Together We Write Together We Rise

Women in Africa are dancing at airports but they never get inside

A group of young women, our finest talents from across the Continent, recently gathered in Kampala to take part in the Writing for Social Change Workshop 2015. It is an annual event of The African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) in collaboration with FEMRITE, the Uganda Women Writers Association. The Journalist Editor was chosen as one of the lead trainers together with author Yewande Omotoso. This story takes the ethos of Women’s Month beyond August and way beyond South African shores.

Magic happens when people gather with the best intentions. When a group of powerful women get together aiming to change the world, it’s hard to keep the roof from flying off. The blast of energy that came from the recent AWDF-FEMRITE summit on the shores of Lake Victoria augurs well for the future of Africa.

If our future is in the hands of the 22 young women who assembled in Uganda, all is truly well in Africa. They listened, learned, taught, debated, argued, occasionally wept and always gave so much more than they took. When they strode around the manicured tropical lawns of the Speke Resort, making storytelling plans or unpacking an idea, they represented 14 African nations.

The highlight of the gathering was a public dialogue in downtown Kampala. African Women & Public Policy: Are We Getting It Right was the topic. Dr Tabitha Mulyampiti, a senior lecturer in the department of women and gender studies at Uganda’s Makerere University, threw down the gauntlet when she said:

“Where are we? We are shaking what our mama gave us. We are doing what everyone else expects us to do. Doing a side dance because of marginalisation. Not yet in the main dance. The agenda for Africa is being drawn in Addis Ababa [at the OAU]. We are dancing and talking to ourselves.

“We need to get into that policy arena. None of the people who enjoy that privilege are in this room. We need a voice that can make a difference. As of now it is noise that can be eliminated.”

She emphasised that key policy makers and executives were absent from these gatherings. But Theo Sowa, the Chief Executive Officer of the AWDF, the Accra based grant making foundation that supports organisations working towards the empowerment of African women, disagreed.

“Sometimes we act as if public policy is only the concern of elite politics. We can influence public policy from within and without. Real change comes from within us.

“In order to effect real change we have to be strategic. We do need to be inside government and public policy spaces but I think we are in many of these spaces already. Not in great enough numbers and not often with a progressive agenda. We want women who have transformative agendas in these spaces.

“We should also recognise the power of social movements. The South African constitution came about because of social movements. The policies and constitutional development were driven by the power of the social movements that came before. Let’s remember the bigger vision. Remember what we are already doing as social change agents.”

Talking about the work of the AWDF Sowa said:
“We want to facilitate the work of our really talented women writers on the Continent, making sure their talent is celebrated. To amplify women’s’ voices beyond Uganda, beyond Africa.”

Theo Sowa is an independent advisor working on a wide range of international issues with a focus on social development. Her work has covered advocacy, service delivery, evaluation, facilitation, policy and organisational development with a range of international and intergovernmental organisations including UNICEF, Stephen Lewis Foundation, the African Union, DFID, and UNDP, amongst others.

Powerful Collaboration

FEMRITE Coordinator Hilda Twongyeirwe

FEMRITE Coordinator Hilda Twongyeirwe

The AWDF partner for the 10-day annual gathering is Kampala-based FEMRITE, the Uganda Women Writers Association. It is a community of women writers… an indigenous NGO that aims at creating an enabling atmosphere for women to write, tell and publish their stories. The organisation’s Co-ordinator Hilda Twongyeirwe, a writer and editor, said they recognised the role that men could play in tackling gender issues.

“Every day there’s a gender issue that you meet. I call on us all to be watchdogs. To be aware of these gender issues and make an effort to do something in all our spaces.”

Beverley Nambazo, a member of the audience who runs the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation in Kampala, advocated using the creative arts to raise awareness.

“We can refurbish systems that are negating us. It is citizens who are responsible for policy but we have abdicated that responsibility. We are the policy and we are the policy makers so let’s not abdicate,” said the passionate young poet.

