FEMRITE has been described as one of ‘the most organised literary initiatives in Africa promoting female authorship’ and we are inclined to agree. As a non-profit publisher of fiction and creative non-fiction, FEMRITE champions Ugandan women writers with their literary nurturing. Founded in 1996 by female academics and students lead by Mary Karooro Okurut at Makerere University, the organisation provides writers workshops, editorial services, training, writers residencies and a resource centre with space to work in. It supports young writers and encourages reading for pleasure; FEMRITE also works in schools in various regions of the country to encourage students to write. Needless to say FEMRITE plays a leading role in Uganda’s contemporary literature sector often partnering with cross border and other international organisations to produce work and events. It has also seen many of its members go on to win various awards: Monica Arac de Nyeko won the Caine Prize in 2007 with her story Jambula Tree; Doreen Baingana won the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize for her novel Tropical Fish and has been a finalist for the Caine Prize twice; Beatrice Lamwaka was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2011 for her short story Butterfly Dreams; Jackee Budesta Batanda and Glaydah Namukasa were listed as two of the Africa39 writers to watch in 2014, and the list goes on…. In addition to these achievements, members have created their own literary initiatives, such as Goretti Kyomuhendo’s African Writers Trust, Beverly Nambozo’s Babishai Niwe Poetry Awards and Nyana Kakoma’s Sooo Many Stories. This ‘ripple’ effect not only deepens the well of Uganda’s literary creativity but also gives credence to FEMRITE’s work.
Now at 20 years young FEMRITE, also known as Uganda Women Writers Association, has set a high standard in delivering its first literary conference to mark the anniversary of its birth. ‘FEMRITE@20: Rethinking African Literature’ took place in July 2016 at Makerere University’s School of Women and Gender Studies. In the words of FEMRITE’s executive director Hilda Twongyeirwe:
“We thought about it as a celebration, a celebration of our works, a celebration of African works, but also we had been at it for 20 years and so we were thinking, what next? And that is how we came up with the conference”
The conference featured book launches, panel discussions, paper presentations, poetry performances and keynote speeches. One of the highlights for Twongyeirwe was the keynote address from Pumla Dineo Gqola, Associate Professor of Literary, Media and Gender Studies at the School of Literature and Language Studies, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Twongyeirwe described Gqola’s speech as “a challenge to the African women writers” as it certainly had a daring element to it. Commenting on the role of the African feminist literary imagination, she said that the relationship between ‘writing and rioting is ambiguous because neither are safe or purely dangerous’. In this vein she went on to commend FEMRITE for being unapologetic in the kind of work it has published, as it has forced a more complex reading of societal issues. There are plans to make FEMRITE’s literary conference a biannual event, so keep an eye out for the next one in 2018.
When asked about FEMRITE’s plans going forward Twongyeirwe says:
“We have decided to expand our publishing because we have been doing only one or two manuscripts a year and we would like to open up, so that we are not just looking at Ugandan women writers but African women writers.”
This is exciting for FEMRITE and African women writers as it offers new opportunities for collaboration and partnership, and a broadening of FEMRITE’s scope. Working in partnership with writers and organisations is key to FEMRITE going forward but also strengthens the small but solid literary sector in Uganda. A good example of this was FEMRITE’s recent participation in the Jalada Mobile Literary and Arts Festival when it travelled through Kampala in March 2017. FEMRITE held a panel discussion to a full auditorium on the subject of “Dispelling the Language of Silence (Un-Silencing) – a Focus on Women’s Narratives”. This was a worthy topic to debate as issues such as domestic violence and LGBTQ rights were given space, which is highly significant given that homosexuality in Uganda is currently punishable with life imprisonment, and people from the LGBTQ community regularly face discrimination.
Most of all, over the last 20 years FEMRITE has proved its ‘staying power’ as one of Uganda’s foremost literary institutions. Bring on the next twenty!
–By Zaahida Nabagereka