Chimamanda Adichie’s got a short story, “Jumping Monkey Hill”, in which her protagonist, Ujunwa, a young Nigerian writer is stuck in a literary retreat in Cape Town, bearing through the condescension of an elderly, white, borderline racist patron. Nevertheless, despite the suggestion that the setup of the workshop is less than desirable, the writers in Adichie’s story, from different parts of the continent, find a strange solidarity in coming together, writing in solitude, in a place away from home.
It’s not clear if the story is in any way autobiographical, but perhaps in years to come, Adichie’s protagonist will have less to gripe about, because increasingly, there seems to be a growing number of residencies for African writers, and not just for them, but by them, as well. Admittedly, the field is still dominated by western organisations funding and providing support, but an increasing number of African organisations are partnering with international foundations and residencies to offer opportunities to African writers to write and think about their work, away from the usual stresses of balancing work and writing.
Amongst the most promising and robust of these is the African Women Writes Association’s residency organised by FEMWRITE, the Ugandan Women Writers Association, which has been running since 2008; it aims to find new literary voices, while promoting intercultural literary discourse.
The sixth residency, which takes place from the 13th to 23rd March 2015, is in Sweden, in partnership with Swedish literary magazine, Karavan, with writers coming from Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria and Uganda. Each year, an anthology is produced following the residency programme, with three anthologies already in publication.
Femwrite former president, Doreen Baingana, in an interview about another ground-breaking residency programme in Nigeria said “This is the first time I will go out of my country for a residency in another African country, although I had been to residencies in other parts of the world, but their surroundings don’t give one food for thought, because they are so foreign from your own experience, but here, seeing another culture makes me think about my own culture, and I am learning about myself as an Ugandan, when I look at those things around me. I notice many good things that we share, as well as the problems that we share. Although most writers may look at the possibility of going West when they want to go for a residency, but I think it is a good thing that there is something like this here, where African writers can come to and have a lot done, and then they wouldn’t have to think they are far away from home. I know residencies are in South Africa, Kenya, etc. but in Ugandan, we have not yet set up something of this nature. However, we have workshops like the Ugandan Women Writers Organisation. Here, we bring people together and we critique our works. However, this is different, and I think Ebedi is a great literary idea.”
(Doreen Baingana, Author of Tropical Fish and other stories,and former president of FEMWRITE,
the Ugandan Women Writers Association which runs an annual residency for African Women Writers)
The Ebedi International Writers Residency Program retreat is the first of its kind, set up by Nigerian academic and poet, Dr. Wale Okediran, a former president of the Association of African Authors. The residency which is based in the small town of Iseyin, Oyo State is international in Nature and has drawn writers from Uganda, Ghana, South Africa, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. The selected writers have a space to think and write, but are also encouraged to contribute to the local community through school visits. So far, the residency is supported by its founder, but is actively seeking sponsorship. Writers are hosted at no cost, and so far the residency has welcomed over 30 writers who stay for six weeks at a time. Although not entirely new to the Nigerian scene, such a writer’s residency is rare to say the least.
(Detail: Grounds of the Sacatar foundation building, Brazil – the Africa Centre, South Africa has partnered with the foundation to offer residencies to African writers)
In South Africa, residencies are a little less novel, though hardly ubiquitous, and there are precious few opportunities for African writers, a fact that has influenced the Africa Centre (South Africa) to develop the Artist in Residency programme; carried out in partnership with already existing residency programmes, the (AIR) programme supports a number of African artists, including writers to carry out residencies each year, with the cost of residency and a round-trip airfare included in the award. In 2014, 3 out of 8 places were awarded to writers; among the winners were Ayesha Harruna Attah, who won a residency at the Instituto Sacatar to work on a new novel about the Ghanaian town Salaga, which was at the epicentre of the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries; also amongst the selected is the Barbados born, Nigerian writer, Yewande Omotoso, who is also one of the recipients of the 2014 Miles Morland writing scholarship. The last writer selected was Khanyisile Mbongwa, a performance poet, who won a place at Jiwar in Spain; also amongst the selected is the Barbados born, Nigerian writer, Yewande Omotoso, who is also one of the recipients of the 2014 Miles Morland writing scholarship, another recent addition to the field of opportunities available to African writers.
The Miles Morland Writing scholarship, which provides successful applicants with £18, 000 for a year to produce new work, though not technically a residency, has with its substantial grant, enough to sustain a writer for a year, almost the same effect. The scholarship does come with strings attached, and some writers may have difficulty meeting the criteria for application, as the work produced has to be new, and not a work in progress.
Nevertheless, the scholarship has already benefitted a slew of writers. While the residencies provide a space to write, they don’t guarantee that what writers produce will be published, but their existence, and the increasing number of them aimed at African writers is another promising sign that African literature and publishing is blossoming once again.