I Breathe. I Smile

My life began in 2003 when I wrote my first poem. I was 17.

I was seated under the mango tree in our compound, listening to Mega FM when I heard an announcement about a writing competition. I didn’t think about my competence. I tore a page out of my exercise book and wrote...

38875182_1556595896915304_r.jpegA stanza from that first poem, The Plight of the Acholi Child (retitled Scratching Destiny).
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I hand-delivered the poem to the office of the competition organizers. Weeks later, I heard my name on Mega FM.
I had won.
The prize was a year-long bursary for my High School. My hands shook with excitement as I signed an acceptance letter for the award.
I breathed. I smiled.

I had known early on in life that Daddy’s salary as secretary of a village rice cooperative union would never be sufficient for me and my seven siblings. I had been lucky that World Vision and Gulu District contributed some percentage of tuition to my primary and O-level education respectively. But I had experienced the shame that came with one’s name being called out for defaulting on tuition. I knew the embarrassment that came with one’s father, riding a bicycle to school every term, to plead with the head teacher for more time.

38875182_1556608748853549_r.jpegThe only photo of me when I was little. Mama said, "you were born during the war, there was no time to take photos".  I took my next photo when I was 12.  
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And so, when poetry took me to High School, I began to take it seriously.
I wrote every day in a big book.
On each page I asked questions I couldn’t ask my family; why is there war here? What does the rest of Uganda look like? Do children elsewhere dread sunsets too? Do they know the sound of Joseph Kony's guns?

After I emerged top of my class in pre-national exams, my school paid for the final year.
I breathed. I smiled.

Soon, it was time to join university. I wanted to learn how to become a real writer but there was no Creative Writing course here (still isn’t). Daddy, whose bookshelf was full of P’Bitek and Achebe and Soyinka and Ngugi, thought studying law would suit me better. I applied for Mass Communication eventually, even when I wasn’t sure where the money would come from. The family land had already been sold to pay for big sister’s university tuition.

As I waited for results of my High School exams, I prayed for a miracle.
It came through Mega FM.

38875182_155659624539427_r.jpegAppearing on a talk show on Mega FM in 2018 to talk about poetry and my writing journey. 
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Makerere University had admitted me on government scholarship.
I breathed. I smiled.
Even with a Mass Communication degree and a journalism job in the bag three years later, something was still missing. I began to apply for an MFA Creative Writing course and I got several admissions;

-          University of the Witwatersrand
-          Lancaster University
-          Sussex University

…and three more.   

But my joy was short-lived.

My poem, Fixable, in many ways, captures my pursuit for an MFA program since 2012. 
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Every admission was followed by bad news.
No funding. 
I looked for funding, failed, deferred admission and went through the same cycle. I gave up and enrolled for a Masters in Human Rights in Uganda. It was cheaper. I was able to pay for myself.  

In the meantime, I began teaching myself how to write and learnt from close writer friends. Then, in 2018 my short story,  Dancing with Ma  got shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. In 2017 and 2018, my stories  Waiting and The Satans Inside my Jimmy were longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize. My debut poetry collection – A Nation in Labour  – made me joint winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, 2018

38875182_1556597356964322_r.jpegOne of my happiest moments was meeting Prof. Wole Soyinka and winning the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa in 2018. 
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The universe has been kind to my pen and paper. But I know I need to write that novel you keep asking me about. I know I need to be able to mentor and share more writing knowledge from a point of deep knowledge.

Writing allows me to story-tell about issues I hold dear – sexual violence, mental health, power relations, culture, history… The stories in my head are heavy, many. That’s why I applied for an MFA. Again. This time, Columbia University offered me an admission
The phone call with the good news found me at my workplace on 2nd March 2019. It was 7.53pm.
I jumped. I screamed.
The empty office swallowed the echo of my excitement.
A week later, I received the email confirming my offer of admission, but, my financial aid application was not successful. How will I get the more than $100,000 I need for the course? (UPDATE: Between June & July, Columbia has given me $30,000 towards my tuition. #Grateful).

38875182_1556597501878316_r.jpeg
Part of my admission letter, detailing the estimated costs I'll incur pursuing the two-year MFA Writing Program. 
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With the April 24th 2019 deadline for initial tuition deposit drawing close, I began to panic. My job, which I love, hasn’t paid me anything to write home about for the past six months. My bank account limps but I emptied it to pay the required $800 to secure my admission, and more to start the visa application process. 

Colombia is where my heart is. Out of hundreds of applications, I’m one of the about 15 students admitted for this course at a university ranked among the top 10 in the US. The course will be intense, but I’ll be in the hands of the greatest instructors and have access to handy resources and industry experts.

School starts this Fall (26 August 2019). With every sunset, my excitement grows but my uncertainty doubles. That’s why I’m here, hoping that you will help me realise this dream of polishing my words, sharpening my pen. 

(Pls: My friend Matthew Sebastian graciously accepted to receive the donations on my behalf since he has a US bank account/phone number, and I don't).

Your support will give me life, like my first poem did, that day, in 2003. 

38875182_155659764096601_r.jpegThree of my poems feature in New Daughters of Africa, 2019, an anthology of writing by up to 200 women of African descent.                                                                                              #

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Organizer and beneficiary

Harriet Anena 
Organizer
Matthew Sebastian 
Beneficiary
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