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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Tongue-in-cheek master leaves creative writing vacuum


Death is inevitable. As William Shakespeare put it, he that dies this year is quit for the next. But the death of Austin Ejiet, author and newspaper columnist could go down as the greatest tragedy to befall Uganda’s writing industry this year.
Ejiet, who died at Nsambya hospital on Saturday, introduced the creative writing course at Makerere University Literature Department, published an anthology, Aida, Hurray for Somo and Other Stories and three books in his indigenous language, Ateso.

At the time cancer of the liver and of the pancreas took away his soul, he was the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Kampala International University after serving at Makerere University for over 25 years.

“He was a brilliant student who got a first class degree at a time first class degrees were rare,” says Prof. Arthur Gakwandi, who taught Ejiet at Makerere University in the 1970s and was head of literature department at the time Ejiet was a young staff member. “He taught many, inspired many and will be remembered as a brilliant person with a great insight into literature.”

A profound writer who probed deeper and turned satire into an art form, Ejiet was also a master of the tongue-in-cheek whose writing style served as a model for many journalists and other writers. “We lost a mentor,” says Hilda Twongyeirwe, the coordinator of the Uganda Female Writers Association (Femrite). “He read the first manuscripts of Femrite and advised. The people he brought up as writers are more than I can count.”

One of those was Regina Amollo, author of A Season of Mirth. Her manuscript had been rejected for 20 years but Ejiet liked it, made comments and directed her to Femrite offices. Today, Ms Amolo is a respected novelist.

“Ejiet is a frank, spirited and courageous writer whose ability to raise disturbing questions about sex, human desire and identity is nothing short of heroic,” Dr. Susan Kiguli wrote in a 2005 review of the deceased’s book. “He mainly told the truth, laughingly.”

“He wrote stories of excellent quality and his death means the death of excellence in the short story genre,” said Danyson Kahyana, a lecturer of literature at Makerere.

Ejiet’s brilliance and articulation was reflected in his Sunday Monitor column, Take it or Leave it. A keen reader would tell that the man found graft and injustice highly contemptible. He often satirised African demagogues who by ends and means cling to power and accumulate dubious wealth, losing nobility of character. He was also concerned about moral degeneration, crowding in urban centres, corruption but most of all his stories showed a passionate sympathy for the marginalised.

“He was one of the most talented and knowledgeable commentator as a political and literary critic; he delivered strong messages in an entertaining way,” says Charles Mwanguhya, editor of Inside Politics. “We will miss his knowledge and experience.”

But Ejiet’s unfettered truth didn’t go down well with some individuals. In 2007 when Monica Arac de Nyeko won the Caine Prize for Literature, Glenna Gordon wrote a story in which she asked why women writers were scooping all the prizes. “The men are too busy running after money, politics and drinking beer in bars in the evening,” Ejiet told Ms Gordon then.

His comment provoked fury among male Ugandan bloggers and engendered a fiery debate on who was writing more and better among the sexes. A rumour that could not be verified by press time is that Ejiet was flashed out of Makerere by one of the top university administrators who was intimidated by his critical writings.

In June 2008, asked by a journalist to comment on modern African writing, Ejiet said contemporary writers are lightweights compared to the likes of Wole Soyinka and Okot p’Biteks. “If our writers today are to reach that level of reverence,” he advised, “they need stamina and a long list of consistently good publications because they are competing against western writers and DVDs.”

The connoisseur drew inspiration from timeless works by writers in the calibre of Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Wole Soyinka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ngugi wa Thiongo and Enid Blyton whose works he fell madly in love with during his early formative years.

A self-confessed cynic, Ejiet loved reading so much that he attributed his weakened eyesight to an obsession he was unapologetic about.

“My life has been dogged by so much tragedy but my association with literature helped me pull through” he said.

But it is his brilliance that shall be difficult to forget. It earned him cult-hero status in the literature fraternity; Dr Okello Ogwang called him “larger-than-life” yet he was also “a reserved, quiet and shy person,” according to Prof. Gakwandi, while Ms Twongyeirwe said Ejiet’s “humility and tender nature was overwhelming.”

He made his mark on our literary scene and earned his reputation in the media. Thus when he stands before his creator, he can confidently say he played his part.

Adieu bwana Ejiet; may your soul rest in eternal peace.

--Daily Monitor, Tuesday, January 5 2010