Arac de Nyeko, Monica 1979–

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Monica Arac de Nyeko 1979–

Author, humanitarian-aid worker

Monica Arac de Nyeko is a Ugandan fiction writer and humanitarian aid worker whose short story “Jambula Tree” won the 2007 Caine Prize, Africa's leading literary award. Her writings recount the misery and violence of the decades-long Ugandan civil war in language steeped in the traditional songs of her Acoli heritage and the hymns she sang as a child.

Raised Amidst Violence

Monica Arac de Nyeko was born in August of 1979 in the Kitgum District of northern Uganda, where civil war has raged since the early 1980s. The fourth of five children, Arac de Nyeko was raised by an older sister after her parents died. Arac de Nyeko read voraciously and was inspired by the works of the twentieth-century Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek, who wrote about the impact of Western culture on native Africans. She attended Gulu High School, completing O level (ordinary level) studies in 1995, and the Katikamu Seventh Day Adventist Secondary School. Arac de Nyeko earned a bachelor's degree in education at Makerere University in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

In 1999 during her second year of university Arac de Nyeko joined FEMRITE, the Uganda Women Writers' Association. FEMRITE had been formed in 1996 with the goal of reviving Uganda's literary legacy. Arac de Nyeko participated in FEMRITE workshops, and the novelist Goretti Kyomuhendo became her mentor.

After graduating from university Arac de Nyeko taught literature and English at St. Mary's College in Kisubi, an all-male secondary school near Kampala. Two years later she left for the Netherlands, where she earned a master's degree in humanitarian assistance at the University of Groningen. In 2004 she became an intern with the World Food Programme's Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit in Rome, Italy, followed by a posting to Sudan.

Described the Horrors of War

Arac de Nyeko participated in Crossing Borders, a collaborative program of the British Council, Lancaster University, and various African partners for mentoring new African writers. Her poem “Damn You” was presented at the German Literature Festival held in Berlin in 2001 and published in the Berlin Poetry Anthology. That same year her short story “Chained” was chosen for the FEMRITE anthology Words from a Granary, the culmination of a three-year series of training workshops for women writers. In traditional African culture the granary was a symbol of hope, and FEMRITE chose the title as a symbol of their hope for transforming Uganda into a literary culture. “Chained” told the story of a young girl forced to betray her schoolmates to the rebels and then freed after eating human flesh.

As the Transcend Art & Peace (TAP) Network Uganda special correspondent, Arac de Nyeko wrote of learning about the brutal murder of fifty-seven close relatives and of the horror of returning to Gulu in 2002. In the essay “In the Stars” Arac de Nyeko wrote of her uncle's death in the Ugandan war and her mother's grief and subsequent death from meningitis. In stark terms she described the devastating war between the Ugandan government and the rebels, the Lord's Resistance Army, with the Acoli as victims of both sides: “Memories of nights in rain and gripping fear creep to our dreams. Sleep should be the one place where there is no worry. It should be dreamland, hopeland. But in our sleep there are ghosts of dead friends and relatives. The ones we watched pangas hack. Those we heard from our hiding places being flogged to death. Those we see headless, limbless, noseless, lipless when we blink.” “In the Stars” won first prize in the 2003 Women's World Voices in War Zones writing competition.

Arac de Nyeko's story “Strange Fruit” was short-listed for the 2004 Caine Prize. Opening with a verse from the famous Billie Holiday song about lynchings in the southern United States, Arac de Nyeko told the Africa Beyond Web site: “It is about violence yes—but you can say ‘Strange Fruit’ is more about loss. It is also about love, commitment and time (and what it can do to the human condition) in the backdrop of a very complex reality.”

As of 2008, Arac de Nyeko's output was not prolific. She told The African: “I work with triggers. When something triggers and then I write. Then I can get quite aggressive about it. Everything stops, and it's me, myself and the story. I work like that based on inspiration.”

Won the Caine Prize

The $20,000 Caine Prize, sometimes referred to as the African Booker, was created in honor of Sir Michael Caine, a British businessman with a deep interest in Africa, who for twenty-five years chaired the management committee of Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize. Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub, who chaired the 2007 judges' panel, described “Jambula Tree” as “a witty and touching portrait of a community which is affected forever by a love which blossoms between two adolescents.” The story centers on the relationship between two girls from different economic backgrounds who develop an intimate relationship against a background of intolerance in their crowded Kampala neighborhood. Built during the 1960s when newly independent Uganda was looking forward to prosperity and democracy, the neighborhood, with its deterioration and hypocrisy symbolizes the disillusionment of postcolonial Africans. In the Post Arac de Nyeko described “Jambula Tree” as a story of “untainted love … very intimate and also very honest. The girls do not know what is happening to them. It surprises them. They did not commit any crime. Their only crime is falling in love.”

At a Glance …

Born in August 1979, in Kitgum, Uganda. Education: Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, BA, education, 2001; Groningen University, Netherlands, MA, humanitarian assistance, 2004.

