This month, Africa Book Club speaks with Ugandan author Wambalye Weikama. Born in Uganda, Weikama later moved to the United States, where he earned his Master’s degree in Technology Management from the University of Washington in Seattle, USA. He later returned to his home country and is currently based in Kampala. Weikama is the author of African Son (2012) and The Bonds of War (2015). The stories in Weikama’s books are largely influenced by his childhood years in Uganda and the sixteen years he lived in the United States. In this interview, he talks about what inspired his acclaimed novel The Bonds of War, a work of historical fiction that centers around the lives of two child soldiers.
Do you write full-time?
Writing has been a hobby of mine since high school but I’ve never managed to get into it fulltime. In fact I use it as a sort of escape most times and most of the writing I do is spread between poetry, blogging and very short fiction writing. There have been very few times when I’ve been in a state of mind to carry me through a full length novel.
What was your childhood like?
My parents divorced when I was very young and my mother moved us into an apartment in the center of the city where she raised my sister and I single handedly. Growing up in the center of Kampala was exhilarating and nurtured in me a love for city living. The disadvantage with Kampala, however, was that the various wars and coups that Uganda experienced were always focused on the city. As such, there were many horrifying and unpleasant experiences that came with war. At around age of eleven I went to boarding school. For many families at the time boarding school was not only a safer environment for children but also was attractive because the best schools in the country were boarding schools. Going to boarding school at an early age and remaining in the system until high school gave me a chance to create very strong lifelong friendships.
Growing up in Uganda, were you into reading books? Who were your favorite authors?
My mother was a voracious reader and we always had books and magazines in the house but they were mostly adult books that did not interest me much. However after joining boarding school, a whole new world of young people’s literature opened up to me and the appetite I developed for reading saw me even picking books off my mother’s book shelf. During primary school, my favorite books were a series of African authored books called Pacesetters. These were perhaps the most compelling although we always had the ever present children’s’ books like the Hardy boys mysteries series and others of that sort. Later in high school I picked up western detective stories and others that were part of the broad literature syllabus in my school. Nevertheless the author who got me interested in writing is Ngugi wa Thiong’o, specifically his book The River Between. For some reason that book opened the world of writing for me and to this day I hold Ngugi as my idol.
Tell us about your new book, The Bonds of War.
Published earlier this year, The Bonds of War is a story told in the first person by Jean Baptiste and it covers a seventeen year period starting when he was eleven in Rwanda on the eve of the 1994 genocide. JB as he is known tells the reader about how he ended up as a child soldier in the ranks of a rebel outfit that was bent on deposing the Ugandan government. In the story JB is unapologetic in his narration and makes no effort to sugarcoat incidences of brutality by him and others around him, or the consequences they had on his life and that of others. Over the years JB grows from a child into a man and life flings him back and forth between pain and euphoria until the point in Long Island when the storms seem to settle and he is able to pen his story.
What was the inspiration behind it?
Throughout the nineties there were so many wars within the East African region and most of the fighting sides used child soldiers a lot. By the time I started writing this story, I was curious about what happened to these kids two decades later, especially those who did not die or were not assimilated into the regional militaries. Part of the inspiration for this book was to start a conversation about these children (now adults), whose lives were deformed Click & Tweet! as children with no structures in place to rehabilitate them as they reintegrated into their various communities and pursued their lives. I created two fictional characters that embody people who went through this childhood trauma. In the book, two boys are in this situation and their paths into adulthood are burdened by their childhood experiences and lead to very different ends.
Your main character, JB, evokes contempt and admiration. Was there a message you were trying to convey in depicting him this way?
Yes there was. As a community we need to know that child soldiers are indeed ticking time bombs. As a community that has many such children, the question we should ask is, now that it has happened and the wars are behind us, how do we defuse those ticking time bombs? The main character in this story is devoid of a moral campus. He’s taken as a child, abandoned and turned into a killing machine then at the end of it he is left to his own devises without the benefit of rehabilitation or counseling. When a person of this nature starts killing elephants for money, razing down forests for money, getting high on drugs repeatedly or torturing animals, one has to see this as the proverbial chickens coming home to roost. Society needs to intervene into these young lives before they derail completely and become a cancer on the community itself. While not all demobilized child soldiers end up as societal misfits and criminals, the stakes are stacked against them, and it behoves us as a people to have institutions in place to address this issue rather than burying our heads in the sand and hopping all is well because the war has ended.
Can you talk about the challenges of creating a work of historical fiction? Where do you draw the line between fact and fiction?
It is indeed a delicate balance because there are people who are not public figures that drive some of the historical events around which parts of the story revolve. In cases of this nature all I have to do is change the names while maintaining the circumstances. This however is no guarantee that the people whose names have been disguised will not feel aggrieved in some manner. The other issue about historical fiction is one has to undertake a lot of research. While one may be good at creating a totally fictitious world and rely entirely on that talent, once historical events are added to the mix the writer has to undertake a lot of research to make the story authentic and therefore more appealing. This is especially true in cases where the historical events are recent and vivid in contemporary memory.
As a writer based in Uganda, would you say there is a vibrant reading culture in Uganda today?
The reading culture does exist and it is growing. What is perhaps lacking is the content and the circumstances to feed that culture and make it vibrant. Many people say Ugandans do not read, but I see that the biggest selling newspapers in the country is a vernacular paper. People are reading tens of thousands of this paper daily. Perhaps those who write for a western or western-like audience are part of the reason for this perception. If for instance you see my books, the stories resonate meaningfully for a local audience as they touch on issues and characters that locals can relate with. However, that alone is not enough to increase readership. Not only does the story have to be relatable, it also has to be in a language the locals are comfortable reading and available at a price that they can afford. The English language version of my book may sell a lot more outside Uganda but may have to be translated into at least Swahili and Luganda before we can see a local audience picking it up in greater numbers. The other issue stifling reading in Uganda is that we are still burdened by low literacy levels and high poverty levels. Together these factors constrain many people to only engage in activities that have direct commercial value of which reading for leisure is not one. Most people who read do so because it is a school requirement while others read only religious or self-help literature. As such the critical mass for leisure readers is yet to reach levels that can deliver commercial value.
Are there writers today that you admire? Which ones and why?
Of course. My idol Ngugi is still very much alive and writing, but there’s a breed of younger African writers who are taking what the Ngugis, Achebes, and Soyinkas started many years back and using it to break barriers both within Africa and internationally in ways that the Achebes never did. People on this list who have inspired me in many ways are Binyavanga Wainaina, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dinaw Mengestu to mention just a few.