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Category Archives: Celebrating Africans

Writing my memoir


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My memoir, which I had hoped to self-publish two years ago has been published this year by Modjadji Books http://www.modjajibooks.co.za/ – a small publishing company that prints women writers in Southern Africa. I am so excited. I worked very hard with my editor (between lapses into the world of work that pays the bills) – to finish. It is been challenging and I am really enjoying it and learning a lot about writing, publishing, and what happens after a book is written.

Knowing this year was going to be full of writing, I was so happy when my book club – Celebrating African Literature – decided that we needed to go on a writing retreat. At the end of January we went to the Volmoed Retreat Centre, in the beautiful Heme en Aarde Valley, near Hermanus and wrote. What a treat! 10 women ranging from age 24 to almost 60, writing memoir, travel blogs, academic work, poetry got together and created a safe space for each to write. We wrote, cooked for each other, laughed, sang, had Shabbat, and Moslem prayer, Yoga, Christian hymns, swam under the waterfall, witnessed a family of baboons crossing the property, had long amazing conversations…  And did I say wrote? Soon you will see the results of all of this. For me it kickstarted this last editorial process and has been invaluable. We will do it again.

Then the work began. A chapter a week, as far as we could, passing back and forth between the Editor and myself. Starting to understand how each one worked. All this was quite new to me and it took me a while to realise just how much work this was. I mean I have edited this many time over but this time it has been different. Questions asked trigger new thoughts, make me research more, or stubbornly stick to some of the things I have written. Questions bring new insights what I am writing, or why I am writing, or who I think my audience might be – and does that matter? Questions scratch old memories awake – some unresolved that I am not ready to look at – or had forgotten. And the writing continued.

April was a hard month. It is the anniversary of my mother’s passing, and it was the month that I was editing the chapter which deals with loss. As I wrote, though, I found that God works with you in mysterious ways. That month was the month my niece graduated in Johannesburg and her parents invited me to the graduation. Her father, Kitongo, is the son of my mother’s brother, and we had not seen each other since a week before my mother passed. We were able to spend some quality time reconnecting. And we remembered how, on that afternoon when he last saw my mother, we sat and talked for a long time. And every time he got up to go, my mother told me to call him back, and she gave him more instructions, or information, or asked him another question. We thought it was just old age, but… who knows? Maybe she knew she would not see him again.

The book is now finished. Yes! In print! It was called From the Ashes and Flames, but it is now called “Flame and Song: a memoir“.  It will hit the bookshops soon. And I will be at the Open Book Festival on Friday 9th September  and Saturday 10th September  at 6.00 pm, at the Annexe 1. http://openbookfestival.co.za/authors/philippa-kabali-kagwa-2/ .

I will also be in conversation with Deirdre Prins-Solani at The Story Cafe at Woman Zone Cape Town (next to the box office at Artscape) on Saturday 17 September from 2.00pm to 4.oo pm. The theme is Writing Home, and after our conversation there will be an open mic which will be kicked off by Rwandese poet Epiphane Mokasano. We will have a spread of East African tea and snacks, supplies by the meeting point, and my family in Uganda.

The official launch of the book will be at the Book Lounge on October the 4th.

Please do come to one or all of these events. The book will be on sale then.

 

The power of gentleness


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In most of the cities I have been too there is a clear distinction between where the middle class live, and where the working class and the poor live.  And the middle class is often afraid to walk alone in the areas where the poor and working class live.  They carry many assumptions about safety and ‘otherness’.  This is not so in Addis.  Right next to the palace is a shanty town.  Right opposite the Jupiter International Hotel we are staying in (next to the Raddison Blu) is a shanty town.  The people of Addis live side by side in harmony – the geography of the city dictates that.  There is no sense of fear as one walks down the streets, not really.  Except maybe that conditioned sense of ‘I must take care’ that is born out of living in large cities like Cape Town.  In crowded places one must be aware of are pickpockets, the beggars who are very persistent and  the con men who hang around the hotels.

