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Memories from Bukenya and Gakwandi’s shrines

Makerere University recently celebrated the literary geniuses of my friends and mentors, Prof Arthur Gakwandi, and Mualimu Austin Bukenya.

The occasion was built around the now trendy imagery of birthdays. Both are aged 80. (I know, birthdays have become real things nowadays – and serious conceptual anchors. Why not?) Dear reader, I am one of the very lucky individuals to have closely worked with and befriended these men.

And despite many years of absence from each other, their example and inspiration is permanently etched in my personal and literary soul. I will tell some stories. Between 2005-2006, I was president of the Literature Association of Makerere University. New Vision’s Don Wanyama and intelligence officer Isaac Chandia (not sure where he is nowadays) had formed the previous government of the association.

Having heard many stories of grandeur about this association, I was determined to revive those days. Legend had it that during the days of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, David Rubadiri, Robert Serumaga, Robert Semuwanga, and several others, the Lit-Ass was a vibrant club. Students were actual writers and rubbed shoulders with the best on the continent.

With the ‘phenomena woman,’ so we had nicknamed her, Dr Susan Kiguli, as patron of the association, my team and I were determined to make some lasting memories of our term as the Lit-Ass. During the semester breaks, I would ensure to fix appointments with renowned Ugandan writers to come and inspire us during the semester.

Among others, ‘a frail man with a fiery pen’ novelist Julius Ocwinyo (Fate of the Banished), would come to speak to us. Satirist Austin Ejiet, novelists Dr Ian Clarke (Yes, the man of IHK has a novel, The Man with the Key Has Gone), and Goretti Kyomuhendo (The First Daughter) all visited us for inspiration.

It was satirist Harry Sagara — of Saggy’s Wacky World — with whom I fixed many appointments, but he never honoured any of them. The association thrived. Hellen Nyana Kakoma of Sooo Many Stories had become editor of the association’s magazine, Dana as we tried to revive the old days. It was this energy and vibe that brought me closer to the legends — Bukenya and Gakwandi.

ARTHUR GAKWANDI

Sometime in 2006, Prof Gakwandi’s publishing house, Bow and Arrow Publishers, had published Timothy Wangusa’s poetry collection, Africa’s New Brood. The collection had become an instant hit, and in his trademark humour, Wangusa was cracking ribs with his wit and literary playfulness.

The department of Literature offered to organise the launch, and Lit-Ass was quickly in the mix. We worked closely with the publisher. My worthy cousin, dramatist and teacher, Deogratius Oyire exhibited great understanding of the streets, and we nailed the organisation to perfection.

Gakwandi hadn’t known us very much but after a wonderfully-organised launch, we became close friends. I vividly recall “Ras” like, “Omulas” being the name that Prof Gakwandi assigned my phone number in his cell phone. I struck him as a Rastafarian, used loosely to designate a street-smart chap.

As you can imagine, dear reader, I was anxious to become an author myself, and asked Prof Gakwandi if he could read some of my poetry, which I was preparing for a collection. Prof Gakwandi patiently read many draft poems of mine. Some were good, and some were laboured. And I recall the good prof constantly reminding me not to “poeticise,” that is, forcing the lines to read like poetry. After some time, I convinced myself that I wasn’t made for poetry — but gossip and storytelling.

I would learn later that Gakwandi’s criticism of my laboured poetry was the same criticism he had for himself. At a poetry reading one time, Gakwandi admitted that he too tried writing poetry, only to realise that “poetry was for finer minds,” and his had not been designed for poetry.

Surrounded by naturally talented poets such as David Rubadiri, Henry Barlow, Susan Kiguli (The African Saga), and Timothy Wangusa (A Pattern of Dust), his sense of the trade was undeniable. Indeed, when he settled for long prose fictions, he gave us the masterpiece, Kosiya Kifefe.

But there was more coming. Despite my laboured poetry, Gakwandi saw something he sought to encourage on. In 2011, having only published a short story, The Naked Excellencies, Gakwandi, as president of the Uganda PEN, sent me to represent Uganda PEN at the annual general meeting of International PEN, which was in Belgrade, Serbia. Well, senior members of Uganda PEN were busy, and Gakwandi entrusted me with carrying Uganda on my young shoulders.

AUSTIN BUKENYA

I will need an entire day to write about my encounters with Austin Bukenya, a man whose play, The Bride animated a great deal of conversation within the famous Lecture Room 4. But it wasn’t The Bride that midwifed encounters with the legendary writer; it was our work with Dana magazine — the Lit-Ass magazine.

During my tenure as president, we had decided to exhibit Dana in the corridor. Yes, exhibit our writing like paintings. Let the poems be written, typed out and exhibited on a poetry board. We erected this board in the corridor heading to Lecture Room 4, just beside the entrance into Austin Bukenya’s office. (One day, I will write about Lecture Room 4 — a room with many memories from Ngugi, V.S. Naipaul to Okot p’ Bitek, among others).

On one occasion, a small poem of mine titled A Conversation with Her Thigh was attracting crowds. It was about a real-life encounter with a female student dressed in a revealing dress and as she was seated on the concrete hedge as one enters the former Faculty of Arts; the small skirt had folded upwards exposing her sumptuous shiny pair of thighs.

I fictionalised a male character in conversation with these thighs. These ‘talking thighs’ had acquired a soul and character and had own dreams away from the owner. They cherished the moment in the sun, which they viewed as an escape from a poorly managed shelter. It was raunchy, and readers loved it, and since these skimpy wares and escaped thighs were a common sight, loud laughter often engulfed the corridor.

I one time followed Austin Bukenya after he had read the board, and he would say to me in words that I would never forget, that my form of writing, was describable as “writing aloud.”

Of course, he was exaggerating, but I felt deeply gratified by his words. I have run out of space, but I will in future come to tell you about his edited volume of short stories, The Mermaid of Msambweni and Other Stories, specifically that piece on the “two doors” at Entebbe Airport —one dilapidated and the other working perfectly — which introduced me to the world of political commentary.

I will also one day write about how Bukenya and Pio Zirimu’s definition of oral literature defined my entire life as a graduate student and cultural studies major.

THE LITERARY TERRAIN

But as I write, our authors following up in the footsteps of Bukenya and Gakwandi are victims of the politics of the time — directly and indirectly. Kalundi Serumaga, son of the legendary playwright and dramatist Robert Serumaga, remains banned from public commentary. Poet Stella Nyanzi is in exile for her activism, and novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija is a torture survivor and exiled in Germany.

Writer and community organiser Dr Danson Kahyana is now in the United States. The women writers’ association, FEMRITE which used to be our beacon of literary light — producing one text after another — is currently deprived of funds, and only barely surviving.

We have produced some greats such as Jennifer Makumbi, Mildred Kiconco Barya, Doreen Baingana, but these are published abroad and are more international than local. The works of Kagayi Ngobi show immense promise, and it is gratifying to learn that playwright and director Alex Mukulu returned to theatres this year. But the landscape remains difficult and heavily constrained.

yusufkajura@gmail.com

The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University

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