I’m touring Cambridge, Massachusetts with my friend, Jackee Batanda, giggling on the streets and recalling when we first met in 2000 at FEMRITE–The Uganda Women Writers Association–where we both used to work. Aspiring writers. Eleven years down the road been quite a journey, full of delights and challenges. We feel miraculously pleasantly strange to be here. I’ve come from Syracuse to visit her, while she’s based at MIT Center for International Studies as the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Elizabeth Neuffer fellow 2011-2012. Her fellowship gives her an opportunity to take courses in Boston Area Universities, including MIT, Boston University and Harvard. It also provides networking opportunities and the chance to work at both The Boston Globe and The New York Times. Jackee says she’ll in addition do research work in closing media spaces in African nations, Uganda and Rwanda are her case studies. It’s a pretty swell fellowship and we drink to that.
While Jackee plans to contribute towards knowledge and awareness on what’s happening in Africa through speaking engagements at various universities and writing for The Boston Globe op-ed columns, she’s also taking documentary photography classes, advanced fiction writing class, and preparing artistic responses to conflicts. We’re walking through MIT when she gets the idea to use me as her guinea pig for the photography class. Jump, she says, steadying her camera on the tripod. I want to freeze you in motion.
–Break a leg is what I hear. I start jumping the stairs at Ray and Maria Stata Center, a building that cost a staggering $300m. Am really enjoying because it’s my performance until I miss a step and slide over. Body still intact, thank God, but am quite shaken. “All right,” Jackee says, “that ends it.”
–Does your insurance cover a friend? Am suppressing laughter when I ask because we’ve already talked about our insurances. Mine barely covers a chicken ass while hers is, err, I mean, really solid and good.
Jackee learnt about the Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship from Fundsforngos, a mailing group she subscribes to. Her journalist friend, David Tumusiime, also forwarded the call for applications to a group of women reporters he knew, Jackee inclusive. She then applied for the fellowship because of the possibilities it created.
As far as I can remember, we’ve always applied for fellowships and writers residences from google searches, friends contacts, mailing lists, organization networks and sometimes by just following word of mouth from a friend of a friend of a friend… Jackee tells me this might have been her 48th fellowship application in a year. I don’t ask what became of the previous 47. I’ve been keeping track myself being her friend and all. Writerly fellowships are super competitive. Usually thousands apply when only one person is wanted. To get one at all is a combination of perspiration and luck.
One time we made a joke out of the numerous rejection slips we used to get for the stories we submitted. Could it be that we weren’t good as writers or we were writing from a different place? We decided to ‘compete’ and the one with the highest rejection slips would be the winner. So we came up with a wall of shame. For every rejection slip each one of us received we pinned it on our wall of shame. Those slips really inspired us to keep writing and submitting our stories. We were in our own hall/hole of fame. In between were a few breakthroughs, a few acceptances. And I remember whenever a publication or fellowship acceptance was announced, some people would tell us, How lucky you are! Yes, luck is always involved but we had also sweated blood. We spent sleepless nights writing or plotting stories, reading voraciously and hanging around established writers hoping for the magic to rub off. It’s still one of the things that bother Jackee; folks telling her she’s lucky to be where she is now as if the opportunity just dropped from the sky and landed in her palms without her toiling for it.
When I ask Jackee what’s been the most important lesson in her journey as a writer of both fiction and media reporting, she quotes a poster going around Facebook: If You Want To Achieve Greatness Stop Asking for Permission. Adding onto that is Arthur Ashe’s quote: “To achieve greatness, start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” For Jackee the words summarize what being a dreamer is and working to achieve those dreams. She says, “Many times we are too busy making excuses why we cannot do great things instead of trying and failing and trying again for in errors do you learn the real lessons and skills.”
I’m wondering what her fears might be. For a time we shared a concern that we were spending much time writing non-fiction (journalism reporting) to put bread on the table and pay the rent, when our hearts were really in fiction. She puts my mind at rest by reminding me that a writer writes. “Overcoming the fear of a blank page is the biggest challenge and once that is done, then the writing flows. I try as much as possible to write every day, whether it’s emails, thoughts, blogging, tweeting, articles or short stories. It’s important to do some form of writing and reading. Sometimes I go for days without writing anything and when I write, especially fiction, I put the writing aside for a couple of days before returning to it. I have found that the time away creates a new mind frame through which I can objectively look at the work and start editing it again.”
In 2010 Jackee was nominated and received the 2010 Young Achiever’s Award in the corporate and professionals category. Receiving the award confirmed that Ugandans were looking at writers as professionals who could ably compete alongside other practicing fields. “I do not know who nominated me but that shows that my short stories were being read in Uganda and someone was touched by them. It proved to me that writing could be used as a tool for social change.”
I ask what’s been the most daring thing she’s done. Jackee says in 2005, she wanted to do something more proactive instead of only writing about the conflicts in northern Uganda in her fiction. So she applied to the Forced Migration Studies Department at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. “I had no background in human rights, migration or conflict work. I had some savings that would meet my tuition and living costs but it was not enough. I, however, still accepted the admission offer and was willing to go to a new country with no social network of any kind. Before leaving, I received a letter from the university offering me a grant and it confirmed to me that I was on the right track.”
For now Jackee is liking living and working in the west, embracing the opportunities that come along. “One of the things I have seen here is the spirit of can do,” she says. “Everyone is very encouraging and appreciative of ideas. They are so very supportive, which is quite different from Uganda, where most times people are so quick to laugh at your ideas if they do not fit within the convention and also quick to blame when they go wrong.”
She surprises me when she says she’s afraid of failing generally. But she resolves that by adding that she tries to do different things that can bring some sort of satisfaction in her life. “I work hard to excel at whatever I’m doing and when I’m not getting it right, I do ask for guidance. I realize the greatest strength is acknowledging your limitations and reaching out for help. It’s okay to make mistakes and to keep trying until you get it right.”
Jackee Budesta Batanda is the 2011-2012 International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow based at the Center for International Studies at MIT. She works as freelance journalist with the Global Press Institute, an online newswire, and is also a senior Communications Officer with the Refugee Law Project of the Faculty of Law at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. She holds a master’s degree in Forced Migration Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, and a BA (Arts) degree from Makerere University in Kampala.
Jackee has been writing professionally for over ten years both as a freelance journalist for national papers–The Sunday Vision and Sunday Monitor–and as a writer of fiction. She was Writer-in-Residence at Lancaster University in 2005, and later worked as a peace writer at the Joan B Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice (IPJ) at the University of San Diego in 2006. In 2008, she was awarded a research fellowship at the Justice in Africa fellowship Program with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in Cape Town. She was also International Writer-in-Residence at the Housing Authors and Literature Denmark (H.A.L.D) in 2010. Among her numerous awards for fiction writing is winning the Commonwealth Short Story Competition, 2003, and being shortlisted for the Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa, 2003. Jackee’s work has been performed on the BBC World Service, BBC 3 and other radio stations around the commonwealth. She is a recipient of the 2010 Uganda Young Achievers Awards in the Corporate and Professionals category.