Lead Trainer & Author Yewande-Omotoso

Lead Trainer & Author Yewande Omotoso

The panelists included author Yewande Omotoso who was a lead trainer for the Writing for Social Change Workshop 2015. She is an architect turned writer and her debut novel Bomboy, won the South African Literary Award for First Time Author and was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Her poem, The Rain, was shortlisted for the 2012 Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award.

Omotoso said that if public policy did not serve women adequately she questioned what it was that she was not doing right
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“The most disenfranchised and the poorest are often women. The most threatened are women, marginalised communities and children. But what am I not doing for us to get it right. Women in Africa are dancing at airports but they never get inside.”

Dancing, Singing Writers

MC Monica Cheru Mpambawashe & The Group

MC Monica Cheru Mpambawashe & The Group

Almost as impressive as the contributions from the audience and the panel was a performance from the group of 22 participants. One of the women was the MC for the evening. Zimbabwean Herald Assistant Editor Monica Cheru-Mpambawashe charmed the audience as her counterparts clustered secretively behind her. She made it seem as if entertaining a packed hotel conference room was commonplace in her newsroom.

Moroccan Salma Takky & Malagassy Ny-Anjara Nofy Ary Tiavina Andrianarisaina

Moroccan Salma Takky & Malagassy Ny-Anjara Nofy Ary Tiavina Andrianarisaina

Suddenly and to the tune of the Worldcup 2010 Waving Flag song, the cluster behind her broke up. The women did a neatly choreographed ‘shimmy’ that left us in no doubt about their multiplicity of talents. And if that was not enough to shake up the debate drowsy audience they passed the mic from one to another doing short, sharp and hugely impressive solo turns.

Salma Takky who is currently pursuing her post-grad studies in Cultural Studies at Morocco’s Mohammed Ben Abdellah University performed a poem in Arabic.

Then the youngest in the group took the mic. The shy Ny Anjara Nofy Ary Tiavina Andrianarisaina or Tiavina as she likes to be called, is from Madagascar and has never traveled abroad before. She sang the popular tune You Raise Me Up with a power that seemed to come from beyond her petite, five foot frame.

Finally Sibusiso Mtshede, Zimbabwean journalist and columnist for the Sunday News, reeled off the countries the group represented, ending with the catch phrase: “Together we write, together we rise.”

They put the evocative performance together in just two days, under the expert guidance of performance poet, writer and activist Fatou Wurie from Sierra Leone. Her work has been featured by the Huffington Post, Okay Africa, Amnesty International Blog and the Standard Times, a leading local newspaper discussing women’s health, maternal and newborn health, sexuality and politics.

A Spread of Influence

Writer & Performance Poet Fatou Wurie, Sierra Leone

Writer & Performance Poet Fatou Wurie, Sierra Leone

It is difficult to capture in words what these young women achieved as they worked in unison by the side of the lake. They wrote and read us their stories with the same generosity and effortlessness with which they departed from their comfort zones to embrace song and dance at the Hotel Imperial. As they parted I knew that their collective influence would one day reach far beyond the gathering on Lake Victoria. They understood how to amplify their voices way beyond that ‘shimmy’ moment in the Ugandan capital. “Way beyond Africa,” as the AWDF CEO said.

Two of their stories have already been published in The Journalist… An opinion piece on gender and the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign by Simamkele Dlakavu and a searing personal story about body image and abuse by Aisha Ali Haji.

The group included women from Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Ghana, The Gambia, Kenya, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Ethiopia, Madagascar and South Africa. A full list is available from the link elsewhere on this page.

And the key coordinator that kept it all running smoothly was Amba Mpoke-Bigg, the AWDF Communications and Fundraising Specialist. She says…

“This workshop highlights an integral part of AWDF’s mission, to nurture and develop women on the continent whose voices will influence public policy making and who will authoritatively express opinions about women’s issues. At the end of our 10-day workshop we already have evidence of success – two of our participants have published articles on critical issues affecting their respective communities. I am thrilled.”

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