24 (+15) hours in Kampala with Commonwealth Writers

Juliet Pickering reports on her whirlwind visit to Uganda for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Thursday 12th 

 Readers, I took that seat

Readers, I took that seat

2.30pm: Sat on the plane next to a guy who looks about 12, who tells me he's on a Christian mission to Uganda. He's American, has never left even his state before, and seems pretty scared of what's ahead. I re-read the shortlisted stories before we watch Frozen in friendly silence until a fellow missionary comes along and takes the mickey out of him for watching a girly film. Not very Christian, to say the least. 

 Two disgusting plane meals later...

 10.30pm I get out of the airport to find my transfer, and realise that there were six other people on the plane that Commonwealth Writers have brought over too. Hooray! We all pile into a large taxi with our cases teetering dangerously over our heads, and head to the hotel.

 11.30pm I'm sharing an apartment with Vimbia Shaire, a freelance editor who is teaching workshops the following week. She's chatty and lovely, and despite the lack of proper milk in the apartment and therefore being unable to drink a good cup of tea, we have a lengthy chat about all things publishing; often working with more academic titles, her experience is very different to mine.

 It's good, but it's not P G Tips

It's good, but it's not P G Tips

Friday 13th 

8am I peruse the selection of exotic breakfast dishes: baked beans, curried vegetables, chips, chicken foot... Yup, chicken foot: in breadcrumbs. It's not bad, and goes well with the cassava wedges. 

 Breakfast, avec pied

Breakfast, avec pied

I get chatting to Myn Garcia, Deputy Director of the foundation, who delicately nibbles a bit of fruit while I scoff my chicken foot and explain what I'm doing there. I get the sense that the Commonwealth Writers people (especially Lucy Hannah and Emma D'Costa) take on a hell of a workload, and travel a huge amount to promote literature and work with writers all over the world. An incredible and varied job to have, although exhausting.

 Lucy asks me to join them for a non-fiction workshop at midday, to talk about the UK publishing industry and the role of the agent.

 10am I wander the compound but it's fairly self-contained. It alternately rains like crappery and then the sun shines hot and strong. No chance to park myself by the pool and read The Miniaturist, damn it!

 11am I am taken to the hotel where the workshops are being held, and introduced to a group of non-fiction writers - who have come from Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Kenya - and who are being taught by Ellah Allfrey (Chair of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize) and Mark Gevisser. David Godwin also shows up, as he's in town for literary events the following week.

 Non-fiction workshopping

Non-fiction workshopping

We are asked about the role of agents in the UK, and when we want to see material etc. We're reminded about how different things are in the Ugandan/East Africa publishing world, when we're asked a lot about book ideas being stolen by unscrupulous publishers. I mean publishers are unscrupulous the world over, obviously (to any publishers reading this - love you guys!), but the writers' concerns were about them telling a publisher their non-fiction ideas at an early stage, and the publisher then taking that idea and publishing that book with someone else. I got the impression that the publishing world is pretty corrupt there. It might be related to the fact that there are no agents, of course.

 1am LUNCH. I eat shredded goat and it is surprisingly delicious. We also chat to the writers who are all kinds of interesting. There are quite a few political memoirists: writers who have suffered because of their political beliefs, or who have lost family/home/identity in genocide. Their experiences are varied and fascinating.

 I also meet Billy Kahora from the Kwani Trust, a literary charity based in Kenya "dedicated to developing quality creative writing and committed to the growth of the creative industry through the publishing and distribution of contemporary African writing".

 3pm I do a podcast interview for the Commonwealth Writers website, with top Dos and Don'ts when submitting to agents.

 4pm Back in our room, Vimbai and I are peckish and order some food. You would only have believed the size of the chocolate cake I was brought if I'd taken a photo instead of greedily attacking it immediately. One word: BRICK. Good to know that giant hunks of cake are enjoyed the world over.

 6pm Having donned our party frocks, Ellah, Vimbai and I head to the Short Story Prize party.

 Photocall for the non-fiction writers

Photocall for the non-fiction writers

After an hour of drinks, canapes and chat by the poolside (tough life) – during which I learn that to be 34 and unmarried means I am an ANCIENT SPINSTER in Uganda; I so enjoyed my conversations with the writers about their lives - Romesh Gunesekera announces Jennifer Makumbi as the winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2014, for her story about a Ugandan woman living in Britain, whose husband dies unexpectedly, leading her to discover he has been leading a double life with a second family in Uganda. She's a worthy winner, and you can read her story on the Granta website here.

 Jennifer reads an extract of her winning story

Jennifer reads an extract of her winning story

At 9pm I dash to my room to change, and go to reception to wait for a taxi to the airport. Mike van Graan stops by and we introduce ourselves.

 9.30pm INSANE drive to the airport. The roads are packed, mostly with tiny scooters carrying three people, zooming lethally between traffic. I try not to wince as scooters regularly scrape our car bonnet. This was one of the best bits of the trip: 90mins of cruising through Kampala as people gathered at roadsides to eat from smoking food stalls, gather round a tiny TV or sell gum and nuts to passing cars (my lovely driver bought me a pack of Juicy Fruit as we sat in a long queue). Because you can't walk around town whenever and wherever you like, this was the closest I got to seeing Kampala. And it's worth noting that if you own a new and/or large car in Kampala, you can turn your lights on full beam and drive along the wrong side of the road and everyone will get out of your way because they're in awe of your amazing car *eyeroll*. 

 1am It's announced that the plane is grounded because it's been struck by lightning on the way in, and BA have to check it over before we fly again. No argument from me! Check that mofo twice!

 2am The one hour delay becomes a 15hr delay, and so ensues a long night/day of shunting around from airport to hotel to airport to plane. But despite this, it's been totally worth it.

 Follow-up: I've recently emailed some of the shortlisted writers from all over the Commonwealth; stories I particularly enjoyed included one about a young girl’s friendship with a gardener that’s destroyed by racial tensions; another which told of a teenager dealing with coming of age and the calm wisdom her grandmother could offer her; and a third about a brief, meaningful but then discarded love affair in Paris. I'll begin talking to the authors about their writing and what they're working on, in the hopes that some good fiction might come my way as a result!

 I'm really pleased that this trip introduced me to two groups of writers who might not usually think to submit to a UK agent. This is exactly what I hoped for when we began the association with Commonwealth Writers last year, and huge thanks are due to Emma, Lucy, Keenda and the brilliant team there, for making this happen and taking me along to Uganda.