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The bravest thing you can do

Is hide, run away, remain unseen

Because it is all you have strength for…

Because maybe YOU must

Live to tell the tale

Of the fear

Of how it seeped in

Took over

Took over everything


The bravest thing you can do

Is watch the brave stand up and say no

Watch evil strangle life

Out of the brave

Choke them to silence

While you retreat

To the shadows and say

‘What can I do?’

But the time will come

When you can no longer

Be brave in that way

When your silence no longer

Gives you peace

When being unseen no longer protects you

Or your own

When you realize

That this,

this thing,

That is being broken, spat on, beaten, pissed on, shat on

Is the most precious


That if you do nothing,

Those you are trying to


Your loved ones,

Will slowly become

The thing that

Makes you want to hide;

Will become that which

Makes you freeze;

Will become lost

To you,



The bravest thing

You can do

Is do a little every day

Is say hello. I see you

Is to say Yes I do care,

Is say NO because it’s wrong

Is to forgive yourself and start again


the bravest thing

Is to refuse to soil your hands

Or to pitch in and do the work

Is to admit your wrong doing

Is to say sorry

Is to learn to stand up


The bravest thing to do

Is the scariest thing

Not to do.


Nairobi, September, 2017

5 things I have learnt about the journey from writing to publishing.

1. Size does not matter. It doesn’t matter how big or small your publisher is, what matters is their vision and courage. Modjaji Books has been a joy and inspiration to work with. Colleen Higgs has been running this little powerful publishing house for 10 years. And it is a courageous press that publishes what it believes in.

I love the fact that she was open to publishing my mix of prose and poetry without question. Many people have asked how I convinced her – I didn’t. It was never discussed. 

It was through Colleen and Beverly Nambozo of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation that I met my East African publisher, Nyana Kakoma of Sooo Many Stories. They are a new outfit – Flame and Song – is only their second book. But they have put her out there in style. I have learnt to use Instagram and Twitter, and more recently Facebook Live because of them.  

Both are relatively small outfits, run by amazing women. Both have open doors for my book to travel. It was great to have them hold my hand on my journey. 

2. A good editor makes a big difference. What I learnt was the editor shapes the book; helps the author tighten the story. It’s a collaborative process, and the editor helps the writer stand outside of their writing and see new possibilities.

I worked with Andie Miller. We deleted chunks, and brought some of it back in at a different place. There places in the text where she asked for more and others where she asked questions that helped me sharpen my work. And we sometimes disagreed. There were times we had robust conversations. 

Most times her questions, comments and suggestions helped become clearer about what I wanted to say. A good editor is not an option. 

3. Proof-reading is critical.  I learnt that the proof reader doesn’t just check grammar and spelling mistakes. They also check facts, and copy right issues too. They read with a new eye and point you to things you can’t see because you are so immersed in the text. 

We often call the proof reader an editor. Their tasks are very different. 

4. Titles are important – and they can change. For years, as I was writing, my book was called ‘She of the Ashes and Flames’.  It grew on me – and with one friend we referred to it as SOTAF. It was perfect – or so I thought. I loved it. When I started working with Modjaji I was gently asked to change it. So we decided that ‘Ashes and Flames’ would be the working title. It grew on me. I loved it. As we neared the publication date I was told we needed a new title. There was another book that had a similar title. It was Lauren Smith (I think) who finally came up with Flame and Song.  It has grown on me. I LOVE it!

5. And then there is design. Did you know that after you finish writing decisions have to be made about design: the font; the font size; the book size; the headings; the book cover and many more?  All these things impact on the look and feel of your book. And book covers can change. Did you know that? Flame and Song has two covers. 

The book is then laid out  and sent to the printers. 

The printers and publishers decide on the colour and quality of the paper of the pages; and of the cover. 

After this the book is printed. 


The debut: 5 August 2016

On the 5th of August 2016, Flame and Song made her debut into the world. Woman Zone had invited me to speak on a panel with Malika Ndlovu, Ruth Carneson, Ntsiki Sigege and hosted by Nancy Richards. This was part of the Woman Zone’s contribution to the Artscape Woman’s Festival. 

The book was HOT off the press, literally! In fact I read from a copy that I ‘borrowed’ from the Clarke’s Books seller at the event!!!

You see we really wanted to have the book at the festival, so we pushed VERY hard. And then Modjaji’s long loved printers and warehouse closed, and Colleen had to find new providers. She managed to pull it off and a few copies were printed just in time for the festival. 

