Odokonyero is here

In July, last year, Madhu Krishnan and I convened two creative writing workshops in Kampala and Gulu, taught by Nick Makoha and Jennifer Makumbi, respectively.  Moses Odokonyero and Jacob Katumusiime were very central to the secondary school teachers’ focus group discussions we held alongside the workshop. The results of the workshop are eighteen short stories, written by emerging and young Ugandan writers, now available for public enjoyment in an anthology, published by Black Letter Media.

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Alongside the workshops, in the same month last year, Noosim Naimasiah and I collaborated on a documentary film project on the question of social media and its impact on creative writing. For the film, I interviewed five major Ugandan writers, namely, Jennifer Makumbi, Stella Nyanzi, Nyana Kakoma, Ernest Bazanye and Acan Innocent.

The July days spent with Noosim, Zahara Abdul, Lewis Ainebyona and Esther Mirembe were enjoyable and I am proud of the product of our labour. I am personally grateful to Henry Brefo who has been the key strategy man for Writivism since 2016, Roland Byagaba who has been the man in charge of all things Writivism since September 2017, Rukundo Joschua, and Mulialia Okumu for their labour, and unflinching support.

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The final version of the documentary film is on tour in the United Kingdom next week. The film will be screened in Brighton, London and Birmingham. The Uganda screening news will be released as soon as they will be available. I want to be there, obviously. While I wait anxiously to travel to Kampala for that screening, and the launch of Odokonyero, the anthology, enjoy four of the eighteen short stories in the anthology, below.

Candano by Fred Sunday Mugisha

Tendo by Esther Mirembe 

My Name is Ojwiny by George Ocen 

Let me Write to Dad by Jacob Katumusiime 

It was a pleasure doing these things, to celebrate five years of Writivism, no wonder my electronic self passed out in August, and I missed two weeks at the beginning of the semester. I am happy to see the fruits of all that labour.

Okot p’Bitek’s White Teeth #UgBlogWeek

Originally posted on Saturday, 30 July 2011 at 19:01

Okot p’Bitek is known largely for his poetry, for his “songs” than for his prose. In fact, one friend of mine once wished the man had written a novel. Well, he did write a novel and it was his first major work. He was twenty two years old when he did. The novel turned out to be the only novel he wrote. It was first published in 1953 by the East African Literature Bureau, Eagle Press, and written in Acoli language under the title Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wilobo (White Teeth make us laugh on earth) shortened as Lak Tar (White Teeth). Even when Okot always noted that translation of his works from Acoli to English made them lose the flavour they come with in Acoli, there is a lot of Acoli-ness that stays.

Just as Lawino berates the invasion of African culture by new Western ways in Song of Lawino, in White Teeth, Okot disparages the changes which were taking place in the custom of bride wealth with the increased monetization of the economy during colonial times. As Okeca, the main character in the novel discovers when he reaches Kampala; the colonial monetization of the economy had also wrecked the once tightly-knit clan system of the Acoli people, introduced massive corruption in society and also saw the callous exploitation of African workers by Indians on sugar plantations.

It would not be fair for those who have not read White Teeth or any other work of Okot if I do not give them a taste of the beauty of the language Okot writes in. We will do with a few excerpts;

At page 14; describing Cecilia, the girl whose hand in marriage Okeca longed for;

“That girl in front of the others was spotless. Tall but not too tall. Brown, yet not brown. Her skin was tender like the young grass shoot. It was soft and tender as if she used Lux bathing soap. This must have been the case, for her brother had just come home on leave from the army.

She was leading the other girls to the market like a bull antelope leading others to the drinking place. She had draped her tender frame with a soft silky dress and on her crested crane neck was a single giraffe-tail hair necklace. Her hair was carefully combed and pressed, and on her head was balanced an abino, earthen jar, whose neck was like that of its carrier.

Faultlessly beautiful.

Spotlessly clean.

The leader of the girls bore abino.

Cecilia Laliya, chief of girls.”

