Acclaimed Ugandan Author Promotes African Identity Among Aspiring Writers


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Ugandan author Doreen Baingana confronts issues of African identity in her literature and as a mentor for aspiring writers.

KAMPALA, UGANDA – Ugandan author Doreen Baingana says she was inspired to write her first book, “Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe,” while living in the United States. The work emerged from lonely hours she spent pondering her identity as an African woman abroad.

It was also in the United States that she won several literary awards for the book, published in 2005, and for the individual short stories it comprises. She attained a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Maryland and taught creative writing there as well.

But in 2007, Baingana decided to return to Africa to contribute to a new African literary culture, she says. After working for two years at a publishing house in Kenya, she now writes from Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and mentors writers across Africa.

“I want to show the African writer that you can live on the African continent and still make it,” she says.

As a two-time finalist for The Caine Prize for African Writing, an annual award acknowledging the best African short story published in English, Baingana serves as a role model to many aspiring African writers who also grapple with issues of identity.

“We seem to have an identity crisis,” she says. “We are Africans writing in English. We seem to be on the periphery. We look out for big prizes, which are outside of here.”

She encourages writers to use these challenges to their advantage. For example, writing in English enables Africans to reach wider audiences, she advises. At the same time, she encourages African writers to use the English language in ways that express their own manner of speaking.

“I have been facilitating writing workshops and mentoring young, upcoming writers,” she says.

She has led workshops in Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya. As a writer and mentor living in Uganda, she contributes to the country’s growing literary culture.

And the world is taking note of the country’s talent. In April 2013, Uganda hosted the annual workshop for The Caine Prize for the first time.

Baingana’s award-winning book features short stories about three sisters from the Ugandan city of Entebbe as they explore their surroundings, their relationships and their inner selves in the years following the fall of dictator Idi Amin. Human rights groups estimate that as many as 500,000 people died during Amin’s rule from 1971 to 1979.

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs, a U.S. literary organization, awarded the manuscript for Baingana’s book a prize for short fiction in 2003.

The short stories within the book have also won awards. In 2004, her short story “Hunger” made the shortlist for The Caine Prize. In 2005, Baingana was again a finalist for The Caine Prize, this time for her short story “Tropical Fish.”

In that same year, Baingana published the sisters’ tales as a book. The Commonwealth Foundation, a development organization based in the United Kingdom, awarded her the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the best debut book from the African region in 2006.

But growing up in Uganda, Baingana did not intend to become a member of Africa’s literary vanguard. She graduated from Makerere University in Kampala with a law degree in 1987 and arrived in the United States in 1991, searching for career opportunities.

She accepted a job as a legal assistant for an oil company in Los Angeles but enrolled in creative writing workshops on the side.

“In America, I had more time alone than I had before,” she says, “and a lot to think about and reflect.”

Living in the United States was lonely, she says, and she spent a lot of time pondering her identity. Like Baingana, one of the sisters in her award-winning book finds herself in Los Angeles struggling to reconcile African and American identities.

“It gave me time to reflect on many issues, to read books,” she says. “And being in a new place, I thought about identity, which I write about. Being away from home gave me an opportunity to reflect on social issues at home.”

The contrasts between U.S. and Ugandan culture served both as Baingana’s literary inspiration and her inspiration to return to Uganda, she says. As a successful author writing about African identity, she now inspires African writers and readers.

“Doreen is one of us and has made it,” poet Bonnetvanture Asiimwe says. “That, in itself, is inspiring.”

Ugandan writers struggle with identity issues, he says. European languages have overrun African oral culture and tradition, leaving little room for documentation in African languages.

Further, prizes designed for African writers do not necessarily reward stories that are relevant to African readers, he says.

“The writers who made it on the African continent, like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Okot p’Bitek, were addressing concerns relevant to Africans in their writing,” he says, referring to the Nigerian writers and Ugandan poet who often wrote about cultural conflict. “But this is not the case anymore.”

Although stories that win The Caine Prize are often grammatically well-written, they may lack substance as African literature, he says.

But readers can connect with Baingana’s work, says Hilda Twongyeirwe, co-coordinator for FEMRITE – Uganda Women Writers’ Association, an organization that unites female writers in Uganda.

“Doreen’s writing is straight from the heart,” she says, “and that is the reason the reader feels the stories like they wrote them.”

Baingana is the chairwoman of FEMRITE and leads workshops specifically for female writers. She serves on the editorial board of the Ugandan online journal START – A Journal of Arts and Culture. She is also a member of the discussion group for Ugandan artists and writers called WAZO – Talking Arts.

Beyond identity, there are still barriers to establishing a thriving literary culture in Uganda, Twongyeirwe says. Women especially must overcome traditional expectations that they become mothers and caretakers.

“Women have other demands that take away their time and concentration for writing,” she says.

Baingana, too, struggles to balance her role as a mother and her vocation as an author and mentor, she says.

“I am a single mother,” she says. “I don’t want to neglect my child. I need a lot of time alone for concentration. I feel guilty when I am invited for trips. I feel guilty leaving my 5-year-old son.”

A further barrier to building a literary culture in Uganda is the perception that writing cannot be a full-time career, Twongyeirwe says.

“When conducting career guidance in schools, you never hear anyone telling a child to become [a] writer,” she says. “They tell them about becoming doctors, lawyers and other professions.”

But there is reason for hope, Twongyeirwe says. The recent Caine Prize workshop generated lively discussion on the prize and on the state of writing and publishing in Uganda.

Baingana says it was an optimistic sign of a growing literary culture in Uganda.