Collecting Little Pieces through Observation: A Dialogue with Joyce Odera Nwankwo



Joyce was born in Cameroon. She developed a love for storytelling in her teens, when for hours she would enthral her classmates with on-the-spot fictional stories. Her goal as a writer is to connect deeply with the reader through relatable characters. 

She speaks English and French. She loves history, art, beaches, fresh fruits, boxing, and conversations with strangers.



This conversation took place between Abuja and Kampala via email.

Delightful Cage is set in Lagos and explores religion, marriage, and professional life through the eyes of Dimma Amélie Orendu, a 28-year-old woman who attempts to escape the drama of her parent’s broken marriage by plunging herself into her animation career and the lives of her best friends Peju, a brilliant 32-year-old programmer who doesn’t want to marry or have children, and Zaria, a 30-year-old nurse from a tight-knit family who yearns for a family of her own.

Joyce talks about how she collected pieces of Delightful Cage while she adjusted to life in Nigeria, her concerns about not telling the story properly, making peace with her perception of herself as a writer and storyteller, choosing a title that reflected the mental state of her protagonist, and how her mother’s honesty about her experiences and failures gave her the courage to explore intricate mother-daughter dynamics.


Davina: What’s the most profound thing a stranger has said to you?

Joyce: Once, while I was on a solo hike, I met a group of men, possibly in their mid-twenties, sitting around smoking marijuana. As a young woman living in Nigeria, I quickly learned to avoid such people. However, in that instance, I didn’t. Fortunately, the young men turned out to be rather friendly and told me stories about the nearby town; midway, one of them said, “We are not the bad guys.”

Davina: I’m currently reading Nanjala Nyabola’s Travelling While Black. In the first chapter, which is partly about her experience of volunteering in Haiti, she writes about the “…global tapestry of oppression that women live under: when we are still far too young, we have to learn how to navigate the violence and excesses of men”:

Women, even before they stop being girls, must develop an entire extra set of skills that have no function other than protecting themselves from men. I think of all the hours we spend subconsciously learning all these strategies and then applying them: what would women accomplish if they didn’t have to spend so much energy learning how to survive men? How far would we get if we didn’t have to carry this extra burden? There are very few women in the world who don’t grow up with this pressure.

Since reading that, I’ve had several conversations with myself about the strategies I adopt when I suspect that I’ll be out late – all the things I’m convinced will increase my chances of getting home safely. I’ve noticed that I tend to wear shoes with durable soles and ensure that I’m not carrying extraneous items in my bag (in case I have to outrun a bad guy on my way from the main road to the gate).

Joyce: I can relate on some level. However, I don’t always think about my safety in that regard. I grew up as an only girl amongst two boys; I spent my childhood playing and fighting with them. For a brief period, I lived only with my brothers and father; during that time, my father made very few gender distinctions in how he raised us. There’s a part of me that tends to feel at home around men. Sometimes, when I look back at certain situations I found myself in, I’m almost frightened by how I wasn’t more cautious. It’s sort of like “What was I thinking, being so carefree?” 

The older I get, the more aware I become of the need for caution. Yet, the thought of wearing comfortable shoes to run easily barely crosses my mind. I would say that perhaps growing up with boys has enabled me to see most men for the humans that they are. 

Notwithstanding the presence of some very dangerous people out there, I don’t think too much about being a woman who always has to protect herself. In terms of how this way of thinking might have affected me, it seems most men I’ve encountered are intrigued by how at ease I tend to be, and so far no one has harassed me.

Davina: Where does boxing fit into all of this?

Joyce: I truly love boxing, although it’s an activity I sort of stumbled into. I started out merely riding my bicycle at a sports park in Abuja. Then, when I met a group of boxers there, I decided to join and haven’t stopped since.

Boxing requires speed, agility, and coordination, which can certainly be physically tasking. But, when you’re in motion, there’s nothing like it. The freedom and precision of demonstrative hand and body movements is thrilling. I think boxing helps me release tension. It also boosts my confidence. There’s a part of me that feels safer because I know I can defend myself in the face of danger.

Davina: Ah, a fellow cycling enthusiast. You’re proving to be a writer after my own heart, Joyce. Very well done. 

I know what you mean about those moments when you’re in motion. Truly, few things compare. When I was still an active cyclist, nothing came close to filling me with a sense of freedom, excitement, and adventure. Would you consider cross-country bikepacking through Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda?

