The Question You Couldn’t Ask at #AfricaWrites: Where are the Women in the Room?

Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire

While working on the programming for the #Writivism2015 festival, my colleague and the fulcrum of the administration of the 2015 Writivism project at the Centre for African Cultural

Excellence in Kampala, Rebecca Rwakabukoza always insisted on the numbers and involvement of women on panel discussions and other festival activities. The few times we had an all-male set-up, had to be specifically justified. Eventually, we had more all-female panels than all male panels, and many mixed gender set-ups, with women numerically dominating the men, if you like.

Fungai Machirori of Her Zimbabwe actually asked me about this seeming domination of women at the Writivism Festival, in light of the fact that Zimbabwean writer, filmmaker and intellectual, Tsitsi Dangarembga was to present a key note address at the festival about female domination of African literature.

You can imagine the pleasant surprise when I realized that I was the only male on the Emergent Discourses on African Literature panel at #AfricaWrites 2015. Ours was the second panel on Friday, moderated by Carli Coetzee, the Editor of the Journal of African Cultural Studies and comprising Ying Cheng (SOAS), Louisa Uchum Egbunike (SOAS), Rebecca Jones (University of Birmingham), Madhu Krishnan (University of Bristol), Emma Shercliff (UCL Institute of Education), Victoria Smith (University of Warwick) and myself from Centre for African Cultural Excellence.

The Translation symposium that started off the festival also had a healthy involvement of women. It started off with an Afrikult panel comprising Marcelle Akita, Henry Brefo and Zaahida Mariam Nalumoso (only one male and two females) and moderated by Tomi Adeaga, followed by a panel that had readings and commentary on the Ankara Press Valentines Day anthology by Chege Githiora, Billy Kahora, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo, Emma Shercliff and Yovanka Paquete Perdigao, moderated by Mpalive Msiska. This one had more males involved. Abubakar, Billy, Msiska and Chege. The last panel of that day was moderated by the awesome Audrey Brown, and comprised Nwando Achebe, Phoebe Boswell, Henriette Gunkel, Jessica Horn and Peggy Piesche (yes, you are right, it was an all-female panel). The MC for the symposium is female, Louisa Uchum Egbunike and the curator, who also introduced the symposium, Wangui wa Goro is female. The event closed with a keynote address by Kara Keeling.

Jacob Ross of Peepal Tree Press was in my position, of being an only male on the Meet The Publishers panel. There was Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Publishing Director at Cassava Republic Press; Parisa Ebrahimi, Editor at Chatto & Windus; Sarah Ream, Commissioning Editor at The Pigeonhole and the panel was chaired by Rebecca Swift, Director of The Literary Consultancy. All the writers that were picked on to pitch their book ideas were female. The picking was random. Names were put in a hat and the panelists blindly picked. No, there was no discrimination. It was random. The last event on Friday ‘African Books That Inspire’ had two males (Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Nii Ayikwei Parkes) and three females (Ndinda Kioko, Nadifa Mohamed, and Chibundu Onuzo) and moderated by journalist Hannah Pool, a female.

However exciting this numerical strength of female involvement in events at #AfricaWrites 2015 is, Emma Shercliff’s presentation about the place of women in African publishing, as part of the Emergent Discourses on African Literature panel reminded us of what remains the reality in the publishing scene in Africa. We still do not have enough women at the driving seats of the African literary scene, despite what the surface may show. We heard anecdotes of women being denied jobs because they will get pregnant, get married and other reasons male proprietors front for preferring to employ men in their publishing businesses. Rebecca can still ask her question indeed.


Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire is a Ugandan writer, academic and lawyer. He is the author of Fables out of Nyanja and co-founder of the Kampala-based Centre for African Cultural Excellence. @bwesigye