Harriet Anena: Saved from dropping out of school by a poem, soaring higher with poems

"That win came with a bursary to high school, without which l could have been a Senior Four dropout," she said of her first poem, now titled "Scratching Destiny."

PEOPLE | Harriet Anena started her ordinary level vacation in 2004 unsure of whether she would celebrate or cry when the examinations board released results the following year. Nothing to do with success and failure; she feared she had attained the highest level of education her family’s economic status could afford.

Samuel Jackson and Molly Moro’s third last born, like her six siblings, lived in Layibi Cubu Village in Gulu, the epicentre of decades of Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) atrocities in Uganda.

Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, had almost done everything evil he could in Gulu and the place lay in ruins. Where many saw their shadows at noon, most Acholi moved in the sun seeing poverty.

Sendo Cleaners

The children of these injustices were disillusioned, angry and saw nothing like a future ahead of them. Anena, by her own admission, was cathartic, driven by the circumstances. In a way, she embodied so much of the post-LRA war — if the introverted journalist and poet’s very first poem is anything to go by.

While worried about the ‘what next’ after Senior Four, Anena’s chi was by her side. The personal god pushed her into pouring her pent up energy and all the disillusionment in a poem, “The Plight of the Acholi Child.”

This mournful poem captures the predicament of ‘the Acholi Child’ in face of all sorts of ills, from Aids orphaning them to the atrocities of war and abuses at the hands of their ‘protectors’. The poem says where the sun draws rays and wind blows breezes of hope, the Acholi Child, born in the bush, lives in camps of sorrow.

In days that followed what was just like a doodle at the moment, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative organised the Day of the African Child with various events to be observed, including a writing competition. With the chi’s benevolence, Anena submitted that poem. It won.

“That win came with a bursary to high school, without which l could have been a Senior Four dropout,” she said of her first poem, now titled “Scratching Destiny,” in the poetry book that will soon — if it hasn’t already done so — shoot her to global fame.

Foray into writing

In 2001, Anena was in Senior One when she first came into contact with Wole Soyinka, through his works, at least. It was “The Lion and the Jewel.” Seventeen years down the road, she was living the dream of every African student of literature.

“If you told me in 2004 when I wrote my first poem, that I’d be standing here today, 14 years later, receiving an award in the presence of a literary giant; a man whose book first attracted me into the world of Literature, I would’ve concluded you suffering from misplaced belief,” Anena said in her acceptance speech as she received the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Lagos, Nigeria, on Sunday evening.

“But here I am, in Nigeria, a country I first knew because of Sidi and Baroka, and oh do I feel like a poetry jewel!”

She was side by side with Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate’s silver mop of hair the rendition of the dream African literature students see.

After her first poem, Anena had written a couple more for personal reflections and fulfillment. She had no idea she could make a career as a poet, let alone that she could have her works recognised beyond the 2004 kind in Gulu.

But all this changed after she joined a group of writers under the Femrite readers and writers club. Every Monday, they would meet to share ideas, recite poems and send encouragements. Anena got the courage to share her works publicly.

“Before that, poetry was my personal medicine. Once l wrote it in my big counter book, I would tuck it under my pillow and feel happy. It was catharsis. But through Femrite, and by interacting with the literary community in Kampala, l began to think that maybe other people can read my work too,” she said.

Anena and the first edition of the poetry collection published in 2015

A pattern soon developed. By 2011, as a news sub editor at Daily Monitor, Anena was almost incomplete without a laptop. She carried one despite the office providing work computers. In between her editing duties, she took time to make her laptop cough stanzas.

That courage nursed at Femrite showed its true self in 2013 when she submitted “Watchdog Games” to the Caine Prize workshop in Kampala. The poem was published in an anthology, “A Memory of this Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013.”

So aptly named ‘Ber Anena’ (appealing to the eyes or good for looking at), Anena, with full cheeks and white eyes, is the kind of introvert who takes a lot of coaxing to get a smile out of. Her attempts at smiling is often wane, never mind that the members forming guard of honour in her jaws are actually toothpaste ad quality.

But even this shy Anena would afford a grin that 2013 when poems started taking her places. In Ghana, her poem, “We Arise,” was shortlisted for Ghana Poetry Prize. By this time, Anena had fully embraced what her chi was driving her to achieve.

