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Modjaji Books

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Letter from Uganda

At the beginning of September, while I was preparing for Open Book and the Frankfurt Book Fair, amongst many other things, I got a call from Goretti Kyomuhendo of the African Writers Trust to ask if Modjaji Books would consider hosting Crystal Rutangye for a six week internship. Well my heart stopped, how to manage this before the end of the year? Nevertheless, in spite of all my deadlines and misgivings about how much time I would have to really mentor the intern at the burnt out end of the year, I said yes. I said yes, because I had an opportunity to go to Kampala on a Femrite writers’ residency in 2008 and I loved it. I said yes, because I know that there will never be a perfect time for a 6 week internship. I said yes, because it was a wonderful opportunity for the intern and perhaps just being in Cape Town would be enlivening. Crystal duly arrived in the first week of November and stayed till the 15th December.

Crystal Rutangye back home in Uganda

Here Crystal writes about her 6 week internship with Modjaji Books. Even though some of it is a little embarrassing to me, I think the value in Crystal’s letter about her internship is seeing through her eyes what she got out of being here. It also moved me enormously to see just how much Phumi (Phumzile Simelane Kalumba) and Na’eemah Masoet contributed to Crystal’s wellbeing and learning. So posting this letter is a chance to publicly thank them for being such generous hosts and friends to Crystal and by extension to Modjaji Books and the African Writers Trust. It does indeed take a village, and I’m delighted to hear of what Crystal has done since she was here.

When I left for Cape Town, I boarded the plane with a small suitcase of clothes, a backpack with books and gadgets, and a mind filled with horror stories about South Africa. It didn’t help that I was boarding a plane for the first time since I was eight years old!

I was the first intern selected to participate in an editorial programme initiated by African Writers Trust, whereby Ugandan editors were to undergo a six-week internship in a reputable publishing company in another African country. After a long preparation and planning process, I was finally accepted by Colleen Higgs, the proprietor of Modjaji Books. Modjaji Books is an independent press that publishes southern African women writers.

The Arrival
Even before I left Uganda, I could tell that Colleen was a great person; first, by the fact that she accepted me as an intern in the first place, and secondly, because she did not seem inconvenienced by the way I badgered her into re-writing an invitation letter about three times, to fulfil my visa requirements. Thirdly – well, she thought about everything:

I stepped on South African soil for the first time in my life on Saturday, 2nd November 2013, towards 1500hrs. Colleen had arranged to have someone pick me from the airport and take me to the accommodation premises she had helped arrange for me (even when she didn’t have to). I was welcomed by a host of the most hospitable people ever. On Sunday 3rd November, my hosts received a call from Phumzile Simelane Kalumba. ‘Phumi’ is the author of ‘JABULANI MEANS REJOICE – A dictionary of South African Names.’ Her book was published by Modjaji. Colleen asked her to link up with me, not just because she lived near my host’s home, but also because she has a Ugandan husband. Friendship unfolded easily between us. On that very first Sunday, Phumi challenged me to start on a proposal for whatever it is I want to do after the internship. I met her family, and thus got integrated into my second most formidable hosting family ever. Phumi was truly my ‘divine appointment’.

On Monday, Phumi let her family drive off for the day, and walked to my home to walk me to the train station to teach me how to use the trains. Ok wait – that doesn’t sound right. Let me rephrase: This is what happened;

My internship began on Monday, 4th November. Phumi, who has a busy, corporate 8:00am – 5:00pm job, came to pick me up. As in: she let her husband take the children to school in their car, took the 20-minute walk from her house to mine, walked to the train station with me, and took the train with me to teach me how to use trains in Cape Town. (In Uganda, I probably see a train once in every two years, and it is never carrying passengers; mostly commercial products if anything). So much for all those horror stories and prep talks about South Africa! Phumi showed me around, taught me a thing or two about research and proposal writing, and then dropped me at Colleen’s office.