Joyce: Absolutely! I would do it tomorrow if I could. I would love to visit East Africa; I have never been there before and as someone who loves interacting with people in their natural element, cross-country bikepacking is something I’m certainly open to. I just need good company. Who knows? It could be with you.

Davina: Lovely! It’s a date! You can only bring one playlist and one luxury item, though. What will it be, so? 

Joyce: Oh, this is hard! One playlist? Ne-Yo’s Year of the Gentleman. Luxury item? A silk night dress because there’s nothing better than sleeping in silk.

Davina: Excellent choices! We’ll properly plan a bikepacking itinerary after we’ve finished discussing your novel. Why is Delightful Cage a novel? Why isn’t it a collection of short stories or poems or essays? Further, why a novel in English?

Joyce: Delightful Cage is a story I needed to tell, first, to myself. Having lived the first seventeen years of my life in Cameroon, relocating to Nigeria was more challenging than I anticipated, particularly socio-culturally.

There were many unspoken rules about everything from ethnicity to religious organisation, political influence, mental health, classism, general attitudes towards matrimony, economic factors influencing the widening income gap between the haves and have-nots, etc.

I felt more like an observer looking into a society that I was, weirdly, supposed to be part of; think of it like learning how to be Nigerian. Over the years, I collected little pieces of the story here and there and I guess my understanding of what I have experienced and witnessed came through as a novel.

Why in English? I am more fluent in English. I tend to speak to myself in English, so naturally I write in English. There are a couple of French lines sprinkled here and there in the novel, though.

Davina: I like that idea, Joyce, of needing to tell a story to yourself before sharing it with others. Where it gets tricky is when I stay in that mode for too long and forget that other people are meant to read, and enjoy, the story, too. But that’s what editing is for, isn’t it? It’s for going in, after one has had catharsis, and trying to adapt the story for an audience other than oneself.

I usually self-edit, in MS Word, before I pass my stories on to writer friends. During this process I will leave several notes in the margin – comments like “This isn’t credible,” or “Be serious! Would you pay real money to read this part?”

Joyce: That’s quite interesting, Davina. I didn’t write notes but I had concerns. The first thing I did, after writing the first draft, was to rewrite – this time with all the candour I could muster. I fought back the urge to downplay or omit things I thought characters ought to say and do. While this might sound insignificant, I remember refusing to be ashamed of the scrutiny the characters might face, and of how their behaviour might reflect on me.

During the first editorial process, my editor helped me own my voice without succumbing to the fear of scrutiny. I had to come to a place of peace about what my perception, as a writer and storyteller, means to me and what it means to others. I think a separation between the two allows others to take from the story whatever resonates with them.

Davina: I know what you mean. I also had to come to a place where my confidence in the work I felt I had to do as a writer/storyteller took precedence over concerns about comparisons people might draw between me and my characters.

Rejecting shame is not insignificant, Joyce. This is a huge milestone. I used to fret over the possibility that people would think I was indirectly writing about myself. Thinking of how ashamed I would be, should someone I knew conflate my experience with that of my characters, was enough for me to censor myself and my characters. 

It doesn’t matter how many times you say, “This story is fiction.” People will still say, “Right. But was it based on your life?” For a long time, I wouldn’t dare to write sex scenes because I couldn’t imagine my parents reading them. Fiske Nyirongo puts it this way: “My parents should forever think I am a virgin, even when I have a partner or multiple children.”

Are there parts in your novel that made you think, “Oh, God. My parents will read this!”

Over the years, I collected little pieces of the story here and there and I guess my understanding of what I have experienced and witnessed came through as a novel.

Joyce: (Laughs.) There are. There’s a sex scene that had me thinking, “Do I really need to add this here?” At the end of the day, I am who I am and I’m also a storyteller. Whatever happens isn’t as relevant to my experience as it is to the fact that I wrote every part of this novel in my way.

Thank you for your remark about overcoming the shame of comparison; I appreciate your sincerity. As far as comparisons go, I had friends who read the first draft and tried to draw strings here and there, to which I said, “Quite frankly, if I wrote about myself, it would be far more compelling.” But I don’t have the courage to do that. Not yet.

