winner umoja writing competition

Of Nice and Mean by Nancy Lindah Ilamwenya

Posted on

Highly Commended goes to African entrant Nancy Lindah Ilamwenya.

Nancy is a Kenyan living in Ethopia and is just 26 years old. Here is Nancy’s entry: Of Nice and Mean

“Do you think George and Lennie’s friendship was genuine or was it based on convenience?”

Uncomfortable silence, occasionally interrupted by officious rustling of John Steinbeck’s, “Of Mice and Men” novels in oblivious fingers, searching for what is not only an elusive answer, but more so, a fantastical idea, especially for our teenage minds….true companionship.

“I would like one of you to please justify this relationship.”Miss Amweno begins again, determination in her voice.

“George is a strikingly witty fellow whose charisma casts spells wherever he goes. He is self –driven and agreeable.” My mind wanders off to the movie version; Channing Tatum should have played George. I wouldn’t have any problems answering Miss Amweno.…his eyes…Channing’s eyes…

“Lennie on the other hand, well juxtaposed to his best friend George. At 6 feet and change, his gargantuan mass dwarfs most average men.” Miss Amweno continues with unadulterated vigor, clearly unconscious of the fact that most of her words are too big for us.

“His thunderous voice emerges to clearly proclaim his mental handicap…an epitome of awkwardness. So boys and girls…How can these two contradictory personages be best of pals?” She pants as if never to speak again.

Painful silence lingers. We notice her left eye begin to twitch. Signs of frustration.  She mumbles to herself, anger slowly sneaking to her face. She bites her lower lip and we gear up to receive outbursts of why we are better off on the streets and our places taken by those unfortunate street children, how we should be banished to rural Pokot where we can learn to appreciate some paltry beans accompanied with yellow ugali, listening to the omniscient voice of the Almighty self-contained teacher, seated on parched ground, under an ancient teak. But like most of what she says, gets in through one ear and leaves through the other. Hers is a tough job.

Thing is, Miss Amweno is a great teacher. Admittedly, I have had the unfortunate opportunity to eavesdrop on my other teachers’ out-spoken frustrations about their meager stipend and how on the first chance to leave the profession, they would. I have to say, nothing kills learning than the knowledge that you, the student, are but a bridge, not a destination. But Miss Amweno loves us. We know it and that is why we readily forgive her outbursts. We love that she screeches birthday songs to all of us at random times of the year. We love that she walks around with a tear-stained blouse after mediating teenage scuffles. We love that she would know if we had a rough night. We love that she knows our pets by name. We love that she scribbles proverbs at the corner of the board every morning. We even learnt to embrace the Feelings Jar. Miss Amweno makes school, home.

You see, my parents split up as soon as I turned seven. A few months later, my mother was arrested for fraud and all her assets frozen. Predictably, my father immediately re-married and promptly forgot about us. As fate had it, I was left in the young but capable hands of Bwire, my eighteen year old genius of a brother. “Genius” is not to be used lightly, as he went on to win a scholarship to an Ivy League university in the USA after innovating something I regrettably don’t have the capacity to describe. Worth mentioning( to emphasize his brilliance) he made a living concocting some hallucinogen in our house which he peddled to supplement the little allowance collected from reluctant  relatives.

On my brother’s departure, I went to live with my aunt, who only accepted to host me in the hope that Bwire’s pursuit of prosperity would thrive and she would have a legitimate claim, on my account.

So as I watch the all too familiar transformation of Miss Amweno’s furrowed face to her sympathetic look, I am reminded of Mama.  Not in a way that compares. No! In a way that conjures up feelings of foul rejection, constant absenteeism, and numbing loneliness. I have to say that her incarceration was of no consequence to our relationship, because we didn’t have any.

Miss Amweno is it! I don’t think she knows it but most of us count on her presence for our daily dose of affection. Miss Amweno is it! The semblance of a mother we all wish we had.

“Hallo? Akisa! Are you with us?” I hear her say. Suddenly, an epiphany so real, a divine intervention through I, a humble medium.

“Yes, Akisa… Kindly enlighten us.” She responds with apparent pride.

“Well Miss…it indeed is tempting…in fact natural, to choose the negative aspect, seeing that we live in a skeptical world.” I begin. “Skeptical, meaning doubtful of each other’s inherent goodness,” I look around, silence of a church.

