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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Legendary Makerere poet reborn at campus


It will be an afternoon of nostalgia when Prof. David Rubadiri (below) arrives to give the inaugural memorial lecture in honour of the late Prof. David Cook in the Makerere University Main Hall this Thursday, May 7.

The two, besides sharing a first name, have arguably done more for East African literature like no other.

Poetry lovers and those who have studied Literature in English are familiar with the vintage selection, Poems from East Africa (1971), the anthology that was edited by the duo.

Cook joined Makerere University as a lecturer in 1962. He became a senior lecturer in 1965 and Head of English turned Literature Department between 1967 and 1977 during which he largely shaped what is reasonably the golden era of Ugandan literature.

“I’ve fond memories of him as my lecturer,” says Prof. Arthur Gakwandi. “He was dedicated to his work. He organised a good library for the department where people could make quick reference before going to the main library. He created an atmosphere of creativity and intellectual dedication.”

Cook may not have been a creative writer himself but his influence reverberates in V.S Naipaul who participated in a creative writing fellowship he initiated at Makerere and went on to win the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature. Ngugi wa Thiong’o and playwright Robert Sserumaga gained from the programme too.

Ngugi was also part of other Cook’s initiatives, such as the Makerere Travelling Theatre that became popular in the mid 60s for taking dramatic performances to the people. In fact, it’s then that he was inspired to write one of his popular plays, The Black Hermit (1968).

Cook, a very close friend of Okot p’Bitek, was also the editor of Pen Point (later renamed Dhana), a student creative writing magazine that whetted the creative and writing skills of the likes of Dr Susan Kiguli, Ngugi, Prof. Gakwandi, and Prof. Timothy Wangusa who are today acclaimed authors.

They were members of the Makerere Writers Club that met fortnightly at the professor’s house or the Guild Canteen to talk books and writings. They wrote short stories and poems that were discussed and broadcast by BBC and Radio Uganda and many were published in international anthologies.

When David Cook passed on in 2003, Ngugi wa Thiong’o paid him glowing tribute saying even though he had some reservations about his teaching,
one thing he can never doubt was Cook’s ability to inspire his students.

Such was the man’s long and heartfelt connection with Makerere that he left the institution in his will Shs180m to promote the work he started there: Promotion of creative writing.

“The money will be used to reactivate Dhana with two publications every year: one entirely creative, and the other scholarly,” says Edgar Nabutanyi, an assistant lecturer of Literary Theory.

“We are also looking at having an annual creative literary prize as a way of acknowledging Cook’s contribution to our literature.”
Although there is more Ugandan literature today, the reading public is less supportive than it was then.

“It’s going to be an annual event at which people interested in creative writing especially in Uganda and East Africa, come and talk about the legacy of David Cook and the progress that has been made since then,” says Prof. Gakwandi.

As a contemporary and great friend of Cook, but also as a man who has deep roots with Makerere University as a lecturer and poet, David Rubadiri was deemed the perfect choice to deliver the first Memorial Lecture.

Yes, he is Malawian but much of his writings are about Uganda because he attained his primary and secondary education at King’s College Budo, and at Makerere University where he obtained his first degree in English and History.

Rubadiri then left to pursue post graduate studies, and in 1964, became Malawi’s first Permanent Representative to the United Nations. However, he fell out with the government of Kamuzu Banda and returned to teach drama, poetry, and creative writing at Makerere and in Nigeria, Kenya and Botswana.

With the fall of Banda in 1994, Rubadiri was reinstated to his job at the UN. Later, he was appointed the Vice Chancellor of the University of Malawi.

“What he has published has been translated into so many languages, and read, enjoyed, recited, studied, taught from and examined in so many educational institutions and homes on the African continent and beyond,” writes Malawian poet Jack Mapanje in a forward to An African Thunderstorm and Other Poems (2004), a collection of Rubadiri’s most loved poems. “Rubadiri’s poetry is as ingenious, meaningful and powerful today as it was at conception decades ago.”

In the June 1995 edition of Dhana, Prof. Abasi Kiyimba, the now Deputy Dean at the Faculty of Arts, Makerere University writes that although Uganda and East Africa are at the centre of his writing, Rubadiri is committed to the problems and beauty of Africa:

“He glorifies the African past and its heroes, and protests against misuse of power. He deplores racial segregation and other forms of social-economic injustice. All these concerns put together make him one of the greatest poets that Africa has produced.”

This is the man who will give the first Memorial Lecture in respect of another man who together used their time to teach, instruct and inspire those who shared a love for books and in many ways changed face of East African literature.

--Daily Monitor, May 4, 2009