So in 2015, she compiled her first book, “A Nation In Labour,” published by Millennium Press in Kampala. The anthology received wide acclaims in Kampala as it resonated with the socio-political environment that the country is mired in.

In “A Nation in Labour,” Anena weaves several voices, voices that oscillate from one emotion to the other. There is anger, there is disillusionment, there is confusion, there is hope and there is love. It is a collection of poems that paint a society that is trying to come to terms with reality on the ground, a society still struggling to extricate itself from the past, and a society that is recovering from injustices yet is wary of what the future holds.

The title poem, a mix of anger, sarcasm, confusion and hopelessness, summarises the Ugandan society. You imagine the cup of “counterfeit morality” that Ethics minister Simon Lokodo drinks and you see the words scream at you from the poems.

You look at the expectations from those around you yet know there is nothing productive worth sweating for. And then you look at a leadership direction that is out of tune with reality but running around in circles like a headless chicken hoping it will strike the right chord to correct a future that does not exist.

Cue the middle income and all those many promises…

Anena herself does not have a specific summary of the book. She looks at publishing a book as childbirth. “Once the baby is out, you can’t swallow them back in. A lot of times, you may not determine how the child turns out to be. That’s why l prefer people to read my work and assign their own appreciation of it, their own understanding and meaning.”

Of course, you don’t have to be a poet to see why Prof Tanure Ojaide — a Nigerian scholar who started winning international literary awards many years ago when Anena was still only a child playing with rainwater in the sand — had no qualms sharing the grand rostrum with the Ugandan writer.

The two were the joint winners of the 2018 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. The prize, worth $10,000 (about Shs38 million), is awarded every two years to the best book written by an African.

Anena’s “A Nation in Labour” and Ojaide’s “Songs of Myself” were among the 110 submissions from 11 countries on the continent. The long-list of nine poets in the running for the prize was announced early in November before the shortlist of three was revealed later in the month.

Established by Lumina Foundation in honour of Africa’s first Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, in 2005, the prize this year was judged by a jury chaired by Margaret Busby supported by University of Texas’ Prof Toyin Falola, and the Lagos-based international literary scholar, Olu Obafemi.

Coming of age

Busby described “A Nation in Labour” as a highly engaging and conscience-ridden collection by a young poet from Uganda whose work already displays remarkable maturity and enviable skill with language.

“These are poems that navigate a nation’s course through pain towards hope, poems that paint a picture of the giant politician, the restless citizen, the clueless youth, those struggling to heal from life’s scratches,” she said at the award at Muson Centre in Lagos.

Anena said the recognition will always remind her that opposing voices may never recede, that writing will never be as easy; “but listening to conviction and positivity, is a step towards inscribing literary footprints that won’t get easily erased.”

On Sunday night, she shook hands with Soyinka and received the prize from him. The laureate with a mop of silver hair must have noted the kind of hope Anena holds for African young writers.

Indeed, a few years ago, Anena, with full cheeks like she had been weaned on Acholi staple of moo ya (Shea nut butter), would be sat under a tree in the village, plaiting her father’s hair. Father would regale the third last born he wanted to see become a lawyer with stories from his consummate reading.

“My dad loves reading. He wanted me to be a lawyer though but he doesn’t regret what l have become. He wants us to write a book together. I’m still not sure what it will be about. But he is very outgoing, remembers all my friends from school, loves analysing stuff and is a big dreamer,” Anena said of her father.

But seeing his daughter feted as Africa’s best writer of 2018, old Moro probably knows what his hair should look like in tribute to the great African writer — Wole Soyinka.

Yet despite what appears a special bonding between daughter and father, it was the mother whose literary DNA rubbed fully on Anena.

“I’m actually a product of my mum. She’s laid back but highly intelligent even as a lower secondary school leaver. She speaks poetry without even realising it. She loves music and will sing along to all Acholi songs on radio,” she says.

Layibi Cubu Village is celebrating but Anena is not done. The African Centre for Media Excellence special projects officer is shortlisted in the Commonwealth Short Story Prize this year for her prose, “Dancing With Ma.”

If Chinua Achebe were alive and at the function on Sunday, he would have said what he said in Things Fall Apart: If a child washed his hands, he could eat with the kings. Anena has washed her hands at the at the foot of the literally giant himself. Will the world be at her pen?

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