The other evening I was with two of my colleagues waiting for the rest of the team to come.  We were standing across the road from the hotel, close to some shacks, next to the minibus taxi we were all going to use to go to a Jazz concert.  It was dark.  A man with very beautifully twisted dreadlocks came up to my colleagues and started to speak to them.  At first they ignored him, then they said they were not interested.  He was pushy so we decided at that moment to wait inside the minibus.  He followed us, and wanted to open the door and get in but the taxi driver sent him away. Someone said ‘He is just trying to con you guys.”  And we left it at that.

He walked away, and then came back, and tried to come in again.  We all started to get a bit agitated.  Did he not understand that we did not want to talk to him.  I could feel my own inner security bells going.  I wanted to tell him, “Go away.”  The American lady, being closest to the door, then raised her voice slightly and speaking very firmly asked him to leave.  She was holding the door closed.  He became angry. He walked to the passenger door and tried to open it.   Another colleague sitting in that seat held that door closed.  We were all starting to get angry, and to speak.  And then one of our Ethiopian colleagues, a petit young woman leaned out of the taxi and spoke to him in the calmest, kindest voice.  And he backed away, said it was all well, and left.

I later said, “You handled that so well.  You were so kind.”  She smiled and said, “That’s how it is here.  You just need to speak to someone nicely and they will understand.”  So I asked her what did you say?  And she said, “I explained that you guys were not from here and you did not know how things worked, that you just wanted to be left alone. And he said okay.  Just tell them to talk to me nicely.”  And that was that.

The course I am on is about using art to build peace within the community.  It is really about seeing and listening to people, and helping them see each other, see themselves, see possibility.  My Ethiopian colleague really demonstrated how communication and gentleness are sometimes the most powerful tools we may have.

 

Werewere Liking – Cameroon /Ivory Coast


I am fighting for African youth. … I want the youth to be more intelligent, more sensitive, more conscious, more responsible for themselves individually. I want them to be aware that each and every one of them is capable of changing the world, changing themselves to begin with. Each time one of us improves, s/he improves the world. And only through the improvement of humanity, inside of us, can the world be improved. – Werewere Liking

Werewere Liking was born in Cameroon in 1950 and has been living in Abidjan, Ivory Coast since 1978.  She is a poet, novelist, painter, choreographer, performer, educator and social activist.  I have not met her or gone to her cultural arts centre in Abidjan, Ivory Coast – Ki-Yi Mbock Village (which means ultimate universal knowledge in Bassa, her mother tongue)  but over the past few years I have read about her, and seen a documentary about her work and I am inspired.

She is deeply committed to African tradition, to the Arts, to community, to developing the youth – and has been successful in her work, despite having left home at a very early age.  She says when she wants to do something she tries it, even if there is no funding, she tries to make it happen – and she has had amazing success (and many failures, I am sure).  She has a very clear vision and has worked hard to put it into practice.  The cultural centre is intentionally called a village because it is about community.  At her centre she works with people of all ages and they explore all the arts – writing, poetry, music, art, dance, puppetry… and the those things that support the arts – sound engineering, costume design, stagecraft…  And if any of the ‘artists’ living, learning and working there can’t read, they get literacy lessons too, in French.

I recently found an interview presented in an article published by the Barnard Centre for Research on Women. For those of you who speak French, it has video clips of the interview (with English translations in the text of the article) of her speaking about her work.  I have pulled out some quotes of her views on Pan-Africanism, the Youth and Women.  For the full article click on this link: Werewere Liking | S&F Online | Rewriting Dispersal: Africana Gender Studies.

