Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva of Babishai Poetricks

The Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, founded by Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva in 2008, encompasses the Babishai Niwe Poetry Awards and a poetry toolkit, Babishai Poetricks. The awards recognize African poets and provide a platform for them to express themselves. The Babishai Poetricks toolkit aims at allowing children in schools to grow creatively and gain a deeper awareness of themselves and their environment. It is currently being offered in schools around Uganda, with hopes of expanding to Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, and South Africa. Beverley also published an anthology of poems, A Thousand Voices Rising: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry in 2014. Joy Mwaniki spoke with her concerning child development, her poetry toolkit, and her success in celebrating African poetry.

Kindly tell us about yourself.
My name is Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva. I am a mother, lover, wife, friend, sister, poet, writer, dancer, actress, and a certified leadership trainer. I am extremely adventurous and I love to travel. I am always looking for the next challenge.

Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva  Image Source: Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva

Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva
Image Source: Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva

How did you develop your interest in poetry? How long have you been writing?
As a child, I went to private school and while there, the atmosphere was just right for a child who was eager to learn about themselves and their environment. There were libraries with lots of books, and we had time to read and write. The teachers were very nurturing and my parents would buy me books. This environment captured my love for creativity. While in secondary school, I was always given a chance to read poetry in assembly and I won poetry competitions. All of that enabled my interest in poetry to grow.

What led you to found the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation? How did you come up with the idea for the toolkit?
This was as a result of realizing that there was a very large gap in the space for poets to be recognized in Uganda. At first the Babishai Niwe Poetry Awards targeted Ugandan women. I asked myself, “Where are all the poets in Kampala?” We didn’t seem to see them. I thought they needed motivation to come out, and the prize started out as that. We wanted all the closeted and timid poets to come out, and of course the prize, money, and recognition offered that. As it grew, the media gained a lot of interest in it because it was the first of its kind: the first prize for women in the region. No one was doing it at all on the continent. Over the years, we realized that it had to go beyond Uganda, and so we extended it to include the entire continent, including men. Incidentally, it was a man, Tom Jalio from Kenya, who won the prize last year. Of course, there are several groups in Kampala and in the region who do the same work, but so far, Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation is the only organization based in Africa that coordinates annual poetry competitions. We started publishing books and began the Babishai Poetricks Training Program. We have a lot of support and resources but what I think we need is more establishment in various countries, with secretariats for coordination.

What are the key skills that you hope children will develop using the toolkit?
The Babishai Poetricks Toolkit is an adventure toolkit for children. Its aim is to enable them to reach their highest literary creative potential. It is a summary of all the experiences we have had from visiting schools around Uganda. We realized that there was a consistency in all the schools, whether they were international, secondary, or primary: when children are given an environment where they are relaxed and can truly engage and interact at their maximum, without being held to judgement or harsh accountability, they become more creative, articulate, self-aware, and confident. The toolkit has eleven chapters, or what we call Adventures, which have exercises that enable the children to analyze who they are and their environment. Each child has a chance to be interactive with each other or with their situation, enhancing maximum participation, analysis, and teamwork skills.

Training of Trainers, Kampala Image Source: Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva

Training of Trainers, Kampala
Image Source: Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva

How did you come up with the name Babishai Poetricks?
[Laughs.] Well, it came from the name of the foundation, Babishai Niwe Foundation, which means Creating with You. It’s a combination of a Hebrew name Abishai, to which we added a “B” so that we could maintain the initials BN, as originally, it stemmed from the name, Beverly Nambozo. When it grew beyond Africa, we had to change the name because it also grew beyond an individual. Niwe, in some Ugandan languages, means With You, thus Babishai Niwe translates into Creating with You. The term Poetricks tapped into the children as a combination of poetry and adventure.

Children trained at Big Bear Kindergarten during Babishai Poetricks Launch Image Source: Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva

Children trained at Big Bear Kindergarten during Babishai Poetricks Launch
Image Source: Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva

What misconceptions about poetry in Africa did you have to face while developing the program?
That poetry does not bring in any money. As an art form, people think that poetry is elitist; they only think of it in its written form and relate it to their school years where they had to do it for exams. They also think that it is very Western. But when you try to engage it in different forms, you realize that our own oral culture stems from a lot of poetry and when people understand that, through the different platforms around the country and the continent today, they are more engaged. There is now more awareness that poetry is a descriptive art form that can be made in song and proverbs.

What book are you reading right now?
I’m reading several: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell. I am also actually reading several children’s books to familiarize myself with children’s literary content, because I am currently doing the Training of Trainers for Babishai Poetricks. I am also reading my manuscript of poetry collections.

Which poet would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Can they come back from the dead? Yes? Then without a doubt, Emily Dickinson! Her poem “I’m nobody! Who are you?” is so simple, and yet, is not. It is one of those poems that is a timeless reflection of society. She lived in a generation where women were really marginalized and so, even as a woman so brilliant, she went through a lot of challenges. Her work, that we read now, is edited to suit our conventions of today, so I would like to have a chat with her to find out more about her unpublished works and her life, because she was a social recluse. I would also definitely have a drink with Uganda’s Okot p’Bitek.

Can you describe your writing process? How do you develop and refine a piece of poetry?
Well, it is very simple: I write a lot in my head. I am always thinking. I get an idea, and then it sits in my mind and develops. Once a week, I write these ideas down until it becomes the first draft of a poem. When I think the poem is complete, I review and redo it weeks later until I finally realize that it will never be perfect and so, I send it out anyway. For example, I am performing my poetry tonight at a spoken word session, and I thought I was complete with the poems but I have changed half the lines in each of them today alone!

What future projects do you have in mind for Babishai Poetricks?
There will be a Babishai Niwe Poetry Festival running from August 26 – 28th in Kampala. During that time, we’ll have a #babishaipoetricks adult challenge. Whenever we try this exercise on adults, it’s a hilarious and deeply moving experience. We will continue Training of Trainers all over the continent and continue with the vision for every child to have a  #babishaipoetricks experience. Writers all over the world have been visiting schools for years and years. We encourage them to be part of this, to make their school visits fun and memorable.