When Esther Harder was preparing to leave Uganda and return to the U.S. seven years ago, her Ugandan host mother sent her with directions: “Go and tell our story. That is your job.”
It’s a comment that helps ground her while she writes. I interviewed Esther in her third-story office nook—a tidy desk facing a large, bright window with photographs from the four years when she lived and worked in Uganda tacked to the wall nearby. She spends four days a week here, writing.
Esther is currently working on the first novel she hopes to publish, The Old Ones and the Graves. It explores the conflict between the Karimojong and Iteso people in Uganda through the eyes of teenage characters. She has also drafted a biography of Sam Eibu, the director of the Peace Promoter Program where she worked in Uganda.
Esther lived in North-Eastern Uganda in Soroti, along the border between the Iteso and Karimojong people, where there is a long history of violent conflict and people being displaced from their homes (Here’s a great article she wrote about the Peace Promoter program). There is an origin myth in Soroti that the Iteso and Karimojong began as one large family, but an argument divided them. Fascinated by how this conflict is written into the culture’s story, Esther often asked people from both groups to share their perspective of this story with her. The Old Ones and the Graves, which is currently in the revision process, offers the stories of a fictional Iteso girl and Karimojong boy whose lives cross in important ways although they don’t know each other. She hopes that these multiple, first-person perspectives will offer people up-close, personal experiences of the conflict.
During her four-year term in Uganda with Mennonite Central Committee, Esther encountered deep pain among the people in this area including gender-based violence and former abductees. For some time she felt ashamed that her response to hearing these stories was to write them down: “I couldn’t explain for myself how writing down this story could make a difference,” she said. “How does that do anything when these people are struggling to survive?”
Inspiration to keep writing came through her reading, particularly this quote from Frederick Buechner:
Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.
For Esther, this idea drew connections between her joy of writing and the value of sharing these stories with people who don’t know them. It encouraged her decision to return to the U.S. and get an M.F.A. in creative writing at Chatham University. Since then, she moved to Rwanda to teach for two years. “Even when I was so busy in Rwanda with teaching, I would get itchy to write,” Esther says. She found an agent and returned to Pittsburgh to write.
Of course, being a writer has its challenges. Esther compares it to jogging where “some days your whole body doesn’t even want to move.” However, creating a routine makes it easier at times. “The good days are when you fall into the character and lose track of where you are,” she says. “You get that feeling of coming up for air at some point and it’s an hour later.” Feedback from her friends has been a great encouragement for her writing process.
As an American writing about Uganda, Esther is careful with how she negotiates her role as author: “I go through waves of claiming Uganda as mine and feeling worried that it’s another form of colonialism,” she says. She studies African writers and cites Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Danger of a Single Story and Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay “How to Write About Africa” as pieces that she always keeps in mind. She regularly connects with her Ugandan friends and searches for how to depict their stories in a way that feels “right” for them.
Esther exercises her creativity in other forms as well. She works part-time at the Carnegie Library where, among other things, she conjures up impressive bulletin boards and book displays. She recently started writing short plays for puppet performances. She writes a column that will be published starting this fall in the devotional magazine Purpose.
Esther continues to consider the way that writing fits in her life. A year ago, she described herself as “figuring things out and maybe on the side trying this book thing.” Over time, she has found a rhythm and become comfortable with calling herself a writer first: “It’s not like that question of how writing changes things is necessarily answered for me yet,” she says, “but I feel at peace leaning into it.”