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Creative Writing Workshops

A participant in PEN Uganda's creative writing workshops reads his work

In focus - PEN Uganda's Creative Writing Workshops in Prisons

PEN Uganda has been running creative workshops for prisoners in some of the highest security female and male prisons in the country. Through poetry, theatre & creative writing, a number of inmates have said they been given hope of a second chance, in a country that often disregards people in prisons as ‘without value’.

“When we started the workshops, we observed three major misconceptions among the inmates: a) that because they were prisoners, they were not capable of writing anything; b) that because they were prisoners, nobody would be interested in their stories; and c) because they had never attempted to write any poem, short story or poem, writing was not their ‘thing’. Slowly, we debunked these misconceptions one after another, giving examples of beautiful writings from other prisons in Africa, for instance passages from Ngugi wa Thiongo’s prison memoir, Detained: A Writer’s Diary. With time, the participants took to writing and produced brilliant and touching work. In the two years of the project, we collected over 500 pieces of creative work from the inmates, both male and female. Of these, about 50 were published in the newsletter, and about 100 will appear in the anthology in a couple of weeks. The fact that we moved from nothing to 500 drafts is an important indicator of change. Besides, we were able to make the participants published writers through the newsletter (and soon through the anthology).

The most significant change we observed was the realization, among some of the participants, that writing is a very important medium through which one can come to terms with their past, and through which one can communicate to other human beings across space and time. Elizabeth Kyomuhangi, who had never written anything in her life, has taken to poetry and drama writing seriously, upon discovering that when she puts her thoughts on paper, she feels better and “more worthy” as a human being. One of the poems she wrote (published in the newsletter and soon to appear in the anthology speaks to this:

Second Chance – Elizabeth Kyomuhangi

I need a second chance
Like a felled tree.
It was fruitful

As I was
It sheltered many
As I did

A felled tree
A chopped stump
Is how I feel

Useless and hopeless
Helpful to no one

But I will rise
And sprout like the felled tree

That has smelt water.
I will smell the Spirit

Of the Living God
I will sprout again

My spirit will stay hopeful
I will bear fruit again

And shelter many in my shade
I will have a second chance.

When we consider the fact that the overarching aim of the project was to give a voice to people who are in circumstances that do not permit them to be heard, yet by virtue of being human, they sure have a story, and to contribute to the rehabilitation of these people by encouraging them to reflect on their past and their present, this poem is a powerful indication of how important the project has been in the lives of some participants. We are saying “some participants” because we do not want to generalize. In the anthology, Kyomuhangi has 8 pieces in total – five poems and three plays. We have encouraged her to continue writing so that she can publish a book very soon. She has promised to give us a draft of a complete book by December 2018.

Elizabeth Kyomuhangi, who had never written anything in her life, has taken to poetry and drama writing seriously, upon discovering that when she puts her thoughts on paper, she feels better and “more worthy” as a human being

PEN Uganda reporting on their ‘Harnessing Rare Voices’ project