader to decide the practicability of the notion.
I find it interesting that the main character of Lulu's Grip-Simba is sent to America to find out if his ancestors who were shipped away centuries ago are still alive with the aims of inviting them back.
What inspired this book?
I'm always fascinated by African-Americans. They look like me, but that's about it. They think differently, talk differently, view the world differently. Makes me wonder how it's possible that we came from the same ancestry. If we did, can they come back home? Will they like it? Will we accept them?
Those are definitely valid questions and you are using a very interesting angle. This next book has a poignant title-The Night Bob Died. Could you briefly tell us what it is about?
A prominent Kenyan minister is killed in a bush because of an embarrassing report he's written about the corruption in government. The novel is an entertaining rendition of the week preceding the brutal murder of this flamboyant minister.
How are the covers for your books chosen?
My publishers design them.
Was there any pressure to fit into a certain box as a writer and follow a bandwagon in order to be successful? For example I have heard certain African writers of my generation say that there is that expectation to write like Ngugi Wa Thiong'o or Chinua Achebe, despite all the different experiences between the two generations. What is your experience in this regard?
Ngugi and Chinua wrote for a different time. I praise their courage to reflect the depths of depravity Africa came out of. Having said that, I strongly believe that African writing cannot and should not be static. The new African writer must be able to compete on a global scale. We have to write novels, poems, stories or plays that a reader from any part of the world can pick up and enjoy reading. That's where we should be going.
How important is it to promote literacy in Uganda as well as support its writers? In your opinion how can the government help?
Nothing can take the place of literacy. A society that expects to be vibrant, healthy, knowledgeable and strong must do all it can to ensure its citizens are literate. I feel it's the responsibility of the government to set basic rules and put in place policies that will make the eradication of illiteracy a top priority.
Sam lives in South Bend, Indiana, with his lovely wife, Hellen, and their two rambunctious sons -- Garrie and Prince.
How has living in the USA affected you as a Ugandan writer? Would you say that it has opened you to new experiences? Can you still relate to Ugandan issues?
Living in the USA has obviously broadened my perspective. I follow very closely what goes on back home and all over Africa through the newspapers. I'm safely grounded.
Are you writing on a full time basis?
I write, I teach and I'm a program counselor. I need all three to keep sane.
Where can those interested in buying your books find them?
Who are your role models in the literary field?
Okello Oculi, John Ruganda, Taban Lo Liyong, Ngugi, Amadi, Achebe. Those guys have paved the way for us. I salute them!
Any advice for people interested in following in your footsteps?
To those interested in writing, my advice is--be persistent and don't get into writing because you want to make a quick buck. It's more honorable to get into this business because you have a passion for writing. The key is to work hard at it, and to be confident in your abilities.
Thank you very much for the interview
It was my pleasure.
For more information on Sam Okello, please go to his website www.sahelbooks.net.
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First published: December 26, 2005
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.