Davina: When I read “…think of it like learning how to be Nigerian,” I instantly thought of Elnathan John’s Be(com)ing Nigerian: A Guide. The ‘How to Worship the Nigerian God’ section opens with a clarification about the importance of prayer:

…a few people confuse being a worshiper with complicated things like character, good work or righteousness. The fact that you choose to open every meeting with multiple prayers does not mean that you intend to do what is right. It nonetheless means that the opening prayer is important. Nothing, I repeat nothing, can work without it. If you are gathered to discuss how to inflate contracts, begin with an opening prayer or two. If you are gathered to discuss how to rig elections, begin with a prayer. The Nigerian God appreciates communication. When you sneak away from your wife to call your girlfriend in the bathroom, and she asks if you will come this weekend, you must say — in addition to “Yes” — “By God’s grace” or “God willing” or “insha Allah”. It doesn’t matter what language you use. Just say it. The Nigerian God likes to be consulted before you do anything, including a trip to Obudu to see one of your [other] lovers. Sometimes, when you have impressed one of your many lovers with your sexual prowess and they look at you in amazement, just say: ‘Baby, I give God all the glory.’

Every time I reread John’s book, I find something new to laugh at. Its title could easily be Be(com)ing Ugandan: A Guide. The similarities between Nigeria and Uganda are equal parts comforting and disturbing!

Joyce: I will absolutely read Elnathan John’s Be(com)ing Nigerian: A Guide. That was such a hilarious excerpt.

Davina: Please, please, please get a copy. That book will kill you properly. I no longer read books when I’m using public transport because other passengers side-eye me whenever I laugh aloud at something on a page. The ones at the front kept turning to give me “…but who is this mad woman that’s daring to disturb our peace?” looks. 

Joyce: (Laughs.) Oh, they don’t! 

Davina: They do! What is the funniest book you’ve read recently?

Joyce: The funniest book I’ve read recently, this year actually, is Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.

Davina: Ah, Trevor Noah. I love him. When my sister and I had just discovered him, we’d go around imitating his accent and repeating parts of his stand-up routines to each other: “eeeh weeeh aaapa…we want to know: where does this lightning come from?”

Joyce: I didn’t only enjoy his ability to explain serious issues in a humorous way but, at multiple points, while reading, paused to reflect on and ponder a couple of points he raised. It’s a brilliant book.

Davina: When I mentioned John’s book, I also meant to ask about the title of yours.

Joyce: Honestly, Davina, the first title I came up with was Nigerians Will Have My Head for This. 

Davina: You worried about backlash!

Joyce: Oh, yes, definitely. I wrote about a protagonist who openly defies certain social norms most Nigerians live by. It’s only natural to expect the “How dare you?” eye-roll. Although I also think the title was exaggerated for effect. It only changed when my editor pointed out that it didn’t quite capture the essence of the novel, at least not in a serious way.

Davina: Is this a professional editor that you keep on retainer, or a writer friend you regularly rely on for guidance?

Joyce: I worked with a professional editor, although not on retainer. (Laughs.) From the onset, I wanted to work with someone who is open minded – someone who can appreciate finer nuances. I was lucky to work with Kelechi Njoku, who helped me refine the structure of the story. I’m not sure we would be having this conversation without what he offered.

I wanted a title that reflected what I believe to be the mental state of the protagonist, Dimma, and he helped me bring this idea clearly into focus. Throughout the novel, we see Dimma undergo a painful realisation of who she is. She’s forced to reexamine her values and the internal parameters she uses to experience and judge herself and others. In the process of this reexamination, she realises that she had been caged by what she had considered to be her value system. Hence Delightful Cage.

Davina: I like Nigerians Will Have My Head For This. Some day, you should write a book with that title. Perhaps a series of light-hearted and playful mini-essays?

Joyce: You know what? As you suggested, I will keep the title close; you never know what might pop up.

Davina: What did writing this novel teach you?

Joyce: I found a quote, by Paulo Coelho, that perfectly explains what I have learned: “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”

There’s another quote, also by Paulo Coelho: “We can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation. It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think that yours is the only path.” 

Before you say anything, yes, I am a huge fan of Paulo Coelho’s work. Other than The Alchemist, I highly recommend Veronika Decides To Die and Eleven Minutes

Davina: I don’t know what it’s like where you’re from, Joyce, but where I’m from, one is generally required to speak of motherhood in glowing terms, and with hallowed language. I’ve learned that it takes more than the usual dose of bravery to admit to yourself or to someone else that your experience of being a mother was disappointing – nothing at all like what people promised it’d be.

