A Writing Vacation One Minute South of the Equator
A group of seven people meet at Gaba Beach House next to Kampala University and get on a boat called Meridian. Most of them are seeing each other for the first time. The silence between them is creased. Sketches of greetings are made, each one trying not to be too enthusiastic or too proud, just courteous enough for civility.
They are travelling together to an Island, and no one knows what to expect. Everyone takes their seat, sharing the platforms; some two, some three. After all the luggage is in, Godfrey, the blank-faced captain keys it. It grumbles and mumbles and fumbles and doesn’t want to start. He tries this for ten minutes and it finally gives up resistance.
“Let me take one last selfie for Instagram, just in case we capsize.” The one sitting at the back says.
Amidst hushed “hmmms” and “ahas” a person in the front responds “I rather we capsize in the cleaner parts of the lake, not in this part, it’s green and dirty.”
The entire group bursts into laughter while tugging at their orange life jackets. The boat slowly starts dragging forward.
Bulago is the destination. It has seen campers, sports fishers, yoga practitioners, honeymooners, party animals but the group coming on this trip is different.
The group of seven are all writers and a photographer. Two of them are making jokes, diluting the tense air. The two are Jackee Batanda; a bubbly woman with glasses so stainless they pierce. The other is Nyana Kakoma whose dreadlocks are so long eventhough they are neatly tied they still fall on her shoulder.
They have together arranged a four-day writing vacation to One Minute South.
“When are we getting there?” One of the writers asks after what seems like a full football match, and as she says it, the engine suddenly stops roaring. The boat is slowly banking towards a little island and an orange double storeyed house comes into view.
“Is this One Minute South?”
“No. This is Perch on the Nile Lodge. We shall go to One Minute after two nights.”
For the next two nights, it is the private lake house of the writers who are taking part in the first writing vacation of its kind in Uganda.
Everyone’s eyes open wider as they approach the house. It’s perched on a cliff with a large balcony at the top. An arched mirror with a red frame greets the writers as they get in.
“Oops! My God, that big red mirror! I almost thought there were other people in here!” Jackee laughs as they get in.
“The showers are so big! You can fit two more beds in here!” Nyana bellows as she finishes seeing the room she’s staying in.
There is a clever reuse of objects as furniture; the table on the verandah overlooking the lake is simply a grey wooden platform held up by large smaller planks in between clay bricks. The group embarks on their first exercise here. With the calm sound of water constantly crushing against the rocks at the bottom, the writers introduce themselves and get the retreat started.
This is when I am thankful I am one of the writers on this trip. Jackee gives a brief bio of herself that includes being on the British Council Crossing Borders program from 2002 to 2004, winning the Africa Regional Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 2003, working with The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Mail and Guardian to mention but a few. She is the proprietor of Success Spark Brand that is holding this first writing vacation. She and Nyana; an editor, and whose story was in the 2013 Caine Prize Anthology and publisher on So Many Stories, take us through the sessions.
After receiving lessons on writing techniques, we are asked to apply the knowledge in new compositions. There is a lot of homework. A lot of writing and a lot of reading. We read Barbara Kimenye’s memoirs of the Kabaka which is running in the Monitor Newspaper; short stories from David Tumusiime and Jennifer Makumbi who won the Commonwealth short story prize in 2014, and excerpts from Daniel Kalinaki’s Besigye: The Unfinished Revolution. Jackee and Nyana recommend more books like Michela Wrong’s “It’s Our Time to Eat”, The Last King of Scotland” by Giles Fodden, “Invisible Earthquake” by Malika Ndlovu and others.
By the time the first two days are done, the compositions have gotten better and we are left wondering if we were really writing before this retreat.
We are kept alert with the wholesome portions from Alex the resident chef on One Minute South. His food is so good, one of the writers suggest,
“Maybe we should come back for a cooking retreat!”
When the first half of the trip ends, we don’t want to leave, however, we are excited about settling in at One Minute South.
“I cannot wait for you guys to try the pool.” Alison, the owner says, welcoming us with a wide smile.
We had seen the pool and the Cathedral-like architecture briefly the previous evening as we took an evening walk to several parts of the island. Pineapple Bay, One Minute South and Perch on the Nile are practically next door neighbours.
There is a pleasant mix of cultures at One Minute South. The high ceilings, the arched windows, the wooden carvings which include a bust of an old man in a hat, (don’t ask me who) and vintage photographs/ads of European culture and lifestyle like Jessica Rabit (incidentally in one of the bathrooms), Fiat, Bugati and an old Bell Telephones ad.
“The wooden floors are not hammered in, they are hewn together in the sides. And the tiles are made to reflect the colour of the lake.” Aly, the owner, explaining how everything is set a certain way for a reason.
In the evening, there’s a really beautiful sunset from 6:20 to 6:40pm. The ladies make use of the breaks by taking dips in the pool, posing with their summer hats, and taking strolls down at the beach.
When the interludes are over, the lessons continue although there are no writing exercises in the night, just reviewing and critiquing. The final night sees us enjoying a barbecue by a large fire down at the beach, receiving autographed copies of Jennifer Makumbi’s “Kintu”, from Jackee and sharing stories and jokes.
The seven leave One Minute South today and they are no longer strangers. They are friends who have been set on a sure writing path. Where they take it is up to them. The islands have rejuvenated them, the tutors have equipped them. It’s a pleasant way to spend Independence Day Holiday. When Success Spark Brand organizes another writers’ retreat on Bulago or another island, don’t hesitate to let a writer know. Also, non-writing partners are welcome. It’s a great way for tourism and writing to meet.
All Photos Credit: Zahra Abdul