a freelance writer and distance learning specialist, devised
the pilot project in Kampala and has remained as leader
of the scheme. In October last year he took up a post as
director of postgraduate studies in creative writing at
Lancaster University and began consultations to situate
the project here. In April 2003 the project became a British
Council/Lancaster University collaboration with the management
and action research elements of the project being established
in the English and Creative Writing department. Graham recounts
how the project was developed.
Crossing Borders began in November
2001 when I took up a British Council writer’s residency
at the University of Makerere, Kampala. Flying to Uganda
during the presidential election provided a sharp- learning
curve. Soldiers in scarlet berets lined the streets, there
were bombs in downtown Kampala, massacres at Kasesi and
Murchison Falls, and a student riot quelled by teargas right
outside my window.
Things settled down and I began my work
at Makerere. The English Literature syllabus covered 2,000
years of British poetry: Beowulf to Eliot. The Old English
epic provided a vibrant platform for discussion: its shift
from orature to written form, complex genealogies, monstrous
lootings, elemental violence and transitions from blood-ties
to political alliances held many parallels with African
history. The status of the English language itself is ambiguous
in many African countries: Uganda alone has over thirty
local dialects, so English is the unofficial lingua franca.
Unofficial because it brings a compromise with colonialism.
Beyond the University, I found a generation
of literary ‘orphans’ – offspring of civil war and an HIV/Aids
epidemic which has already killed 4 millions. Many writers
were exiled, others dead or disappeared. International publishers
were losing interest in African writing; markets for books
were almost non-existent. In 2001, there were no Ugandan
writers on the Ugandan secondary school syllabus, not even
Okot P’Bitek, whose poem, Song of Lawino, captured the spirit
of cultural turmoil in the 1960’s.
Femrite, a women’s publishing co-operative in the suburbs
of Kampala, and took part in the first meetings to create
a constitution for the Ugandan branch of PEN Uganda – an
international organisation working for freedom of expression.
What impressed me above all was the enthusiasm and commitment
of writers who were re-inventing Ugandan literature through
self-publishing and co-operative action.
We began to plan a writing development
programme through distance learning. The British Council
library was equipped with new computers and had a substantial
collection of books in English. Could the library act as
a resource centre and electronic post-box? If so, then we
might be able to link African writers with mentors in the
UK. Outline plans were received with enthusiasm by the British
Council and funds committed to commission the project.
Crossing Borders was born: a UK/Uganda
mentoring scheme piloted in November 2001 and launched in
2002. The project is now a British Council/Lancaster University
partnership and about to undergo a major expansion. We have
appointed a UK project manager and this next phase will
take it into Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe
via email links and a new website. Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon
are forming a new W. African cluster to join us later in
We have enrolled a team of 18 mentors,
writers who represent contemporary, multi-cultural UK literature.
They will work with over 70 participants across Africa.
Cultural exchange is at the heart of our programme and we
hope to promote new African writing and culture as well
as an understanding of the UK – the old seat of Empire -
as a changed and diverse society. The new website is intended
to provide a more neutral cultural space that that provided
by much theorising discourse, offering access to literature,
artistic liberty and freedom of expression through writer-to-writer
Despite the huge economic, social and educational
difficulties of many African nations, there is much to celebrate
in a creative energy and idealism that places literature
in the vanguard of social change. Crossing Borders will
also become the focus of academic research, enriching our
knowledge of pedagogy, cultural exchange and new literatures