In response to a question about how she came to terms with writing a story that “…shatters the myth of childbearing as complete bliss,” Ukamaka Olisakwe said, “I think it was a choice between insanity and truth”:

Every time I listened to certain songs about sweet motherhood, or heard the stories about the perfect childbirth experience where the mother emerged unscathed at the end of the story, or even when I saw those photos of the smiling, perfect mother holding her chubby beautiful child, they triggered something unpleasant inside me. Those songs, those images, had long become the single story of motherhood I grew up to. They said childbirth completes a woman and gives her prestige. They said the woman hears the cry of her baby at the end of a birthing ordeal and she goes on to live happily ever after. It turned out that that wouldn’t be my story. And there were no kind stories out there in my immediate community about my experience that I could connect to. Everywhere I turned to, mothers performed perfection or spoke in derision about mothers whose husbands chased after girls with firm bodies.

I’m thinking of this in relation to the scene where Dimma is in her mother’s room and her attention shifts to the photos displayed on the wall, which range from when Dimma is a month old to when she’s six-years-old. Dimma associates her sixth birthday with the time her mother started to find motherhood disappointing.

What choices did you have to make in order to properly write the stories of Dimma and her mother? 

Joyce: You know, Davina, I really appreciate you for pointing that out. I find that motherhood is such a sensitive subject and, more often than not, we prefer to think about it graciously. Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case, especially when people start opening up about the difficulties of being raised by a flawed person who happened to be their mother, or when a mother starts being honest about how much of herself it seems she has to give up to fit the gracious role of motherhood.

I grew up observing mothers, some of them my aunties, being resentful, often covertly, about all the things they had to give up in order to be a ‘good’ mother. I discovered that resentment doesn’t create a healthy environment for either the mother or child to thrive in. So, acting as if motherhood is always blissful, or is supposed to be an endless stream of joy, doesn’t permit mothers to share the more nuanced parts of their experiences. 

My relationship with my mother probably gave me the courage to forge ahead while writing the dynamics between Dimma and her mother. Primarily because for as long as I can remember, my mother has always been honest with me about her experiences and her failures. This has helped me see her as a person that has a life that’s set apart from her role as my mother. It has also allowed me to connect with her on a much deeper level – one that extends beyond the mother-daughter relationship. So, I guess, this foundation allowed me to explore such a sensitive topic.

My goal here is to present the characters in all their glories and with all their flaws. I think when we begin to see people as they are, we create room for understanding, forgiveness, and deeper emotional connections.

Davina: When Rachel Cusk wrote about her experiences and failures as a new mother in A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, she received severe criticism, some of which she addressed in I Was Only Being Honest:

On and on it went, back and forth: I was accused of child-hating, of postnatal depression, of shameless greed, of irresponsibility, of pretentiousness, of selfishness, of doom-mongering and, most often, of being too intellectual. […] I was cited everywhere as having said the unsayable: that it is possible for a woman to dislike her children, even to regret having brought them into the world.

As writers go, I have a skin of average thickness. I am pleased by a good review, disappointed by a bad [one]. None of it penetrates far enough to influence the thing I write next. This time, it was different. Again and again people judged the book not as readers but as mothers, and it was judgment of a sanctimoniousness whose like I had never experienced. Yet I had experienced it, in a way: it was part of what I had found intolerable in the public culture of motherhood, the childcare manuals and the toddler groups, the discourse of domestic life, even the politics of birth itself. In motherhood the communal was permitted to prevail over the individual, and the result, to my mind, was a great deal of dishonesty.”

Did you receive unfavourable reviews of your story? Did they influence how you re-wrote? Many Ugandans I know pride themselves in communality – in the idea that each of us is because we are. You spoke earlier of the need to see and meet people as and where they are; how did this play out vis-à-vis deciding whether to privilege the individual or the community?

Joyce: When I wrote the first draft of Delightful Cage, I was so unsettled by how the story would be received that I had a couple of friends and their friends read it. Here is why I was unsettled: it’s a contemporary novel, set in Lagos, that features real locations and deals with sensitive issues. I was afraid that I wasn’t telling the story properly or portraying certain things correctly.

If I took to heart some of the remarks I got, I would have abandoned the novel. In the end, I decided that if that draft could stir so many emotions, positive and negative, then the story must be worth telling. 

I privileged the individual over the community on purpose. The novel is written in the first person point of view, which allows the protagonist to shed light on her thought process, motivations, and actions. I can’t think of anything that gets more individual than that. 

