Yes. Her twin was called Apio.
But that’s my name!
At that time in East Africa they named twin sisters Adongo and Apio.
Adongo? That’s her name!
As a writer a part of you goes into the character you create, so she being your twin sister makes sense. You are writing about yourself.
Then why is she afraid of me?
She thought you are a ghost.
From the shooting script of Her Broken Shadow, reprinted in The Manchester Review
Dilman Dila was my main contact while I was in Uganda. We’d met before in April 2016 in Nairobi, where I’d seen the SF film he wrote and directed, Her Broken Shadow. The film knocked me out—I wrote about it in the Nairobi chapter of this series.
Dilman met me in a local restaurant when I arrived in Kampala—a taxi couldn’t find my guest house after hours of searching. We met many times after that. This interview happened at the main facility of FEMRITE, a feminist and writers’ NGO, in a house converted into offices, with a small library and a courtyard meeting area. Rain hammered on the roof; thunder rumbled in the background of the tape. Dilman is a big guy, tall and broad-shouldered, but extremely soft-spoken with precise pronunciation. His speech is rapid, but feels considered.
Dilman is a key figure in Ugandan and indeed African SFF. He started Lawino, a literary journal that now seems to be unavailable; he helps run a workshop; he takes part in FEMRITE activities. He’s also the author of one of the first single-author SFF anthologies by an African, A Killing in the Sun. He’s contributed to the AfroSFv2 anthology, had a story in the Short Story Day Africa anthology Terra Incognita, and in the Malawi-based anthology Imagine Africa 500. Indeed, where there is African SFF, Dilman Dila is likely to be involved.
He’s also had quite a career in filmmaking. The Queen of Katwe, a Disney film that was shot in Kampala, hired him to produce the “making-of” documentary. He financed Her Broken Shadow with the proceeds, screened at the Cairo Film Festival. You can view the trailer on YouTube. His short thriller “What Happened in Room 13” is the most viewed African film on YouTube. You can also view a short horror film of his,“Cursed Widow Blues,” about a dead husband’s ghost. Others of his films have won African film awards, including “The Felistas Fable”—about a woman cursed by a terrible odour.
The interview starts with me asking him what he has been up to since April of that year.
Dilman: “I’ve done a lot. I finished a short novel, about 49,000 words, called The Thing In Her Dream. I think it’s science fiction but maybe fantasy as well, because it’s that thing of alternate universes. It revolves around the concept of why we dream. This world as we know it is a dream. OK, but if it is a dream, who is dreaming? Everyone in the world dreams, so are they creating their own worlds when they dream?
“One person walks into her own dreams. She walks through a window like it’s a portal into an alternate universe and she realizes that the universe is one of her own nightmares.
“It’s kind of a horror. She’s been married for six years; she got married maybe in her early twenties. What causes the nightmares is her husband abusing her, so it’s a domestic-violence thing. When she goes into this alternate world he is the only man and there are a million copies of him.”
I suggest that he might write a YA novel. He describes one that he’s already written, about a teenage girl whose all-female society sends her into the surrounding jungles to capture a man, as an initiation rite. I ask him what the title is.
Dilman: (Laughs) “I forgot the title! The thing about titles is that I’m not good at coming up with them. Remember the sci-fi film I showed you (Her Broken Shadow)? Right up to editing time we didn’t have a title. We were shooting without a title. We kept bouncing around ideas for a title. It became kind of a joke on the set (chuckles) Every morning ...” (stops with laughter)
I ask about the stories in his collection A Killing in the Sun.
Dilman: “I wrote them over a ten-year period. More than ten years, actually. The latest was ‘Lights on Water’ which was written towards the end of 2013. The earliest story was ‘A Killing In The Sun,’ from 2001. I know that because I wrote it shortly after soldiers killed a priest in Karamoja, and that happened in 2001. So there was a huge debate about that.”
GR: “It's not science fiction ...”
Dilman: “But it’s a kind of fantasy, a ghost story. ‘Cause it’s someone who goes though the world of the dead. Basically it’s about their last seconds of life. What happened in Karamoja, two soldiers were executed for killing a priest and some people said it was a cover-up. They had hurriedly executed them.
