Beverly Nambozo Nsengiyunva is an accomplished poet, writer, radio personality, actress, literary activist and teacher. A self-starter right from her childhood, she is the founder and director of Babisha Niwe Poetry Foundation.
She shared her life story with Simon Kasyate on Capital FM’s Desert Island Discs.
It is an honour for us to have you here. Many people seem to think that people like you sound better on paper as opposed to live to the ear. I must say you are a total [contradiction] to that stereotype.
Oh my God! Actually, I love radio. I love to speak. I do a lot of emceeing at events, public speaking; I train children a lot in writing and speaking as well. I love to talk; on air. I just talk and talk so, if you don’t stop me now, I will just go ahead and take over the programme.
It’s an epic moment for Ugandans that love the written word, be it prose or poetry... So, who are you? When were you born?
Well, I was born in 1976 and I turn 38 in July....
...I love the generosity of how you splash your age all over the place.
Actually, growing old is a privilege and many people do not have that privilege. I am blessed to be 37 years old and having lived my life fully. And I intend to live it more fully. I can’t wait till I turn 40 because I intend to go back to 25 years old. All that energy, I am just working towards that.
I am a writer and a poet. My father was Mr Herbert Mugoya. He comes from Sironko. He passed away in 1991. My mother is still alive – Mrs Betty Mugoya, a very traditional, cultural woman. She is amazing; a landscaper, artist, designer. I suppose I get my artistry from her. She is self-employed as well, [a] magnificent woman, absolutely enthralling and very inspiring. I have three siblings. My sister Louise is a pianist. She does landscaping as well, extremely intelligent.
My younger brother Myles lives in Nairobi with his three children and wife. He has been there for about four years now. He’s an artist as well, brilliant. I come from a family of brilliant siblings (laughs). My elder brother Sam lives with his two children and wife in the UK.
Wow! Interesting siblings. You may wish to share with us how your childhood was.
My dad was a diplomat. We lived in the UK for about eight years and so my childhood is formed by that. Living in London is excellent.
I was in a private school and we never lacked at all., when I came back and heard stories of people who escaped from school because of this, because of a different political landscape, I am like, “I have no idea of what you are talking about, What do you mean you had no sugar for three days?” It was unheard of for me.
I couldn’t understand that. So we did live a very privileged life. Coming back here [in 1987] changed everything.
Tell us how it was in London and when you are back.
Coming back, Kampala Parents was an excellent school but the landscape changes because communities engage differently. Children are even different.
They speak more slowly, more deliberately and they speak in a sense that everyone is a friend but in London, you are very picky with who your friends are. That social landscape was an immediate difference I noticed.
At this point, did you get any indication or aspiration to be something in life? Or were you just wallowing in the fact that you lived in plenty and everything was for the taking?
Well, the plentiful living changed quite a bit. My father died and my Mum, being a single mother, things became a bit difficult. I remember some time when I was in Gayaza, I realised, ‘Wow!
Now I am feeling the pinch of lack.’ Not starving, but less than [the usual] abundance [that I was used to]. And yet she really struggled to [take us] through good schools. So, every time we were given something we were able to have, I appreciated it more because I knew [what it meant] not to have suddenly.
Was there something about your upbringing at home that [made you] able to fit in any situation that you find yourself?
Generally, I am adaptable. Even if I travel anywhere, I adapt easily to different societies and communities and settings. I did feel antagonised, but then I also grew up in a very religious school where prayer, hope and faith were emphasised; so, I followed that to the letter.
Let me take you back to Gayaza. With this kind of socialisation with the students that you found in there, the kind of subjects that you [studied], is it a point in your life when you start forming an idea of who you want to be in terms of profession?
Yes. Being a teenager in Gayaza, I realise that I am extremely gifted in the creative arts. In S1, we entered a dancing competition and I won. I was the best in the entire school just in S1. So things like that just helped me thrive, especially in the creative arts.
And I was a leader throughout; class captain, house leader. And when I went to Makerere College School, I was the head girl; so, leadership came naturally. But it is something [also] I nurtured.
Oh, that could also explain the fact that you are flawless in your speech. And many young people, or even society at large, are mainly amazed by people who have a right selection of words...
That is true. I haven’t thought of it that way; that is a nice way of looking at it. So, Gayaza is a place where they allowed me to read poetry at assembly all the time. I would form compositions for the dormitory we were in, Sherborne, and we would do rap songs out of it and dance.
I love to dance absolutely! Whenever we would have sports competitions, I would really inspire and enchant slogans about Sherborne house and we would win. There was a time when we were the first, six years in a row.
Plays You Can’t Hurry Love by Phil Collins.
A leader almost naturally, extremely spot on in class and in the field. But what exactly did you think would be your profession? I wanted to be everything. I was an engineer, a doctor at one point. I wanted to do physics, pure math.
