• Monica Arac de Nyeko 

    'The burden of war'

    Not only did she become the prizewinning writer she wanted to be, Ugandan RUG-alumnus Monica Arac de Nyeko also has been working for NGOs across the globe.  'Women and children bear the burden of war.' 

    in short

    Monica Arac de Nyeko from Uganda studied Humanitarian Assistance in Groningen.

    Now she’s a prize winning writer and works for NGO’s across the globe. This week she was awarded Alumnus of the Year by the RUG.

    She writes about the cost of the war in Uganda. ‘Women and children bear the burden of war.’

    She never mixes her writing with her dayjob: fundraising for UNICEF in Ghana. ‘In this award, it’s the first time these two areas have met.’

    There is still work to be done, she says, still stories to write. ‘What is it like to be a young woman in Uganda today? Is there a book that you can pick up and be able to at least understand a component of that? No, there is not.’

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    Reading time: 6 min. (1162 words)

    She enters the University Hotel lobby and suddenly the room is much brighter. Her golden yellow dress with red and green details stands out in glorious contrast with the grey day outside.

    This is the first time she’s been back in Groningen for 10 years, she says. When she was here last, it was as a master’s student in Humanitarian Assistance, but even then, she wanted to become a professional writer – she told one of her professors at the RUG that she wanted to win the Booker Prize, but she found it impossible to write about the Netherlands.

    True and honest

    Even though she’s won several awards for her writing, she says she has never been able to write about anywhere else but her home country of Uganda. ‘I know Uganda so well that I can play with it and tear it apart. I’m not groping. With everywhere else, I’ve never been so deeply embedded in a culture in a way that I can articulate it in a way which reads true and honest.’

    She was born in 1979, the last year of Idi Amin’s reign. Even though she grew up in the capitol of Kampala, far away from the worst fighting in the north, her family comes from the Kitgum district, which had been at war since 1986.

    Like all families in Uganda, hers was also irrevocably altered by the decades of violence in the country. Her first award-winning work was In the Stars, a personal essay about her family’s struggle to cope with never being able to bury her uncle who disappeared after volunteering to fight in the war.

    ‘It was at the height of the conflict in the north, and I thought that I needed to add my voice to the conversation’, she says. ‘War changes people’s personal stories in such traumatic ways. Women and children bear the burden of war, so that’s what the essay was about. It was my personal story.’

    ‘I remember my grandmothers grief’

    ‘After the war, the family wanted something to hold onto. Sometimes, the ritual of burial gives a certain kind of finality and closure. You’re able to put an end to some form of the grief. But if you have not buried him, he’s still alive in many ways.

    My mother kept going asking for his things, his suitcases and books, and she went so often, again and again. I remember my grandmother’s grief, and that is the true cost of war. It changes family. It doesn’t mend, it breaks.’

    She has won several significant prizes for her fiction: In the Stars won the Women’s Voices in War Zones essay contest in 2003, and she won the Caine Prize – the African equivalent of the Booker Prize – in 2007 for her short story, Jambula Tree.

    Even though she continues to write, she does not earn her living through writing – her day job is external relations in fundraising for UNICEF in Ghana, where she has been living for nearly four years. ‘It’s just one of these places where I wake up in the morning and I’m looking forward to going to work.’

    ‘Grief is the true cost of war. It doesn’t mend, it breaks.’

    Two worlds meet

    Her NGO work has helped to improve the lives of vulnerable people living in conflict zones. She insists on keeping her real world, 9-to-5 job separate from her fiction writing. ‘My job with UNICEF gives me an opportunity to be in the world, and my writing is a contribution which I feel is going to live longer than everything else’, she says.

    ‘In this award, it’s the first time these two areas have met. I often like to keep it separate, and I do it consciously because it lends itself to a lot of complication, like who are you speaking on behalf of. My job is how I choose to contribute in the world, but initially, I did want to be a full time writer. I tried it, but it didn’t work for me. There are writers who can sit for extended periods alone in a corner, but I need to be in the world, to encounter people.’

    Icing on the cake

    She’s had a good year. She had a baby, was selected for Africa39 – a list of the most promising writers in Africa under 39 – and heard in November that she had been named Alumnus of the Year 2014. ‘I feel like it’s nice validation of the work that I do, which is mostly behind-the-scenes’, she says. ‘You question yourself sometimes, wondering, Is it the right path? Is it the right thing? Should I be doing this now?’” Getting validation with an award like this is saying, “Yes, you are. It’s a good thing you’re doing.”

    She’s also the first international winner of the alumni award, which is just icing on the cake. ‘It feels good to be a first anything – first woman, first whatever.’

    She knows that she got a good education in Groningen, but she feels that she learned the most from just being in a place where she was meeting lots of international people – and failing. She says she didn’t take an anthropology class she was enrolled in here seriously enough, and wound up failing an essay. It taught her not to take things for granted and genuinely apply yourself. ‘Since then, I have made it a point to fail on purpose, but with dignity’, she says with a smile.

    Challenge yourself

    ‘I also learned that if you stay where you’re always safe, you’re never going to do things that are extraordinary.’ She feels that, although home is a safe place, it also means that it’s hard to truly challenge yourself if you remain in your comfort zone. ‘And that came out of being in Groningen.’

    The Alumnus of the Year is described as a mid-career award, and she interprets that to mean that there is still work to be done. There are still stories to write. ‘What is it like to be a young woman in Uganda today? Is there a book that you can pick up and be able to at least understand a component of that? No, there is not. How about our vibrant history? There are not nearly enough books being written out of that.’

    ‘If you don’t write your stories for yourself, other people will come and write them for you. I hear of the journeys people went through. My mother’s story, my sister’s story, my community’s story – they’re not in fiction. I feel like there’s almost an imperative to capture this.’

    A ceremony on Monday afternoon was held to honor Monica as Alumnus of the Year 2014. On Wednesday, 17 December, Monica will be speaking about her work at Godert Walter bookstore at Oude Ebbingestraat 53, as well as reading from her latest publication. If you would like to attend, please sign up via email: info@godertwalter.nl