At page 22-23; describing a conversation involving Okeca, Cecilia and Otto at an Orak dance to celebrate the marriage of the son of Timotimo;

“Cecilia Laliya, sister of Otto, Laliya the chief of girls, was there in front of all the Paibona girls, leading the dancing beauties. She was wearing a nylon dance skirt, her breasts barely covered. The breasts were ripe like a pair of ripened tugu fruits and the tattoos on her back were like olok fruits. Her heels sparkled as she danced; her hair shone, black and thick but not bushy. Cecilia was there in the arena! She was dancing, challenging and provoking all! I beckoned her out of the arena so that we would converge a little. She obeyed. A perfumed scent she exuded filled my nostrils. The glowing sunset light made healthy sweat flowing freely on her smooth skin look like strings of glassy beads. She stood there, smiling, exposing teeth and a gap in the upper row of teeth. The teeth were white beyond compare! What a haunting beauty Cecilia’s teeth were!

“How’s it with you today? Why aren’t you dancing today?”

She ventured to ask me after seeing I could not bring myself to say anything to her. But could I answer her? Where could Okeca Ladwong get the voice with which to say anything to Cecilia when her beauty had dazzled and robbed him of words!

Otto Luru had to come to my rescue:

“Today we have decided to come and feed our eyes on pretty ones like you.”

“Okeca, you better tell me quickly what you have called me here for. I want to go back and dance,” she said, dancing.

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 seventh post.

Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe #UgBlogWeek

Originally posted on Thursday, 14 July 2011 at 16:00

Qualification: My opinion on a number of issues, especially on literature associated with FEMRITE’s early years and on diaspora life, have since changed so radically, from when I wrote this, but I reproduce it faithfully as it was, on original posting.

After reading a few of the publications by many of Ugandan female writers published by FEMRITE (Association of Uganda Women Writers), the predictability of their themes in a way put me off. Notably because the portrayal of men in many of the FEMRITE published stories as villains, as oppressive, as selfish, as brutal, as the sole cause of all problems of the woman became too much and to an extent unnecessarily sensational. In a way, my vigour regarding Ugandan fiction was affected by the FEMRITE spin to the Ugandan experience that blames the Ugandan male for all wrongs in society and the female portrayed as the eternal victim. It used to take a very good commendation from a friend for me to read a FEMRITE book, especially when the friend would tell me what the theme of the publication was.

For some time therefore, I did not pay attention to many female writers published by FEMRITE because I was pushed off by Mary Karooro Okurut’s novels (notably The Invisible Weevil and Child of a Delegate) that portrayed the Ugandan man as hell itself. This attitude however started changing with time as some female authors even when groomed by FEMRITE started writing beyond the anger, beyond the outbursts the earlier FEMRITE authors were known for.

There is no reason why I should bring FEMRITE up when talking about Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish; Tales from Entebbe. Not only because it is not published by FEMRITE but also because Baingana’s book should not be compared to Karooro’s Child of a Delegate for example. The two are so many miles apart. Now, that sounds very harsh to Karooro, but yes, it is my subjective truth. I blame the bias about female writers FEMRITE created in me, especially the first FEMRITE releases, for my late acquisition of Baingana’s book.

So, this history of my bias aside, I bought Baingana’s Tropical Fish, Tales from Entebbe on Friday, 8th July, 2011, and several years after it was published. Praise for Baingana’s novel, or can we safely call it a collection of eight linked short stories told by three sisters, arrives ahead of the book. From the moment, I devoured the first story in the collection, about a last born child’s imaginations of her parents’ master bedroom, I was glued to the book until the last story, Questions of Home! There are many stories I had to re-read and I am sure I will read them again and again. Two stories stand out for me, A Thank You Note and Lost in Los Angeles.

I have read quite a bit of Ugandan fiction about HIV/AIDS but Baingana’s A Thank You Note really deserves my own Thank You Note to her for pulling off a difficult story so effortlessly and so emotionally without the stereotypical tired storyline many writers usually adopt on writing about the impact of the disease. The preachy way the disease is written about mostly bores than delights. Today, it is not HIV/AIDS that I am picking from Baingana’s page-turner though. It is something about her story on an African’s life in America, Lost in Los Angeles. Sometimes I do not want to use my own words to make the points she makes in the story or to try to re-describe what she describes so excellently, so I will extensively quote parts of the story that moved some sense into my head, as regards life in the diaspora.

I must first of all put a disclaimer that she also puts, that there is nothing autobiographical in her book. I must add that I have never lived beyond the borders of Uganda for more than one week, so, definitely I do not directly relate with the story, except that a larger part of the people who influence the quality of my life at this moment live in the diaspora – no big deal, someone says. Maybe they may relate to the extracts below.