Werewere Liking on Pan-Africanism

For me, the label “Pan-African” implies that we take into account not only Africa, but also its diasporas. Because the term, “Pan-African” itself was conceived by Africans from the diaspora. So, it means including all the worlds born out of Africa. So, we claim them, but also offer them all we have.   …. it’s a view that’s a conviction for me, that Africa is rich in its entirety as a continent only in its diversity. Africa’s primary riches are its different cultures, its peoples. … Well, because, as you can see, these very borders render spaces extremely small. They reduce Africa. They weaken it. They prevent the circulation of vital energies. Consequently, they are a handicap for the development of this continent.

I love and believe what she says – that Africa is rich because of its diversity.  It is true and yet for the last few centuries – and more importantly the last 50+ years since we started the post-colonial period we made that diversity the reason for war, coups and everything that goes with it.  We forget that a tapestry, a beautiful piece of cloth, is beautiful because of all the different threads that are woven together to make it one.

She has a passion for young people whom she takes in to live and learn at her center, and she has this to say about  her work with young people:

I am fighting for African youth. I am fighting for children’s brains to work better. When I take charge of them, I try to help them use their brain. I force them to use their left hand because we have an entire part of our brain that does not work properly because we use only one part of the body, so there is a side of the brain that is less effective. There are many exercises that I have them do. I want the youth to be more intelligent, more sensitive, more conscious, more responsible for themselves individually.

… My battle is for little things and I see myself as a little ant, you know? The tiniest of ants can lift up crumbs ten times its own weight. However, because it [the ant] is so tiny, these are still small achievements. So be it! From my position, what I try to do is to try to lift ten times my own weight. That’s it.

On feminism and being a woman:

Because feminism, as it appeared at a time (in the 60s and 70s) —but I think it must have improved since—but the way it appeared at a time, it consisted mainly of lots of demands, lots of demonstrations, and I think this is a trap. Truly, when you look at it, we don’t need to demonstrate our womanhood. It’s like music for the heart. We know that we have things to do. We must do them, attain our goals, but without losing our nature. Our nature, our charm, our beauty, our gentleness. This is a totally different thing. This is not contradictory. To be a woman means to have it all. It’s to be all. Because for me God is a woman. So, it’s to be a creator, to be the source of life and consequently to privilege life above all. (my italics)

I first heard about her in 2008 when a someone in a workshop that I was facilitating spoke to me about her.  And then I saw the documentary about her – she spoke about her life dreams, her challenges, how she built up her cultural arts centre.  Her passion, drive, creativity, vision and resilience inspire me!!  She has through following her passion with conviction made an impact, not only in Ivory Coast, but internationally.  I would love to meet her.

Here are some links about her:

Celebrating the Bold, Audacious, Inspiring, Creative, Passionate, Amazing Africans – Building our Nations


This year I am telling the ‘other’ stories – loudly and without apology! I am talking those things  that dont make the mainstream news often, except when people die.  I want to write about them. 

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, at a TED event  (http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html) speaks of ‘the danger of a single story’ – that story that presents a person, place or thing as one-dimensional.  We all have them – we speak about people of a certain tribe/race/gender/profession in a particular way, respond to them in a particular way because ‘they are like that’.  We have very particular expectations of certain people or certain roles – and are surprised or suspicious if they turn out to be different.  We have a single story that we tell of ourselves as Africans even when we know that it is not the only story we can tell.     Well I am tired of the single story about Africa and Africans (often told by Africans)  that focuses on that which does not work; that  spotlights only those who fail, or steal, or destroy.  I am fed up of those conversations that cut people’s dreams into little pieces, that seem to say ‘the status quo cannot change;  those conversations that perpetuate the negative, make us believe, at a very subliminal level, that as Africans are unable to run un-corrupt governments, have great economies,  create anything new or do anything good!  These stories are too simple, they are an easy cop-out – and they are silent on the rest of the picture – the many other stories of people who enable, create new realities, make a difference everyday.   I want to tell the other stories.

