Interview with Achiro Patricia Olwoch

In August this year the TV series The Coffee Shop won the Best TV Drama Category at the Uganda Film Festival 2016. The creator, Achiro Patricia Olwoch, learnt about the prize while spending some weeks at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators in Visby.

This Wednesday in the beginning of September, Achiro Patricia Olwoch has visited Säveskolan, a high school in Visby. A class with unaccompanied refugee children, mainly from Afghanistan, gets language education with film as an instrument for learning.
– They showed me a film that they have made and I showed them one of mine. I was very impressed of the interaction I had with them. What I really liked was that all different cultures were there together in one class. Kids from Afghanistan and Pakistan and Swedish kids, it was quite interesting to see the diversity of the group, she says.

Achiro Olwoch, a playwright and film director who today lives in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, was born in exile in Nairobi during the war in Uganda in 1978. She bases her writing on real life situations, motivated by the many issues in the society, and she adds a twist of imagination to each story. 

This is her first visit to Visby, but her second visit to Sweden. The very first visit to Sweden was in 2012 when she participated in the International Women Playwrights conference in Stockholm. It was there that she learnt about the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators in Visby.
– Visby is nice and quiet, I really love the serenity of it, she says.

When she arrived to the Baltic Centre, she was surprised that there was no burglar-proofing on the windows. During the first days she was thinking: what if somebody jumps in?
– In Uganda even if you are in the 8th floor, you have to have burglar-proofing. I realized that I could feel safe here. That is why I managed to work through the night without fear of intrusion. I think it´s those little things which for me have made a difference. They might be little and normal to somebody who is from here or from Europe, but for me it was something new, she says.

Normally she works through the night until about four o´clock in the morning, starting at three in the afternoon.
– I write best during the night when it´s quiet, she says.

She is now working on three different films at the same time: the documentary My Prison Diary, the feature film The Surrogate and the play The Child Bride.
– I have done so much during these three weeks in Visby. This is my first residence and I get a lot more concentration here, maybe because it´s far away from home, she thinks.

A desire to tell stories
The mother to one of Achiro´s friends, who is living in Gotland, took her to a day trip in the south part of the island.
– I love nature and was taking pictures and videos. I think I want to make a small documentary on my stay in Sweden, she says, smiling.

On the trip they visited Körsbärsgården, an art gallery in the southern point of Gotland.
– There was a room that had four screens, each with a special colour. Each of them showed mini-documentaries with artists doing different things (four films by SIMKA, Simon Häggblom and Karin Lind). I haven´t seen anything like it in Uganda, there are not so many contemporary art exhibitions there. For me it opened my eyes to play with my vision of a filmmaker. It kind of inspired me to go out of my box. To actually just experiment different things, she tells me.

When she was in her twenties and just had finished high school, she worked as an air hostess for six years before starting her writing career.
– Through school I had always been good in English and in writing compositions, but I never thought I could write for a living, she says and continues:
– In Uganda we don´t have a culture of reading, so people don´t really have the culture of writing as a profession. One day a friend of mine offered me a job as an editor for a book. That is how I left the airlines to start editing. And then later I found my voice as a writer.

She had a lot of stories in her mind. She started writing articles in the Monitor Newspaper about a woman´s experiences in a passenger service van, with a lot of humour. The stories depict the reality of using public transport in Kampala and were later published in the book Achiro's Kamunye Conversations.
– The fact that my texts were published gave me a confidence to become a writer, she says.

She got her film training from a three week long workshop, a film lab where she learned how to write a script for a film. On time was the title of Achiro Olwoch´s first film, which she had developed to a script at the workshop. The short film was directed by herself and she is one of the main actresses. She also wrote the story in prose, recently published in an anthologie in South Africa. A story of a girl who is a victim of the war in Northern Uganda.

– The story that I was telling was close to my heart. We had war that raged for almost 22 years in Nothern Uganda. Most of my stories are from the point of view what happened there. This history is about a seven yearold girl who tries to get food for herself and her family. If she doesn´t succeed they will all die, she is their only hope, Achiro says, adding:

– As I said we don´t have a very good reading culture, but people are good at watching things. I realized that I could tell a story by making a film. That is how I started to get into film. It was due to my desire to tell stories, but also the fact that this is a medium that everybody in the world uses.

A TV series based on real life characters
One of her inspirers is the Indian-born filmmaker Mira Nair. Her latest movie is the Disney-film Queen of Katwe (US, 2016) about an Ugandan girl who sees her world rapidly change after being introduced to the game of chess.
– She has been making films for over 30 years now and she has made it in Hollywood. For me she is my greatest inspiration, the number one, Achiro says.

She is also inspired by the Ugandan playwright Deborah Asiimwe.
– We met when we were writing for radio ten years ago and we stayed friends ever since. She got me really into playwriting and inspired me to write for payment. She talks from a practical point of view, like ”How can you better yourself as a writer?”

Achiro Olwoch is the creator and the sole writer of the TV series The Coffee Shop, aired on Urban TV in Uganda and pay-TV all over Africa.
– That is the only thing in my writing that is not about the Northen Uganda. It is a general happy film, more like a sitcom. It has a lot of humour, but it addresses real life situations. You can say that it´s heavy stuff, but with comedy in it, she explains.

When Achiro was living in Nairobi she had a group of friends that met after work. They went to the same coffee shop every single day.
– All of us had different personalities. We were four friends who met and just talked about our day. Once I was sitting there by myself, waiting for the others to come, thinking: What if I wrote something about our meetings. That´s how this idea was born. One of the characters is me: the way she thinks, the way she dresses. They are all based on real life characters.

During her stay at the Baltic Centre in Visby she got the news that the series had won the prize for best actor, best actress and best TV series at the Uganda Film Festival.
– A friend texted me in the middle of the night saying that The Coffee Shop won, and I said: Won what? She said: ”everything”. It was the best feeling ever.

One thing she wishes to work with during next year is retyping, editing and publish the manuscripts of her father. When he died in 1994 the family found seven manuscripts that he had written with a typewriter on a flimsy paper.
– He wasn´t a writer by profession, he was an agriculturist, she says.
– We didn´t know that he wrote. Now it´s time to have them published. Better late than never. For me it was like finding a treasure.

Text and photo: Maria Molin

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