Lost in Los Angeles

Pages 122 – 3

It’s the small things that bother me most. My teeth aren’t white, straight, and perfect, like everyone else’s here. My teeth disturb people; they frown when I smile. Small children stare up at me, puzzled. Look Mummy, a freak! I imagine they’ve been taught to say. I have to repeat myself two or three times; it’s easier not to talk. Even black people don’t look straight at me or talk, gesture, or act the way I do. I am just as strange to them. I want to ask why, but don’t dare to. My skirts and blouses, are they too long, too loose, too bright and flowery, out of date?

(…)

Page 124 – 127

I’ve heard Africans who’ve been here too long talk in the same nasal way; it grows on you, unbidden. I swear never to, if I can help it. Like a good colonial subject, I like to think I have a British accent, the proper one.

Luckily, because everything works and is automatic, there is less and less need to talk. My salary mysteriously enters my account; I don’t need to touch money itself, or go to the bank. I find a window-like machine and punch in some numbers. They mean something: out slips money, silently, smoothly, it must be mine. I take it. At the supermarket, I don’t even need to use cash; I give the person at the counter my card and she lets me take the groceries, which are all wrapped up in four or five layers of crinkly paper and packed in coloured boxes with pictures as though they were children’s toys. There’s no need to talk to anyone. In the supermarket, everything is laid out for you; you walk through chilly bright aisles, read the labels, pick out food. The fruits and meats smell of nothing, taste of nothing. A machine tells you how much, and the person at the counter smiles mechanically. She may say, how are you, ma’am, smiling on and off like a switch, but is she really talking to me, me, or to a body buying food? The price is fixed anyway. There is nothing to argue about, nothing to say.

I swipe my card through the metal box, my food rolls down the rubber plank, is packed quickly, efficiently, and I roll it out, down to the garage, a cement cage of cars upon cars, immense and lifeless. No one drives small cars here, and there are very few old ones. Most of the cars are huge and shiny and prosperous-looking. I have a ticket that slipped out of a metal box all by itself; it knew I needed it, it knew I was there. I took the ticket and somehow a long pole rose up, letting me into the garage. The same thing happens in reverse as I leave, only this time there’s a person hidden behind a glass cage. He or she doesn’t glance my way, and after I’ve done this enough times, neither do I. I slip my ticket and a few dollars into a metal drawer, which slips not the glass cage, slides back out with change, and the long pole ahead of me rises up. Smoothly, soundlessly, straight and narrow. Metal, metal everywhere, and I need a drink.

The same thing happens at my apartment. After the side flat perfect roads, I click my garage door open; the metal rises up, disappearing into the wall. I slip not the cement womb of the building, enter my car slot, get out, and press a button. The elevator doors slip open soundlessly, then close. A metal box lifts me up, but it’s so smooth I can hardly feel it. It opens again and lets me out. I wish something would go wrong. I wish things weren’t so perfect. My mouth is sticky from not talking, my face sticky with silent tears. I am home I crawl into bed and try to remember the dirty smells of Kitooro, the dark swirling mud after an hour of rain like vengeance, hard fast rain that means it. The rotting fruit and swarming flies of Nakasero market; the unkempt, uncut grass that creeps, uncontained, uncontainable, disruptive, across any kind of man-made borders. I have been torn from natural living chaos that wrapped itself strongly around our lives. I am alone and trapped in metal. I am lost.

III

My cousin Kema has left for Uganda. I live by myself now. She did a lot to help me settle in, got me my first job, and introduced me to her friends, who are all Africans. They live the Southern California suburban life while saving money to build houses back home, educate their kids, make money, live well, what’s so wrong with that? They are very nice people, all shiny with cream and fatty food, and they welcome new Africans with open arms – those who are educated and ambitious, that is. In America, we are nothing, but Africans: lumped together, generic, black. Our voices get whiny and nasal too, but we can’t erase the African lilt. Our children are American, though: noisy, demanding, insolent, confident, and fat.

Every weekend there is a gathering at one house or another, and we talk about home. When we were there last, five years ago, ten, even twenty. We are going back for good, eventually, but not anytime soon, oh no, who wants to live with the insecurity, the rule of army men and guns, the magendo – black market – such a tough way of life. Here, we have grown soft and comfortable with steady salaries we can live on; why go back to desperately running around chasing deals, sweating in that dusty heat? Someone, another recent arrival (not me I only observe, and smile if anyone happens to look my way), tries to protest.

