There is no story that has made it hard for me to review without spoilers as Nyana Kakoma’s “Chief Mourner”. It is hard to compare it with another short story by a Ugandan, without spoiling too much. But I will try. This is afterall an experiment in writing very brief reviews and not spoiling.
“Chief Mourner” is published in the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing anthology, A Memory This Size and other stories. It is the very last story, and it is such a powerful way to end the anthology. It is a story that stays with you.
“Chief Mourner” is a story of our times. As the trend is when it comes to African literature in English, every single short story is read as representative of Africa, as carrying a burden to paint an image of that country, Africa, and Nyana starts hers thus: “There is a lot to be said about finding out that your boyfriend, Jude has died via Facebook.”
Nyana’s Africa is in the technology era. It is an Africa with Facebook. An Africa dominated by social media, that you can read all about African life on the social network. Lives are lived online as much as they are, offline. And news of death travels online faster than it does offline.
The protagonist in the story, lives in Mbale, a country town on the Ugandan Kenyan border and her boyfriend Jude dies on his way back to Kampala, from visiting her. Reading this story brought me memories of the days Mateos was a popular hangout place, and Ban cafe was the coffee shop of choice in Kampala.
It is a short story that captures our times. By ‘our’, I mean Ugandans who came of age in the social media era. We were born in the 1980s, we were joining university at the time blogging was the thing to do, indeed, Nyana’s tribute to Joel Ntwatwa captures what I am describing. Ntwatwa, whom we lost recently was one of our generation.
“Chief Mourner” has a place among the short stories that mark our stamp on Ugandan literature. Nyana is a luminary of our generation. And Jude represents those we have lost.
While Ntwatwa died this year, five years after Nyana’s story was published, I feel the story is a literary tribute to him and others of our generation who have passed on. I have here in mind, Hillary Kuteitsa and Boaz Muhumuza among others who died in their 20s and 30s respectively. “Chief Mourner” is told from the perspective of the girlfriend who wasn’t introduced to the family as a girlfriend and how she mourns, and what she finds out about her deceased boyfriend during the vigil and other mourning rituals. When he can no longer answer, as Weasle sings of Mowzey Radio.
It is a great story, to which I will return when I dispense with the restraint on including spoilers in the review.
The 2013 Caine Prize anthology was published by New Internationalist, Jacana, and Sub-Saharan publishers.