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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.


12th OAU Summit – 1975


In 1975 Uganda hosted the 12th summit of the OAU.   It was an exciting time for us.  I was in P6 (in primary school).  For a while our curriculum, and the games we played, focused on general knowledge about the continent.  We had to learn the names of all the countries in Africa, their capital cities, recognise their flags, their presidents – we were all caught up in the preparations. As part of those preparations Government decided that certain primary and secondary schools would take part in a ceremony at Nakivubo Stadium.  The secondary schools would take part in marching and gymnastic displays.  The primary schools would be part of creating huge, colourful murals as a back ground to the older schools.  If you school was involved it was compulsory for all P5, 6 and 7 pupils.  If you were absent you would be expelled.  At least, that is what I heard – and being expelled was not an option.

Weeks, maybe months before the ceremony we would go daily to Nakivubo to practice.  It was always overwhelming!  There were crowds and crowds of children, and soldiers.  Our parents dropped us quite a distance away from the entrance and we had to somehow find our way to our school group.  I was afraid of large crowds and even more afraid of the soldiers so those few minutes while I looked for my school group were always excruciating.  Once we were all together we would go to the stands, opposite the main VIP building.  Each school had particular rows assigned to them and each pupil a row and seat number.  There were hundreds of us!  We were each handed a large A3 book with your row and seat number.  It was made of cardboard with brightly coloured, numbered pages.  Our job was to turn the pages at a particular time and thus create the murals.  Our ‘conductor’ was positioned behind the seats of the VIPs, and they would signal to which page we should turn and exactly when we should turn.  We practiced until we could turn them as if we were one person.  Each time we turned a page the mural would change, in synch with the marching and gymnastic activities on the field below.  We worked every day, all day, in the sun, and hid under the stalls if it rained.

As the days went by we got to know the other children who were there.  We began to make friends with the children near to us.  We also began also to recognise the secondary schools and other role players.  There was one group that stood out  – the recruits to the army, or Kurutus as they were being called.  I was terrified of them – even though they were not really Army men.  Over the weeks we began to notice a kind of rivalry between the ‘Kurutus’ and the boys from one of the local high schools.  It must have been Kololo High or Kampala High.  They always seemed to be taunting each other.

One day, as we ate lunch the taunting became worse.  One minute they were jeering each other, the next there was a fight on the field.  Boys fighting with young men in army fatigues. Boys running away from the Kurutus.  Blows being exchanged.  And then the Kurutus picked up the big sticks that they had been using as guns in their marching and started chasing the boys and beating them up… Some of the boys were hiding behind a stack of cases of Soda and they started throwing soda-bottle-missiles to the Kurutus.  We ran screaming under the stands huddled together, watching in horror as the Kurutus circled a few boys and BEAT them up.  I believe that one of the boys died – I don’t know for sure – but he was beaten up so badly that an ambulance took him away.

That was the first time I saw the army unleashed on civilians.

We went home shaken that day. My parents told me that I should stop going but my fear of being absent was far greater than my fear of what happened.   I thought that the powers that be would come home and take me, or hurt my parents, and nothing would put me at ease.  I was hysterical at the thought of being absent.  And so I went back, as did many of the other children – and whenever I saw a soldier or a Kurutu, I would take the longer way to wherever I was going.

On the day of our performance we were all there bright and early.  Clean uniforms, polished shoes and sunburnt faces and arms peeling, our hearts still bruised with the loss of our innocence. We watched them arrive in the new Mercedes Benzs, guessing by the flag who was arriving.  Our performance for the Heads of State went well – they were so impressed, and none of them knew the what it cost us to be there.

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new poem, reworked poem

Aunty Violet


She was a tall, dark

voluptuous woman

with big eyes.

Waiting outside his office

She sat still and upright

Hands folded in her lap.

Only her eyes hinted at the fire within.


Finally they let her in.

Mr Bob sat across the desk

His face pink and sweaty

On this humid afternoon.

‘Where is my husband?’

She asked quietly.

Her eyes glinting.

Her body, very still.

‘I don’t  know’ he replied.


Very slowly she leaned forward

And said,

‘You have taken him


and I have come to fetch him.’


‘I do not know your husband.’

His thin pale lips

Twitched as he spoke,

His eyes, cold and empty, 

Staring back into hers



She stood  

And pushed his desk up

Against his big belly

Pinning him helpless

Against the wall.


Her eyes blazing

She said

“Bobu!  Tukooye okutuyisa


My husband has done nothing wrong

and I will NOT leave here without him!

I will NOT raise my children alone.



Mr. Bob’s eyes opened wide

And he gasped!

Face ashen,

pinned between the wall and the desk

Unable to move or breathe.

He looked into her burning eyes

Her tall body towering over him

And suddenly

he remembered her husband

… and where he was!


“Please Madam,

Let go of the desk,”

He wheezed. 

“Your husband will

be here soon.”


That day

Her husband came back home

And was never taken again!


Going home (formerly known as In a Foreign Land)


At the dinning table

shoulders hunched.

Quiet tears .

A soft moan .


Two aunties next to her

hushed words

taut faces.


A child

leaning against the wall

Eyes flashing, fists clenched

’What did they say?’


Nabutiiru says

‘I’m alright.

Khukhu passed away last night.’


The child   

Wraps her arms

Around her Mother

Mourning her Mother.


Nabutiiru.looks around her.

Their homeland

Fast falling into war.

She dislocated

With three of her children.

Far away from home.

The older two

wheel-chair bound.

Minds alert

Unable to speak, or walk,

Or care for themselves.

The younger one, 13.

The caregiver barely 19,


She must go.

Can she leave the children alone?

Bury her Mother

Will she be safe?


Her husband kilometers and kilometers away,

Her eldest child further.

The second born at home –

maybe she will be at the funeral.


An aunty speaks.

‘What if the soldiers get you? Stay.’


Nabutiiru stands.

‘I must go.

I must bury my mother.’

‘We will be alright.’


Bag packed.

She gives the child some money.

‘I’ll be back soon.

If you need anything

Call Aunty.’


Nabutiiru travels

In a Matatu

Through the Rift Valley

Towards Busia


She remembers

The last words her mother,

Hand on cheek, she had asked:

“Nabutiiru, will you manage

With the children in a foreign land?”


Nabutiiru crosses Manaafa,

The river of her home.

The floodgates open up

Tears wash over her.


At the homestead

They wait.

Coffin lowered into

The grave.

They wait.

Corrugated iron sheets over grave.

They wait.




As the sun sets

She steps out of the car

Into the homestead.

They see she is here.


The voice of an old woman

Singing a dirge

Rises through the air

One by one

They move,

As if dancing,

To the grave.


Nabutiiru is here

She will bury her mother.

They will be alright.


And far away

In a foreign land

The children now wait.

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