(…)

Page 128 – 132

We escape our American lives on the fringe and take centre stage again. At these moments we are so far away from America, we might as well be at Sophie’s Bar and Bakery in Wandegeya, sitting on wooden stools out in the open, eating roast meat and drinking Port Bell beer, swatting away the flies. Or maybe up on the Diplomat Hotel rooftop, washing away the day’s sweat with sundowners. It feels that good.

“Daaad.” The child’s petulant cry swiftly brings us back. We are here in America, and we all need our reasons to stay, despite our vows not to die here, oh no! Alone in an apartment where your body may rot for days and no one will miss you? Here, where no one knows you even exist? Imagine ending life in a retirement home, where you have to pay someone to look after you, as if you have no children no family? What disgrace! We are going back home in two years, home is home. Five years maybe. No, for us, our kids have to get into college first; you know the schools at home. When I finish my house; when I’ve set up my business; when I get the UN job I’ve been promised. That’s the only way to survive, you know, to get paid in dollars. If when, if, when, but in the meantime … oh, here’s the food, let’s eat.

We rally around the barbecued chicken, limp salads, meat stew and rice, posho made with semolina flour. It’s the same food every time; not quite home food, but close enough. It’s better than sandwiches or macaroni or some other fake food, and so we eat. The talk subsides to contented murmurs and grunts of appreciation. Afterwards, the women clear up, bustling up and down, their big hips swaying heavily with each move, as purposeful and confident as the huge swathes of bright-colored kitenge wrapped around them. What a warming sight to see. I don’t help much; I prefer to watch. But the single men take note and cancel me off their lists; not to mention, my hips aren’t big enough.

(…)

The fast, syncopated, guitar-energized Congolese music is another way to go back home. It’s a relief from battling the alien world that envelops us the minute we step outside our doors. We cluster together and dance to break away from the self or non-self we have to be at work, among foreigners, in the white world (even though there are blacks there). It’s a difficult act, a tiring one. So why not let the wails of Lingala, well-known oldies played again and again – Franco, Papa Wemba, Kanda Bongoman – why not let them take us back to that safe, known place? Sure, we left it willingly, and it wasn’t haven. Now, it seems like it was.

We know the dhombolo, we love doing it together, churning our waists and hips, arms flung up in the air as if this will save us. But I tire soon. Some of us (“Oba, who do they think they are?” I imagine the others thinking) danced more to zungu music than Congolese hits back home. Black American hits actually, not white zungu; Michael Jackson, Kool and the Gang, the Commodores.

(…)

Page 136

Raab says he likes my large lips, and I instead of replying, “Everyone I know has ‘large’ lips,” I say, “You can have them,” and we kiss. It’s even easier, smoother, after that. Really, I think, as we explore each other’s face, men and women don’t have to talk; we should just rub faces, eyebrows, noses. Sniff each other like dogs. We do, and end up in his bed (an especially long one), panting and entangled. His long, hairy legs and arms are everywhere, under and over me; it’s like I am making love with an octopus. A warm, furry, active, attentive octopus. I remember an old TV cartoon of a one-octopus band: it played all the instruments, its tentacles wriggling gracefully everywhere. I tell him. He laughs and winds tight around me. I bite his large nose gently, smooth his eyebrows hold on to his long abdomen. Here I am, mind and body together, in this boy’s bed, in Los Angeles. This is new. Let me turn away from the past. I am so tired of it.

Raab is friendly in the morning, as if it’s perfectly normal to wake up with a stranger, an African woman who is hangover and silent, in your bed. He offers me breakfast, but I don’t want to eat anything – maybe some coffee. He gives me aspirin and juice and is casual and sweet. We exchange phone numbers, and then he drives me home in an old Volvo his parents gave him. “Take care,” he says, kissing my check. “Of what?” I ask. He laughs, and waves his large hairy hand.”

 

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 sixth post.

A 2011 Look-back on Ugandan Literature: Introduction to a #UgBlogWeek series

In 2011, I was twenty three years old. While I was formally a post-graduate student at the Law Development Centre, my mind was at the verge of deciding to pursue creative writing dreams and a life of letters at the expense of a career in legal practice. This was the proverbial career cross-roads for young me. I have not exactly resolved the conflict between a career in the law and in literature, I have decided that both will find a home in my mind and life. I will have my cake, and eat it at the same time. Of course I am equipping myself with enough ammunition to deal with those who think in narrow frames, about the boundaries of the legal and literary endeavors.