“Why is it difficult for us to conclude that one can love without expecting something in return? Lennie is mentally challenged.  He is a child in a man’s body. He can barely make sense to save his life. He cannot remember who he is, let alone what he is supposed to do. He has irrational tendencies further exacerbating his isolation.” I pause and look around. Everyone is listening.

“Why is it difficult to believe that George could find a true friend in Lennie? Couldn’t have George searched and found Lennie’s soul? An ability that few humans possess.”

I look around again. Eyes opening up to my truth. Minds consuming my revelation.

With the confidence of a pundit and humility of a priest, I rested my case, “Miss Amweno, there is no better example than our relationship, you Miss Amweno with us. You symbolize George, us Lennie. You love us, in spite… It is like questioning your fondness for us.”

Miss Amweno smiles, eyes gleam behind a curtain of joyful tears, and then she clinches my point so accurately, “Only one who can dig beyond physical differences will to justify the relationship.

Thank you Nancy for a story reflecting the wonderful roles of teachers. We hope your placing will encourage other African writers to craft their writing skills. Readers please comment below.


About our winner for 2014

Posted on Updated on

Lauren Dionysius, winner of the Inaugural Umoja Writing Competition with her trophy.
Lauren Dionysius, winner of the Inaugural Umoja Writing Competition with her trophy.

Inaugural winner Lauren Dionysius  is a lovely young woman from Kepnock, Queensland. She has a passion for writing, and very aptly a desire for volunteering in Africa and other countries around the world. Here is a little about Lauren in her own words:

“My love for writing started as a ten year old with a bizarre, if not somewhat obsessive, collection of pens, rubber erasers and pretty paper.  Even at school, I was fascinated by how words looked on paper and enjoyed the task of giving meaning to their order.  Later, my nursing studies morphed my creative writing into dull academia, and, as a perpetual uni student who loved to write, I continued on to study a variety of topics including research, photography, clinical nursing, counseling, and most recently, international health.  But it wasn’t until I enrolled in a travel writing course that I realised that I didn’t want to write about someone else’s topics anymore, I wanted to write about what was in my heart.  When I travel, I write.  And, in my 34 years I have had the opportunity to travel, live, work or volunteer in almost 50 countries.  These are the adventures that inspire my heart to write!

“In 2011, I took a “career break” from nursing to volunteer in Africa doing wildlife conservation and research projects.  It was here that my love for travel was united with my creative spark to write my feelings into words and experiences into stories.  I recounted my adventures in a blog to share with friends and family back home.  I wrote about how Africa changed my view of the world and nudged me to re-evaluate what was important in my life.  I soon realised that my life in Australia was inside-out and upside-down.  By quitting my day job and leaving that stressful, money-driven life behind, I was free to embrace the vulnerability and uncertainty that is synonymous with Africa.  It was the bravest, scariest decision I’ve ever made, but I learned so many life lessons along the way.  I learned that living a rich life had little to do with money.  Richness came through connections with myself and other people in the form of friendships, relationships, kinships and hardships.  I realised that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t “buy myself happy”.  Perhaps most importantly though, Africa taught me to be grateful, not guilty, for the opportunities, safety and freedom that was my privileged life back in Australia, one that I’d long taken for granted.

“Since returning from Africa I have kept these lessons close and have worked to apply them to my life here in Australia.  I have returned to nursing, but in a position with healthy hours and less money (to match the effort required!), while still continuing to travel overseas.  I am surrounded by friends and family and finally understand what having a “work-life balance” really means.

“I continue to write because it makes me feel alive.  I write to create and to record my memories, to clarify my own thoughts and to share my life experiences to inspire and motivate others.  Sometimes, I even write to heal myself, to write what I need to read, to powerfully let go through words that which no longer serves me.

“I draw inspiration from other writers and a wide variety of genres.  I get my “chic lit fix” from Sophie Kinsella and read Jodi Picoult to absorb life-inspiring messages.  Dean Koontz keeps me awake at night jumping at every noise I hear, but his use of language lures me in.  I also love Brene Brown and Eckhart Tolle who allow me to look beyond the words into my mind and soul in order to create different words and new stories.  I also read various internet blogs on wellness and nutrition and am easily enticed for hours by the randomness that is Google…

“Now, I try to write something every day.  I make time for it, put it on my “to do” list and prioritise it around my work commitments.  I write about my adventures, my thoughts, my dreams and how I am growing as a person. The next step on my journey is to share my words with the world and I hope that “Simply Ubuntu” is just the beginning!”

