‘If I turn something into comedy, I can cope with it,’ – poet Samantha Maw on writing, love and life in Uganda

NITRB's Ellen Lavelle talks to poet Samantha Maw about her time in Uganda, establishing creative communities and current writing projects.

Samantha and I have worked at the same bookshop for just over a month now. One of the jobs we have to do is to price up all of the strange things the shop sells – the notebooks, the cuddly toys, the rubber dinosaurs with eyes that bulge when you squeeze them. We do this side-by-side at the counter, ready to leap into action if a customer appears and needs attention. 

I was pricing with Samantha a few weeks ago and the subject turned to writing. 

‘Yeah, I’ve written a book of poetry,’ she said. ‘It’s called Goat on a Bike. And I’m writing a memoir about my time in Africa. It’s called A Lizard in My Bra.’ 

When I’m not pricing stuff, I interview people – writers mainly – about their work. I normally have to send emails, wait for replies, but here was one in the wild. We arranged to meet after work one day, in a pub up the High Street, so I can ask her all the questions we’re too busy to discuss at work. 

Goat on a Bike – Illustration by Laura Jones.

She joins me in The Cardinal’s Hat on a Monday night in November. It’s cold outside and the pub is pre-Christmas cosy; people in scarves, feeling merry a couple of pints in. We sit on the window seat, take off a couple of layers.

Samantha is an experienced teacher of adults and children, in the UK and Uganda. Now, when she’s not working in the shop, she writes and performs poetry, runs a show on a community radio station featuring local writers. 

‘I just want to do stuff I’m interested in now,’ she says. ‘As a teacher, I always had to teach the things I was told to. Now, I just want to do what I’m interested in.’

Samantha didn’t set out to be a teacher. She was brought up in the church; after studying English and Religious Studies at The University of Glamorgan, she worked for ten years as a Youth Worker in the UK and Ireland. After a period of illness, she got a job as a student administrator at a school in Nottingham. Based on her experience, the school offered her a position as an unqualified teacher before she trained as a RE teacher. 

‘That was a mistake,’ Samantha says. ‘I should have trained as an English teacher. They were taking Religious Studies off the syllabus, dissolving it into citizenship and PSHE. I’d always wanted to go to Africa so, when I saw what was happening, I jacked in my job and flew over.’ 

Originally, Samantha only intended to go to Uganda for a year but she ended up staying for four. 

‘That was when I started writing properly,’ she said. ‘Originally it was just a series of blogs for my friends back home.’ Now, though, after studying an MA in Writing, Samantha is determined to make it something more. A Lizard in My Bra is her memoir, a work-in-progress, about her time in Uganda. 

‘It’s an amazing place,’ she says, ‘The people are lovely, the weather is lovely, but nothing goes according to plan.’ 

She’s full of stories, about climbing down the hill to school, about climbing up again to get home, about the policemen over there, the friends she made.

‘One night, there was a very loud evangelist near my house,’ she says. ‘Preaching and singing hymns. It went on for twenty-four hours. It was loudest PA system you’ve ever heard in your life. I marched over and pulled out several leads, but it didn’t shut off the noise. A policeman came over and started asking questions. A great big crowd of people started gathering. I was shouting, “This is not what Jesus wants! Children are sleeping!’

It wasn’t all preachers and shouting, however.

‘My overriding memory is falling in love with my boyfriend at the time,’ she says. ‘It was the first year I was there and he worked for the Ugandan school. I think I fell in love with him instantly. I rang my friend and told her I’d met the man I was going to marry. If he wasn’t at school, I just felt like a piece of damp… nothingness, just limp. I really, really loved him and I think he felt the same way about me.’ 

It didn’t work out – it’s complicated, Samantha says. There is a happy ending, however; she’s still in touch with him, all of her Ugandan friends. 

‘I spoke to one of them today,’ she says. ‘She’s just had another baby but her first child is my godson. Uganda’s kind of my second home really.’

Fascinating though this is, it’s Samantha herself that pops out of the stories. The more we talk, the more layers I discover to her life. She was a youth evangelist, used to go out herself and preach. She says it was only when she started working at the Nottingham school in her late twenties that she started it question it all, started to see what the world was really like. 

‘That’s possibly why I come across as a bit sheltered,’ she says. ‘I really stared to grow when I started teaching.’ 

Now in her early forties, Samantha says she runs into ex-pupils in town; one of them converted to Buddhism after one of her lessons. 

‘It’s funny because when I was teaching I was a Christian,’ Samantha says. ‘I’m not now; I lost my faith over a long period of time but back then, I was a church-goer and I wanted people to be Christians. I think it’s great that my only ever convert was a Buddhist.’ 

Now, Samantha wants to read books and write them. She writes when she can and runs a radio show – Word Perfect on Siren 107.3fm, airing at 4pm every Monday and 3pm every Saturday. 

‘It’s a platform for anyone that wants to build their confidence,’ she says. ‘I ask guests to read something out on air and then we talk about why they started writing, the things that inspire them. We always talk about local events that are on, that people can go to. It’s great for people who have never performed before. It’s quite a safe environment – it’s just me and them in the studio and it’s pre-recorded. It’s a community station so it’s not scary. A lot of people have said it’s really helped their confidence and then they’ve gone on to the next stage and performed in public.’ 

Samantha performs herself, reading poems from her collection Goat on a Bike and more recent creations.

‘At the moment, I mainly just write poems,’ she says. ‘It’s therapy. If I can turn a situation into comedy, I can cope with it better.’ She smiles sheepishly. ‘I have written a poem about my time at the shop.’ 

Samantha says she’s not expecting anything to come of her writing but it seems to me as though things are coming, whether she expects them or not. A community of writer is forming around her, nourished by her radio show, inspired by her performances. She says she does it simply for her own pleasure but surely that is the purest reason to do anything. If you write, you’re a writer – you don’t need a badge. You just need a story and a compelling character; Samantha is surely that. 

Word Perfect is currently accepting commissions from writers. You can reach Samantha at smaw@sirenonline.co.uk

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