POETRY IN UGANDA: FOOTPRINTS OF MEMORY

Poetry in Uganda, shall set the tone for policy and growth for the next few decades. There is intractable evidence in every space of the great nation of Uganda, that the calamity that has befallen us; that the apathy that we are cornered into, SHALL be replaced by poetry. The Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation team, that has been promoting Ugandan and African poetry for a decade; experienced yet another unforgettable moment of poetry.

Ugandan poets gathered at the Babishai 2019 Poetry festival evening at Femrite offices.

The strength of a poet lies not in the verses, but in the willpower to create and make change. When a poet rises to speak against all odds, about the weeping that never ends, from dark sunsets and bloodied rivers of political distress and gory childhoods, then change shall come.

The 2009, BN Poetry Award, Rt. Honourable Rebecca Kadaga as Chief guest.  Policy makers who will change through poetry.

Harriet Anena, winner of the 2018 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature and author of poetry collection, ‘A Nation in Labour,’ is a gift to us all. With her indescribably gifted cast, Oyenbot and Amaru, the trio replaced all doubts about the harsh reality, when they delivered an outstanding, unforgettable and powerfully creative poetry and theatre performance in June. The performance, titled ‘Footprints of Memory,’ was one of the most crucial declarations through art. Taking the audience through semi-chronological episodes of our history and herstory, pointing at the places where our governance and our indifference have left children, mothers and unsuspecting men dead. The trio interpreted the National Anthem, through the eyes, ears and heart of a child, a lost one and one who is befuddled by it all. There was excellent musical accompaniment too, which magnified the glamour of the stage. With guest poets, Bint and Kagayi, the production, directed by the most talented Deborah Asiimwe, was one which truly deserves to be translated into a 100 languages and retold in 100 countries.

Courtesy photo

Audiences all over the world will understand the gravity of the subject, will be able to empathize and internalize. The production was a fundraiser for Harriet’s fees towards her Masters of Fine Art in creative Writing at Columbia University. The Babishai Poetry team, believes, without a doubt, that she will go, she will excel and she will be an icon of poetry from Uganda.

The Babishai poetry foundation team in Mbale, 2018

BABISHAI CELEBRATES TEN YEARS; LILLIAN AKAMPURIRA AUJO WRITES

Every writer will tell you they need space to write. Aside from it being physical, this space is more importantly metaphorical; in order to writer, the writer needs space in their head. Change of scenery and environment usually achieve this effect.

Bunyonyi Safaris Resort (photo by Sarah Ijangolet)

In a country where hardly any funding is given to the creative arts, it is hard to just get away from work, school, or home, and just go on a writing frolic. So when such opportunity presented itself in the form of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation tenth anniversary celebrations, I was overjoyed.

I was looking forward to the cool picturesque hills of Kabale and its fresh air, and in this I was not disappointed. Our vantage point to Lake Bunyonyi was enough to calm the mind’s eye; the resort’s decor charmed me from the moment we arrived. Needless to say by the time we left I had marked out a favourite couch, upholstered in velveteen lilac and lavender.

We had barbeque by the fire, we shared poems, and it was interesting that despite the country, age, and gender differences we all spoke one language; the language of poetry.

Poetry and Barbeque (Photo by Sarah Ijangolet)

A self-diagnosed insomniac myself, I could relate to Cindy Lynn Brown’s poetry on insomnia. I was especially taken by how she personified this mammoth intangible element that pre[determines] a person’s demeanor, output and essentially the rhythms of their life. As a creative, I have often suffered fitting writing into the straightjacket 9am to 5pm life that we Africans are predisposed to. I know, I make it sound like a sort of illness, but it is in the sense that it can feel oppressive when the little energy one has is spent feeding the capitalist machine, instead of one’s writing. So I knew that my erratic sleeping patterns had a toll on me but I hadn’t quite found the words to express it. Come BN at 10 years and I meet Cindy Lynn Brown, a Danish poet who talks about this bedfellow who induces anxiety, tinnitus, and puffy eyes, etc, but life has to be lived.

