Somewhere in Kenya, during a six-hour bus ride from Mombasa to Nairobi this fall, the Kenya-based, Uganda-born Doreen Baingana’s laptop was stolen. In an Oct. 21 e-mail, her devastation was clear: “I am in shock right now. I will just have to use my memory. Terrible.”
That laptop has every interview that Baingana, who for the last 16 years has lived in the D.C. area, recorded for her first nonfiction book. For a month during this year’s World Cup, Baingana conducted research in the Somaliland region of strife-weary Somalia with a grant from Bard College’s Chinua Achebe Center. Somaliland has struggled to gain formal recognition as an independent state.
“American news, for the most part, likes the Black Hawk Down approach to Somali news,” says Achebe Center Program Manager Tom Burke. Baingana’s task, then, is to encapsulate Somaliland’s efforts in a travelogue that appeals to outsiders. For now, she’ll do it from memory.
For Baingana, this won’t be easy. As the Achebe Center plans to publish the travelogues of Baingana and 12 other writers coinciding with the 2012 African Cup of Nations, Baingana is also embarking on a U.S. tour focused on her best-known work, from 2005: Tropical Fish: Tales From Entebbe. The short-story collection, set in Uganda, takes place after Idi Amin’s dictatorship, and focuses on three sisters who individually grapple with the meaning of intimacy in romantic and sexual relationships.
“A lot of the times when you read about [the dictatorship], you read about child soldiers or whatever the hot topic is. It can get tiring,” says Rion Amilcar Scott, a Hyattsville-area English teacher who helped select Baingana as an emerging writers fellow at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda this year. “This story was more human than that.”
Tropical Fish gained international acclaim. But even as a local resident, Baingana says that she struggled to connect with U.S. readers. “I knew that, in some sense, I was explaining my culture. That is not what I think fiction should do,” Baingana says in a Skype interview from Mombasa. “But it’s what I found myself doing.” (She returned in time for a Nov. 5 reading at the Writer’s Center as part of its indie-rock-meets-literature series, “Story/Stereo.” There, a humorous, pensive excerpt from Tropical Fish detailing an unusual tryst had no trouble entrancing its audience.)
But for the still-untitled travelogue, Baingana faces a different challenge: to explain a culture that isn’t even her own. Through a translator, citizens of Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa, spoke to Baingana about democracy and daily life. She saw them joyously storm the city’s Maan-Soor Hotel when officials announced Ahmed Mahamoud Silanyo as Somaliland’s newly elected president. “Even though they kept talking about how they weren’t getting recognized, they still believed in the sort of systems that make a state,” she says. “It was very important to them that it works.”
Baingana says she’ll have to draw on the sounds, tastes, and sights of Hargeisa: the buzzing flies, the succulent goat meat, the glisten of its whitish-yellow sand. In D.C., she intends to compare her memories to those of Somali immigrants. “I’m going to ask them about their lives: immigration, integration, how they are connected with their home country and how they keep those connections,” Baingana says. “Perhaps living in two places or coming from one place and living in another. It’s been the story of my life.”