At one time I wanted to be a lawyer because [of] the excitement of seeing lawyers on stage or in film. And then a journalist as well because journalism does involve a kind of enthralling experience. I was on radio for a while; 6am to 10am. It just felt great to be awake before anyone else and be the first to present to them the notion of the day.
What do you study at HSC and how do you end up at Makerere University?
Well, HSC I did history, economics, literature and French. But I did appallingly. Makerere College is so different from Gayaza in many ways. But the thing is, I flourished as a person because I felt I was with people who are more palatable, more relatable to what is happening on the ground, the reality of life.
Their noses aren’t stuck in the air. Not that the ones in Gayaza were, but these people came from a wider variety of backgrounds and many of them were also people who didn’t make it to the excellent four schools: Namagunga, Gayaza, SMACK and Budo. But they are actually brilliant academically and musically and in sports so it was a mix. It was great to be a part of all that.
How did you relate with this new setting? How about this whole boy-girl relationship? How did you handle that?
I think I was distracted in the sense I would daydream a lot. Remember, I was still very religious and I would not do that necessarily but I would daydream. It was also exciting to have the attention of the opposite sex without fighting for it, because in Gayaza you had to wait for a seminar for boys to come and everyone would fight for their attention.
It was harder then but here you are spoilt for choice. It was flattering and being 17 or 18, it was the kind I needed to find out or discover what it is like to be in a setting where there are boys at liberty. You know, in class you are sitting with them. You eat with them in the dining. You are a prefect with them.
You are making decisions with them, which is the real world anyway so that was really very flattering. And some of them were really my good friends. That’s what I liked about MACOS. It just enabled you to do everything at your best. Sports, music, theatre; it was just a place to do everything.
So, you sit your examinations and excel and go to the university?
I don’t excel. I failed appallingly everything, apart from literature. What happened was that Makerere College, because of the structure, the dormitories are much closed in, I felt very sick almost throughout. I had all kinds of sickness; malaria, typhoid, anaemia, bronchitis, pneumonia, name it. I lost weight.
I was in and out of clinics. It was really terrible and that affected my grades. I had to do exams at different times. And also I was the head girl, so that was too much for me. But the thing is, I still enjoyed what I had, the experience I had with the school. It was excellent.
So when you failed, where does life take you?
My mum paid for private [university] education. I wanted to do a degree in creative writing. In 1999, there was no such degree and so our neighbour, who was my mum’s friend and the dean of faculty Fine Art then, said the closest is Literature and English in [bachelor of] Education.
That’s absurd because it is absolutely different. But I passed very well. I had wonderful lecturers, Prof Wangusa, Susan Kiguli who was my teacher in Gayaza in S.1, so that helped.
Selects Eye To Eye by Amy Grant .
When you graduate, what is your next move? Do you go ahead and start teaching young people how to read and write in literature and all that?
For school practice, I had Prof Rhoda Nsibambi (RIP) and she was amazing. She told me, “My goodness! You are so good at teaching. Be a teacher.” And I was like, ‘that’s not what I want to hear but thank you. I am glad I have passed my school practice.’
It just showed I just love to speak, train and develop and be in a place where I am changing lives of young people, which I do a lot now training people through creative writing. So, I taught at Rainbow International School, for a year. And when you get to an international school the best way to pass is to forget what you learnt at Makerere.
The headmaster kept saying, “What do they teach, you?” My head of department, a Ugandan, then said, “You know what? This is different because it’s more engaging; it’s more of one-on-one child-centred learning and it’s not just about marking. Does the child understand the characterisation of the people in the comprehension when they are writing? What view point are they writing from?”
With child-centred learning, you have to know the parents and understand why parents are keen on particular subjects over the other. Work in an international school doesn’t end.
You told me it was only for one year?
Oh man, I got so stressed. Interestingly, it was the first job I had and I was able to buy a tiny Starlet. It was a manual and Shs 5,000 could take me for two days. But at that time I had just joined Femrite as a member and I was still missing that anointing of being around writers. I was writing my stories while teaching.
I wasn’t really present in the time and I thought I went to it too quickly although it came par chance. The head of department saw me at a Femrite event and said: “I like you, you can manage’ So, I said: “You know what. It’s just not working now.”
But I have been invited back quite a bit. They have literacy weeks and I go back often to take creative writing class.
So, when you left there, what did you go to do in full-time employment?
I didn’t have full-time employment for some time. I did some work with British Council maybe for eight months and then I finally joined Power FM in 2003 to 2005. It [involved] waking up at 6am.
And I was accepted to do my masters in Warwick [UK]. I didn’t go but the acceptance was there. I just didn’t get the scholarship for it and it was too expensive. And so I was kind of back and forth doing gender research for different organisations until I eventually joined a regional women’s organisation for another two years. During that time is when I got married and had my first child.
Along the way you pick up the Nsengiyunva name. When do you meet this wonderful man?
