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Crossing Borders

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african Creative Writing

Crossing Borders

Crossing Borders is an online creative writing development scheme which has been piloted successfully in Uganda over the past two years. The project grew out of a British Council residency at the University of Makerere in 2001 and aims to aid a new generation of African writers working in English to develop their creative writing skills.

Graham Mort 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.

I discovered 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 the year.

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 contact.

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 in English.

Graham Mort
July 2003



3 & 4

Graham Mort
Betty Kituyi, a fiction student on the Crossing Borders scheme
Ugandon writers at a Femrite reading

More information about the project:    

A Day in the life of Graham Mort

Earlier this Year the poet Graham Mort was writer in residence at Makerere University in Uganda. Read a diary account of Graham Mort’s residency in Uganda.
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