Prof Arthur Gakwandi is an author and senior lecturer at the department of Literature, Makerere University. Alon Mwesigwa talked to him about the connection between literature and society.
Of recent, we have seen many politicians write books about their past experiences and memoirs. Does this mean the country is transitioning into an authorship nation of sorts?
I think it is a good development that people are beginning to record their memoirs. It shows that leadership is becoming more sophisticated. [For the leaders], it is a calculation of faith – which shows that out there, the readership is present. And of course, they contribute to public debate.
The disadvantage, though, is that some of these memoirs magnify the contribution of some particular individuals. You know some politicians have big egos and want to project their personalities…that way.
What should be the writer’s role in society?
But different writers view their roles differently. Some writers are purely entertainers; others have their mission to fulfil. Some writers have very personal motives they don’t even disclose. It’s been an issue for debate although what is important is each one of them is making a contribution – a contribution to the cultural development of a country. And besides, if someone has an ideology, I don’t see why they shouldn’t promote that ideology.
Books critical of government have been received with suspicion. What does this tell us about the government’s level of intolerance to the critical voice/word?
Well, I am a senior citizen and have seen what this country has gone through over the years, and this regime has demonstrated much more tolerance than all the previous ones.
So many things have been said about the government but it moves on with it. But also, we have seen the government make a lot of mistakes and being so touchy about certain issues. In being unnecessarily touchy, the government draws attention to a rather-not-so-important issue. After all people here never read books.
What did you intend to achieve in your novel Kosiya Kifefe?
I was trying to contribute to the literary culture of this country. It is important that people should contribute [and] tell stories about their experiences to mirror the attitudes, aspirations, and challenges that citizens face. And when people read the same books, it is like people sharing myths and legends from the past.
They unite people because they believe they are from common ancestors and have a certain heritage which they share. It is like if British children read Shakespeare or Dickens, the fact that you meet people who have read the same books, they [books] become a common reference point.
We see Kosiya Kifefe, your main character in the book, achieve his dream. He gets a car, a house and he rises through the ranks to become a minister. But even with all that, he is an unhappy man. What does this tell us in our quest to attain wealth?
In Kifefe’s character, I was trying to show the false values of our society. Kifefe is not a gifted man. He has nothing to offer to society but he climbs to leadership by exploiting loopholes in our society. He is a false leader who laughs his way to the top. But because he has no commitment beyond the self, achieving wealth and indulging in all kinds of pleasures – drinking, womanising – they ruined his life.
And because he has false notions about love, he never finds a woman who can give him happiness. To be happy, one must have goals, pursuits that even when you aren’t rich, you can realise some of your dreams. But Kifefe has no clear dreams beyond physical pleasure.
What does this tells us about leaders today?
Some of them have false notions of importance. They ride on the fact that the voters, the masses, have no capacity to identify a good leader from the false one. We have many people like Kifefe in government. That’s why you see one scandal after the other. Many of them [leaders] have selfish motives and they are able to dress them as motives for serving as puppets.
So, how would you describe an ideal leader?
He is selfless with goals that are focussed on transforming the society and making other people happier. He should be able to listen to other people and get a contribution from them.
Why do you think our reading culture has remained so low?
There is something wrong with our education system. People think they go to school to earn degrees and get jobs. And they think after passing exams, you don’t have to read anymore, which is very wrong. And we inherited this from the colonialists. After independence, there was no transformation that thought to relate our society to education.
Where is the connection between literature and society?
Cultural development means people have shared values, dreams and they despise certain things that have negative influence on society. Literature can play a big role in promoting these values, mirror the good things, and despise the bad things.
But has society realised the relevance of literature?
Literature trains people to do critical thinking. To use language and realise that different usages can communicate different meanings. Language is important in every society. People who can communicate effectively still have a role in promoting communication skills and inculcating moral values in societies. People who have studied literature have ended up in newspapers and become TV personalities, among others.
When do you expect to give us another novel?
Yes, I am working on something, but I won’t say anything beyond that. The fact that the reading public is not supportive is kind of a disincentive to the writers. I wrote Kosiya Kifefe particularly for my contemporaries but most of them did not read it. Some of them even want me to lend them my own copy to read. Can you imagine?!