“We had just come out of this whole period, remember, when soldiers were unruly and murderous in Uganda. As a child growing up, there was all this trauma. The things they warned you about were, ‘Don’t play with strange objects because they might be bombs. If you see a soldier, and he calls you, don’t anger him.’ You would hear things on the news. So there was all that trauma. I think many of my stories are about trying to come to terms with trauma or life experiences.
“The very first story in the book ‘The Leafy Man,’ I think, was from 2003 or 2004. At that time I was falling sick every month or every week. I would go down with malaria. Then one day, I went to the clinic and the doctor was like ‘I can’t give you any more medicine or you’ll become resistant to it.’ And I told him, ‘But I’m sick and you just said I have malaria.’ So he told me to try changing my diet, trying preventative methods instead of keeping me on medication all the time. It was really expensive and a bit of a scare, like being told you have cancer but they are taking you off the meds. So start praying.” (Laughs).
“The Leafy Man” is a about a swarm of killer mosquitoes that kill their hosts. They are allergic to orange leaves—so a survivor cycles through the dead town covered in leaves.
Dilman: “I read an article about two Indian scientists who want to genetically modify the mosquito, so that it doesn’t transmit malaria. I don’t know why I thought of making the dear old mosquitoes a monster. But the real villain in the story is the company. After the doctor refused to give me medicine, I started researching a lot into malaria and I realized that there are a lot of things they don’t tell us—like malaria’s become a business. A lab technician I’d meet on the days they tested my blood told me that sometimes they don’t know the actual results. Most clinics want to make money and the money is in selling the drugs. So they will prescribe for you an antimalarial, even if you don’t have it. They will say maybe it’s still in your liver and they can’t detect it until it comes into your bloodstream.
“It’s basically a business. I looked at NGOs and saw it’s not just malaria, but things like AIDS. Actually AIDS is much more lucrative than malaria. I’ve never written a complete story focused on AIDS because I’ve never had a very personal experience with it.
“Actually, I have written an AIDS story. It’s one I finished three or four days ago. I don’t know why I’ve forgotten about that completely. (Laughs) It was for one of those competitions.
“In Africa now the easiest way to get publicity is to get yourself shortlisted for a competition of some sort. I know I was struggling a lot until I got shortlisted for that Commonwealth Prize in 2013 and then, I don’t know by what magic because my writing never changed, but suddenly it was ‘Oh yeah, he’s one of those guys, one of the writers.’ It was like that for Beatrice Lamaka (an organizer of FEMRITE and one of the mentors for Imagine Africa 500) when she was short-listed for the Caine Prize.”
In addition to the Commonwealth Prize, Dilman has been shortlisted for a BBC radio playwright award, and the Jalada prize.
Dilman: “Way before all these other ones, in 2008, there was a prize called the Million Writers Awards. I think it’s a US-based thing. They look for stories that have been published online. And they nominated one of mine and I think this was the very first one for me.
“I remember at that time, I was getting very disillusioned with writing because there were just no opportunities. I was going more into filmmaking. I’d stopped writing fiction for a while and then I got nominated and I remember thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe I should push this a bit.’ Otherwise if I’d not got that boost, I probably would have gone completely to film and stopped writing fiction.
“In the early 2000s as an African writer, it was not possible. This thing of diversity is just coming up now, and people are publishing more from around the world, but at that time it was really ... I actually sent a lot of my stories to all these SFF magazines.
“It was one of those American SFF magazines that discouraged me from writing. It sent it back and said ‘Your story is not African enough.’ (Laughs) Yeah! I have the email.
“The story was set in Africa when the colonialists were just coming in. It was basically an alien story. The people in this community know about a people in the forest who can fly. They have never contacted them, never bothered them. But when the English come, they want to capture these people and send an expedition after them. The only person who comes back is becoming one of these people. He’s growing wings; his skin is going green. It’s written from the point of view of an African Christian, one of the earliest converts who had been taught how to write and was keeping a journal.”
GR: “How is that not African?”
