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Where female authors hone their writing skills

What started as an empowerment programme is now a platform for female writers in the country to improve their craft and get published

Peter [email protected]

Founded in 1999 by three women as a women’s empowerment group, Amka at first used to hold their sessions at The British Council, but the organisation’s creative writing programme began in 2005 to give women writers a voice.Amka Executive Director ,Lydia Gaitirira, says one of the organisation’s thematic areas called Women and Creative Expression deals with encouraging women to write.

The programme was started to provide space for women writers.Gaitirira holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Nairobi and a Postgraduate Diploma in Administration of Higher Education from the University of Leeds.  She attended Kaaga Girls High School in Meru and Alliance Girls High School Kikuyu for her secondary education.

She is also the Vice Chair and Treasurer of the vibrant Consortium of the Constitutional Reform Education (Creco). “When I first joined Amka, I couldn’t fully participate in the activities as I had a full-time job at Kenyatta University. I only offered my services during the weekends and while on leave.

A few years ago, we were able to land a deal with the Goethe Institute for facilitating the venue, provide some allowance for our moderators and facilitators and help in publishing stories and poems which come out of the forum,” she says.

Random selection Amka sessions run like a badly formed semi-circle, with the moderators in the middle. Prose writers and poets usually send their works to the Amka email prior to the session. The moderator selects some of them for discussion and prints them out.

During the sessions, a participant reads from the selected works, which is then critiqued to help the writer improve their craft. The pieces are usually discussed anonymously, and the writer or poet is usually free to come out after their work is critiqued.

So far, Amka have published two anthologies, FreshPaint Volume 1 and Volume 2. “This year, our funders don’t have publishing a book as their priority,” Gaitirira says.

The current facilitator of Amka sessions is award-winning and prolific children’s and young adult’s writer Muthoni wa Gichuru. She won the 2018 CODE Burt Prize for African Young Adult Literature Kenya for TheCarving.

Her other books are TheHiddenPackage, which won the Burt Awards Kenya 2016, and BreakingtheSilence. Muthoni was also shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2015 and the Miles Morland Scholarship in 2017.

Since Amka is a forum basically for developing writers’ careers, Muthoni is usually helped with facilitation by writer and journalist Tony Mochama and University of Nairobi lecturer Tom Odhiambo.

One might wonder why these co-facilitators are men, but Gaitirira says that male writers have always been welcomed to the forum. “Feminism has nothing to do with hating men because we live with them (men) as our fathers, brothers and husbands.

Feminism is all about fighting for more opportunities for women.The only thing with Amka is that we don’t publish men’s stories because the forum is meant for women. Because we concentrate on women for probably having a different perspective, we would like to see many more women writers joining us,” she adds.

World renownedGaitirira maintains that Amka is already building established writers making breakthroughs in other parts of the world, even though not necessarily published by the forum.Some of the notable names, which have come out of Amka include Ndinda Kioko, a recipient of the 2014 Miles Moorland Scholarship, which financed her to take a year to write a novel manuscript.

Okwiri Oduor, whose short story, MyFather’sHead, won the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing. Both were both published in FreshPaintVolume1 and in Africa39:NewWritingfromAfricaSouthoftheSahara. Faith Oneya, a journalist and author of TheGirlwithaBigHeart, joined Amka in 2008, when the forum was still being held at the Kenya National Theatre.

Her short story, SayYouAreNotMySon, is featured in the upcoming anthology NairobiNoir, curated by celebrated Kenyan writer Peter Kimani and published by Akashic Books in Ireland.“Thanks to Amka, I have learnt many things from improving my creativity to the value of networking.

I have learnt that one must read widely before they dare call themselves writers,” she says, adding that the forum is a space for objectively criticising stories and poems without sugar-coating.

“You may agree or disagree with the critiques there but when you remember that it is a safe space meant to nurture your writing, everything becomes clear. I had the opportunity to participate in a writing workshop at Goethe and that is how I managed to submit my work to Short Story Day Africa contest,” she adds.

Gaitirira expresses her pride in seeing writers from the forum succeeding in their literary endeavours.“I would like to see successful women writers from the forum coming back to inspire the newer, budding ones.

But I know that now that they are famous, they have become busy, but it would be great for them to create some time to join us,” she concludes.

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