Back to the excerpt you shared, I haven’t experienced motherhood; my ideas about what motherhood should look like and how it should feel are limited. However, I believe that, like most things, some people handle it better than others and that everyone should be allowed space for their truth. We can’t have a thriving society if some truths are treated as inferior or unacceptable; what that does is breed deception.

I think resistance to contrary opinions is based on the impression and fear that they invalidate our experiences. However, what different perspectives do is widen our view of an issue, a situation, a problem, and how possible solutions should be implemented. This is important because no one has a monopoly on what truth is: there’s no one with a 360 degree viewpoint. 

Without open conversations, we don’t give ourselves room to question what we believe are absolute truths. How then can we resolve, collaborate, and progress? I think what would be useful is to learn how to sit with the discomfort created by opinions that are contrary to the ones we hold, otherwise we will be polarised and lack the capacity for the kind of conversations that build community. 

Davina: Religious belief is another sensitive topic, Joyce. I know people that have lost friends, or stopped talking to family members, because of clashes over the same. You describe Dimma’s religious beliefs as “unconventional.” Here, that would likely mean that she’s an atheist or that she privileges beliefs that don’t conform to Christianity or Islam.

Joyce: Dimma identifies as an omnist at the start of the novel. An omnist is someone who believes there’s truth in all religions; an omnist doesn’t necessarily feel the need to pick one religion. Later in the story, we begin to understand that she has grievances against God. The predominant religious beliefs she questions are her Christian beliefs, because she was born into a Christian family and her best friend, Zaria, is a fervent church-goer. 

As someone who’s keen on continuous spiritual growth, I believe everyone should find God for themselves; some people find God within a congregation while others take that walk alone. That said, respect for, and tolerance of, people’s religious beliefs, even while questioning and searching, is important. The key point here is that she is searching for meaning and belonging; by the time the story ends, I believe she has found a semblance of it. 

Davina: Before Dimma’s mother leaves for Senegal, she says, “I will not come back here.” Dimma’s mother has decided that her marriage won’t kill her: “Not it or anything that came with it.” 

Dimma doesn’t ask, “What about me?” Instead, she asks, “What about your clothes…your jewellery…your shoes…?”

The last thing Dimma’s mother says at the airport isn’t “I love you” or “take care” but “be a good girl.” Why would someone that has finally come into her own, that has finally found the courage to leave a bad marriage, offer that kind of advice? Is goodness really what Dimma needs more of? 

Then, again, this is a woman whose bookshelf is loaded with books like ‘How to Win Your Husband’s Heart,’ ‘Woman After God’s Heart,’ ‘Letting the Man Lead: Five Rules of Submission,’ and ‘10 Signs of a Happy Marriage.’ So, perhaps, her emphasis on goodness shouldn’t surprise me. 

Joyce: Hmmm, Davina, I love how you’re analysing the behaviours of the characters. Here’s what I would say: Dimma is used to not being a priority to her mother. She doesn’t expect it; she doesn’t even think about it as a possibility. She might have even learned that this type of relationship is normal; so, naturally, her reaction is to ask about the things she knows her mother cares about, or used to care about.

We also see her mother as someone who has been shaped by the society she finds herself in – the church she attends, and the books she reads. I believe it is her way of giving something useful to her daughter. Perhaps she believes that if her daughter is “good,” she might have a better life than hers.

Davina: I often think about how easy it is to find ourselves drawn to roles that we despise. Although Dimma is sickened by the idea that her father has a mistress, she eventually finds herself contemplating life as Mide’s mistress.

Very few roles fascinate me as much as that of the mistress, Joyce. Especially in a society like the one I’m from, where people will use every opportunity to quote bible verses about how the mouth of a strange woman is a pit while simultaneously acknowledging mistresses as “necessary evils” (I was watching a TV show recently, during which panelists suggested that the most traditional of African traditional values is polygamy, ahem).

There’s an old song titled ‘Spare Tyre,’ in which the persona addresses her husband’s mistress – effectively telling her to stay in her lane. The persona says, “Look here…I’m aware you exist, but I’m his official woman…I pick out all the clothes he looks good in…you’re merely my helper…all you are is a spare tyre…you’re like a hyena that follows a lion around, waiting to eat whatever it discards.” 

The persona cautions the mistress not to forget how she’s perceived (i.e. as a prostitute) and to realize that she’s not very different from alcohol, the sort of thing the persona’s husband indulges in to kill his boredom. And so on and so forth. 