The Internship
I experienced what I call an editor’s culture shock. By Ugandan standards, I am such a fast reader. I am ahead of the game. But I was shocked when I was given three manuscripts to read through in my first week of the internship. They were given to me in a casual manner, as though I was being given an easy start. As though reading three manuscripts in a week is basic stuff. Did I mention they were big? It was at this point that I recalled my amazement on the plane from Johannesburg to Cape Town at noticing that almost everyone pulled out at a book to read immediately after take-off. The difference in the reading cultures is glaringly obvious. Sit in a taxi in traffic jam in Kampala, Uganda, and everyone will be staring into space, except me and the other occasional odd person who values this ‘reading time’. Sit in a plane from Johannesburg to Cape Town and you will be the odd man out if you haven’t carried a book or two to study on the flight.

Na’eemah Masoet was working for Modjaji full time last year as a publishing intern. She and I hit it off immediately. Editing seems to be such an unconventional interest that it is always refreshing to meet someone else who shares it. She and Colleen gave me a brief induction, and then we were good to go.

Colleen’s work is amazing. Do not be fooled by her soft-spoken, down-to-earth, gentle nature. Colleen is a publishing giant in her own right. I looked through the shelves of books she has published, and could not help feeling proud to be associated with such importance. Just like all her media tools state, Colleen is ‘making rain’ for southern African female writers.

I was awed at the number of Modjaji books that have been shortlisted and long-listed for awards, let alone won the awards!

Having something to compare to made me realize how much fiction publishing in Uganda is greatly lacking. From the quality of the writing, to the quality of paper, graphics designing, printing, editing and marketing methods, publishing in South Africa is way advanced. Most Ugandan authors and publishers use the ordinary white bond paper for their novels, the same bond paper that is used for text books. I actually have never seen a non-academic Ugandan book published with the creamy bulky paper Modjaji prints their books with, giving them an exotic look. The roles of the publishing stakeholders in South Africa are quite streamlined. Graphics designers are different from editors, who are sometimes even different from proof-readers. In Uganda, many times an editor will have to type-set the book and then even proof-read it. Sometimes, they even design the book covers! An editor in Uganda will have to have all these skills to be rendered sufficient enough to work in a Ugandan publishing house on a full-time basis. This lowers the quality of books produced because a graphics designer for example should be an artist at heart. How easy is it to find a creative artist who can edit books well?! By letting one person handle a book, either the design of the book is compromised because the person is actually a better editor than designer, or vice-versa; you hire a designer and the language in the book is compromised. Most Ugandans look for the cheapest way to do things, and compromise quality.

Over the weeks, I watched and learned. There was not much to cope with in terms of fitting in; the learning environment was friendly and informal. I did not have to compromise any of my own values, beliefs and opinions. I tagged along with Na’eemah everywhere she went to deliver books or pick up books or get books packed or to post things and the like. I got an all-round albeit brief publishing experience. Na’eemah and Colleen answered every single question I had. All the tasks given to me were new.

I had a most interesting session where Na’eemah took me through their whole publishing process, step by step, from the time an author submits a manuscript requesting to be published, to the time the book is printed and distributed. She also taught me how to edit using adobe software where it is much easier to track changes and comments, and ‘chat’ back and forth with the author, within the same document. It has more advanced features than Word. Most of all, I learnt how to write Advanced Information Sheets!

I cannot say enough how insightful every single day was for me.