We wish Lauren, and runner-up Denise all the best in their writing endeavors and thank them for being a part of the start of the Umoja Writing Competition.



Winner 2014

Posted on Updated on

We are pleased to announce the winner of Umoja Writing Competition 2014 is Lauren Dionysius and her non-fiction entry ‘Simply Ubuntu’. Second place goes to Denise Cummins with her literary entry ‘Tumaini (hope)’. Congratulations to these writers and I’d like to thank everyone who entered. We hope next year we can raise needed funds for Umoja Orphanage again next year when we hold the second competition from January 2015.

Here’s the winning story:

Simply Ubuntu

Upon the sudden, disturbing realisation that my dream job was no longer my dream, I resigned, packed my bags and went to Africa.  Sitting next to me on the plane was Gina, a wise South-African woman.  She told me that Africa was about people, about community, and in her words it’s about “becoming more certainly human by connecting with and experiencing the humanity of others”.  She scribbled the word “ubuntu” on a piece of newspaper, handed it to me, and told me to remember this during my time in Africa.  In the months that followed I learned that ubuntu was simply what you experienced on African soil.  It was what clawed its way deep into your bones and into the depths of your spirit.  Once you have been there, you never forget.  You never forget the people you met in the countries you saw, but until you can experience ubuntu for yourself, the phenomenon is difficult to recognise.

I saw ubuntu in the face of the elderly woman whose deep, leathery wrinkles captured a timeless wisdom acquired through decades of hardship.  I heard it in her words as we swapped stories of contrasting, even colliding cultures.  I saw it flicker through the dark unknown of her pupils as they reflected the fire’s flame before it flashed brightly through her glowing, white smile between missing front teeth.  I felt her unconditional generosity as it flowed into the food she so proudly cooked in the simplest of kitchens and tasted it in the bean stew she served me in a little enamel bowl.  I heard it in the joyful laughter of the village children as they ran around outside, playing bare-footed in the dirt.  I loved that they could make such long-lasting fun out of whatever they could find, limited only by their collective imaginations.  I reveled in their innocent curiosity.  They wanted nothing more than to simply talk to me, touch my skin and my long, straight hair and to hold my hand or leap into my lap.  I soon realised that no glass screens of any technological type had ever dulled their inquisitive minds.  And for that I was incredibly grateful.

I felt ubuntu in this tiny village in rural Malawi where community life thrived on an intricate thread of hope that weaved a connection through every man, woman and child.  As I helped the children collect water from the bore pump, I felt it in the vulnerability of the modest infrastructure with which they all lived, a harsh reality of Africa’s simple life.

The longer I spent in Africa, the more I learned that it was ubuntu that remained within me after leaving behind the stressful distractions of my life back in Australia.  As a career-driven yet burned out city girl, I was so humbled by this poverty-stricken nation and its absolute belief in survival against all odds.  By first world standards these people had “nothing” yet they had the warmest of hearts and the most generously grateful souls I’d ever met.  There was no sense of stress or the pressure that accompanied daily life back home.  I found myself surrounded by humans just being human, by living their lives in the best way they knew how.  And for the first time ever, I was able to just take the time to truly listen to, learn from and connect with those around me.  This is because in Africa, humanity, not wealth, defined people.  Gina was right.  Africa was all about people.

Ubuntu is what the developed world is missing.  While we continue to chase bigger, stronger, faster, newer and more expensive, we will never be satisfied.  We live in a country of excess.  We have too much food, too much money, too many choices and too many “things”.  Nothing will ever be good enough while we are always looking for “more”.  While Australia tries to create strength through wealth and materialism, Africa creates strength of the heart through connections with other people.  Possessions and “things” are simply irrelevant.  It is for these reasons that Africa has so much to teach the rest of the world.

Ubuntu has been etched under my skin like a tattoo, a constant reminder of Africa’s beating heart.  This is what beckons me every day to return to its shores and will therefore continue to be a part of me.  For it’s the heart that is intertwined so deeply with that of ubuntu, that innate humanness that is within every one of us that craves connection with the people around us.  Everyone can take a leaf or two out of Africa’s book.  And these are the pages that I will hold close to my heart for the rest of my life.

The runner up story ‘Tumaini (hope)’ will be posted next week. So please come back to read it.