I danced again, but cautiously, careful not to jinx further good fortune. The cost of attendance for just one year is tens of thousands more, and I simply do not have it. I am praying, hoping. Every little bit helps, and I’m determined to come up with the rest. The mystery was—and still is—how.
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I have spent 18 years in school, 16 of which were on some form of scholarship. From when I began primary school, in 1993 in northern Uganda, I knew that my parents didn’t have the means to sufficiently take care of the eight children they had brought into the world. But I understood that if I excelled in class, I would always get a bursary for school, as was common at the time: Because of the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency led by Joseph Kony, northern Uganda had become a hub for humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental organizations, many of which sought to help poor children—especially bright girls—attend school.
I began secondary school in 2000 at one of the best schools in the region, Sacred Heart Girls Secondary School, which had given me a partial scholarship. My father rode his bicycle to school every fortnight to bring me roasted groundnuts and peanut butter, and to remind me not to lose sight of the twin goals of keeping my grades high (so that I could keep my scholarship) and graduating. I was happy.
During the long vacation before I started high school, I sat under the mango tree at home with my mum one day. We were listening to Radio Mega, the government-owned community radio station we always used to listen to, when an announcement aired about a writing competition. I quickly left the shade of the mango tree for the hut I shared with my two big sisters. I plucked out a sheet from my exercise book and wrote a poem. I won the contest and secured a bursary for a year of high school. The poem had saved my future.
I grew up in a culture of storytelling. By the fireplace, my paternal grandmother would tell us endless stories that made us laugh, awed and scared in equal measure, until she became born-again and said the folktales were ungodly. Luckily for me, the stories had found a home in my head. They were not going to leave.
During secondary school, I fell in love with literature. I read Soyinka, Achebe, Ngugi, and p’Bitek. Mills and Boon novels were the it then too. I buried my face in between pages as others screamed their voices hoarse at athletics. I went on to study literature—literature, always literature, as writing was never on offer—in high school as well. I emerged at the top of my class.
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University beckoned. When results for the national exams were released, I was among the top five students from the district and was offered a scholarship to Makerere University. I wanted to be a poet but, because no university in Uganda offers creative writing, I settled for journalism. I loved literature, but what I wanted to do was write. With a journalism course, I would write my fingers numb.