By Anne-Marie Nabuguzi Kiwanuka
On the second day of May 2015, I received an email that started thus: “Greetings, I am excited to inform you that your application to serve as staff blogger at the Writivism Festival has been accepted…” The news made me feel great for it was the first application I’d ever made online. I’d applied for almost all the positions advertised, even when I had no idea what they meant: all I wanted was to serve at the festival.
My first exercise was to review Elnathan John’s Caine Prize story “Flying”. I wondered what Mary Ajayi, the blog editor meant by asking me to review a story. Anyway, Google is my friend; I didn’t have to worry. The story was beautiful, it kept me smiling. I quickly snapped out of my enjoyment of the story, realizing that I was not a mere reader; reading was a job. After reading, time for “sweating plasma” came. I knew I was in trouble since I knew nothing about reviewing. I gathered a few ideas from Google and friends and jumbled them up into one piece. Ajayi must have been left in shock after reading my review. I know I fumbled.
Sundays were a home-day for me but Writitvism people changed that. We had to meet every Sunday evening at the national theatre. Away from Ajayi’s review tasks, these meetings were my comfort zone because while we discussed about the preparations, I learnt about fields I hitherto knew nothing about. Little did I know that the fake staff blogger in me would be given fresh responsibilities at the very first meeting. The first new task was to assist in recruiting minders. I called three friends who asked me to consider two of their friends whom they convinced me were good people. I forwarded their contacts to the people in charge and on the day of the interview, they were all hired. I said a little prayer that I shall not be embarrassed by the people I recommended and my prayer was answered.
The next task was finding a venue with a good ambience for the staff and volunteers’ retreat. The retreat was more like an initiation into the Writivism system. I had Kasenge Resort: in Mukono as my first and only option. I had to find contacts of the resort management in the shortest time so I could forward their quotation to my bosses.
Before I could blink, I was told to book a ticket for the retreat facilitator, Wanjeri Gakuru. My brain felt stretched and was at a break point: I had never left Uganda and I definitely knew nothing about booking tickets. At that point, Bwesigye, one of the directors was not the right person to seek guidance from. He was the only person I was familiar with on the team at that point and he was unapproachable and stressed, I could not risk being shouted at.
Meanwhile, emails from Wanjeri kept flooding in, asking about her trip, asking someone to contact me to send her details of her trip. My heart raced and my eyes kind of got teary because I was surely stuck on the street not knowing where to go or whom to call. Elizabeth Kitego, one of the other Writivism team members, called me and I told her about my dilemma. She came to my rescue and soon, payments were made and details sent to Wanjeri.
On the day of the retreat, I was a mini celebrity: my name was on almost everyone’s lips “Oh Anne, you have done us good” “Anne how did you get to know about this place?” “Anne you should be the one to recommend our next retreat venues”. There was no more tension, no more heart races, no more teary eyes, everyone was happy that day.
On the same day of the retreat, the Pretexts Assistant disappeared in thin air. No one saw her leave and since at Writivism, there is no wasting time, I became the Pretexts Assistant. This was the most stressful position in my Writivism life. I had to work with schools and also borrow social skills to be able to understand different people’s ways of thinking. Some teachers were rude, arrogant, money-minded and demeaning but I was glad I kept my fists down, I was glad I could keep my smile on while my blood boiled. I had to meet such people every single day; I had to tame my temper. I had to represent Writivism in the best way I could.
The training sessions in schools were a success according to the Pretexts Facilitators but when the Director in Charge of Pretexts came and saw the progress, she was instead disappointed. On our first encounter, she screamed “Is this the best you could do for all this time you were trained?” I told her it was what the facilitators taught us. “This is not pretexts,” she responded. I became uneasy around this boss lady; she made me walk on egg shells. I wanted to quit but could not bear leaving Writivism.
There was lesser tension in the week before the festival. Until Ssekandi’s car, which was the official private transport means, was vandalised on the first day of the festival. The public address system hired for use at the festival was taken along with my bag which contained my phone, some money made from book sales and the money I was supposed to deposit to the caterer that was supplying food to the festival, among other things. Nothing of mine had ever been stolen save for pens and socks back in high school; I was in utter shock – a state I could not explain. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to cry or just walk away. The set of surveillance cameras that were on the building near which the car was parked, worked like mirrors; they could not record anything.
I withdrew from everything after that incident. I didn’t want to give off negative energies to the guests and fellow staff members. My body was present but in actual sense I wasn’t there. I cannot narrate anything about the festival because, I do not know what transpired in that week except the first session of the festival, before my bag was stolen and maybe when Bwesigye rudely said to me “I do not care about staff and volunteers being hungry, all I want are people filling up seats and attending the key note address that is being delivered right now.”
I’d just voiced some of the guests’ and staff’s complaints. People were hungry but it was not the director’s concern; he wanted the festival to run smoothly. My fist was firm but did not throw any punch at him. Walking away was the best option.
At the festival, I met and interacted with some African writers who attended the festival. From the directors, I got some gifts: a novel; Bomboy by Yewande Omotoso and two Writivism anthologies which got me inclined to reading, more than before. It was from my experience at Writivism that I started following up on literary events in the country. Early this year, I was able to attend Peter Kagayi’s “The Headline That Morning” book launch.