“As a PEN Centre, we are stronger now than we ever were”
Interview to Danson Kahyana. This Story also belongs to the Ugandan Centre.
By Ginevra Avalle
Pune, 25th September 2018
Danson Kahyana is the president of the Ugandan Centre and Board member of PEN International. While he was studying his master’s degree, he was an assistant to Professor Timothy Wangusa, founder of the PEN Centre. In 2008, Kahyana became the General Secretary of the organisation. He is currently in his second and last term as President; after he was re-elected in 2015.
G.A. How did you first hear about PEN International and when did you join?
D.K. I studied English Literature with Professor Timothy Wangusa, who was PEN Uganda’s first president. I came to the organisation around 2002, to be his run-around boy. In those days, PEN Uganda was doing lots of work with secondary schools, writing workshops with students, readings, and so on. I helped him organise a workshop with more than 30 schools in Kampala. There are four regions of Uganda; the country is almost as big as the United Kingdom. We chose one school to host students from the other regions. The aim was to teach the children to write and publish their work in what we called the Ugandan PEN Newsletter.
G.A. When was the Centre created and who were the founding members?
D.K. The Centre was founded by Professor Timothy Wangusa in 2001. I also remember Ms Sarah Kyankya, one of the female members of those years. She was an editor at Fountain Publishers. We now have around 20 members. Some other writers attend events and do something for the schools, but are not active members.
G.A. What are the key activities your Centre has developed throughout its history?
D.K. For the past 14 years, our main activities have been the following. First, teaching secondary school children who didn’t know how to write. Second, publishing their work in our newsletter, a literary publication. And third, the public readings that we used to call “Meet your Writers”. We would organise them in universities and schools, so that the students could read their work alongside the established writers. The students could interrupt the professional writers whenever they felt like doing so. It was very important because in Uganda students thought of writers as people who are dead or unreachable. They now could discover they are alive and ready to interact with new generations of writers. One of these writers was Julius Ocwinyo, a man in his 40s whom students thought either too old or long dead. The kids liked the activity very much, and some of them were very inspired.
I think we as a PEN Centre are stronger now than we ever were. We have published a book (As I Stood Dead Before The World: Creative Writing From Luzira Prison), we do projects, etc. Our activities are mainly literary (about 95% of them are). Most of the African PEN Centres are more focused on promoting literature than human rights, as opposed to Centres in other parts of the world. Apart from working in schools, we run some creative writing workshops in prisons and slums. We also do human rights activities, which come in two ways. First, when a writer is in trouble, we join PEN International for statements and actions, or we report PEN International through the WiPC. Sometimes PEN International knows about what is going on in Uganda before we do. And second, by organising events like the ones for the International Human Rights Day.
G.A. Could you tell me about some key historical moments of PEN Uganda?
D.K. In 2005, we organised a festival to bring together all School Writer’s Clubs. There were 22 School Clubs and the event lasted for three days. We also held regional workshops: in Gulu and Lira (northern Uganda), Mbale and Iganga (eastern Uganda), Kampala (central Uganda), and Mbarara (western Uganda). As a secondary school student, I did not have the opportunity to join writing activities like the ones Ugandan PEN has organized for the schools. It was therefore a significant step for Ugandan PEN that we organized, and continue to organize, events where secondary school and university students learn about writing from the experts.
I think some people must remember when during the period of President Timothy Wangusa we received the visit of the Vice-President of the Rockefeller Foundation, although I didn’t have the honour to meet her. The Rockefeller Foundation funded PEN Uganda so that we could get a computer, a printing machine, and run some activities.
G.A. Can you tell me an interesting anecdote about your Centre? Or about any of its members?
D.K. The anecdotes I have are not funny, but of course I have many! We have a Newsletter with pictures of some key events. We have published some books and another one is coming soon. These are filled with anecdotes.
I can tell you a private one: when people see that the president of PEN Uganda has gone to England, that the vice-president is in Canada, or that PEN members are travelling the world, they automatically think that they are important writers. For me, as a PEN member, the first trip was very symbolic: I went to the UK, a colonial country. It was, to me, a great power, with great history and literature. One of the memories I have about becoming part of PEN was thinking that I would be able to visit the UK and see some of Shakespeare’s plays on stage. It did not happen. It was many years later when a friend of mine, Dr Randeep Soin, took me to Oxford University to watch A Midsummer’s Night Dream.
