KAKWENZA RUKIRABASHAIJA, 33, is a novelist, political activist, critic and the recent recipient of the PEN Pinter Prize award for International Writer of Courage. His books The Greedy Barbarian and Banana Republic have gotten him in trouble but he is not about to stop. Quick Talk had a chat with him.
How would you describe yourself, Kakwenza?
I describe myself as a novelist and an iconoclast; someone who criticizes cherished beliefs.
Don’t you have an English or Christian name?
You should call it a colonial or slave name. My father gave me one but I refused it. When I was sitting for my PLE, I decided to take his name and my grandfather’s; my children also don’t have such names. It is just because I am a proud African and I promised myself that if I ever go to Europe or USA and I find a mzungu called Kakwenza, I will start naming my children English names.
But do you subscribe to any religion?
No, I believe in sense and reason. I do not go to colonial shrines; when I want to speak to God, I just go on a hill with my bottle of wine and sit there.
I tell God my problems as I sip on my wine. The last time I was in a colonial shrine was on my wedding day in 2017 [hmmm, strange contradiction, right there, Kakwenza…]
Tell Quick Talk about your family background...
I was born and grew up from Rukungiri in abject poverty. I am the fourth born of 12 children, of which only six are alive today. My mother gave birth to twins thrice.
For my education, I can count about 20 schools I went to for my primary education [due] to my father’s job who was a religious leader; so, wherever he would be posted, I would go with him. For secondary school, I went to Makobore High School, Kyamakanda Secondary School and Kigezi College Butobere, for O-level.
When I finished senior four, my father asked me to go to a teachers’ college, but I refused and escaped home and came to Kampala. I joined Muyenga High School for my A-level and my mother paid the school fees.
After senior six, I told my father I wanted to study law, but he wanted me to go to the National Teachers’ College in Kabale, but I refused.
Makerere University had given me a law course, while at Kyambogo University they had given me Art and Industrial Design, but we didn’t have enough money and that is why I settled for Development Studies at Kyambogo. I later did a master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Cape Town and right now I am studying law at Cavendish University.
Well done! What kind of child were you?
I was very stubborn and I would criticise a lot, which even caused me to be chased from some schools. When someone would beat me, I had to revenge.
You know these things of a teacher coming to class and finds majority of the students shouting and decides to punish the whole class, I had to revenge for such.
One time I was from getting my posho, very hot on the plate, and I smacked it on the teacher’s face when he was riding out of school on his bike because he had beaten me for nothing.
Hahaha! So, how do you get your love for literature?
I have been a writer since my secondary school days. Our S3 Literature teacher gave an assignment to just write about anything. Because I hated this teacher so much because of always being shabby and dirty, I went to the dormitory and wrote fictitiously describing his dirty trousers, shirt and tattered shoes.
We submitted our essays and when he came back for the next class, he was very smart in new shoes, shirt and trousers. He gave out the papers but I did not receive mine. After class, he called me outside and asked me to tell him the person I wrote about in my essay.
He was very tough and I told him the truth. He told me that it was a very good essay and that I was a very good writer. But he told me to never ridicule or fictionalize people [advice Kakwenza clearly never took]. He encouraged me to write and read and I actually started loving him and the subject.
You recently won an award; what is it about?
I am the award winner of the PEN Pinter Prize for International Writer of Courage and I think I deserve it. Which Ugandan has ever written about their ordeal when their tormentor was still alive?
The ones who did it first had to run to exile. Someone is beaten for writing and again writes about how they beat him… that attracted international coverage.
Why are local bookshops not selling your books?
Because they told them not to, and now I am selling them myself. Only one bookshop sold my books, but nowadays they also never order for them; I think they were also threatened, but I don’t give a damn.
They beat me up that I should cower, but unless they kill me, I am going to revenge using literature. I am going to kill them using literature. I am a verbal terrorist and they cannot do anything about it.
What is your beef with the first family?
You know a fish rots from the head; so, they are the problem of this country. They have overshadowed the institutions, everything is about their family. You cannot run a country like you are running your homestead.
If you were made president, what would you do in your first 100 days?
First of all, I am not interested in becoming a politician. I am interested in criticising. Even if Museveni goes tomorrow and Bobi Wine or [Rtd Col Dr Kizza] Besigye becomes president, I will still criticise them. I am not interested in any political position.
How have the arrests affected you?
They have encouraged me to write more. When I was writing The Greedy Barbarian, I did not know that I would create havoc or that someone would think I was autobiographing them.
So, when I was arrested, they gave me what to write about and that is how I came up with Banana Republic: Where Writing Is Treasonous. I just narrated whatever I went through when I was in the CMI dungeon.
What else do you do?
I am a farmer. I grow tomatoes. I show my workers what to do because no one has ever benefited from armchair or telephone farming. I have also put up a demonstration farm for the community to come and I teach them farming practices.
What is the other side of you most people would be surprised to know?
I am very quiet and soft-spoken. Very many people who meet me wonder if I am the Kakwenza who is a verbal terrorist in the media. I think I am a boring person when you meet me.
What do you remember about your wedding?
The photographer never delivered our photos [bursts into laughter]. The guy never delivered even after we engaged the police and arrested him because we had already paid him. Up to now, the only photos we have of our wedding were taken using a mobile phone [in his words, the Kakwenzas have “many children”.]
How do you spend your free time?
Every day I spend two hours jogging, two hours learning and then another hour writing. I read 57 to 63 books a year. I also love evening drives, especially when I am in the village while admiring nature.
What are you reading currently?
I am reading Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins.
Which Ugandan musician(s) gets you off your seat?
[Before Quick Talk even finishes the question:] I love Sheebah so much. I used to have a very big crush on her. I would sometimes say, “I wish I could marry this girl.”
[Shakes head and laughs shyly]. Then Irene Ntale. When Sheebah’s crush expired, I started crushing on Irene Ntale. She melts my heart when she smiles or sings. I also love Bobi Wine, because he is my fellow activist and a very good mobiliser.
You are quite tall!
I don’t know how tall I am, but I asked my carpenter to make for me a bed of 7x7 and I also went to the factory and ordered a mattress for it. I fit there perfectly; so, I think I am seven-and-something feet tall [how did those CMI guys beat all those feet of human being?! Kakwenza looks reeeaally tall.]
Any book in the works?
I am releasing the first Ugandan erotic book next month and people have already started pre-ordering it. You know Ugandans love those things. Talk about sex and see how everyone will forget about the struggle! [The book] has sexual scenes, but it is good.