Originally Posted on Tuesday, 12 April 2011 at 13:45
By now, those I have shared with about Ugandan literature know that I consider Nick Twinamatsiko’s second novel, The Chwezi Code, originally titled Mugu as the best novel that portrays contemporary Ugandan social realities. Since 2010, when this novel was released and when I acquired myself a copy and read it, I have been thinking of writing a review of it. I have however severally failed to sit down and get the business done. What I am doing here is not necessarily a review, in fact it is not. I am merely sharing excerpts of the novel that I have loved and highlighted for several reasons which I will or will not share but I hope they help justify my observation that the novel is the best I have read regarding our contemporary Uganda society.
Here we go, the start of the novel, page one, the protagonist of the novel, which is written in the first person takes us through the origins of his journey to Chwezi priesthood. Let me quote;
My journey to Chwezi priesthood began at an examination desk in the Tanzanian university I attended. For the last paper of my three-year course, Providence, or Fate, or Destiny, or whatever you call it, contrived to make me share a desk with Josephine, the gorgeous classmate whose heart I had, for long, vainly hankered after. As I wrote the exam, I cast furtive glance after furtive glance at this stunning neighbour. It is as if I was determined to make the most of this apparently last opportunity to admire her delectably curved chin, her divine eyes, her exquisite nose, her slender neck, her perfect complexion, and the alluring hands that she occasionally raised to her chin. Then my eyes rammed into hers.
The book starts with a cheat for a student who gets fired from a university for helping the gorgeous classmate. Nick describes the scene so well, he must in real life have seen how examinations cheats do it. I mean, Nick is a university lecturer, maybe he has caught some students do the cheating because you can’t beat the accuracy of his description.
Mugu’s departure from the Tanzanian university on the count of cheating in many ways keeps appearing in the entire story. Whether sexually, spiritually, commercially and morally the stain of a cheat keeps hanging around Mugu’s name. Mugu itself as a name is a cover of sorts, a brand which when exposed will reveal several aspects of this cheat of a man, his real name is Emmanuel Arinaitwe. When chased from the university, Arinaitwe (Mugu) enrols in a freedom-fighting group aiming at dislodging Idi Amin from the Ugandan presidency. This group is not only disorganized but is also too ambitious! The attack Arinaitwe was meant to be part of ends catastrophically. Arinaitwe ends up as a Chwezi spiritual medium of sorts as he attempts to escape the notorious state security system hunting down remnants of the failed attack. Mugu’s work as a Chwezi spiritual medium is a great work of deception and human ingenuity. His lustful self is still very dominant, in one scene in his shrine he describes at page 30;
I was transfixed. Then I withdrew. I figured that she was in cohorts with the spirits, or at least had some clue about what had transpired. I shuffled back to the bed, and anxiously looked her in the face. I wanted to whisper a request for enlightenment, but something told me that even a whisper might be too risky. She discerned the questions in my facial expression, and, as a way of answering them, said in a hushed, timid voice: ‘It’s my ancestral spirits that brought me.’
Mugu had probably thought the Chwezi spiritual powers which he was using to exploit people were a creation of his mind. Mable, Rugambanengwe’s wife managed to confuse the false spiritual medium that the spirits were real. A typical tale of where a person thinking they are fooling others also ends up being fooled. Mugu’s own words at page 31 expose the confusion and the extent to which he was fooled by Mable. He says;
The Chwezi had decided to show me that they weren’t as imaginary as I had assumed. they lit fires on the hills through their living descendants! There was a trace of lingering doubt somewhere in my being. But I had to concede that, if I didn’t believe that it was the Chwezi that had contrived this, I couldn’t find a logical explanation.
Typical of Nick’s writing, bearing his first novel, Jesse’s Jewel in mind, Chwezi Code pays attention to the poor reading culture in the contemporary Ugandan society. Somehow, Nick has consistently argued that a reading culture can in a way deal with some problems we face, particularly corruption. That is an interesting view, but you have to be keen regarding what the society is reading if we are talking of eradicating corruption by implanting values embedded in the books we read. In Chwezi Code, Nick acknowledges that the book-carrying and reading culture needs substance. At page 68 Mugu tells us;
I soon discovered that some of the scantily clad, lip-stick wearing, powdered girls that occasionally strutted into the shop to purchase Bugu-Bugu novels never found the time to read them. They saw the books as fashion accessories, and felt sophisticated when they strolled through the streets clutching them in the hand. The bugu-bugu novel wasn’t really different in function from the big, dark sun-goggles that these girls wore, even at dusk. They took an interest in the cover design and material, and in the name of the author, because these were important factors in the real utility that the books had. It was fashionable to appear acquainted with certain authors, whether or not one actually read their novels.
What emptiness, one must be saying, or can we call it nothingness, but I should disclose that Mugu had opened up a bookshop and discovered that selling classic novels and books was not good business like selling bugu-bugu books. People who bought books were not interested in books that explore values, dogma and themes as vice and virtue, might and right among others. Buying books was a hobby, not reading them. Mugu, being the genius he is also cashed in on the emptiness.
