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Frances Mwonge

Anna, her Swedish client, always took two batches of chocolate brownies, one with nuts and one without. Anna was one of Nama’s favourite clients and always made referrals to her numerous friends in the Scandinavian community where she was a very social member.

“So this is your last day? It’s so depressing to think we will have to live without your brownies,” Anna said when Nama placed the small satchel of brown squares in her bag.

“I think I will be around so maybe I can bake for you, though it won’t be a weekly thing,” said Nama, feeling a mixture of sadness and guilt.

Nama had built her small business, and in the process built herself. Plus, she loved taking care of her aging mother who at 175 next month was beginning to slow down.

“Ah, I was under the impression you were leaving, are you going to be staying in Uganda?” Anna said smiling and pretending to clap her bony hands together. Her sleeveless white jump suit exacerbated her already slight frame.

“David wants to stay here, but we will teleport to America and other planets too on weekends,” Nama said, her excitement palpable. “I’m having chip surgery next week,” Nama said and regretted it when she saw Nakato craning her neck.

—“After Market Life”, from Imagine Africa 500.

 

Under the editorship of Kwani’s Billy Kahora, much of the Imagine Africa 500 anthology has a lovely polished literary quality, combining unconvincing worldbuilding with tales of everyday future life. Frances Mwonge’s low-key story of jealousy in a food market is perhaps the smoothest and most literary story in the collection.

Frances: “That’s the only science fiction story I’ve written. (Laughs) I’m working on a novel, my first novel, and I’ve never been formally trained in writing. It’s just something I’ve always done that I love, and I love reading. I wrote the entire manuscript of the novel and gave it to some people and got feedback and I learned there’s certain skills I lack that I really need to work on to make the novel work.

“So I started writing short stories, to work on different skills that I thought I needed or my novel was lacking. In the course of that, I started realizing that when you enter competitions, there is a certain level of seriousness that comes with deadlines and submission. There’s something more formal than just writing for yourself.

“So I started writing for competitions. Because my novel is set in a fictitious world where I create a world, I realized it wasn’t working because it wasn’t credible. OK, so I need to work on my creative worlds.

“And then I saw the Africa 500 call and I thought: OK, the only requirement is it has to be set in Africa in 500 years. I thought ‘this is perfect.’ There’s a structured deadline and I have to create a world. And that really is how it came about. I just wrote from the heart about how I view Africa and what our trajectory is. I thought it was kind of tongue-in-cheek, personally. It was really more of the same of what is going on but to more extreme degrees. I would never have called myself a science fiction writer.”

Like Derek Lubangakene, Frances didn’t attend the Africa 500 workshop in Malawi. Her story is unusual in that it’s about the future of farming. Set in a farmers' market in the future as artificial foods are driving out real foods, it’s also about a woman, not considered a beauty, who is engaged to be married—something the market manager hates.

Frances: “I am a farmer. I have a passion for farming. Two of the things in that story, the main themes: farming, and these perceptions of beauty. You’ve noticed this obsession with light skin and fake hair in Africa? It always amuses—not amuses, that’s the wrong word—it always intrigues me. Because I’m very much opposed to that.

“The short story has nothing to do with the novel. I totally made it up, very inspired by farming and the business of farming. At the time we were in the farmers’ market. We have a farmers’ market association and I’m one of the...not executive...leaders with an elected position. We were manoeuvring, because farming is very lucrative, but people haven’t always considered it that way. People usually tend to think of farmers as these rural people who just farm and sell one product at a very low price and they don’t gain financial benefit from it.

“But we have a new kind of new age group of farmers who are more business savvy. A lot of us are professionals who left whatever our profession was and came to farming for various reasons. We have different meetings and we were strategizing, because we were opening a new market. Where we were previously hosted, we didn’t like it.

“The establishment wasn’t really appreciating us. We realized it was very lucrative to host a farmers market. We were bringing serious volume and clientele. We know that for the business we were bringing them, there were things we should receive. We wanted the dynamic and relationship to change.

“It sort of got me thinking about the dynamics of farming and the politics of the farmers' market. It was inspired by an actual decision we were taking in the market and that led to the market manager leading a vote about whether to let new things in, or real food only.

“I realized there were two veins. You have what you consider a traditional farmer, not educated, farming things and bringing them to the market and letting whoever name their price; and usually they get screwed. And then you have these new savvy business people. Because of those two groups that exist, you have a lot of conflict. A lot of times we’ll vote on stuff and it’s amazing how the votes go based on how you view farming and how you view your role as a farmer.

“That’s how I got this idea to let me make it something really ridiculous and throw in corruption, because I have to believe that five hundred years from now we’ll still be corrupt. All of us, the whole world.”

SPOILER ALERT

GR: “What I liked about the story was the heroine got away and the hero didn’t stick in the knife, and I was sure he was going to go off and leave her. I think a mainstream story would have done that.”

Frances: “First off, I felt I had been negative, well not negative but so tongue-in-check, like the commentary on the hair and skin. I put in so much of my own less-than-favourable commentary. The least I can do is have a happy ending for this person. I didn’t want it to be so completely depressing. It’s probably the direction I would have gone if I was being true to form. I definitely felt like, oh, wow, am I cynical, a serious cynic. But then I was naw, we have to do something happy.”

GR: “It was a surprise in the right kind of way.”

Frances: “I really do like creating worlds, even my novel, though I never defined myself as anything (like an SF writer). I don’t find any existing worlds I like in fiction so I make up my own.”

GR: “You can kiss The New Yorker goodbye.”

Frances: (Laughs) “The New Yorker was never where I pictured myself.

“Even my novel I’m working on, I like creating worlds because for one thing I feel more free in a world I’ve created. I feel there’s a lot of limitations when you are trying to replicate something that really exists. I really like putting the emphasis on the things that I want the emphasis to be on. I feel that the story works better when I set the parameters, I create the universe.

“Writing a novel, I feel confined, like there’s something I’m trying to fit into. But this short story really is in my voice. I really enjoyed myself.”

Frances came to SFF later than some.

Frances: “My first real encounter with SF was in fourth grade; there was a weird loner kid in my class who loved reptiles and SF. In high school I read 1984 and intellectually connected with the premise though I remained seriously averse to SF because of the association with the loner kid. My favourite writers are Naguib Nafhouz, Ayn Rand, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Illosa, Helon Habila—really there are too many. And of course Chimamanda the Great!

“I was born here in Uganda, but left during politically turbulent times. My father was a professor, first in London, then Canada, then the USA. I am a lawyer by profession. Post-conflict democracy is my speciality. I worked in Somalia and Burundi. There’s something freeing being on the ground and having access to people who are impacted by things.

“There’s a big separation from all that in the Western bubble. Something happens when you are linked to things actually around you. I worked with the UN and NGOs for ten years.

“I worked in elections. The things I could tell you. Why it is in Africa that we have a cycle where a new guys comes in to rule, then a war, then the international bodies come in, then a new guy. This is not just a legacy of colonialism. War is by design and is a very profitable industry that benefits a lot of people. Prostheses, plastic surgery, all come from war. War drives the world.

“I did my undergraduate at Duke and then law school at Washington University. But I never did a conventional law job. After law school I did a brief stint in the private sector before landing a job with a democracy- and governance-focused NGO. I was a program officer for Africa. Thereafter I went to the UN where I was a political affairs officer in Liberia.

“It was after ten years trying to save the world, or Africa, to be specific...then I realized, Dear God, I’ve got to save myself.

“I became a farmer five years ago. I left the world of being a lawyer. My brother is an MBA and served as our business advisor in the early days, but mostly my business education is in real time.

“My mother was raised in a rural setting and I know about farming. It’s my mother’s upbringing that formed the knowledge base. Moreover, she was the original nutritious, organic wholesome consumer way back in the '70s and '80s, so rearing organic yet plump chicken was a natural fit. We once had a much smaller chicken farm when I was ten to twelve, so my brothers and I had chores on the farm during our holidays. I grew up working on a chicken farm. Living in the USA and seeing the organic movement, farm-to-table and understanding what a premium people now pay for real food and the farmers' markets there, I thought: ‘Wow, that could be lucrative!’

“Why am I writing? Because I would die if I didn’t. Deepest conversations are with myself. There’s something very liberating about it, quasi-therapy, dealing with things I couldn’t articulate. I feel it’s not me saying it, but someone else. It’s where I feel most alive.”

I got back in touch with Frances late in 2017 for an update:

Frances: “Since November I haven’t written much—but that is by design. My novel needs re-working of the variety that requires a break beforehand. As I marinate on the novel, I am working on a couple of short stories, though nothing has been published since November.

“Oddly I find Uganda now a fertile ground for ideas and inspiration, though my emotions run very high—the political climate is red hot, things are so crazy. Further to my use of writing as a therapeutic means for making sense of life, the electricity and anger at what we are living is also, I imagine, reshaping my craft. Stay tuned.

“Regarding the farming. Yes, I’ve actually established two new markets since then, and we are debuting a third later this month. One is extremely busy and very lucrative. The other one is starting slowly but I am confident, given its strategic location, it will pick up.”

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Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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