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Dispatches from the Moth · Posted On: Oct 07, 2015

The Moth in Uganda

by Inga Glodowski

This past August, as a part of our work with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Moth’s Artistic Director Catherine Burns and Producing Director Sarah Austin Jenness went to Uganda to work with African women writers. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Catherine and Sarah to hear about their experiences. Here’s an excerpt from our chat:

Had you ever envisioned The Moth – or yourself – in Uganda?

Catherine: Going to Uganda to work with The African Woman’s Development Fund was a “bucket list” sort of trip for me. Prior to this, the most profound international experience I’ve had at The Moth was a 2008 trip to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where we worked with war refugees. I believe the ability to share your story can be healing, both for the storyteller and the community who gathers to listen. So the opportunity to support African women in their struggle for equal rights was an incredible opportunity.

Sarah: Teaching Moth workshops in Uganda was amazing – in fact, I’m still pinching myself and remembering our experiences with awe. Thank God we have photos and a record of the stories, otherwise it might have felt like a dream! We can’t wait to return and deepen our work in the communities we visited.

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What was the best moment of the entire trip?

Catherine: One of my storytellers was extremely shy. Her native language was French, and she was hesitant to even read something she wrote in English. By the end, she had a major break through, and shared her story not just with our workshop group of seven, but also with the entire party of 30 women and instructors! The night that happened, there was a dinner, and to my shock (and delight!) this extremely quiet girl got up in front of the 30 of us and sang Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender Love Me Sweet” a cappella. We all teared up and were so grateful to her for opening up to us in this way.

Sarah: The best part of this workshop was the third and final morning. Twelve brave women shared their stories one by one, with friends and fellow participants. We shared laughter, tears, and honored the storytellers by listening with our whole selves. It’s cliché, but everyone in the audience seemed to be breathing as one unified being.

What are some of the interesting things about Uganda that the average American doesn’t know?

Catherine: I noticed a lot of the women in my group referring to themselves as “African women.” Finally I said to them, “To be honest, I’d never refer to myself as a ‘North American woman,’ and I’d worry I’d come across as racist if I referred to all of you as African women, as if all Africans are the same.” But they said, “No, Catherine, we are PROUD to be African women. And we have more in common with each other than we do with our husbands and brothers back home.”

Sarah: 1. Kampala is a busy city by day, but I’ve never seen a more vibrant city by night! Kampalans come out in huge numbers when the sun goes down – to trade, talk, and celebrate life. We didn’t spend much time out in the evenings after our workshops – but just driving by was wildly exciting! Also, I offer an important note to travelers: “in the morning” or “after breakfast” in Kampala means 7am, right after the sun rises!

Tell us about a person you met whom you’re unlikely to forget.

Catherine: Stellamaris Kembabazi, or “Maris” as she likes to be called, made a particularly profound impact on me. Just 24-years-old, she is already one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. Her story was about being called to a women’s health clinic in the city where she was attending college, and finding her friend lying on an exam table, dead from an illegal abortion. She knows that if she helps bring her friend’s body back to the village in Western Uganda where they are both from the elders will say, “This is why you don’t educate women.” In the end, she and her friends literally bury their friend. Her story is about taking personal responsibility and honoring a friend, even if you hate how she died.

Sarah: Fatou and Merna were two stars in my small, breakout storytelling group. One was exploring her modern self in relation to her traditional grandmother in Sierra Leone, and her sadness at being shut out of her grandmother’s burial preparation because of their differences; the other was a story about taking part in the recent Egyptian revolution, despite her uncle’s disapproval. (Modernity vs. Tradition was a theme we saw over and over again in these workshops.) Neither Fatou nor Merna were ready to tell these stories on the final day (they required more time to process and craft) but hopefully we’ll be able to include them on a Moth Mainstage in the future. We’ve started relationships that will deepen and grow over time.

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What was the hardest or most frustrating part of the trip?

Catherine: It had been years since I’d personally led a breakout group in a workshop. There was a moment when I felt completely over my head by the magnitude of turning seven stories around in just two days, and halfway around the world, dealing with language barriers, etc. But I’m happy to say I quickly found my sea legs. I’ve never had more respect for our instructors and the challenges they face.

Sarah: As a life-long New Yorker, I’ve realized the importance of “rolling with it” when in Africa. Time moves differently there.

What did you learn about yourself?

Catherine: That I love directing stories in complicated situations. I’ve been doing this for more than 13 years (15 if you count my time volunteering in The Moth’s Community Program originally.) And it’s good to keep challenging yourself. It keeps me on my toes and excited about the future.

Sarah: I’ve learned I need to be open to what the day brings instead of trying to plan ahead and micro-manage.

Did the trip change the way you think about storytelling?

Catherine: I went into it thinking that maybe we’d discover a Ugandan way to tell stories, but now more than ever I can see that there’s a certain kind of personal storytelling that’s universal. In many cases, if we aired their stories and didn’t tell the audience where the women were from, listeners might think they were from Cincinnati. I love that. It shows that even though we may look completely different on the outside, we’re all connected to each other through the stories we tell.

Sarah: Our instructors and the participants represented 14 African countries, the US, and Trinidad and Tobago – and yet, we had so much in common. We were all connected, and realized it in a short time. I hope our larger community will hear from these outstanding women on our podcast and radio hour in the coming year!

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