Cindy Lynn Brown at The Danish Embassy in Kampala.

I suppose humans involuntarily seek out other humans to counter the feeling of experiential isolation as they go through life. These seemingly tenuous connections with other writers strengthen my tether to artistry because I see that I am not alone in trying to give faceless things like insomnia a face. And if one can see that face then we can deal with it. Of course at a basic level it is also comforting that someone across the boundaries of colour and heritage grapples with the same issues you do.

 

In Jami Proctor-Xu’s poetry I felt the fear and horror of living with the knowledge that humans use rape as a tool to break men and women in war, in peace, and in mundane daily life. I think about this often, and how the world is impassive to the individual and collective suffering of sex offence victims; the body is a warzone as long as you are human. What better way to share human experience than through our suffering? In this statement, I am intentional with the collective ‘our’ because it is only with empathy that we can become a better human race.

Jami Proctor-Xu in the center (Photo by Sarah Ijangolet)

Simon Ortiz, an indigenous American poet drew my attention to that age old debate on whether African writers should write in their local languages and not the language(s) of the colonisers. He preceded each address with a greeting in what he termed his ‘indigenous’ language. His greeting included a mini oration of his lineage, which is no different from most of our local languages in Uganda. Here I felt, again, that nothing unites people like the human experience. I admired the rooted way he spoke of his language and culture, and it struck me that most of us, born and raised in African cities, have little or no knowledge of their local languages; we speak and write well in English, while our languages languish in our foggy lineages. There’s also the type of African who speaks their language with shoulders slunk, yet when Simon opened his mouth in native tongue, what glided out was a musical pride.

Simon Ortiz. (Photo by Sarah Ijangolet)

Poets are always in conversation with language and I am no different. Consider for instance the way Simon Ortiz used(s) the term ‘indigenous’ languages of the Native Americans, and it with it is instantly imbued with the understanding that original inhabitants of the USA were Native Americans. When he used the same term in reference to Ugandan ‘indigenous’ languages I paused and time seemed to do a time warp to colonial times when the colonisers tried to kill their languages. Etymologically, the word ‘native’ would make sense, but then in the Ugandan contest ‘native’ immediately transposes to our bitter colonial past. Simon narrated how post the 1924 American Indian Wars native Americans were literary forced to wash their mouths out with soap, so that their tongues could forget their languages. As a child in 90’s post colonial Uganda I had to hold out my palms for caning as punishment for speaking ‘vernacular’ in school. I realised that the erasure of our local languages is something I have taken lightly, and I know many of my peers have done the same.

 

Then came the visit to Kabale University Faculty of languages, which I hope the students benefited from. As it is with someone you meet for the first time, there was a sense of eagerness and mild mistrust from the students to us. However, the lecture room grew noisier as we started the sharing sessions with the students in split up in groups. Their eyes lit up when I pointed out that the myths, legends, Kwevuga, folk songs, that they all know so well, is actually poetry. They performed some of them and after that they looked calm. I could tell that they did not expect snatches of Runyankore in my own poetry; as I grow as a writer I find that I cannot ignore the issue of my lineage, and that in some cases, something is lost if I don’t maintain it in Runyankore. I told the students that they could write in whatever language they felt comfortable in, yet some of the more proficient ones in the Runyakitara languages had never considered that option; they felt they were expected to write in English only. What was encouraging is that a good number of students were keen on the proposed poetry club at the university.

Kabale University (Photos  by Sarah Ijangolet)

I did not get much time to actually write but I jotted down several things as my mind began to open up in Kabale. Babishai at 10 was a huge success and the team was great.

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The Babishai Team also visited Grace Villa, a space opened up by Ruth Bahika to provide a home, education and health care to young girls who were previously in dire and abusive circumstances. The girls at Grace Villa have flourished under the care; winning football tournaments in the District, winning scholarships to leading universities in the world and becoming accomplished professionals.

 

Lillian Akampurira Aujo, the very first winner of the BN Poetry Award in 2009, received an honorary gift for progressing in her poetry and making an indelible mark on the continent.