/ 29 April 2011

Rich pickings in Uganda

It should be easy to find books by Ugandan authors in Kampala. With hindsight it is, but it took three visits before I hit the mother lode.

The first time I wandered aimlessly through the central business district stupidly doing the male thing of not asking for directions. I did manage to find a café selling the best coffee I have tasted — the Ban Café, located underneath the more central of the two Grand Imperial hotels in the city. Seriously, if you love coffee then stocking up at Ban Café is worth the effort. But I digress.

Kampala needs the Gautrain. The airport is 35km away in Entebbe at the Lake Victoria end of a constantly clogged two-lane road. Apart from stocking second-rate Ugandan coffee, the airport also has what is for African airports a relatively large selection of books for sale.

‘Do you have any books by Ugandan authors?” I asked an assistant in the duty-free shop. She replied by telling me that she didn’t know there were any. She did, however, recommend I choose something from their fairly large selection of books on the Rwandan genocide. It seems Paul Kagame, who was an officer in the Ugandan army before returning to Rwanda from exile in 1994, still has some pull in his ­former home.

Book safari

Uganda has a rich collection of writers and my guide through the shelves at the Aristoc bookshop on Kampala Road was Rebecca Kabarozi — she steered me in the direction of female writers and ­recommended her favourites. ­

Aristoc has one of the best ­selections of local books I’ve come across on my book safari and the people who work there, Rebecca in particular, know its stock.

I walked out of the shop with as many books as I thought would not put my suitcase in the realm of overweight. One of them was The First Daughter by Goretti Kyomuhendo.

This, her first book, is a Ugandan story that could have been set almost anywhere on the continent.

­Kasemiire, a young woman from the village, is sent to school in Kampala where she excels in her studies until she falls pregnant. Her father disowns her — but not before a ­brutal beating — and she is left to fend for herself. The father of her child, meanwhile, goes on to a successful career.

There are very few of us who don’t know a Kasemiire — a woman with enormous potential who just doesn’t get a break, at least, not at first and not until she has managed to survive humiliation after humiliation. I’m not going to tell you what happens. ­Suffice to say that Kyomuhendo writes with passion and one wonders how close to home this story is.

Safety of distance

She also writes about the Rwandan genocide in Secrets No More. In this book she follows a ­survivor, one of the many refugees who fled to Uganda. Her most recent novel, Waiting: A Novel of Uganda’s Hidden War, is a story told through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl during the last days of Idi Amin.

Kyomuhendo is still writing but now lives in the United Kingdom where she heads the African Writers’ Trust, a body that links African writers in the diaspora with writers on the continent.
I can only wonder whether she will use the relative safety of distance to set a story amid the politics of long-serving president Yoweri Museveni. He doesn’t take kindly to negative publicity — earlier this month his main rival in recent elections was arrested while protesting against ­rising living costs in the country.

Allow me to digress once again: it may sound strange, but if you are looking for a hard-hitting book on Ugandan politics that is also entertaining and full of laughs, pick up Jane Bussmann’s The Worst Date Ever. It’s about a Hollywood gossip columnist who decides to do ­something useful with her life and stumbles upon the ongoing war with the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. I did not find this book in Kampala and, under the current president, doubt whether it will be available there for some time.

But back to our featured Book Safari author: there’s a South Africa link. Kyomuhendo has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Sadly, her link isn’t strong enough to prompt South African booksellers to stock The First Daughter, but Waiting goes for R107 at both Exclusive Books and Kalahari.net.

I may not wait for my next trip to Kampala to buy it.