When I decided that I wanted to be a professional writer in the tradition of the scribes of Ancient Egypt, a teacher appeared. I had the great fortune of being mentored by Ayi Kwei Armah (mostly known for his debut novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born) for nine months at his residence in Popenguine, Senegal. At the time, I had completed Masters studies in organizational psychology at Makerere University, Uganda, and was working with Ernst & Young (EY), as Human Resources Advisor to various companies in need of our consultancy services. The pay was great, life was good, yet deep down I felt that I was moving away from my first purpose.
In 2005, I spent three months on secondment to Eskom in Jinja, evaluating staff performance and the overall organization structure. I was staying in a nice hotel and in the evenings after dinner, I would revise poems that became my second collection, The Price of Memory. Soon after, British Council-Uganda put out a call for manuscripts to be published by Mallory in the UK. I submitted and was selected along with three other writers: Patrick Mangeni’s collection of short stories, A Leopard in My Bed and Other Stories, Glaydah Namukasa’s novel: Deadly Ambition and Julius Sseremba’s short story collection, By the African Fire. Our four books were launched in Uganda in March 2006.
Four became a magic number for me but I didn’t know then. When Armah put out a call for upcoming writers to study and write with him for nine months, my heart foxtrotted. I applied and started feeling the pull—strings from EY that showed me what a great career I was making for myself in HR, and strings from Armah’s writing residency alerting me to not abandon my dream, to take up the opportunity if it fell in my lap. And it did. Four of us were selected: Aissatou Ka from Senegal, Egya Sule from Nigeria, Kofi Duodu from Ghana, and yours truly from Uganda. But before I could say yes, I spent weeks in agony, asking myself and my friends, Should I go should I not? But I was doing great in HR. For once my mother was proud of me. But then I loved writing more than I loved life. What to do?
I made a deal. With EY. They would let me go for nine months in 2006-2007. I would return thereafter and continue the good work. Problem solved.
Some of you can already tell where this is going. I took up the residency and it transformed my life, my thinking about writing and what I really, truly, wanted to do in life. I was exposed to Francophone writers and a critical understanding of the work and research of Cheikh Anta Diop, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Mariama Bâ, Ousmane Sembène who I could say was Armah’s best friend, and the Egyptologist Théophile Obenga whose fat book; African Philosophy, Armah had translated from French into English. These thinkers had found the kernel of alchemy. I wanted to touch it too. At some point during the residency we paid a visit to Ousmane Sembène and I felt the air in the room change. It got very hot and I realized I was on fire for deeper knowledge. Strange I don’t remember if we shook hands or hugged, probably both. I’ve since carried with me the picture of Sembene in the living room, seated on a mat in a lotus position, wearing a black and white sweater with horizontal lines and multicolored pants with zigzag African prints, looking so fragile and wise. I remember thinking, I could lift him in my arms like a baby.
Before the residency ended, I was approached by TrustAfrica Foundation in 2007 with a question, Would I be interested in working with them as a Writer-in-Residence for two years in Dakar? The place was inspirational, the pay was good, the people were wonderful, and I could really use some French. I said goodbye to human resources consulting and turned to full time writing. Learning French in between—which by the way, I don’t speak but can read—And poring over texts in hieroglyphs, which I still find fascinating. Before leaving Senegal, I published and launched my third poetry collection, Give Me Room to Move My Feet with Amalion Publishers in Dakar so I could leave a part of me in the land of writers that had given me so much.
It was at TrustAfrica that I realized if I wanted to be a writing pro, it would be helpful to go for the MFA in creative writing. After my two years as an organizational chronicler, I was admitted to Syracuse University in 2009, and again had the wondrous fortune of working with brilliant mentors and incredible human beings: Arthur Flowers, George Saunders, Chris Kennedy, Dana Spiotta, Michael Burkard, Bruce Smith and Mary Karr. I couldn’t have made a better choice.
After the MFA in 2012, I taught creative writing for one year at ASFA—Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, while I figured out the next course of action. My students were engaging, creative, dedicated, imaginative and inspirational. They made me want to teach and write forever. So, I decided to go back to school, get a Ph.D. and join academia for the long haul. This time knowing the magic of four, I sent applications to four Universities and three said Yes.
In September 2013, I studied and taught at the University of Denver. On June 3rd 2016, I graduated with a Ph.D. in English—Creative Writing and Literature. In August 2016, I began full time teaching (and continued writing) as Assistant professor in English at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. It has been a long journey and I do not think I would have arrived where I am now without the kind guidance and attention of my mentors across literary traditions. As a result, my teaching and scholarship are richer and I know this is still just a beginning, the tip of what’s going to be a long and industrious future. I have three manuscripts—a novel, a collection of short stories and a hybrid of creative nonfiction—that I’ll be sending out soon. I look forward to when they’ll appear for the first time in public. I have dream classes I intend to teach and research projects to conceptualize.