Because of this I could only get the book on the afternoon of the 5th. The plan was that the Modjaji books intern (a student…) would meet me at UCT at 2 pm as I left a meeting, and she prepared to go for a lecture. Plans changed, the printers were running a little late, so we agreed to meet at Artscape. She was delayed at the printers, then went to the wrong place. Then she decided it was okay, she would deliver the next day and went home – lol!!!😡. 

So I phoned Colleen and told her what had happened. Took a deep breath. Asked the bookseller to lend me a copy and went in. 

We had a wonderful talk, and when we got out for tea my books had arrived. 

The Call – a repost from 2 years ago

There are gashes that cut through

generations gone and generations coming

no amount of scars and scabs can hide

for we have not yet wept.


Pain seared deep

lulling us into a numbness

that forgot the rituals

that bring healing

that laid things to rest

And now the pain bleeds rage

and hate and a forgetfulness

of who we are, of who we were

of who we can be.

So we walk around in this

grotesque form of who we could be

contorted in pain yet

thinking we walk upright…

Still spat on and chained.


Let us now stand still

Let the pain

break away the brittle numbness

that lulls our hearts into forgetfulness

Let the water

of tears

long-held back

wash over us,

sweep us off our feet

wash everything away

for we do not yet stand on solid ground

Let us shake away the skeletons

that cling to us

Let our mouths open wide

and let us sound that grief

Wooiee, wooiee, wooiee.


Beat the drums my brother

let us dance away the grief,

let us not stop until

the wounds are clear

no more pus, no more pain

Let us dance again

until our children, my grandchildren, and their great-great-grandchildren

carry in their bones this healing dance

until all those who came before us know

that we have heard, and seen their pain

Wooiee, wooiee, wooiee…

Then wrap us in love

and let us sleep the deep sleep

of restoration

so that tomorrow our dance will be a dance of hope

that will vibrate across generations gone

and generations to come

Wrap us in love

let deep sleep restore these tired bones

breathe wholeness back

breathe back wholeness

wholly breathe

Holy breath.

© namutebkabalikagwa

1 June 2015

Storytelling performance – February 2017

Beginning Friday 17th February 2017 and ending on Friday 3rd March, the Centre for Biographical Storytelling will be hosting Friday evening storytelling at Erin Hall, Erin Road, Rondebosch, Cape Town.

The first performance, Braided Lives on Friday the 17th, will be by Sue Hollingsworth and Philippa Kabali-Kagwa.


Please see poster below for details.


Writing Home: an event on 17 Sept 2016


a gentle reminder to join us at the Story Cafe @ WomanZone Library on Saturday

September 17 from 2pm to 4pm.

The Story Cafe @ WOMAN ZONE
sessions held in August at the Women’s
Library during the Artscape Women’s Festival were terrific.

A very big thank you to everyone who attended!

Such was the success that we’ve decided to do more.
Once every two months – starting with
WRITING HOME on Saturday 17 September from 2pm to 4pm

Ugandan born storyteller PHILIPPA KABALI-KAGWA
talks about her memoir: Flame and Song (Modjaji) to heritage specialist
Deirdre Prins-Solani.

IMG_8027                              img_8292

The Open Mic session will be launched by Rwandan born Epiphanie Mokasano sharing her experience of ‘writing home’.

Then it’s over to you – anyone who would like to share their words about ‘home’, written or spoken, will be so welcome.

East African tea will be served courtesy Rita Foy owner of ‘The Meeting Point’ – a restaurant that serves Tanzanian /East African cuisine – 67 Strand Street in Cape Town.

DATE: Saturday Sept 17
TIME: 14.00 – 16.00
Free entry
VENUE: Woman Zone’s Women’s Library, ground floor Artscape, next to Box Office
RSVP: Beryl Eichenberger 0824906652
For more information or

More information:

Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa is a Ugandan/South African poet, storyteller, coach and facilitator. Youngest daughter of Ugandan poet and civil servant, the late Henry Barlow, while she is most commonly called Philippa, she always signs Namutebi at the end of her poems. “Namutebi is the creative side of me. She is the one who writes.” She has a passion for folktales and myths – the wisdom of centuries, the tried and tested imagery, the archetypal characters that give new perspective to the perennial questions that we struggle with.”

Dierdre Prins-Solani is South African born culture, heritage and education consultant who has served with many organisations both locally and internationally.

Epiphanie Mukasano is originally from Rwanda where she used to be a teacher. Living in Cape Town with her husband and children for the last eighteen years, she writes poems and short stories that have been published in various collections. Her own collection of poems titled Kilimanjaro on my lap was published in 2010. A number of her short stories have been published on the FunDza site.

