Kathryn Barrett-Gaines, a widow of Kadongokamu music icon Paul Kafeero, is set to present a key paper at Harvard University next month.
Barrett-Gaines, the director of African American Studies at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), will speak about the relationship between language and music, in a presentation that celebrates the richness of the language of her deceased husband.
Barrett-Gaines has been invited to present her research at the fourth Annual African Languages in the Disciplines conference, sponsored by the African Language Programme in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.
She will contribute to the conference with her work on Uganda's most celebrated composer, Paul Job Kafeero. She will argue that Kafeero was a genius by any measure of that word, but English is too poor a language to convey that to a reader.
In working on her book rendering his compositions in Luganda and in English translation, she would sit with collaborators for hours discussing the meaning of one line or phrase or word in Luganda, trying to get the proper English word or phrase, or corresponding idiom, to represent it.
At the conference, Barrett-Gaines will describe two lively and humorous examples to illustrate the impotence of English to present Kafeero's genius to a non-Luganda audience. In her book, she took five paragraphs to convey in English what Kafeero conveyed to his listeners in two short hilarious phrases.
She will argue that ignorance of African languages blinds us to African geniuses. Few non-English speaking geniuses are recognized globally, more so those from non-international languages like Luganda. It seems that in order to be acknowledged for greatness, a genius has to perform that elusive feat of being born along one of the northern seacoasts of the Atlantic, Pacific or Mediterranean.
"Kafeero, a boy from a tiny village in Uganda, who absorbed the richness of his language and learnt how to sculpt that richness into captivating imagery and story, how will he be recognized for his genius beyond his own people? How will we recognize the geniuses in Africa if we work, study, and read only in European languages?" Barrett-Gaines says.
There is need, she argues, for more, and better, work to add to the body of literature of and by Africans, and to expand the concept of African literature, beyond English-language works.
This calls for refocusing the project of documenting and preserving African languages and literature, and focus instead on writing and reading African languages and literature - a shift from preserving African languages to using them as a way to preserve them.
Kathryn Barrett-Gaines is popularly known in Uganda by her stage name, Omwana w'Omuzungu. She is director of African and African American Studies at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where she is a tenured professor of African History and African American History.
She teaches courses in African American History, and History of Africa, Kiswahili, Philosophy, Gender, and Comedy. She has a PhD in African History from Stanford University, an MA in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University, and an MA in African American Studies from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
She conducted her doctoral research in Uganda as a Fulbright researcher and a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar and, since 1997, has lived part of each year in Uganda, where she has been a stage and recording artiste in Luganda language popular musical entertainment, a newspaper columnist in both English and Luganda, and a radio and TV personality.
Barrett-Gaines has had more than a dozen years of experience working inside the Luganda music industry in Uganda. She has been a singer and comedian in Uganda. She was married to Paul Kafeero, one of Uganda's most popular Kadongokamu (country) musicians.
She currently writes a weekly column, Anansi, which appears on Mondays in The Observer.
Barret-Gaines regularly appears on radio discussing new music and music history in Uganda. She has published her first book, One Little Guitar: The Words of Paul Job Kafeero, with Fountain publishers.
In the US, she lives in Bowie, Maryland; in Uganda, she lives in Kajjansi-Lweza.