Dilman: “I think it might be because it is in a journal style.” (Shrugs and laughs)
We go on to discuss another story of his about aliens and Africa, “How My Father Became a God.” It was published in the Short Story Day Africa collection of SFF, Terra Incognita. In pre-colonialist Uganda, a father seems to be able to build miraculous devices. In order to avoid a forced marriage, his daughter hides in a forbidden cave. The story never breaks the framework provided by the point of view characters. You have to read in between the lines to get that the thing in the cave is an alien.
Dilman: “Ah. Not many people like that one. (Laughs) No! I kind of like it. My original idea was to write a series about that girl and her father and how she ends up travelling. He creates a spaceship for her and she goes star-trekking. I thought it was an original idea. I should get back to it. I wrote that first story and then shelved the rest of the idea.
“That’s the problem when you have a lot of stories that keep clashing and competing for attention. You start on one story and it’s not that you failed to keep it going, but then another idea comes up which is also very interesting and worth pursuing.
“It comes down to how much of your work gets published. You don’t push it so much if you don’t know where to publish it. You just slow down at some point. You have to work on things that can pay the bills or get a lot of attention. After this particular story, I started to make a TV series and that’s where I got sidetracked.
“The original inspiration was a story that my mother kept telling me when I was a kid. It’s a common folktale from Acholi. It’s about a rock that falls from the sky and buries a group of dancers. There are many variations of that tale, but the version that my mother told me was that a leper asks girls at a well to give her water. All the girls laugh at her and then one girl is kind enough to give her the water. And this leper tells her, ‘Don’t go to the dance today, something terrible is going to happen.’ And the terrible thing that happens is that a rock falls from the sky and buries all the girls, all the people who are dancers.
“They never told it in terms of aliens and spaceships, but all my life I kept asking ‘OK, who was this leper and how did he know the rock was going to fall? Was he an alien in disguise?’
“My elder brothers used to tell me there is a rock where you can still see the blood flowing. And they say that is the rock which fell out of the sky. Every time I go to the north, I try to look for that rock or ask people where that rock is so that I can go. I’ve never got someone who knows the story and where the rock is. Maybe the war, the twenty-year war of Joseph Kony and the LRA, distorted social life there and people forgot where the rock is.
“There are some rocks in the north where you find red marks on them and they look like blood. On one of them, they say the marks are from one of the anti-colonial wars in Uganda, the Lamogi rebellion. When you go to that rock they will tell you the marks are the blood of the people who fought there. They show you the bloodstains. It’s been like 100 years. It’s not like it’s in a covered place, but in an open space, but there are streaks of red that people claim come from that time. I don’t know where the red blood comes from, but that’s kind of where ... you know.”
As so often in the interview, Dilman trails off, leaving me to feel I should be able to fill in what he means. Read more about the Lamogi Rebellion in the Daily Monitor.
“You know when people say that science fiction is alien to Africa, I think it’s because we see it from a modern, very Western point of view. But there are many stories like that, the rock falling from the sky, which could point to science fiction having been told from way back.
“I also found a text in one of those Christian missions. It recorded an anecdote of Buganda here. The people had a ritual for going to the sky. If you want to go to the stars, which is where they believed their gods were, they had a ritual, pretty much like ... like building a spaceship. (Laughs) You get a banana plant and lay it down and then you say certain prayers and you go to the stars.
“It was written from a Christian point of view, ridiculing the whole thing. But I keep asking myself, if someone had properly recorded that myth, or that belief, there might have been some truth in it. (laughs)
“When you see the mythology of the Ganda people who make up the kingdom of Buganda ... they say the first man came from the skies, from Heaven.
“There’s also this whole talk about the Bachwezi (pronounced Batch-WAY-zee), a group of people who some people claim were a kind of alien because they were not from this world, this earth, and at some point they just disappeared. Among the communities here, they keep calling the Bachwezi demigods.
“The belief in them is so strong, they even know who the last king of the Bachwezi was. They say he turned into a lake, somewhere in Uganda. And there was a Rwandan king who was called Ruganzu and he was also said to have been a Muchwezi (the singular form of Bachwezi), or part of that dynasty. He had lots of powers. There are caves or tunnels somewhere in the hills of Rwanda, and they say he dug them. He pricked the side of hills and the caves appeared.
“I think the Bachwezi might have been a group of people who were really distinct, a race of humans, maybe like the Neanderthals. The way they talk about them, they make it feel like it was so recent, not something from way back. Those guys who do genetics might find some strange DNA somewhere.”
