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Saturday, December 13, 2008

The imprisoned writer is remembered

Despite persecution from the powers that govern, writers in Africa and worldwide have always expressed their feelings through drama, prose and poetry as amessage to those exploited, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

Many enjoy reading great books but little do they know that some of the authors have paid with their blood for using their craft to say no to injustices in society. Nigeria’s Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka was once detained for his critical writings against the tyranny, corruption, and violation of human rights. His jail experiences inspired one of his most powerful works, The Man Died (1972).
It's because writers were increasingly becoming targets of cruel rulers that PEN, the worldwide association of writers was founded in 1921 to champion the values of literature and defend freedom of expression.

The organisation is open to all writers, publishers, editors and journalists and has national chapters in 104 countries. Every year on November 15, writers and Human rights activists join to remember colleagues who have been killed and to highlight their plight and campaign for the release of those still in prison. They encourage themselves to remain steadfast and continue to use their pens to help change the world.

This year, Pen International has recorded the killing of 31 writers and print journalists who it is believed to have been targeted for what they wrote or said to displease the authorities. Somalia tops Africa in the persecution of her writers and many see the writing profession as very risky.

Pen Uganda, the national chapter of Pen International on Saturday joined other countries to remember the Imprisoned Writer. Writers, journalists, human rights activists, literature and media students and lecturers gathered at Makerere University on November 15 to honour the courage of those who have committed their lives to speaking the truth, even when it puts their personal security at risk, said the president of Uganda Pen Centre, Prof. Arthur Gakwandi.

The group mourned the humiliation and depersonalisation that people experience in prison and expressed solidarity with them as a way of defending human dignity. But the day’s highlight was the reading from some of the most fascinating prison literature from Africa. The opening scene of the controversial play, The Crocodile of Zambezi by Raisedon Baya and Christopher Mlalazi was read.

“Prison is a form of sanction/Against flesh and the soul/It is not a place to seek truth/But a place to die a thousand deaths/It is not a place to be born in/Certainly not a place to dream about I am here/I have been here/I will always be here/Because my name is Conscience/And will not allow or watch/My peoples honor and dignity/Kicked and trampled My name is conscience.”

A student from Makerere University, Rachael Amutuhaire, read a section of Soyinka’s, A Man Died and another read from Ngugi wa Thiongo’s, Detained. An impassioned discussion followed in which the discussants agreed that the writer is under siege everywhere; they suffer intimidation; their stories are imprisoned with death threats, forcing them to adjust their content to what is acceptable by those in power. Prof. Abbas Kiyingi of Makerere University Literature department called this; “a great atrocity”.

What the group found disheartening is that most countries where writers are persecuted are signatories to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights: Such countries cannot easily change these practices unless pressure is exerted by the international community, said Gakwandi. That is why it is important for us to organise and continue to oppose anything that constrains the writer.

Isaac Ssettuba, a poet and Vice Chairperson Pen Uganda observed: Incarceration has been a recurrent theme in literary creation down the ages, in both the fictional and autobiographical modes of writing despite the critics little attention to this ever-growing body of literature.

As writers celebrated the courage of those who have refused to be silenced and pledged their commitment to speak out in support of one another, they also reminded themselves that while it was their right to enjoy freedom of expression, they had to do it responsibly and not violate the rights of others.

The overall unity and determination of Ugandan writers was admirable but it was the enthusiasm shown by literature and journalism students that stood out. It means the country is assured of a new generation of courageous writers, those who are ready to embrace the words of former American president Franklin D. Roosevelt that books are weapons and use their pens to fight the political, social and economic forces that make the world uninhabitable.

--Saturday Monitor, November 22, 2008