Work and Play
Na’eemah is easily the best thing that happened to me in South Africa. I can conscientiously say the same about the Kalumba family and my resident hosts (Carol, Nusee, Alucia and Stanley). I lacked for nothing. Na’eemah introduced me to her WHOLE family. They took me to nearly every tourist hotspot in the Western Cape, for free. Had I not been a patriotic Ugandan, I would have mistaken Cape Town to be the real Pearl of Africa! She also introduced me to her own friends who gave me memories that I do not have enough space to detail here. I had a lot of ‘firsts’ with Na’eemah – first time doing sushi, first macaroni and cheese dish, first McDonald’s, sheish! Our fun-and-friendship relationship seemed to be stronger than our work-relationship! I can’t even tell where we drew the line, because we had a lot of fun at work together; munching chocolate at work everyday (there’s lots of white chocolate in S.A.!); her laughing at my fascination at all the new types of foods and fruits she was delighted to show me (cheese is so relatively cheap in Cape Town that I packed a cheese sandwich nearly everyday); sneaking in silent, intimate conversations at work about our lives and countries; taking advantage of free time (and a bit of errands time) for her to show me fancy technology and malls and infrastructure that Uganda is highly lacking in (I hope Boss-lady Colleen isn’t reading this part); and showing me ‘her’ version of Cape Town (too sentimental for me to detail here). Phumi took me ‘shopping’ several times, and drove me along the Muizenberg coast to show me more scenery. Stanley and Alucia’s family were truly my home away from home. They ‘took me in’ as if I was their very own child! (They ‘invited’ me to dinner every night). Caroline treated me as if I had rights to her house. Her own career story inspired me;- it is never too late to study want you want to advance in! This is one of the best things about an internship in another country; that the experience goes beyond just work. I have been able to remain in touch with the friends I made. Na’eemah and I still keep tabs on each other and our progress.

Hardly had I arrived than it was time to leave already. I am still shocked at how the six weeks went by so fast!! I recall only one hour of homesickness the whole time I was in Cape Town. I instead spent the last few days feeling so sad to be leaving!!

On the night before my last work day, Nelson Mandela Madiba died. If anything must be recorded of the story of my life, let this not be missed;- I was there. If anyone is to ask me where I was at such a historical moment when the world mourned this loss, I was right there on South African soil, paying tribute to him at St George’s Cathedral, walking with Na’eemah and Yassin, retracing the walkways and pavements which only a few years before were filled with football fans celebrating the arrival of World Cup to Africa, but which were now filled with mourners failing to contain their emotions. I was there, listening to Na’eemah and Yaseen reminisce over political stories, watching them try to still act like great hosts in the midst of their overwhelming sadness; I was there trying to put on a sad face and mourn with them even when deep inside I was excitedly conjuring up all the stories I would tell back home to brag about how I WAS THERE ! How could I have ever known that someday in my life I would be there?! This is the closest I ever got to such a celebrated history-maker.

On that Friday, 7th December, my last workday, Colleen took Na’eemah and I out for a farewell/end of year staff lunch. I then spent my last weekend dining with Phumi’s family and friends; and doing last minute shopping with Alucia, and packing. Then I bade farewell to her family. Early on Monday morning, Phumi drove me around town with my luggage, tying up more loose ends, and then dropped me at Na’eemah’s home. And I said farewell to Phumi too. Na’eemah’s family took me to more dumbfounding tourist hotspots, and finally to the world-famous Table Mountain. I felt like I was in a great movie. I spent the last night before my departure having my first ever Burger King meal, with Na’eemah and family. On Tuesday, 10th December, I woke at about 0400hrs. Two hours later, Na’eemah, her mum and her dad were driving me to the airport, to have our last breakfast together, and to see me off.

When I left for Uganda, I boarded the plane with a small suitcase of clothes, an even bigger case filled with books and gifts from everyone for my family and friends back at home, a backpack filled with more books and gadgets, and a mind filled with wonderful memories I wanted to re-live.

The Fruits
Now I had to go through the culture shock again of re-settling into Uganda, snobbish as that may sound. But despite the potholes, the rowdy bodabodas, the scarce availability of wi-fi internet, the lack of McDonalds and Burger King franchises,* and the un-affordable cheese prices, home is still sweet home, where I belong. I have been pleasantly surprised to see my internship experience was more fruitful than I thought. Five months down the road, I quit my administrative job in an academic publishing company, and I am now heading the editorial team at non-academic publishing company. I am actively involved in African Writers Trust projects. Most of all, I have experimented with Advanced Information Sheets, and some bookshops are liking the idea! Maybe I can be Uganda’s next Colleen Higgs after all!

Thank you!
I am deeply indebted to the AWT and Modjaji Books and all my hosting families for making this happen. I wish us all much success this year and in future!!

Jabulani means Rejoice

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