Ugandan journalist and fiction writer Jackee Budesta Batanda spoke March 5 about the role of journalism in her war-torn native country during a discussion held in the basement of the James E. Marks Intercultural Center.
Batanda first started as an art and fashion journalist in Uganda, but the conflict in the northern section of the country and the lack of female reporters covering it propelled her to switch her journalism concentration.
“Writing is an important tool, so whatever you write, don’t think less of it,” Batanda said during her talk.
She got her master’s degree in forced migration studies from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg after acquiring a bachelor of arts degree from Makerere University in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Batanda then started reporting on human rights issues like the “revenge crime” of acid attacks on women, the targeted murders of albinos, and most recently, African migrants returning to Uganda to develop social programs. Both her journalistic and fiction pieces earned recognition in Uganda and the Western world.
“She told me that when she got started writing, established writers were helpful to her, and she feels it’s important for her to do the same for young writers,” Miriam Kotzin, a professor in the Department of English and Philosophy and co-director of the certificate program in writing and publishing, wrote in an email. “It makes sense that her dedication to writing for a cause, to making a positive difference in the world, is reflected in her attitude towards helping other writers.”
Though Kotzin worked with Batanda to publish her fiction in the magazine she edits, “Per Contra,” the idea of Batanda speaking didn’t come around until the writer asked if the magazine would be having any events.
“Because I admire her fiction and her work promoting change for social justice, I told her that it would be wonderful if she would come to Drexel to talk with the students and to lead a writer’s workshop,” Kotzin wrote.
Before the talk, titled “Writing for a Cause: Fiction and Nonfiction as Agents for Change and Social Justice,” Batanda also held a writing workshop for students who had previously submitted their work.
Kotzin was in charge of accepting the student submissions for this workshop, which was attended by the four students who submitted pieces. Three of the students submitted fiction, and one sent an essay.
“When I was picked, I expected a chance to speak face to face with an author and hear about her career and experiences,” Conor Small, a freshman English major, said. “She did work on the stories of those attending the workshop but didn’t go into her experiences abroad. We simply didn’t have time to do both, but the opportunity to work and talk with an author of this caliber was exciting nonetheless.”
Small submitted a piece of fiction he wrote in October. The accepted students also included Taylor Bush, a sophomore screenwriting major; Margo Jones, an international area studies major who is in the certificate in writing and publishing program; and Zack Ssebatindira, a senior majoring in biology.
“In the workshop, Ms. Batanda asked each student to select a paragraph from his or her work and read it aloud,” Kotzin wrote. “She spoke about the strengths of each piece and asked the workshop members to add comments. Then she made some suggestions that might make the writing better and again asked the members of the workshop for other suggestions. In addition to the time in the workshop, Ms. Batanda sent each student detailed comments by email.”
Batanda herself is no stranger to receiving feedback on her work, as she was the recipient of the 2010 Young Achievers Awards in the Corporate and Professionals category, officiated by the President of Uganda. Her fiction piece, “Dance with Me,” which she read at the talk, won a Commonwealth Short Story Competition award in 2003.
These achievements were discussed at the reading in addition to her thoughts on the state of journalism and social media in Uganda and other parts of Africa.
“We live in a generation of social media, which is very powerful. We saw how it helped during the uprisings in the Arab world,” she said.
Batanda added, “It gives us more power as people because many times the government may try to limit the information we have.”
The writer also talked about the way that the outside media portrayed Uganda, especially with the controversy over its gay rights issues.
“Everyone thinks that everyone in Uganda is out in the streets to kill the gay community in Uganda,” she said.
Batanda wrote an editorial in the Boston Globe published Feb. 11 that criticized U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s opinion that U.S. foreign aid would be tied to tolerance of the LGBT communities in countries like Uganda where anti-homosexuality bills were being passed or considered, especially when the United States is dealing with gay rights issues of its own.
Uganda’s targeted hate crimes on albinos were also brought up, as Batanda explained that witch doctors in Eastern Africa cater to the superstitious beliefs of the people to heal and cast spells.
“It’s caused by a lack of access to knowledge. It is up to us as journalists to interview medical personnel and put it in normal writing so everyone can understand,” she said.
An example she gave of the albino and witch doctor problems was someone going to a witch doctor to ask for a spell to become rich, and the witch doctor needed body parts of an albino in order for the spell to work.
“We have a very bright life in Uganda, but it’s just that the leaders are not doing enough,” she said. “I do hope that more voices like mine come up.”
“Writing for a Cause: Fiction and Nonfiction as Agents for Change and Social Justice” was sponsored by The Good Idea Fund in coordination with the Department of English and Philosophy and its certificate program in writing and publishing, the College of Arts and Sciences and the Office of Equality & Diversity.
Currently, Batanda is the International Women’s Media Foundation’s 2011-2012 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies, where she works as a research scholar. She has written for the Boston Globe and writes as a freelance journalist for the Global Press Institute, an online newswire publication.