Dilman contributed a story to Imagine Africa 500 called “Snake Blood.” It reminded me of Robert E. Howard, a tale of swords and sorcery—to what extent was it set in the future?
Dilman: “I was thinking that the modern world has distanced itself from magic. In the past there used to be a lot of miracles. You see in the Bible. I ask myself why we don’t have that anymore. I was thinking that if society collapses—in the story it’s because of climate change—there will be an aftermath. It might be a mix of technology and magic.
“I think that communities that survive might interpret what happened in religious or magical terms. There might be a much closer linkage with spirituality than we have today.
“It was actually part of a novel I wrote set in that same world, with that same character, the main guy who goes looking for the sword. But I never went back to it after the first draft. I think I drafted it in 2007 or 2008.
“I didn’t go to the Africa 500 workshops. Shadreck Chikoti asked for a story set in the future. I went, ‘Hmm, what story have I set in the future? Ahhhhhh, I have this one.’ It was one I had in my trunk. I don’t know why people don’t like trunk stories.”
GR: “Because people think writers should get better the longer they write.”
Dilman: “When I read those stories I think they are even better than what I am writing now. Even with ‘A Killing in the Sun,’ I remember writing it and I didn’t submit it anywhere. I didn’t even revise it a lot until 2012 when I joined a writing group and they said, ‘Send us a story for critique.’ And they said, ‘This is the kind of story that can win awards.’ And they encouraged me to submit it for the Commonwealth Prize.”
Dilman then describes the writing group he is in with Derek Lubangakene along with Beatrice Lamwaka, Sophie Alal, and her Scottish husband, John Quinn.
Dilman: “John Quinn writes a lot of science fiction but he never submits it anywhere. He just writes and we read it in the group and I don’t know what he does with it. But he’s a big science-fiction guy. He was working here in Makerere on Artificial Intelligence.
“He designed the app for the matter transformer in Her Broken Shadow. I didn’t know he was working in artificial intelligence, I just knew he was good with computers. I told him what I was designing, and he said, ‘Ah, that’s the kind of work we are doing, researching AI’. And I said, ‘In Makerere?’ (Laughs). There, you stereotype your own university.”
I then ask him about his 22,000-word novella “The Flying Man of Stone” that appeared in Ivor Hartmann’s AfroSFV2. Six months after this interview, the membership of the African Speculative Fiction Society (about 150 African SFF writers) nominated Dilman’s novella for a Nommo Award for Best Novella.
Dilman: “That’s something Ivor requested particularly because he read my book and there were two stories which were set in a dark future for Africa, with these dark, racist forces. He told me to write a novella in that world. And I asked, ‘Why do you want a novella in that kind of world? Cause it’s not a pleasant world to look into.’ I think he’s from Zimbabwe and there was all that trouble with white people and Mugabe there. When I look back, in Uganda it wasn’t with white people, it was with Asians during Idi Amin’s time. Then in 2008, there’s been this thing in South Africa with xenophobia.
“There is a certain fragility in Africa. Anything can happen to tip the scale. It just takes a spark for something to happen. You know? You grow up hearing a distrust of Europeans, white people. That is why someone like Mugabe can stoke up fires against people and you’ll have things happen. When Idi Amin said to the Asians, ‘OK, you have to leave,’ he became popular because people agreed with those sentiments that were burning. ‘Oh, we can’t open a business. To open a shop, you need an Indian to supply you with goods and he’ll sell it to you at twice the price he’d give to an Indian.’
“I wanted to explore those on-the-street fears that politicians stoke up. I set the novella in a violent world, because for people to go over the edge there has to be more than a desire for land or the desire to own a shop. That’s why I set it in a war situation with all the violence that happens in war.
“You will find also that people are conflicted with their Christian faiths and their ancestral spirit–worshiping past. You’ll find many people who dabble in both worlds. At one time they are going to church and another time going to shrine to worship. It’s big deal for the Pentecostals, but for the Anglicans and the Catholics it has become acceptable.