Rita Foy is a businesswoman from Tanzania and founder of The Meeting Point specialising in East African food and hospitality.
Copyright © *Woman Zone 2016 All rights reserved. or


Stories invite stories

In December 2014 I wrote this blog post  When the night is unsafe … life goes on which focused on an indident, on new year’s eve in 1983. Together with most of thepeople in the photograph below, we were part of a band called the Elements. On our way to a gig, we had a run in with soldiers. It could have ended very badly, but it didn’t.

The Elements - 1983

Yesterday morning, on the 5th of September 2016, I wake up to a comment by my good friend, Estella Muyinda, who should have been there but wasn’t. I met her through the Elelments and we have remained fast friends. This is what she wrote in response to the blog above:


I asked my parents for permission to come out with you that nite, and of course they refused. Why? They said that I had not given them the name and address or the phone number of who had invited us. Moreover, they said it was not at any of your homes, so you may recall that I was grounded for a while not joining you where you had to perform.
That nite, I was miserble. Missing you, thinking of the fun you were having. Never in my mind did I think of you being in danger. And you all, never spoke about your experience to me. I guess, it may have been out of fear that it would be something that stopped us from getting together again to sing and perform. ( i.e our safety being the first thing to discuss when going out late to perform.) What I can say, is, we noticed that there seemed to be a stronger bond between all of you and I think, that experience may have been one of the catalysts.

Namu, your experince reminded me of a time in October 1984 when I would have disappeared. Norah, Lillian, Nightingale, Evelyn and I were on our way to Jinja seated at the back of a taxi (a van that carries 6-10 people). Of course we felt the invincible power of youth surging through our veins. We were opinionated, powerful, unstoppable all sure of our rights. As we approached a road block, a deafening silence fell on the taxi. As the taxi stopped we all had our identification cards (ID) on the ready for the soldiers who manned the road block. In silence the ID’s were checked and returned. When it came to mine, the man looked at it, looked at me and motioned me to get out of the taxi. In shock, I asked why, he shouted at me to get out of the taxi. This drew the attention of the other men and women manning the road block. They gathered around the taxi passanger door and window, passed my ID around – pretending to read it I suppose – because they were holding it and reading it upside down! I was just about to get out of the car, when the taxi driver whispered, “If you get out, you are going to disappear”. I had recently lost my mother during an attack on my home by soldiers, so I was still sensitive to the pain, frustration and danger that surounded my family. Then, I heard Lillian’s voice saying, “If you want her to get out of the taxi, we will all get out with her.”  I heard Nightingale’s voice saying, “Yes, all of us in this taxi will get out with her.”  The other passengers in the taxi were very quiet. No-one contradicted the two brave girls. There was more shouting from the solders for me to get out, and me loudly telling the girls that I can get out. That they should not say anthing that would cause danger to them, urging them to call my home and tell my father that I had been picked up. (Of course there were no cellphones for immediate calls.) The girls shouting back saying that – “We know our rights!”, putting it to the men that they could not possibly read my ID upside down and understand it. (Now, looking back I just shake my head in wonder – what were we thinking?)

I looked around, other passangers in the taxi were either looking down or the other way. Finally, the taxi driver asked us to get out of his van, We got out, but he did not leave. I do not know why he did not. Maybe, when he realized that all the girls getting out of the taxi looked like teenagers; had no brains to assess the danger they were in; or the passangers in the taxi pleaded for us, I will never know.

We stood outside the taxi, crowded by men in uniform. Nora was wearing a beret. One of the soldiers, grabed it, pulled it off her head saying “Only soldiers are allowed to wear berets.” Nora said that was not true! She asked for her beret back. We foolishly joined in the chorus, trying to negoitate with the soldiers to get the beret back. I stopped listening to the begging for the beret as the gravity of our stuation hit me. Fear like a small tiny ice block started creeping down my spine. By the look on the faces of my friends, I knew they had started feeling the same way. In silence, we listened to the jeers of the soldiers, saying to us that we think we were educated. “Today you will learn what education means,” they said.

Then an interesting thing happened. The man who had asked me to get out of the taxi peeled himself from the group and stood on the side watching us. We all stared back at him. Well, I did. I was very conscious of him because there was something different about him. Also, he was not wearing a soldiers uniform. He called two men in uniform to him and after a brief discussion amongst themselves, they turned towards us and shouted at us to get back in the taxi. We hurriedly scrambled back into the taxi, but it seemed the taxi driver did not know what to do next. He sat without moving the taxi, staring out at the three men until he was waved to go. No-one said a single thing until we got to Jinja. Only, when embarking from the taxi would a passanger say, “God keep you girls”. I used to tell my parents everything but this time I did not tell my father what had happened to us that day.

