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It all began with ebyevugo for BBC winner

Deborah Asiimwe is the winner of the 2010 BBC African Performance Play Writing Competition with her play Will Smith Lookalike.

She led a Ugandan swoop of the top three places, something that has not happened before in the competition’s 50-year history. The other Ugandan winners were  Bashir Kenneth Atwine who tied for second place with Julia Childs for his play Kitu Kidogo and her The Coffin makers.

Angella Emurwon came third with her play The Cow Needs A Wife. The winners were announced on June 21. Following weeks of intense pleading, Asiimwe, who is not in the country at the moment had an email interview with David Tumusiime.

Who is Deborah Asiimwe?

My dad was a Ugandan-Munyarwanda and my mum is a Munyankore. So I don’t know what nationality or tribe that makes me. I usually say that I’m an East African. I am not married.

Do you feel that your tribe plays an important part in who you are as a writer?

Both Kinyarwanda and Kinyankore cultures are very rich in oral literature. When I was growing up in the mid 80s, I was around people who told folk stories, recited ebyevugo (epic poetry). I spent a significant part of my childhood living with my grandmother.

Family members, workers and sometimes neighbours used to gather in her house after dinner to sing folk songs and share riddles – in Runyankore they call it okutarama, or ugutarama in Kinyarwanda. I consider myself lucky that my formative years were spent this way and not in front of a television screen. Later in life, these experiences were to be very influential as far as my artistic sensibilities are concerned.

What was school like?

I went to Kashwa Primary School, which is in present-day Kiruhura district. I then went to Bweranyangi Girls School for both my O and A levels. I went to Makerere University and did a diploma in Music, Dance and Drama. I went back for a Bachelor of Arts degree in Drama.

Shortly after my undergraduate degree, I got a scholarship to do a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Writing for Performance at California Institute of the Arts. I graduated last year in May.

My favourite moments in primary school were storytelling classes and debate sessions. In secondary school, subjects like History, Literature, Religious Studies were very appealing to me. Interestingly, I also enjoyed Chemistry a lot and used to do it very well. In High School, I was a committed member of the school choir and the drama club.

Of course, there are things that I didn’t like; for example, I still don’t understand why in primary school we were being forced to speak English and even get punished when we were caught speaking our native language. Also, I think some of the punishments that were often given to pupils for having been late for school were unfair. Imagine, some people would walk for over 10 miles to school and after being two or three minutes late, they would either be spanked or told to fetch water and collect firewood for the teachers.

Do you have any notable school achievements?

In my primary school, I always scooped presents for “best actress”. In 2006, I was the overall Best Student at Makerere University conferment of undergraduate degrees, in addition to winning a Merit Scholarship in Writing for Performance from California Institute of the Arts.

What was your last “real” job?

What do you mean “real” job? Well, I hold a “real” job. I work as Specialist for Sundance Institute East Africa. Last semester, I was an artist in residency at Brooklyn College, New York, teaching playwriting and African Folklore.

Any memorable persons you have met that changed your perception of the world or yourself?

After my diploma course in Music, Dance and Drama, I worked with Uganda National Cultural Centre – National Theatre as the acting education officer. My boss was Robert Serumaga and that is one person who I think thinks outside the box; he definitely had an impact on my artistic work.

I worked with Young Empowered and Healthy (Y.E.A.H), a project of Straight Talk Foundation, which had a special programme that targeted keeping young people safe from HIV/AIDS. I worked as a Radio Production Director of a Serial Drama (Rock Point 256) that run in four languages.

I directed over twenty actors and actresses, within the age range of 20s to 60s. I think that taught me how to pay attention to different people’s specific needs, to listen to what is said and to be gentle and at the same time be firm.

Currently, I am on Manda Island developing four artistic projects from East Africa with artists from East Africa. I have met many people who have influenced me greatly; as a writer, as a thinker and as a human being. If I were to mention all the names, I would need a separate interview for that.

Is there a time in your memory when you consciously became a writer?

No. I have two distinct memories about my relationship to writing. Earlier on, I mentioned that I lived with my grandmother. She used to tell me many folktales. I always wanted to remember them so that when it is time for me to retell, I would not miss out any detail. What I used to do was write them down after she had finished telling them. The second was when I read Wole Soyinka’s The Trial of Brother Jero; I remember thinking to myself, “I like this kind of writing and if I am ever going to be a writer, I want to write stories that are as funny, as moving, as memorable.”

Is writing a career choice or more of a calling for you?

I believe that writing is a talent that God has given me and I am grateful for that. I don’t know whether it falls under the “career” category or the “calling” category. But one thing for sure, I see myself continuing to write for as long as I am able to.  

Did you expect to win the BBC prize for African play writing?

I guess every person who submits to a competition expects to win. But I was really surprised. So, I guess the answer is yes and no. No, because I know that our continent has extremely talented writers and besides it was my first ever submission to the BBC Playwriting competition.

Where were you when you learnt you had won?

I was in New York. I was ecstatic. I do not have any published work yet. I have manuscripts that I have been shying away from sending to publishers because I feel they are not yet at a level that I want them to be. However, I have had my work read by colleagues, former professors and I have always received overwhelmingly wonderful responses. Also, some of my theatre writing has been produced both in Uganda and in the United States and they have always been very well received.

What are the major literary influences on your writing?

The writings of the following people have influenced my own writing over the years. For some, I will mention specific works, for the others, I have been influenced by more than one body of their work; for those, I will mention names:

  • Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol
  • Maya Angelou
  • George Orwell, especially 1984
  • Ngugi Wa Thiong’o
  • Suzan-Lori Parks
  • Ntazake Shange
  • Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood
  • Chinua Achebe, especially Things Fall Apart
  • Dee Brown’s Bury my Heart on Wounded Knee
  • Wole Soyinka
  • Ken Saro Wiwa
  • Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain
  • Erik Ehn

I am attracted to experimental writers. Writers who explore stories of silenced cultures, stories that deal with power dynamics and to some extent, global politics are very appealing to me. I like writings that have found new ways to use language. I want to indulge my mind in writings that tend to push the boundaries.

What are you currently reading?

I am reading two books; Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

What advice would you give beginning writers or even old hands?

Write and don’t be shy to share what you have written. Get older writers you trust and respect and ask them if they can mentor you. Also get involved in writing groups.  

dtumusiime@observer.ug

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