Career: Author of short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, 2001—; St. Mary's College, Kisubi, Uganda, literature and English language teacher, 2001-03; World Food Programme, Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit, Rome, Italy, early warning consultant, 2004, Khartoum, Sudan, reports officer, 2005; United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network, Nairobi, Kenya, special assistant to the director, 2006-07; Georgetown University, Washington, DC, writer-in-residence, 2007.

Memberships: Transcend Art & Peace Network (TAP), Uganda special correspondent, chief editor of TAP Voices; Uganda Women Writers Association (FEMRITE).

Awards: British Council's Crossing Borders, fellow; TAP Member of the Month, November 2002; Eric Bleumink Fund scholarship; Caine Prize for “Jambula Tree,” 2007.

Addresses: E-mail—[email protected].

However, homosexuality was illegal in Uganda. Becky Ayebia Clarke, publisher of “Jambula Tree,” told the BBC News about Arac de Nyeko's bold statement: “In Africa these are not the kind of stories we're allowed to tell. She's taking on a theme that Africans have been in denial about….” Arac de Nyeko told The African that, despite the taboo, Ugandan people were beginning to talk and write about homosexuality. Nevertheless, she was nervous about the publicity that the Caine Prize would bring and she called her sister to warn her about the story's subject matter. Arac de Nyeko told The African: “Love is love. It doesn't matter if it's between two women, two men, it's an experience…. I think with ‘Jambula Tree,’ the most credible thing was the reaction of the community. It was an over-reacting community and we see it all the time.” Arac de Nyeko told the BBC's Network Africa Program, as reported on the BBC News Web site: “There are a lot of difficult things that I think we need to talk about and not build walls of huge emotion….” A heterosexual, Arac de Nyeko believed that those who read “Jambula Tree” as primarily a lesbian story had missed the point. She described the story in the Independent as being “about loving against a very strong tide—society.”

Arac de Nyeko was working in Nairobi, Kenya, when she won the Caine. She told the Washington Post that she did not yet “have the emotional capacity to work” in Uganda because of the terrible toll the war had taken on her family and friends.

As of 2007 Arac de Nyeko's short story “Back Home” was forthcoming in the New African Writers anthology, edited by Helon Habila and Khadija George, and her novella The Last Dance was forthcoming from Fountain Publishers at Makerere University. Her short stories “Jazz, Miracles and Dreams” and “City Link” were also awaiting publication, and she was working on a novel. The Caine Prize included an expenses-paid Georgetown University Writer-in-Residency in Washington, D.C., during October and November of 2007.

Arac de Nyeko told the Independent: “I question, I challenge, sometimes I rant, and shout and demand to be heard, because in this space where so many things seem to be going wrong, I feel I have as much right to poke at people's thoughts.” She wrote on the TAP Web site: “A prose writer uses pen and paper to produce cold print, which is able to lift a dying soul from deep in the bosoms of oblivion.”

Selected writings

Short fiction

“Chained,” in Words From a Granary: An Anthology of Short Stories by Ugandan Women Writers, ed. Violet Barungi, FEMRITE, 2001.

“Bride Price for My Daughter,” in Tears of Hope: A Collection of Short Stories by Ugandan Rural Women, ed. Ayeta Anne Wangusa and Violet Barungi, FEMRITE, 2003.

“Strange Fruit,” AuthorMe, 2004, (accessed October 29, 2007).

“Grasshopper Redness,” in Seventh Street Alchemy, Jacana, 2005.

Children of the Red Fields (juvenile), Phoenix, 2005. “Jambula Tree,” in African Love Stories, ed. Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayebia Clarke Publishing, 2006.


“Damn You,” in Berlin Poetry Anthology, 2001.

“October Sunrise,” in Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America, ed. Jane Kurtz, Greenwillow, 2004.


“Northern Uganda … No Hope?” Transcend Art & Peace Network, 2002,˜our/pro2.Ug.mn1.html (accessed October 30, 2007).

“What Next for Acoli?” Transcend Art & Peace Network, 2002,˜our/pro2.Ug.mn2.html (accessed October 30, 2007).

“In the Stars,” Nation, September 15, 2003, p. 7.



African Business, August/September 2007, p. 73.

Independent (London), July 10, 2007.

Washington Post, July 10, 2007.


“Caine Prize Interview: Monica Arac de Nyeko,” Africa Beyond, (accessed October 29, 2007).

“Chatting with Monica Arac de Nyeko, Caine Prize Winner,” The African, (accessed October 29, 2007).

“Monica Arac de Nyeko: Project Participant in Uganda,” Crossing Borders: New Writing from Africa, (accessed October 29, 2007).

“Monica Arac de Nyeko (Uganda),” Time of the Writer Festival 2006, (accessed October 30, 2007).

“November 2002 TAP Network Member of the Month,” Transcend Art & Peace Network,˜our/m/mn.MOM.html (accessed October 30, 2007).

“‘Taboo’ Story Takes African Prize,” BBC News, (accessed October 29, 2007).

—Margaret Alic