On Nyana Kakoma’s “Chief Mourner”

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.

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The 2013 Caine Prize anthology was published by New Internationalist, Jacana, and Sub-Saharan publishers.

Jackson Twesigye Kaguri’s The Price of Stones #UgBlogWeek

Originally posted on Tuesday, 31 May 2011 at 17:59

 Dennis D Muhumuza, one of my close friends on and away from Facebook loves books.  His love for books is visible in very many ways not limited to the book reviews he writes for The Sunday Monitor newspaper. A profile picture of Dennis with a book is not strange at all, knowing his love for books. It is indeed Dennis’ profile picture in which he is holding and reading Jackson Twesigye Kaguri’s The Price of stones; Building a school for my village that pricked my long-held interest in the book, thereby starting my personal experience of Kaguri’s story.

I borrowed Dennis’ copy immediately. He indeed delivered it to my workplace, (I am immensely grateful Dennis) and the experience I have since had is a fantastic one. I must note on the onset that Kaguri’s story was not entirely unknown to me before reading and experiencing the book. Kaguri is my friend on Facebook; I am a Facebook fan of the Nyaka page, Mr. Kaguri is a member of the board of directors of Global Batwa Outreach where I do volunteer advocacy and his name has come up many times in my personal conversations with my role-model and mentor, Mr. Johnson Karengye Mujungu as regards community development and social entrepreneurship.

Reading Kaguri’s book was an entirely new experience. I discovered that what I knew of him was less than 1% of who he is. By merely reading his book, I have an experience independent of the book. Kaguri’s life story is weaved with his award-worthy initiative of building a free school for AIDS orphans in his ancestral village in the book. It is not hard to locate the source of Kaguri’s inspiration to build his community as he ably juxtaposes his personal life experiences with his initiative and work for the Nyaka orphans.

In The Price of Stones; Building a School for my village, I met Jackson’s wife, an African American called Beronda. The two met in New York at Columbia University where Jackson did his postgraduate study and Beronda was then studying for her college degree. Jackson explains what attracted him to Beronda;

The first things that attracted me to her were her self confidence, openness and beautiful smile. She was everyman’s dream; smart, loving, kind and independent. After only three dates, I knew she was the woman I wanted to marry and have children with.

The story of Jackson and his marrying Beronda is one I recommend one should find in the book on their own. From step one; Beronda is at the centre of the dream for a school for Nyakagyezi village, as much as Jackson. Back in America, Jackson writes of the frustrations as he shared the dreams with others;

An immigrant friend from Ghana shook his head when I explained the idea to him. ‘This is America’, he said. ‘You work hard, buy a nice car and pay to bring your family here, forget your village.

The seed money for the school came from Beronda’s and Jackson’s savings for a house. They decided to build a school first for orphans before they could buy a house for their young family. What largely makes the book an experience on its own separate from the author’s are the minute details Jackson divulges about himself. He writes at page 95; “in America, I was a stay-at-home dad who cared for Nicolas and did house work …” My gender equality nerve could not resist the tickle. Doing house work does not make Jackson less of a man neither does taking care of their son Nicolas.

There are many times I fell into the trap of thinking that Jackson had it all well with the Nyaka project. However hard, after getting some money through fundraising and transparently putting up school structures, it should follow that any orphan would be dying to join the school where food is free, school uniform free and other school supplies. That thought cannot last the whole book. Sharon, one girl refuses school even with the quality of the education and holistic approach to education the school applies. Jackson writes of the disappointment he feels regarding Sharon’s choice and in a masterly done transition follows up with his own experience. He writes;

I prayed for God to protect her and hoped things would turn out for the best. One never knows about these things. I had learned that lesson first hand. It was 1982 and I was ten.

There are very many things to love about Jackson’s The Price of Stones, but his unmistakeable description of nature comes top for me. Of Kabale, he writes;

Kabale district has been described as the Switzerland of Africa, with interlocking hills, cool morning temperatures and beautiful scenery. Being positioned between two ridges, the morning fog could be so thick that children got lost.

Jackson’s own home is Kanungu, a neighbouring district to Kabale but his description of mornings in Kabale is so spot-on, I read it all over again and again.