“Let me give you an example. In Gulu I met this woman. She’s a shaman and also a very strong Catholic. I asked her, ‘How do your reconcile the two things?’ And she said, ‘I have no problem with it because the Catholics worship the saints and here we also worship our ancestors. So what’s the big deal?’ She is the chairperson of traditional healers in Gulu. On Sunday, very many of them go to church and then they go back to their shrines. And then they continue the spirit worship. The only issue is with the Pentecostals coming in and making difficulties.
“Right now two novellas are competing for attention. One is based on things I used to hear as a child about a kind of shamans who ... who fly, with fire blazing out of their anuses. Always a humorous thing to hear about. Somehow I think it’s the kind of character who captures the imagination. It’s called ‘Abiba.’ It’s the name they give that kind of shaman in the communities.
“They vary from community to community but I think there are three or four communities in West Nile that use that phrase, but the way they describe them varies. To some they are really good shamen, to some they are evil.
“I want to bring mythologies that I heard as a child, and things that have been happening in our communities into the mainstream. When you talk about an Abiba they are always considered evil; it’s considered witchcraft. But people will gladly watch Harry Potter. Africa can get confidence in its own past and mythologies if some things like this become part of popular culture.
“When I read some of the anecdotes from the missionaries and of things from before the 1800s, there is one case of a shaman in Bunyoro who was actively researching herbs that can cure sleeping sickness. (Bunyoro is a traditional kingdom, whose political and social structures remain intact. Read the Kingdom’s own website.)
“He was not using spiritualism or magic. He was just looking for a practical cure. That makes me wonder. He couldn’t have been the only one who was doing that. Because of our education systems, we imagine that there was nothing scientific going on here. When you also look at things like mathematics ... there is this thing now called the African fractals. You see that many traditional homes are perfectly round, especially if you fly over Karamoja and you see the Manyattas. They might not know mathematics the way we know mathematics, but maybe they had a version that has been discarded by modernity because the colonialists at that time believed that theirs was the superior kind of knowledge.
“You keep hearing stuff, but it’s only fragments that have survived. You hear that northern Tanzania could make steel two thousand years before Europeans could. OK, what were they making this steel for? For what kinds of products? What kind of tools were they making out of this steel? And why can’t we find them now or the remnants of them?
“Even in Bunyoro itself, in Uganda, they say they had the advanced iron ores and iron smelting. But when you hear the narrative about Bunyoro, they only had rudimentary tools made of wood or stone.
“You hear fragments here and there, fragments I put into my writing to incorporate all of them. Maybe to create a movement and in the future if it becomes popular, people can think maybe there was some kind of knowledge different from west that had nothing to do with magic or spirits.
“In that short novel The Thing in Her Dream I tried to do this. The woman goes through the portal and finds what she thinks is a kind of magic. But it’s just a branch of physics or mathematics that she’s never been exposed to.”
So many of Dilman’s stories have female protagonists, that I ask him about that aspect of his work.
Dilman: “I just got asked that question a few days back while giving a talk here, and yet one of the big criticisms of A Killing in the Sun was that it had no female protagonists—I did send the publisher a bunch of short stories and those are the ones she picked. But I think I write from a female perspective some of the time because of my childhood. I grew up in a big family of mostly boys and since I have a disability, I found myself doing a lot of the domestic chores, which are traditionally reserved for girls, and hanging around home most of the time, rather than roaming and romping like other boys. I think I grew up to think like a woman, if that is not an offensive phrase, and in adulthood, most of my best friends have been women—only one was a man—so maybe that's why I kind of tend to have a lot of women protagonists.
“In film, it was more of a practical decision. It's easier to work with actresses than actors, at least in my experience, as actors can be a pain to direct in that they do not like taking instructions. Some women can be drama queens sometimes, but in terms of collaboration, I find it easier to talk to them.
“I'm not sure about feminism. I sometimes don't really like it, especially the ‘military’ type, but I grew up in a very violent home, which is one reason I wrote ‘The Thing in Her Dream’, and I've witnessed or heard of some really cruel things that men do to their wives and daughters, which partly influenced the short story, ‘The Puppets of Maramudhu,’ that was published in African Roar (an early series of short story anthologies also edited by Ivor Hartmann).