I’m intrigued by the idea of the helper’s helper – the helpmeet’s helpmeet. I think a lot about its everyday and everynight implications. Were there any ideas you wished to explore through the mistress characters in your story?

Joyce: I read the lyrics of the Spare Tyre song and I can only think of one word: shaming. While shaming is often the select tool for dealing with infidelity, it is not an effective one because it doesn’t get to the root of the matter. What it does is expect a woman to, for instance, be content with her position as a wife and not ask questions or hold her husband accountable; it often directs blame at the wife, suggesting that she is not and cannot be enough. Shaming condones and simultaneously isolates the man, while obscuring some aspects. The mistress might take the bulk of social scorn, but this doesn’t stop the situation from repeating itself. 

Some parts were easy to write and others weren’t. More than just picking a side between whether to be a mistress or not, it was about showing how the characters make certain decisions, why they make those decisions and, possibly, what they get out of it. I think that for as long as we are still talking about two women at loggerheads over who is more important, or who occupies the more privileged position, we are having an unhelpful conversation. Often, such disputes absolve the men involved and I don’t think that’s a healthy way to resolve differences.

Here’s what I believe: wherever there’s an affair with a mistress, there are three stories. Each of those stories deserves to be told and understood in order to heal the situation. In Dimma’s case, although she forms an emotional connection with Mide, she initially doesn’t do so with the intention of becoming a mistress; it is only later that she realises that she is already acting like one. The purpose isn’t to decide if she is right or wrong but to show how something like this could happen and how to possibly act when that happens. 

Davina: Poet and clinical psychologist Musawenkosi Khanyile has spoken about the challenges of managing emotional pain:

By the time we are adults, we are adept at understanding and dealing with the physical. We are used to regulating physical pain. […] But the mental is elusive. If we grew up knowing how to regulate emotional or psychological pain as much as we learned to regulate physical pain, we wouldn’t have as much suicide as we do. I’m quite certain that we wouldn’t be able to pick up depression as much as we are able to if it wasn’t accompanied by physical symptoms. So even the little that we are able to achieve with the mental, it is because of the physical. We normally refer to these physical symptoms of depression as “somatic symptoms”. 

I think that most of us do not know how to deal with emotions. Our upbringing robbed us of the opportunity to learn how to do this, because even people who raised us were also deprived of the opportunity to learn how to do this. It’s a generational problem. In most cases, when someone is crying, we are too quick to put our arms around them because the physical comes naturally to us. We do not know how to sit with emotional pain, ours and that of our loved ones.

Dimma has quite a number of emotions to work through. Eventually, her anxiety escalates because she’s struggling for control over herself and others. But there are moments when she must, as it were, sit with her pain, during her journey towards self-discovery.

Joyce: Absolutely! It was important to me that I attempted to dissect what happens in the mind of a character who is on the verge of losing it. Let me clarify that one character cannot speak for all the forms and ways in which a person can suffer mentally and emotionally. However, Dimma provided a window for me to shed as much light as I could. We see how she pretended to be okay and how she lost that fight. I also wanted to shed light on the shame of admitting to mental health struggles.

When someone is struggling mentally and emotionally, they do not want pity. But, often, that’s the first thing people fling at them: pity, then judgement, and, perhaps, shame. 

There’s a part where Dimma recalls her parents’ disappointment and shame after her failed suicide attempt. It is about how they were more concerned with ensuring that no one found out. At the same time, we can in some ways sympathise with her parents who weren’t taught how to handle mental health issues; their reaction was based on what they’ve been conditioned by society to do.

Conversations about emotional intelligence and mental health shouldn’t only be about how the sufferers need counselling and support but also about how primary caregivers and everyone else need to be schooled on how to handle and manage these challenges. We all need to learn about emotional intelligence and practice mental health routines, whether we are actively dealing with a crisis or not. We can be conditioned to actively regulate our emotions and take mental health breaks in the same way we have been conditioned to brush our teeth twice daily. 


This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Zenas Ubere.

Davina Philomena Kawuma

Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda. 

She writes poetry, fiction, and essays. Her short story, “Of Birds and Bees”, was shortlisted for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2022 Gerald Kraak Prize. Her short story, “Touch Me Not”, was shortlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize.

She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, writes about topics that interest her, and is an aspiring wildlife photographer.



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