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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ugandans need to move out of this literary desert


As Uganda joined other countries to celebrate World Book and Copyright Day yesterday (April 23), I’m impelled to comment on the state of our literary landscape.

A number of readers and writers associations, booksellers and newspapers have tried to popularise creativity and promote our reading culture. Still, you cannot call our book industry vibrant. The annual National Book Week and the literary week of activities organised by the National Book Trust of Uganda (Nabotu) and the Uganda Female Writers Association (Femrite), are still poorly planned and attended.

The best seller list in bookshops like the one held by street booksellers has books on the national syllabus. Manuscripts from creative writers are shelved in preference to instructional materials for schools. It means few school goers read beyond the curriculum and those who do turn to the works of foreign authors like Stephen King and Barbara Taylor.

I participate in book exchange programmes and I see the popular titles. I’ve interviewed several booksellers who say foreign authors far outpace native writers in sales. At a number of literary workshops I’ve attended, one of the major concerns has been on how to get Ugandans to embrace our literature.

You will get a grip one of these days when you conduct a random survey; ask how many have read Doreen Baingana’s award-winning Tropical Fish or even Julius Ocwinyo’s Fate of the Banished which is on the A-Level Literature syllabus. No wonder Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino remains the best known literary work from Uganda. But is our nation still “a literary desert” as was labelled by Prof. Taban lo Liyong in 1962?

No. The problem is the inexistence of incentives to catalyse the production of the kind of creative works that will shape the social and intellectual lifestyle of this country as well as empower citizens to stand up for their rights.

In Nigeria and Kenya, leaders have had to tread carefully well knowing Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiongo always have their pens ready.

In the days of apartheid in South Africa, protest literature from Dennis Brutus and Alex La Guma, among others, gave a voice to the oppressed and emboldened Nelson Mandela and his group to fight on. Last year in Zimbabwe, Raisedon Baya and Chrisopher Mlalazi’s play The Crocodile of Zambezi was banned and other critical writings have shaken President Robert Mugabe and made the power-sharing deal a reality.

Having on the mind what former American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, that books are weapons, it’s time Ugandan writers faced the challenge of using the written word to battle the evil forces troubling our motherland.

Unfortunately, unlike in Kenya and Tanzania, Uganda has no registered organisation that manages copyright or reproduction rights on behalf of authors or that works with Copyright Officer in the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to enforce the protection of intellectual property through Copyright.

Consequently, gifted individuals have shunned full time writing for fear they will die poor. But more alarming is that there is no way a country can preserve its literary heritage in a situation like this.

English philosopher Francis Bacon once said knowledge itself is power, so we should use World Book and Copyright Day to laud those who have through books provided the knowledge to further quality education.

We should also lobby NGOs and copyright bodies in other countries to help the Uganda Reproduction Rights Organisation (URRO) which is being formed, as well as boost the literary endeavours of this country so that the love of reading and writing can be resuscitated.

--Daily Monitor, April 24, 2009