By Carrie Bell-Hoerth
Glaydah Namukasa, a fiction writer and midwife from Uganda, stood before a large audience in the Multicultural Center on Tuesday afternoon and thanked Haverford—for inviting her to come read a sample of her work, but also for another exciting experience. In primary school in Uganda, she said, the books, which came mostly from Britain, described many things as “white as snow.” However, because Uganda sits directly on the Equator, she and her classmates never had an understanding of this phrase. Tuesday’s tiny snow flurry—cause for celebration all over campus—was Namukasa’s very first “hands-on experience with snow.”
Namukasa, who was brought to campus by the Anthropology Department, the Writing Program, and the Hurford Humanities Center, is currently in the U.S. to attend the International Writers’ Program in Iowa. This winter she will be the City of Asylum Writer in Residency in Pittsburgh, where she will hopefully get the chance to have many more hands-on experiences with snow. In addition to being a writer, she has a career as a midwife in Uganda. In his introduction, Professor Zolani Ngwane pointed out that these two careers are “only deceptively unrelated.” As a writer, she “brings words to life. She is involved in the reproduction of culture. As a midwife, she brings to life subjects of culture. She is involved in the reproduction of human life.” In other words, he joked, “she creates her own market.”
Namukasa’s writing focuses primarily on the many refugee camps in Uganda, which take in refugees from places like Sudan and Kenya, as well as on Ugandans who have been displaced by rebel fighting in the north of the country. She chose to read a story called “Daytime Dreams,” about a young man who voluntarily enters a camp, rather than being forced into it by circumstance. His motive? He hopes to gain refugee status and obtain asylum in Canada, where he has dreamed of living for years.
The part of the story she chose to read focused on the young man’s entrance into the world of the refugee camp, and his shock, and sometimes horror, at what he finds there. Children run unsupervised through the streets, the people—often victims of massive mental and physical trauma at the hands of the rebel arms—are poorly fed and forced to live in crude grass huts. There is a population of young adults who were born in what she referred to as the “shell” of the camps, and they are growing up poorly educated and unaware of any outside world. As a result, Namukasa said, “they don’t know anything. The boys only wake up to play cards, and the girls will trade sex for food.” The narrator encounters a man named Mahoud, who makes money by stealing food and selling it outside the camp; the audience later found out that the character of Mahoud was based on an actual person, and that he was jailed for his actions.
Namukasa’s use of a narrator who chooses to enter the camps, rather than being forced into them, offered a unique, eye-opening perspective. I have heard many different stories of refugees and their experiences in refugee camps, but the idea that someone might enter a camp of their own accord, hoping that it would be a means of fulfilling a dream, had never occurred to me. The distinctive way she chose to tell the story, as well as the simple, direct style of her writing, served as an effective way to convey the terrible situation in which so many people are forced to live, sometimes for years.
In his introduction, Professor Ngwane pointed out that Namukasa’s success in writing “embodies the achievements of Uganda itself. It has reinvented itself after the reign of ‘Forest Whitaker’ [a reference to the movie The Last King of Scotland, in which Forest Whitaker portrays Ugandan dictator Idi Amin] and, for the first time, it is paying attention to the education of women.”
When asked about the response to her stories in Uganda, Namukasa said that people are glad to know that the issues surrounding the refugee camps are being brought out into the open. “During Idi Amin’s regime, my stories would not have been possible, but I have the freedom, now, to write,” she said. “You say what you say,” and, like it or not, the government has to deal with it.