I have never forgotten how much I was gripped with fear. This fear followed me because I experienced the same treatment from manned road blocks on numerous occasions. I learned never to travel alone and if i did, I befriended the taxi driver and the tout who collected the taxi fare. Because, in them I knew I could find a stranger who could protect me, which was the case on several occassions. I can say that there are numerous times I was saved by strangers. For that, I am grateful. One of these days I will share with you other times me and friends you know faced similar terror.

Pippa, maybe, you could gather our stories, make a record of our experiences. It could be carthatic for some, and a record of the times – a missing piece not reflected in the recording of our history.”

Storytelling. Storyholding. Holding this space. This is my work.

Writing my memoir



My memoir, which I had hoped to self-publish two years ago has been published this year by Modjadji Books – 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. .

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.


Let Everything Happen



Let Everything Happen

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

By Rainer Maria Rilke
(translated from the German by Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy)

Telling African Stories Part One: ‘A Man of Good Hope’

leslie marmon silko on Story

Last night I went to watch a stong and beautifully sang performance based on the book.”A Man of Good Hope”. I was excited to watch an African story, told by an African cast (although the writer and director are not African) because this is the time. On the weekend I had watched ‘Mbuzeni’ by Koleka Putuma. A beautiful piece performed by 4 incredibly talented actresses. Although I do not understand isiXhosa, I got the gist of the story, and the audience was riveted. The story was a sad one, but there was a lot of humour, and love, and care in the story and the telling of it. So different from the stories the media tells. So I went with hope and great expectation.

The piece opens with a beautiful overture played by a marimba orchestra. The cast members are also the orchestra and they move seamlessly between their roles. The story is complex, and right from the start they give context. They introduce the main character and his family lineage which is important in Somali, and many other African cultures. And then go on to give a brief history of Africa – very creatively giving context – and then back to the young man’s story.Throughout it all they sing. The first time the full chorus sings their voices soar and we were washed in this rich and beautiful harmony. Their voices are strong. The soloists too are wonderful. And they narrate the story with conviction.

As the story unfolded I started to feel a little uncomfortable. The main character is Somali. He is Moslem. It is his story. And yet most of the songs, at important moments in his story, were in South African languages, mainly isiXhosa. And the dancing very South African. This did not sit well with me.It perpetuated the belief that Africa is a country, and that we all speak and sing ‘African’! It pointed to an artistic laziness – or South African arrogance – or maybe an African resignation to not being represented in all our fullness. With such a large Somali community in Cape Town, in South Africa; with the internet and the ease of getting things from other cultures something of the Somali culture should have been integrated into the musical score. It should have been a strong and central motif. Especially since, in the scene where they tell the story of the scramble for Africa, they represent the British with very ‘english’ singing, and in the story of the Russian occupation of Ethiopia the Russians are represented with ‘russian-style’ dancing and marching. How can we know so much about Europe, and not try to do the same about our own?

The story of the xenophobia, and the juxtaposing of the Somali shopkeepers with the beliefs of the South Africans was done very powerfully, and created a beautiful way to begin conversations around xenophobia. What might have been missing was the voices of those South Africans who helped the foreigners.

At the end of the show I wanted to cry because … if I stripped away the beauty of the music and the dance  and the strong acting – I felt cheated. This is supposed to be the story of resilience and hope. As a storyteller I felt that the story was incomplete – the pain was amplified, told and retold like the media does and not sufficiently balanced with what gave this man hope, what made him so resilient, what stopped him from running mad because anybody else would have. I think it was the  piece in the second half, with the character Death that really destroyed the rest of the story. It was not necessary. We understood. I did give a standing ovation for the performance because the music, the SINGING,  the conviction of the artists was strong, but I wanted to cry.

As an audience member I was distraught. As an African I was angry, pained, that a story that is potentially so rich, which could have been told in a more nuanced way, focused on what the media would. Some of the audience said that this is because I AM NOT THE INTENDED AUDIENCE. That the story is told highlighting what the audiences in England and Europe – where the play is going – expect and respond to: pain, gore, and a disinterest in which language is used, because at least the cast speak ‘African’. And the music covers everything else. REALLY?!!!!!

I woke up this morning with these questions: What gave him hope? Why do we tell African stories like that, when we know that is not the whole picture? What is our intention when we are telling these stories? What do we want to achieve? Why do we tell the story we think the West wants to hear, instead of telling OUR story? Are we not the first audience?

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