This year I will recognise and celebrate those Africans, who make or have made a difference.  For some the contribution is small, and very personal or local; and for others, the impact is felt, immediately, by many, and sometimes over a very long period of time.  I want to focus on HOPE,  BELIEF, LOVE, POSSIBILITY, CREATIVITY, LOYALTY AND RESILIENCE – because that is what brings about change.  We can only build on what is there, on what is working, on what is not broken.  But if we do not recognise what is working, if we do not see or tap into our potential, how then can we change?  I want to focus on that which is working, that has potential, that we can build on – and on those who have, in some way supported, or enabled.

MY INSPIRATION?   My mother and father, who were great nation builders.  Throughout my life, and even after their passing, I have seen or heard about how they supported people, challenged people and stepped into difficult situations boldly because it was the right thing to do.  They did their best for the family (immediate and extended) and Uganda at large. Here is one small story:

We were 5 children, and the two who came before me had cerebral palsy.  My parents believed in education and when they realised that Fay and Chris would not be able to go to normal schools they got together with 6 other parents, and a few other people they started the Kampala School for the Mentally and Physically Handicapped.  They started out in a store-room at Mengo Primary School (Mrs. Wambuzi was the headmistress) and later the school moved to its current premises, land which was given them by the Kabaka.  Many children who would otherwise not have gone to school, or who would have remained hidden, as a curse, got an opportunity to have an education, and parents got support.  I remember taking Fay and Chris to school there, and just loving the way the other children loved them.  The children had access to physical therapy and occupational therapy at Mengo Hospital – and then, as Amin’s regime progressed this fizzled out.  Soon, it became obvious that the school did not have the staff trained to support Fay and Chris, and they stopped going to school.  The name of the school dropped the ‘mentally handicapped’ because there were not enough staff to support them.  But my parents remained involved in the school for a very long time!  They helped develop a vocational education wing, which the current headmistress has developed into an amazing centre.

When my father passed away in 2006, the first people to put an orbituary in the papers, even before we as a family did, were the Old boys and Girls Association of the Kampala School for the Physically Handicapped.  And at my mother’s funeral last year, one of the old boys came and spoke.  On the side he told us that his disability was a result of an accident as a child, and his family disowned him, and left him at the school.  He said my mother supported him, encouraged him to go to secondary school after he passed his P7, encouraged him to do his tertiary education, and he is now an accountant, drives a car, and supports the family that rejected him.

The school lives on, over 40 years later, and many who go there do not know my parents, or the other people involved in the starting of the school.  For me, though, this school teaches me something – that in addressing a personal challenge it is possible to help others beyond your life time!

For a long time I have wanted to find a way to honour them and I think that collecting stories of people who make a difference is one way of doing this.

I am inspired everyday by ordinary people who quietly get on with life, not complaining, but actively making a difference in one life, or 100 lives, inspiring others, believing in others, standing up for others, inventing, creating and actively making a difference.  Like the woman in Khayelitsha (a township in Cape Town) whose daughter had cerebral palsy, and died young, but she went on, with nothing, to create a school to support other children and parents with the same challenges.

I am also inspired by the book the  Vision Group in Uganda published to celebrate 50 years of independence – reminding us of the people who stood up and made a difference.  Stories of 148 people (a small number) of people who made a difference.  And while the vision book focused on those who had contributed positively and negatively, I would like to focus on those that inspire.

I commit to write about someone at least once a fortnight;  to share a story about an African making a difference.   Some will be people who are well-known, and some will be little known – and doing what seems like something very small and insignificant, but they will, in my opinion, be making a difference.

JUST SO THAT YOU KNOW:   I will, without apology, write about people who I know, who may even be related to me as well as those who I do not personally know, because bold, inspiring, courageous acts  happen everyday, in big and small ways, and often the contributions of those closest to us go unnoticed.  I want to acknowledge all those who I think are making a difference in one way or another.

My INVITATION to you:  If you have a story you want to share, please send me an email at namutebi@mweb.co.za

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