G.A. What are the main challenges of your PEN Centre?
D.K. There are many challenges, but I will mention three. The first and biggest one is that our membership is not very active because of the lack of time. Eventually we find ourselves running activities that fall on the shoulders of only three or four people. Although we have a Committee of nine people, it is a voluntary organisation, so not all of them participate. We need new people to join the organization to participate in the centre’s activities. It is difficult running PEN as a volunteer as you hustle with your duties: as a father of five daughters, as a university lecturer, and as a writer.
The second challenge is that for a long period, we did not have an office. This meant that the president’s workplace became PEN Uganda’s office, so to speak. Eventually we got a physical office, thanks to the Civil Society Programme, but when the Covid19 pandemic hit the world, we could not maintain it because we were paying so much money in rent and yet very few writers were using the place.
Finally, we don’t have paid staff. It the running of the organization, because it means there is no one fully dedicated to the activities, or looking for funding. It would help to have at least a volunteer package. In terms of fundraising for writing projects we would be able to engage more people, and diversify our funding sources so that we wouldn’t depend solely on PEN International. Currently, most of our proposals are written by me, Ms Beatrice Lamwaka and Mr Bob Kisiki. We are also unable to liaise with other organisations. I think Malawi PEN has a full-time person working there, and that really helps.
G.A. What would you like to see achieved with the Centenary Archive? How would this help your Centre?
D.K. We have a website: penuganda.org, which is a huge achievement. But we don’t have many pictures or newsletters uploaded yet. My challenge as a leader is how do I bring in as many people as possible and how do I encourage them to be active within the Centre. Last year, Malawi PEN was able to present four different projects in a meeting, and a different person was presenting each. The more active people you have, the more you can do. Our achievements and our history, reflected in our archives, can help us get funding and gather writers to participate in projects. All these events involve people and make them feel part of something.
The Archival project is very important because it will show what we have been doing in the past. As a writers’ organisation in Uganda, the challenge is to prove that we are writers, that we publish books. We don’t know how to communicate our successes, we do more than people know, and this could be improved through the Archive.
G.A. Do you collaborate with other African Centres?
D.K. Yes. We also collaborate through PEN organised meetings, forums, congresses, workshops, where you meet members from Sierra Leone, Malawi, Mali, Zambia, etc. We learn about what is happening, about everything they do.
There is also something called PAN (PEN African Network). We do exchange visits. Who pays for that? PEN International. This makes it a very weak network. In May 2018, we had an exchange visit with Sierra Leone, but of course not all Centres went. We were about six or seven Centres. This causes discomfort among PEN Centres, they feel left out. In the end, it comes to who pays. PAN is a good idea but as long as it is broke, it is a joke.
PAN also has ideological problems. Africa has Francophone and Anglophone Centres, due to our history of suffering European colonization. The British and the French had different cultural agendas. France created Cultural Departments and developed the cultural aspects of the occupied territories: television, writing, etc. On the other hand, Anglophone countries like Uganda have the least funding in the Departments of Culture. There are many more Anglophone Centres, but the Francophone ones can do more activities. PEN Senegal has even hosted a PEN International Congress. The Anglophone Centres tend to talk more than they do. And it is hard for Francophone centres to trust them.
G.A. To conclude, could you talk about the situation of freedom of expression in Uganda?
D.K. The President of the country, H. E. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni came to power 36 years ago, in 1986. You can imagine how paranoid he gets every year that passes. People are free to write, but there is a not so democratic government: writers and journalists are arrested and sent to prison. Sometimes they break into writers’ studios. We have some cases of writers who became involved in politics and were almost tortured to death. We all know of Dr Stella Nyanzi and the suffering she has been through because of her writing. We know of Hon. Robert Sentamu Kyagulanyi, the songster turned politician. He has endured so much harassment for using his music to articulate political issues. There are several other writers and journalists who have gone through horrendous times because of their work. You may have heard of a young writer called Kakwenza Rukirabashaija whose novel The Greedy Barbarians got him into trouble. Then there are so many laws that have been enacted that criminalize freedom of expression on social media, for instance the Computer Misuse Act (2011). This is a draconian law with silly offences like disturbing the peace of the president. What the hell is that? Why should the president of a country be peaceful when he is presiding over a kleptocracy and a military junta? What should the citizens allow him to sleep peacefully when public offices are full of his relatives as if the republic is a family business?