Ugandan Youth and Creative Writing: New Perspectives on Conflict and Development

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Humanities


Since its independence in 1962, Uganda has been beset with a series of conflicts. Ranging from cross-border 'spillover' conflict from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the high-profile North/South conflict led by Kony's Lord's Resistance Army, these incidents of violence and terror have characterised Uganda's post-colonial history. Extant development studies suggest a link between deep-seated ethnic rivalries forged during the colonial era, uneven economic development, corruption in governance and the asymmetrical distribution of resources as key drivers of conflict in the country (Otunnu, 'Causes and Consequences of the War in Acholiland'; ACCS, 'Northern Uganda Conflict Analysis'). While the main brunt of conflict has been carried by the north, Uganda as a whole has been beset by its effects. Young people have been made particularly vulnerable, both in the high-profile cases of child recruitment in conflict, including the sexual trafficking of young women and girls, and in the overall effects of unemployment, instability and political conflict across the nation as a whole.

While a number of high-level studies, development analyses and policy recommendations exist in the Ugandan context, these by and large fail to escape the pitfalls associated with development discourse, particularly as it pertains to the African continent, with the result of disempowering local populations and de-centring the everyday experience of conflict and its afterlives. As James Ferguson ('Global Shadows') argues, the rhetorical and discursive apparatus around development cannot be decoupled from its material effects and, more often than not, inefficacy in practice (see also Escobar, 'Encountering Development'). These complaints have become commonplace in postcolonial approaches to African development, where the perceived distance between the lived experience of African populations and discursive theorisation about them has been blamed for the continuation of colonialist patterns of exploitation (eg Jolly, 'Global Development Goals: The United Nations Experience').

The proposed research is a pilot study which seeks to redress these pitfalls by developing interdisciplinary methods to enable new understandings of conflict, its legacies and its impact among youth populations, using creative writing as a tool for self-expression and empowerment. The proposed research seeks to enable the agency of Ugandan youth, whilst minimising the risks of trauma associated with testimonial narrative through the leveraging of imaginative forms. At the same time, creative fiction offers the possibility for imagining other lives and other minds, and thereby presents the best potential for the development of empathetic identification across communal groupings (Keen; Nussbaum).

This research exploits these characteristics, using youth-produced short fiction as the basis for teaching materials aimed at secondary-schools in Uganda which will use the empathetic potential of literary writing to develop cross-ethnic forms of solidarity and enable larger-scale dialogue around youth needs post-conflict. The research will also use these writings as critical discursive material which will enable a re-consideration of development needs in Uganda, uncovering the submerged narratives and impacts of conflict's legacy through the medium of expressive fiction. By re-centring young Ugandans as agents of knowledge production, this project foregrounds heretofore unheard voices and unseen development needs.

Partnering with Writivism, run by the Kampala-based Centre for African Cultural Excellence, and the Centre for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, the project will lead to significant local benefits including the development of: pedagogical material and educational practice; research capacity; co-produced knowledge exchange; increased networks of influence; new audiences; and vernacular interventions into high-level development policy.

Planned Impact

The proposed research has a large potential for impact amongst young people, the general public, secondary school educators, policy specialists, development NGOs and project partners Writivism, via the Centre for African Cultural Excellence.

The young people who participate in the two workshops will benefit from the writing skills which are imparted to them, leading both to the production of new narratives and to the development of self-empowerment through creative expression. By engaging creatively with the everyday experiences of post-conflict life, the young people will be able to develop their own agency, identifying their needs and concerns in the context of conflict's legacies, and will improve their communication skills. A selection of young people will be invited to participate in a public reading to be held in Kampala, which will be an opportunity for practicing public speaking and performance. The forms of self-expression which the project engenders have the potential to significantly benefit the welfare of these young people in Uganda. The Centre for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University will ensure that the complex needs of these young participants are met, drawing on their expertise in conflict, development and ethics; the presence of a trained counsellor has also been budgeted for.

The general public, particularly in Uganda, will benefit from the dissemination of the creative writing produced at the two workshops, which has the potential to illuminate cross-generational needs, thereby improving cross-generational understanding and public welfare by setting the writing produced at the workshops against the longer history of discourse and policy around conflict in the country. Additional print copies of the creative writing will be distributed to a range of local libraries and schools in Uganda with the potential for wider distribution to other conflict and post-conflict zones.

Secondary school teachers in Uganda will benefit from the teaching materials which the project will produce. These will be freely available and distributed through the Centre for African Cultural Excellence, which runs regular school visits by writers and academics. Materials will also be disseminated by collaborators at the Centre for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University.

Policy specialists, cultural NGOs and development organisations will benefit from the insights garnered through the analysis of the young people's writings in the larger context of discourse around conflict and development in Uganda. In particular, the everyday concerns, hidden narratives and impact of conflict's legacies which creative writing has the potential to embed might productively point to new understandings of post-conflict societal needs in Uganda, generationally-specific impacts and forms of self-understanding amongst the vulnerable youth populations who have grown up under conflict. This in turn has the potential to identify heretofore unrecognised needs for training and welfare amongst younger populations. These findings will be summarised in a short working paper, which will be circulated to cultural NGOs and development organisations working in Uganda. In addition to publication on the project website, the PI will consult with both project partners to collate a list of key contacts who will be sent a copy via email.

Writivism, run by the Centre for African Cultural Excellence, will benefit from the expansion of their already-existent writing workshops into youth and young adult populations, as well as their ability to expand their presence in northern Uganda. The project will also enable Writivism to widen their educational impact through a range of further school visits.

A project website will contain all project outputs and a blog featuring reflections by project collaborators and partners. While targeted specifically at key stakeholders in Uganda, the website is likely to be of interest more widely to the general public.


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