Again, in another linkage of his own life-story to Nyaka’s, Jackson writes of the gap between rural and urban primary school pupils as regards the national examinations, a point he makes ably. He writes;

Rural children were at a disadvantage when it came to taking national exams. Some test questions assumed familiarity with city life. I remembered one question about people on the first floor above the ground floor. For children who had experienced only one-story houses it was an alien concept. They had little chance of answering such a question correctly.

The philosophy that drives Kaguri to the extent of dedicating lots of time, resources and efforts to help and build his community underlies his entire story. If I am reading the news correctly, Jackson left his job at the University of Michigan to concentrate on permanently and full-time working for Nyaka. One can find the core of his philosophy is a speech he gave at a fundraising event, he explains;

We are the ones with a choice – we can ignore the problem and let these children become victims of neglect and abuse or we can save them, one child at a time. We are the ones who must rescue our community. We are the ones who have the opportunity to save these children.

The extent of the impact of Kaguri’s putting his dream to reality is visible from how his philosophy spread to other members of the community. At a grannies’ conference in Toronto, he thought;

“Governments could pass laws, write legislation and send money that never reached them or only covered certain care, but these women held the power to make their own future. One way or another, the grandmothers were going to save Africa’s orphaned children.”

Kaguri must not have foreseen the potential impact Nyaka AIDS orphans school would have on the community. At the school’s graduation ceremony in 2008, seven years after the school’s opening, Kaguri wrote of the achievements;

Not only had we just graduated our first class, our clean water system had been expanded and we had our own educational radio program broadcasting from Rukungiri, and the grannies’ project. Our three-acre farm allowed us to grow maize, potatoes and vegetables and a grant from the Blue Lupin foundation was funding the first public library in western Uganda.

From the achievements, one would think that Kaguri lives in this village where the school is located. That he lives with Beronda and Nicolas faraway in Michigan but has managed to build a community around an AIDS orphans school should stand out as a challenge to those who live in and near the communities that need their initiatives and hard work. As Lucy Steinitz writes in the afterword;

Nyaka shows a whole new way to engage in community development. Nyaka’s concept is to create a holistic centre that starts with a school but extends far beyond a formal primary education to include agriculture and nutrition, cultural programs, life skills, psychosocial supports, healthcare and a home away from home. Local materials and people are employed; Nyaka is very much integrated into the rural life of south-western Uganda.

Nyaka and Kaguri through the book “A Price of Stones, Building a School for my Village” is an experience for everyone to live. Very many personal details of Kaguri’s life and the school will impact everyone in a unique way. That Nyaka, the dream is expanding is the highest point. There is now another school Kutamba built along the same concept as Nyaka.

What moves me most regarding my experience of Nyaka and Jackson is that we need to put our foot on the ground and start working. That we have to get involved. That we have to involve others to build our communities. That high sounding rhetoric is just that – RHETORIC. That we need to invest our vision, energy, single minded dedication in building our communities. Certainly, no one will build them for us.

That in us, in our experiences is inner strength that can better us and our communities. Jackson lost his elder brother Frank to AIDS, a sister Mbabazi to the disease hence became the obvious guardian of his nephews and nieces. His wife’s maiden visit to Nyakagyezi, their village saw a line of villagers at their home begging for support for widows and orphans of AIDS. Jackson certainly knew where he had come from; he knew the importance of the community that birthed him. All this metamorphosed into Nyaka. Our personal experiences hold our strength to bettering who we are and our communities.

To get information about the book and the schools, visit www.nyakaschool.org or www.thepriceofstones.com

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.  

Bright A Ntakky’s 7:77 … theirs was a race against time #UgBlogWeek

Originally posted on Tuesday, 31 May 2011 at 12:47

It is eighty four pages long, but it is a comprehensive tale of death, disillusionment, suffering, love, hope, grace and happiness. Ntakky A Bright’s first book does not only have a peculiar title, “7:77 … theirs was a race against time” which would easily pass for a movie title but also tells a story very common with Christian writers but in a uniquely witty and cheeky style.