Well, I think he met me. I was at the prime of my Power FM days. I was an audience relations manager doing lots of work in HIV/Aids.
So before all of that, you never had any relationship going? Even with the distractions you had at Rainbow, there was no guy in the picture?
Well, what was interesting was I found out that people liked me but I wouldn’t know because, there you have it, Ugandan men don’t talk. They don’t say, at least not with me.
But then, afterwards, I realised I was too intimidating. Afterwards they tell me, “Babe, you are so tough. I liked you but there you go marrying Emmanuel.” And I said, ‘I had no idea’. And also, I wasn’t looking for a relationship but the relationship happened and was so perfect.
So, this Emmanuel guy, was he working at Power FM? Or was he just a client?
He used to come because of the programmes we were working on about HIV/Aids awareness. His organisation did that so he would pick material from us and we would interact in that way. I had no idea. So it’s not like I didn’t see him. But he saw me and this is what he says: “That’s the person I want to marry.” Can you believe? He said I was just too energetic and eh!
So, when I started this gender research, it happened that it was his boss who was running it and then we met again and I was like, ‘where have I seen you before?’
Then after that, we started interacting, talking and then I joined a group of women who were that time just into a lot of prayer. They were like, let’s pray for those of us who are single and want to get married.
I didn’t know if I wanted to get married but I wasn’t doing anything with my life and I said, ‘why not?’ And somehow it unfolded and Emma was the one. We have been together for seven years now.
Plays The Measure Of A Man, by Elton John
Beverley, in terms of professional progression from Power FM, what are you doing? How is your writing progressing?
I actually, started writing more in and out of jobs. It was when I wasn’t in full-time employment that I started writing more because I decided at 29 that I am going to become a writer and poet first, above anything else.
So, do you prefer the poetry of written word or spoken word?
I think they both work together but the poetry of the written word, for me, that traditional structure still holds much more strength. First of all, it is documented and it lives on forever. And also, I think there is more careful consideration in the craft and development and in the sharing for other people who are learning about poetry.
So, what normally gives you the motivation to write?
I usually feel like I always have something to share with a reader. It could be about my own life. It could be what I strongly feel about women and their role in society and what they are not doing enough. So, I try to put that across, to tell women that you have a lot more power and a lot more energy and a lot more resources than you have even used.
I do a lot of that in my poetry. I also to try to relate a lot of my stories with what is happening in Uganda, to talk about that we have our own oral traditions and our own structures that are quite interesting and don’t necessarily have to be first coming from the global North. We have our own and we can celebrate.
Where is your interaction with this African setting tradition? You were born in the UK or you lived there for much of your childhood. Do you actually speak your own native language?
The thing with oral tradition is not sitting with your grandfather around a fire in a hut roasting maize and the village/town crier is coming in barkcloth. It’s not that.
For me, oral tradition is anything in spoken form or comes from a place that describes your heritage or any heritage. For example, now that we are living in Kampala, the oral forms may have connected to the people from central region and that say we are less and we have all come here for different reasons and we shouldn’t be judged for that.
Last year, there was a festival in July at one of the places at Acacia avenue and then Dan Setaba, a traditional storyteller, came and started telling stories. He had his blow harp and he was sitting down and just narrating a story through his instrument. He was just seated down and it was interesting.
It doesn’t mean that our reception of oral tradition is any less. Although the structure and environment are different, we appreciate that we could bring it to the space we are in now.
There is the stereotype that if you want to hide something from a Ugandan, put it in the book. Doesn’t this worry you that yes, you may love writing but there is no receptive audience that’s going to embed all this and swallow it all and enjoy it?
Well, we have a challenge but I like to look at solutions, and not challenges. I was chatting with a group of other writers and [someone] insists poetry is the bigger brother of all other literatures, which means us as poets, we need to change the way we produce it so that it is more palatable and reachable.
Now, if you change the written word into spoken word form, that’s another way in which you reach many audiences. However, not all poetry can be spoken word. If we go back to the written form, for example, I have a [poetry] anthology I have produced with many African poets living on the continent and living outside.
Do you know what this does? It means we are speaking to writers and readers from Algeria, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, and Rwanda. Just be creative in the platforms that already exist and extend it to all audiences. It’s hardly unlikely that you will get a complete rejection of sales. It has never happened to me and I don’t think it’s happened to anyone.
Where do I expect to see you and read from you in the next say 10 years?
I have developed a concept for a leadership academy for girls and women in Africa. Actually, all my ideas are based on a lot of risk and I just wake up and say, ‘I dreamt this last night and I am going to make it happen.’
And I shared with two people who are into leadership and they said it works and I am just waiting for the right day and hours to just sit and send that proposal to three people who can resource it. I just need the money to start this academy.
If you were marooned on a dessert island and you were given chance to carry one person or thing, who/what will it be?
All factors constant and there’s food and DStv (laughs), I would take Emma. We have been through so much together.
Requests anything from Maurice Kirya.