In 2011, I was very close to Dennis Muhumuza, who knew of my interest in creative writing, and who kept advising me to read and read more. He brought me a number of books to read. He lent me some, and sold me others. I took to reading a lot of Ugandan literature at the time. I remember visiting as many bookshops as I could find in Kampala and buying as many Ugandan books as I could afford. I was also very close to Kyomuhendo Ateenyi, under whose influence I attended the then weekly Lantern Meet of Poets’ Sunday meetings at the National Theatre. My old friend, Alex Niwamanya kept insisting that I go with him to the FEMRITE Monday club. I was always lost in discussion group sessions talking law things I never found time to go.

In 2011, Beatrice Lamwaka was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. The Ugandan literati were excited about the achievement, they congratulated her, they wished her well, and they publicly took pride in her achievement. But not all Ugandan men among the literati were happy. I remember an email that landed in my inbox one day, calling on Ugandan men writers to rise and challenge the women. I was a 23 year old, who did not know enough, who was reading as much Ugandan literature as I could because I believed as I do now, that the best way to train oneself to be a writer is to read. I wasn’t a Literature graduate. I did not know the sender of that strange email personally. I had not been on the scene. I was trying to know about the scene, to even know what a scene is.

In 2011, Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu had not yet come into the Ugandan literary life. Dilman Dila hadn’t published A Killing in the Sun. Melissa Kiguwa had not yet published Reveries of Longing. Daniel Kalinaki had not published Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution. Nyana Kakoma hadn’t started a publishing house. There was no festival, focused primarily on celebrating literature. Alex Twinokwesiga hadn’t started Turn the Page. Nevender’s blog wasn’t yet holding Uganda’s flag in the African literary blogosphere. I do not know where Esther Mirembe of Subtle Royalty was, then. Roland Niwagaba, of the Muwado fame, where was he? What about Kirabo Byabashaijaof The Rising Page and Sydney Mugerwa? Things were different from today, in 2011. I wish I could be 23 again, in 2016. It was a different experience being 23 in the Uganda of 2011 and being at law school wanting to be a writer and lawyer simultaneously.

In August 2011, I left Uganda to pursue further studies. It was a way to merge my interest in Creative Writing and Law. I saw the pursuit of a Master’s degree in Human Rights as a step towards my fuller self-actualisation as a lawyer-writer. The year I spent in Budapest would change everything. The story of the Budapest days and what came after will be told another day. This month’s Ugandan blog week, I am revisiting my exploration of Ugandan literature in the first seven months of 2011. I am re-posting the reviews of, commentaries on and excerpts from some of the Ugandan books I read in those months.

It is no longer 2011. Five full years have passed. This is why I am looking back at my perspective on life and literature at the time. I am embarrassed grossly by some of the opinions I held at the time. I am grateful for the lessons that came of my being a rookie aspiring writer in 2011, while also pursuing legal education. I hope you enjoy the seven posts from the past, I hope you laugh at my naivety. I hope you get agitated at my biases at the time. I hope you see some hope in my younger self. I hope you sneer at my ignorance of certain things. I hope you mock my inexperienced voice. I hope you see where my reading is coming from, for what it is. I hope the past makes you feel better about the present. I hope you share your thoughts about the books I read at the time. I hope I read from you, as well. I hope you find the books fascinating.

Q&A: Law is a form of literature – Busingye Kabumba

The second interview/conversation in a series exploring Ugandan Perspectives on Law and Literature has been published today at Africa In Words. The first interview was with Sophie Alal and published a few weeks ago. Today’s is with Dr. Busingye Kabumba. More will follow over the coming months.

Busingye Kabumba Busingye Kabumba

AiW Author: Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire

Dr. Busingye Kabumba teaches Human Rights and International Law at Makerere and other universities. Educated at the University of Pretoria, Harvard, Oxford and Makerere, Busingye is also a partner at Development Law Associates, a legal consulting firm in Kampala. He is famous for, among other reasons, having published a poetry collection at nineteen years of age. He is reputed as the only Ugandan teenager to win a book prize for a full poetry collection! The National Book Trust (NABOTU) Poetry Award of 2002 went to Busingye for his Whispers of My Soul. He has also become a sought-after commentator for the media, television, newspapers etc. He has been quoted in newspapers, local and foreign talking about constitutional, human rights and literary matters.

On one morning, as 2015 rolled into our lives, I meet Busingye for this conversation, I find him in his…

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