“I was once working for an NGO, and we went to this village where we heard a story of a man who had beaten up his wife, and broken her back, because she did not serve him the fish he had bought for the family. Hearing and seeing these things all your life takes a toll on you and I don't think you have to be a feminist to take sides.
“Also, in most cases for me, the story dictates the gender of the protagonist. Her Broken Shadow would have had a different emotional feel if the protagonist was a man, and ‘How My Father Became a God’ simply had to be in the voice of a little girl. I never make these decisions consciously, it's just that as I'm thinking about an idea the gender of the protagonist comes up and sticks. Very rarely do I change the gender, and I only do when it is vital for the story. Not for a political reason. I think I've done it once or twice, when the story was not working because of a character's gender.
“With FEMRITE, I like the ideology of it. They promote women writers, but they do not exclude men, as some feminist organizations would do. Of course I can't be a member, or get into some of their programs like the residencies, but their method is to work with all writers while keeping in mind that it is to specifically build women writers. I'm only a member of the Readers and Writers club, the longest running public literary event in the country, and it serves a huge purpose. It helps emerging writers find a place they can grow in, a platform for other people to critique their work. Membership is not formal, you don't get registered or anything, but sometimes they ask you to go to speak in schools and stuff like that, which is really cool. The club is really important because at some point in my life, around 2008, I was struggling as a writer, and I found it a place to get encouragement.
“Yes, FEMRITE has had an impact in the country. I think most of the women writers from Uganda who have today gained international recognition came from FEMRITE—Doreen Baingana, Goretti Kyomuhendo, Beatrice Lamwaka, Beverly Namboozo, Monica Arac, among others—and even those who have excelled within the country, they have roots in FEMRITE.
“With film, I didn't get a chance to go to a film school, so I taught myself almost everything. I used tutorials I found online, as well as asked people I met on online forums for advice, and I read books like Screenplay by Sid Field, Shot by Shot by Stephen Katz, Directing Actors by Judith Weston. I got these books instead of pay from the short stories I sold at that time. It would have been totally unpractical to try and cash a $25 check issued in the US in Uganda. So I asked them to send me books instead.
“I also got friends who lived abroad to buy me some of the books, since I could not get them locally in Uganda and didn't have a credit card for Amazon. I also benefited a great deal from Maisha Film Lab, which was founded by Mira Nair and it had very experienced people from Hollywood coming down to Uganda to give lessons and stuff. I attended several of their labs and in one of them, I made the film, What Happened in Room 13. But I learned from doing. I bought a miniDV camera and started shooting stuff, learning and exploring along the way, until I got something right, and I keep doing that.
“I did not decide to become an SFF writer. I loved reading the genre, and I always loved stories with fantasy in them even before I got a chance to read books, and it only makes sense to write the kind of stories that you love to read. I, however, could not find any books on African SFF while I was growing up, so everything I read was from the West, until I discovered Amos Tutuola when I was in university, and then much, much later, Ben Okri. I wrote in many genres early on, and tried to focus on the literary genre, but that is because many publishers preferred African writers to write literary stuff. Only recently have they started to accept SFF writing, which is a big boost.”
I asked him in October 2017 what had happened in his life since my visit to Kampala in 2016.
Dilman: “This year, I've mostly been focusing on writing a novel, which is tentatively called Dreams of a Yellow Balloon. I hope that is the final title for it. It's about a teenage boy, Ocan, who uses a wheelchair, and whose parents leave him behind to die when war breaks out in their town because, they claim, he can't run and it would slow down the whole family to run with him. But Ocan has a rare gift, the brain of a god, and he uses his intelligence to stay alive, and to find what he wants the most in his life: love, a family, to fix his legs so he can walk upright like any other person. It's in the military sci-fi genre, and hopefully it will be a series.
“Her Broken Shadow has gotten a bit of interest in a few festivals, including the biggest in Africa, Durban International Film Festival, and I am still looking for ways to make money out of it.”
His short story “Two Weddings for Amoit” was shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award. It is a science fiction story that will also appear in the first Gerald Kraak Award anthology Pride and Prejudice: African Perspectives on Gender, Social Justice and Sexuality.
A full list of Dilman Dila’s short fiction and his films, plus lots more, is available on Dilman’s own website.