I have known Bright A Ntakky (the A for Arinaitwe), since our school times at Kigezi High School. We did more than study together at the school, we at one time stayed in the same house – Lwamafa House. In 2003, when The Inspiration magazine and ministry was founded, Bright was among the formidable team members that made it possible, drawing hilarious cartoons for the magazine and on one occasion participating in a drama performance of the group (I was once a preacher of the gospel, you see and my first play script was a Christian drama).

Bright was more than that at school, he was our deputy Head Prefect, the chairperson Scripture Union and had several other community oriented roles. Bright’s Head Prefect-ship campaign is one of the most successful I have ever been at the centre of. He was an easily saleable and likeable candidate, the content of his character being the core of our message. Bright amazingly and annoyingly volunteered on the campaign team of his opponent out of his brotherly love and friendship a day to the polls, as many from far and wide made sacrifices to see him (Bright) win the election. I can go on and on about the amazing character Bright is but today is for his debut novella, “7:77 … theirs was a race against time” not his personality.

Bishop Zac Niringiye in a foreword to the book writes that “7:77 … theirs was a race against time”, is a story of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, gripping because it is your story and my story, our story hence ordinary. Bright however manages to tell an ordinary story extra-ordinarily. Bright, the writer inherits the humorous nerve; Bright the personality is known for. He employs his descriptive signature style in the novella so much that reading the book in many ways becomes a conversation with the person.

At page 47-48, he writes of Amnon’s shoes, “His shoes were looking up and glorifying God for the many seasons they had endured. One was breathing from the side and the other would drink water from the sole”. Typical hilarious Bright, if you ask those who have talked to the man. It is not only Bright’s distinctive expression that creates a conversational mood; he actually talks directly to the reader at several moments in the book. As early as page 2, he writes; “Slowly, he pulled a lollipop out of his shirt pocket and put it in her mouth, then rubbed it across her lips. They kissed. (Reader, continue reading. Stop imagining).”

“7:77 … theirs was a race against time” starts with a graphic narrative of an adolescent romantic scene, hence Bright’s warning. Bright goes a step ahead of other Christian writers who gloss over love-scenes and deny them any descriptive touch. Of course he has limits, I would not X-rate his novella, he keeps the descriptions rich but decent enough not to distract the reader, and to be sure he warns the reader to stop imagining.

The use of anecdotes is not lost on Bright. At page 60, he writes;

He remembered a story of a man who died and his family was denied gratuity, because the officials reasoned that since there was nothing to show that the man had lived, then most probably he had not existed at all and therefore might as well have never died.

Death is undoubtedly one of the re-occurring themes in the novella. It is the hovering shadow over the moments of happiness, triumph, excitement and glory in the book. Probably aware of the risk of monotony, Bright’s depiction of death is varied and unique, though the use of epitaphs is persistent. In fact, the novella ends with an epitaph, marking the death of the novella’s protagonist. “This tablet in-laid here by his relatives and friends, in loving memory of Ijuka Brave, Died on 31st, Dec 2023 on his 29th birthday. He’s interred in the city cemetery.”

That I bring up how the book ends on a sad note is not fair at all. The book has its own worthwhile moments of happiness, hope, grace, triumph and excitement. The description of Dove, a childhood friend of Brave, the major act of the novella is one of the good moments. Bright writes at page 66,

Her silk hair flowed over her shoulders like a water fall. Her elliptical lips opened to reveal a perfect set of snow white teeth. Her body was a pure work of art, chiseled to perfection, nooks and cervices in all the right places. There was no extra ounce of flesh on her adorable body. Her cheery smile could easily light up any room, however dark.  She made every man who set his eyes on her miss a step. If such a man was holding a cup in her hand, he would put it on his nose instead of the mouth.

Like any other Christian book, the core message in “7:77 … theirs was a race against time” is the love of Christ for mankind and the ordinary stories of ordinary people as Zac Niringiye writes. Bright however manages to make the novella less preachy and witty enough for a non-Christian reader to enjoy without being bored. It is a good start for Bright as a writer as he finds a common ground between secular fiction and Christian literature.

To Primah Atugonza, whose copy of the book I have read, twice so far, I am grateful. To Bright A Ntakky, where can I get copies of the book? I want to have some on my shelf for refreshing reading and also to give as gifts to friends. “7:77 … theirs was a race against time” is a book for everyone, Christian or non-Christian.

 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 fourth post.