My narrative reads like a straightforward path but in truth it hasn’t been. It’s human nature to tap into a progress narrative, to notice beginnings and endings, but if I am to be honest, I’ll acknowledge that I first became aware of a desire to write when I was a child looking after cattle in our farm in Kabale. Left alone with cows, and later on goats and sheep, I started making up conversations with livestock, giving them names based upon their behavior and so my first stories were to the animals. I didn’t take them seriously then. It was my way of killing time but years later I looked back and realized that a seed had been planted and I nurtured it the best way I knew how. It is to the animals embedded in our psyche that I now return to again and again. In nursery, I wrote my own versions of Humpty Dumpty and other rhymes which the adults thought were silly, clever and cute. In primary school I wrote letters to invisible friends and kept them under my mattress. In high school I wrote plays and poems that were performed in the artistic clubs I belonged to. I wrote poems to celebrate special occasions for my family and friends. When I joined Makerere University in 1996, my literature teacher, Prof. Susan Kiguli, saw the seed and watered it. By then perhaps it was a plant. Her poetry was dynamite and it revived my own. Prof. Timothy Wangusa, Prof. Okot Benge and Prof. Austin Bukenya were my other influences.
By the time I graduated in 2000, I’d got a job with the Uganda Women Writers Association (FEMRITE) and was also writing part time journalistic articles for the Monitor newspaper. Later on, I hosted a radio show on Monitor FM—The Book Club program—and formed a Readers/Writers club at FEMRITE that I’m glad is still operational today. I loved the interaction with the stakeholders in the book industry that the publishing experience at FEMRITE and journalistic work with The Monitor gave me. I also gained travel experience in and outside Africa writing features for the Sunday Monitor. That opened my eyes to perceptions of Other in the media and travel literature.
Yet, in spite of this rich and delightful life, I yearned for more. That’s why I went back to Makerere University for a Masters in Organizational Psychology, this time with the intention of making a life that would support my creative writing since I didn’t know how to make creative writing support my life. Instead, the Organizational life threatened to take over completely and leave no room for writing. I felt stifled. Here was a good thing killing my other good thing–my baby, my larger dream.
The image that best communicates my writing journey is a baobab tree. I have branched out in different directions but I remain connected to the one love that is writing creatively. I can trace a part of my long journey to my resistances. For the longest time I never wanted to be a teacher. Somehow, I would be talking to people and they would ask casually if I shouldn’t be teaching. At FEMRITE when I did editorial trainings and creative writing workshops, the trainees naturally told me that I was a good teacher and I would tell them that there was a difference between training and teaching. At EY I did a lot of trainings and people would tell me that I was a good teacher. I hated the remark and always said in defense, “I am not a teacher. I am a trainer. A coach. A mentor. Anything but—” Duh! When I lived in Senegal, Armah mentioned several times that he saw me teaching and I fought him furiously. He smiled. When I started working with TrustAfrica and later told Akwasi, the director then, that I was interested in the MFA, he said something like, and then you’ll teach and you’ll be great at it. As usual, I brushed it off. My parents were teachers. I didn’t want to walk in their footsteps. I was meant to be different.
As fate would have her way, the MFA fellowship came with teaching. I said, fine, I’d do it for the purpose of meeting the requirement. I was wrong. My first time in class, I don’t know how time passed. It was fluid, I was fluid, soft and pliable I felt my old self melt and transform. When the class ended I rushed to the bathroom and cried. The god of Mercury was on my side. In another name, Thoth. Such feeling of lightness and discovery overcame me as I was carried on the wings of a fluffy white cloud. I was in shock that I had fought so hard only to stumble into the very thing that would support my writing and likewise be supported by writing in return. Sarah McLachlan has a song about Fumbling towards Ecstasy that crystallizes what I felt then. Ecstasy. Most times when I step into class I come out energized just the way I feel when I write. For me, writing and teaching work well together, sharpen each other, at least for now. I don’t feel that one overwhelms the other. This is a blessing.
With a tenure-track position tucked under my arm, I would like to believe that I’ve come to the end of my journey which marks a new beginning in my career. But then I remember I have embraced the baobab and cannot tell where all my branches will point. I can only be ready for my way, because it will always lead on to way as Robert Frost highlights in The Road Not Taken poem.