Mugu’s rendezvous with the Chwezi spirits is the core of Nick’s tale. It will remain in the background of every sub-plot you meet in the novel. The Chwezi spirits were very much part of Mugu that he even thought they had taken his carnal abilities with them. Remember the scene whose description we quoted above? In the scene, Mugu had just slept with a man’s wife, who had tricked him into believing that she was an embodiment of the Chwezi spirits. Mugu had known that he had slept with the Chwezi spirits themselves, a belief that shaped his thinking about his own body a lot. At page 92, Mugu tells us;
But I discovered, as I began mounting the stairs, that carnal desires had deserted me again. Perhaps it was because I had just been intimately recalling Mable and the Chwezi during my talk with Rutafa. Somehow, I knew, as I turned the door knob of our rendezvous room, that I would embarrass myself if I tried to make love to the girl. And knowing girls, I knew she could subsequently litter the whole town with the information that I was not the man that I seemed to be – that a goat had knocked me, as our people put it.
Mugu and his sexual desires!!! Or am I being too harsh on the man? As his own mind-set on the probable effect of the Chwezi spirits saved Mugu from sleeping with a young girl who looked to him for financial support of a music career in exchange for bodily pleasure, he (Mugu) discovered a man with more heated sexual passion than him, this time a preacher and pastor. Somehow, the same preacher that Mugu had observed in compromising scenes now wanted to preach to Mugu whose response to the man heavily changed the said preacher’s poise, Mugu describes; “He was smitten speechless. He became a bundle of squirms. Perplexity was all over him as he rose, and made to leave.”
The preachers of these days are not preachers per se. They preach wine and drink water or do they preach water and drink wine? Soyinka’s original phrase in The Trials of Brother Jero sometimes plays tricks with me. But yes, this preacher was pretty much the same as brother Jero of the Soyinka play. Mugu’s thinking as regards religion and spirituality is one thing that will tickle the reader’s mind into profound thinking about our times and how we are fleeced by all sorts of religions. But the Chwezi spirits will impress the reader more. Mable, the woman Mugu had slept with, she who had claimed to be an embodiment of Chwezi spirits had appeared to Mugu as a village woman. He was however slowly discovering that she was more than that, a matter that made her more mysterious. Mugu had engaged the Chwezi spirits thinking there were non-existent, their existence however continued to prove itself in his mind. Mable’s arguments were far from the typical village woman’s. Mugu attributed that to Chwezi spirits. He writes of her views;
I recalled her argument that the Chwezi religion and Bacurera’s herbs were being bundled with witchcraft simply because they were native; that Hinduism and Buddhism wouldn’t be classified as witchcraft by the villagers. I had later repeated this argument in an intellectual discussion with Rutafa. I had plagiarized her thought! And Rutafa, with his characteristic flamboyance, had later plagiarized it in the Constituent Assembly, after he had stunned the nation by refusing to take his oath using the Bible or the Koran, arguing that he subscribed to the ‘faith of our for bearers’.
Nick’s views on plagiarism are well-known. Even in Jesse’s Jewel, his first novel, some views on plagiarism appear. But so are his opinions on language, specifically the English language and its role in a Ugandan society. At page 153, in a discussion with Ophelia, some hints on Nick’s view are evident;
‘You think he is extraordinary?’
‘Not really. No extraordinary person would effusively praise a foreign tongue. But he is intelligent and eloquent.’
‘I think language always has values and beliefs embedded in it.’
That discussion above stemmed from a discussion of a work of art around the theme of religion among others. Mugu was an avid reader, at least he tried to read and had found a novel called the Chwezi Country which he had decided to act in real life using real human beings without briefing them on the script and making money from it. Religion is a business, Nick tells us through Chwezi Code, a business that even exchanges hands. Mugu had by the end of the novel profited from both the Chwezi religion when he operated a shrine and towards the end bought a Pentecostal church and operated it as a typical business. The core of the Ugandan society is about materialism and emptiness. Mugu tells as much at page 192;
It seemed that, in organising big weddings, most of the couples were driven by a desire to impress. It was impressive to hold a bigger wedding than one’s friends, and the fact that one begged in order to achieve the grandeur didn’t subtract from its impressiveness. There was no dishonour in begging or soliciting donations, to use the politically correct language. After all who wasn’t doing it? the government was begging so as to pay its over-sized cabinet and idle public servants. The churches were begging so that the pastors could live in mansions and drive big cars. Why shouldn’t young people beg so that they could hold big feasts?
I can quote the whole book to make the point that this is a book I prescribe for every Ugandan, in and out of Uganda if they want to understand the extent of shallowness, evil and immorality of our society. But that would not make sense for me to quote the entire book. There is much I have not quoted. I have not even told of how the story evolves, of the plot summary as we used to call it in literature classes in high school. It was intentional, this is not a proper review. That Nick hits the nail on the head of the corruption vice in our society is obvious. There are also political undertones in the book. I have to tell you that Nick prophesies that the current NRM government will collapse like the Prosperity Towers in the novel because it is built on a lie, on materialism, on emptiness and greed! Nick can dispute that, but it is my understanding of the theme of the book.
It would be unfair to finish this piece without telling of how the novel ends, at page 206, Mugu laments; “The Chwezi had given me, the Chwezi had taken away”. All lies give and take. Materialism, religion, emptiness, corruption name them (the evils of the Museveni regime) have given him longevity in power, even untold personal wealth, but if we follow the moral of Nick’s story, they will take away.
As part of the #UgBlogWeek, for November I am re-posting excerpts from, reviews of and commentaries on Ugandan books. These posts were originally written five years ago (2011) and shared on Facebook. There will be one post per day, throughout the #UgBlogWeek, to reminisce on my deliberate focus on Ugandan Literature in 2011, and also as a shout-out to the intellectual labourers who make our society richer with their work. This is the second post.