Achiro P. Olwoch
Current Status: In Exile
PEN America and the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) invite you to “The Survival,” a play written by award-winning Ugandan writer, playwright, and filmmaker, Achiro Patricia Olwoch, for the Criminal Queerness Festival. Prior to the play, we will be gathering in Central Park for our first-ever “Let’s Say Gay! Picnic and Play,” an event designed to celebrate Achiro’s play and other LGBTQ+ stories at a time when the voices and experiences of sexual minorities are being censored and banned outright in schools across the nation. Join us as we say say “NO!” to censorship and “GAY!” in defiance to celebrate Pride Month and Achiro’s poignant work at 7:00 pm on Friday, June 24.
“Shame, shame. That is what they call it. Abomination, abomination. That is what they call me,” begins Ugandan writer Achiro Patricia Olwoch’s “The Survival.”
The play follows the lives of Achan, a 28-year-old woman dealing with ridicule from her mother about the fact that she is not yet married, and Oyat and John, a gay couple hiding their identity in a conservative community that does not protect the “right to love whoever [you] please - the right to being a human being - the right to live.” Achiro explores the dividing line between culture and modernity in Ugandan society and the taboos of homosexuality and pregnancy out of wedlock. The storyline, poignant and endowed with pathos, is influenced by Achiro’s own witnessing of the changing legal landscape against homosexuality in Uganda. Personal identity and cultural traditions are frequently pitted against each other in her work.
Achiro was born in exile in Nairobi. Her family was forced to flee their home in Gulu, northern Uganda during the dictatorship of Idi Amin (1971-1979), a period in Ugandan history marked by widespread human rights abuses and the persecution of minority ethnic groups. This family history of being at risk simply because of one’s ethnic background would come to inform the questions of identity and belonging confronted by Achiro in her later writing.
Achiro spent the first six years of her career as a flight attendant until a friend offered her an editing role. She took up the job offer, walking away from the airline industry in 2007, beginning her new career as an editor and slowly finding her own voice as a writer. A key element of her work has been drawing from real-life experiences while adding a “twist of imagination” to each story.
She started off in the editorial field as a Sub-Editor for the Ugandan lifestyle magazine, “African Woman.” From there her career extended into creating and producing radio drama series as she developed an interest in hearing her characters’ voices in real-time, jumping off of the pages she wrote. It was in 2013 that she began working on a television series for Urban TV Uganda. The show, “Coffee Shop,” traced the everyday lives of Mrs. Muturi, the coffee shop owner, and her four customers, Lisa, Christine, Monica, and Adam. It received the award for Best TV Drama at the Uganda Film Festival in 2016.
Achiro took her television experience to create short films and documentaries, moving from popular culture productions to works with an undercurrent of political and cultural critique. Her short film, “The Surrogate,” a precursor to “The Survival,” premiered at Nairobi’s Slum Film Festival in 2017 and was nominated for three awards for Best Film, Africa, Best Score, and Best Film, Gender and Equality, winning Best Film, Africa. Achiro works to make a difference in her community through the stories she pens. She hopes her writing “sparks conversations and gives voice to [those] who are unable to tell their own stories.”
Achiro frequently grapples with the struggle for LGBTQ rights and the post-colonial context of her home country. Homosexuality remains illegal in Uganda, prohibited under the Penal Code, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Stemming from criminal code provisions retained from the British colonial era, anti-LGBTQ laws have been the source of successive revision attempts by the Ugandan parliament over the past decade, with the goal of further tightening restrictions and strengthening punishments. Police raids remain a real fear in the LGBTQ community.
At risk of being arrested for her LGBTQ and political themed works, as well as her sexual identity, Achiro sought asylum in the United States. She is, in a sense, speaking to herself when she has Oyat proclaim, “you cannot make culture dictate what you should do with your life” (“The Survival”).
Currently based in New York City, Achiro is completing a residency as an artist-at-risk at Westbeth. She volunteers as the Africa representative on the Women Playwrights International Management Committee and is part of the arts collective with the National Queer Theater in New York. She was recently selected as a mentee in Forecast’s seventh edition, a platform dedicated to linking artists and creatives across the world with established mentors to guide their projects. Achiro will be working on her first novel, Sex or Slave, which follows the life of a now eighty-year-old grandmother who shares her forbidden love story during 1940s colonial Uganda with her grandson, a young man persecuted after being outed as gay in the local newspaper. The Forecast forum is set for July 2022.
Achiro is in the process of completing her late father’s manuscripts, left behind after his death in 1994. As she readies them to share with the rest of the world, she is keeping pace with her own writing, finalizing two memoirs, I was who they are and The Girl from Koro Abili. The former highlights her experience as a lesbian in Uganda, her fleeing the country, and her new beginning in the United States. The latter work conveys her life story, from being born in exile and living as an outsider-looking-in while the war in northern Uganda cut her and her family off from the rest of the country to today, living a new chapter of a life in exile. She is also working on three feature scripts: “The General’s Amnesty” (a drama set in a detention center during the dictatorship of Idi Amin in 1970s Uganda), “The Uprising” (a historical fiction commenting on the uprisings against British colonial rule in the early 20th century), and “The Surrogate Play” (a mockumentary showcasing a clash of cultures between a Ugandan writer and a South African-American director when they come together to put on an LGBTQ themed play during a theater festival in Uganda). Beyond reviewing her father’s writing, there is an element of family history that pervades her entire body of work, as she notes, “politics in Uganda in 2021 is just like it was during Amin’s regime in the 1970s.”
Now, in 2022 – a year after fleeing Uganda and coming out – Achiro’s advice to her younger self? “Just live your life and love yourself.” In her own words, “Okay, I have to go now. I can feel your fear for the future now, but please, do not worry. It will turn out fine. Just remember, enjoy your twenties, as they are the best time of your life. Do not wait until 2021 to realize that you should have.”
By Julianne Schmidt, June 2022. Julianne is the University of Toronto Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program summer fellow at the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC).