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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Poetry shines at NuVo Arts


It was a night of unity and diversity in the appreciation of artistic expression. The emotional performances and responses told of shared experiences - making the NuVo Poetry Night the highlight of the NuVo Arts Festival which debuted in Kampala on July 1.

Just why the festival organiser Coutinho Kemiyondo chose the theme “No Statistics Allowed” is intriguing, given the world’s obsession with “statistics.” Was it a veiled swipe at the “experts” to stop brainwashing us with “statistics” and confront the real issues affecting humanity?
Kenya's Checkmate Mido performing at NuVo Poetry Night in Kampala
 Whatever the case, the main performers that Thursday night, the Lantern Meet of Poets, were true to the theme. Founder member Raymond Ojakol told Saturday Monitor, “We were looking for poetry with fewer facts but with an emotional message that people can relate to, something that would cause them to think but mostly feel.”

The performances
That is how six of the 10 performances ended up tackling HIV/Aids; the confusion resulting from society’s perceptions, myths and their demystification, and tales of people who are living positive but can hold up their heads amidst the stigma.

Winnie Apio’s poem about a 16-year-old girl who was born with HIV/Aids and is struggling to find acceptance was moving.

“Sounds of hate” echo in her world as she drags “her loneliness like a tail misplaced at birth/not understanding why” she is so despised for a predicament she played no part in bringing about. Even Juliet Kaboneire’s dramatisation of For Seasons and Droughts, rich with imagery and colourful symbolism was memorable.

The poem is about knowing who you are and what you are and has this inspirational climax: “Wake up and live/Be that loud roar/ Of a never-ending wave/ That brave new voice/ You know what you have to do/Just be patient and wait/For good things come to those who wait.”

But it is Norah Namara’s poignant performance that drew rivulets of tears from the audience.
The monologue is about a 15-year-old whose gullibility makes her easy prey; she gets infected from her first sexual encounter and lives to regret it: “Society has deemed me worthless, serving as an example of what should not be... Though I must submit to the punishment, I will not allow to be counted among the statistics. With my scars, I will tread this earth with my head held high...With each tear that falls, I will tell that little girl in the mirror that is all going to be okay.”

So penetrative was Norah’s performance it ceased to be a stage-act and became real.
Yet it was a new experience to her: “I’ve not always been a performer in regards to poetry and drama. I had even planned on cancelling the writing and presentation because I felt I wasn’t ready; I thought it would be quite draining emotionally and I thought I would not pull it off as desired, but my friends from the Lantern Meet pushed me.”

Well, Norah’s perfect enunciation, timing and the ability to bring such affecting emotion to her performance could land her a major role on the small screen.

Peter Kagayi’s protest poem, Mr. Foreign Aid excited the audience. It is a personification of foreign aid as the evil, racist “Africa’s new Mr King Leopold” bent on exterminating Africans.

Identifying with the audience
Another ‘outburst’ came in from Kenyan writer and performer Ogutu Muraya. His charged presentation of Life Sucks got the audience up and echoing how life sucks indeed, because of the poem’s wordplay and how it captures issues that affect us all, from the hypocritical leader, to the fake education system and the unfairness of it all.

It was overall a night to vent, release pent-up emotions, and purge the souls of the impurities and frustrations this unfair world brings. Only art forms like these provide catharsis just as Kenyan musician cum poet, Checkmate Mido told me after his stirring performance of Tabasam, a song about a girl, a friend of his, whose artistic ambitions came crushing down when she got raped.

Even the veins on Ife Piankhi’s neck stood out as she moved about the room, accompanied by guitar strings, singing from the heart, begging her audience to “come, come closer” and “feel” the passions reverberating inside of her.

The showcases and the strong reception proved there is an unstoppable hunger; this new breed will not brook anymore about the things that affect them, but will through such art forms continue to speak out and spread awareness till they are heard and attended to.

This is what NuVo, which is an acronym for “New Voices” is all about -- it is about voices in the struggle for social justice.

--Saturday Monitor, July 13, 2013

Friday, July 5, 2013

How Ngugi wa thiongo awed Uganda's literature greats

On his visit to the Literature Department of Makerere University, Ngugi wa Thiongo left lecturers, poets and novelists awestruck, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

It can be overwhelming to be in the presence of a man you are deeply in awe of. But when the overawed are men of letters and professors, you cannot help rolling your eyes.

Ngugi in Lecture Room 4
Last Saturday was tranquil like it had sensed the significance of that day, but not even that calmed a party of writers and scholars that sat in Lecture Room 4 in the Department of Literature at Makerere University, fidgeting in their seats, chatting meekly and laughing nervously as they awaited for their distinguished guest.
When Prof Abasi Kiyimba stroked his greying goatee and wondered what one can say to a man of distinction such as the one they were awaiting for, Prof Arthur Gakwandi felt safer revealing he had just finished reading the man’s biggest and finest work, The Wizard of the Crow (2006).

“It is polemic. Ngugi has always been a polemicist,” said the author of Kosiya Kifefe (1997).
The door then creaked, and all eyes swung to the entrance. Yes! It was the renowned novelist, dramatist and social-activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, right on time: 11a.m. The hosts stood up, clapped, bowed in obeisance and brazenly gaped—all at once.

Down-to-earth author
Ngugi has a peaceful demeanour and a saintly gait. He was clad in a collarless button-down white shirt with long sleeves slightly rolled back, grey trousers and black sneakers. Grey strands colour his receding hair and give him a sagely look. He is physically robust, with a bit of a paunch. Still, it is amazing that at 75, he had no walking stick. Is it because he is “down-to-earth”, as comedian Pablo humorously describes short men? Though the shortest man in the room, his intellectual height reaches the heavens!

That is why many were helplessly effusive in their praise. The first said he was unfit to untie Ngugi’s shoelaces, another said he could not believe the author was human while Audace Mbonyingingo, whose undergraduate dissertation was on Ngugi’s Penguin Modern Classic, Petals of Blood (1977), was overcome with emotion.

“With Ngugi’s fiction, there’s nothing to dislike,” he told Daily Monitor. “Everything is profoundly tremendous. When you read one, you must read the other because all his books advance each other. So when I heard he would be here, I could not sleep till I saw the writer.”

Even Prof Timothy Wangusa, the jocular author of Upon This Mountain (1989) was wistful when he talked about having joined Makerere University in the year Ngugi was leaving (1963): “I just saw the back of you,” he said of his misfortune, throwing the room into laughter.

Novelist Regina Amollo of A Season of Mirth (1999) was breathless about how she “came running from the village (Kaberamaido) after hearing Ngugi was in town.”

Dr Susan Kiguli who delivered a welcome message, was close to tears of delight as she gushed about how the Literature Department felt privileged to host their outstanding alumnus: “What is more thrilling is that we can lay claim to you and can associate you with this room in which we are and even more, request you to point your favourite spot or any fond memories of this room.”
Prof. Ngugi with the learned folks he wowed
With a boyish smile, Ngugi pointed at a seat in the centre of the room and said it is where he sat when first began crafting his first novel, Weep Not, Child (1964). The room shook with applause. His presence in the very room he sat as an undergraduate student in the early 1960s activated fond memories of what an intellectual and literary hub Makerere University was back then. There was a powerful literary magazine called "Dhana" that whetted his writing skills. The illustrious author recalled the Makerere Writers Club, the book exchanges, the impassioned discussions, creative thinking and the short stories and poems they wrote most of which were read and discussed on the BBC and Radio Uganda.

These were also the days of the Makerere Travelling Theatre, for which he wrote his play The Black Hermit, which was produced and performed on Independence Day celebrations in Kampala in 1962. In the same year, Makerere hosted a literature conference that was attended by Wole Soyinka, Langston Hughes and Chinua Achebe among other luminaries that provided him an unquenchable spark. At the time Ngugi was living in the “revolutionary” Northcote Hall (now Nsibirwa Hall) and was so active in many student activities which one of his former lecturers, David Cook later blamed for his favourite student’s failure to get a first class degree. He got an upper second.

Makerere runs in his blood
That explains Ngugi’s deep-rooted connection with Makerere. Moreover, his works are widely read and studied in Uganda that there is probably no former or current literature student unfamiliar with The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), Devil on the Cross (1982) and the play I Will Marry When I Want (1982).

At the Literature Department where he met the staff in the morning before his 2pm presentation in the Main Hall, Dr Kiguli disclosed that one of their colleagues, Aloysius Kwitonda, is often teased for printing out every little piece of information that comes out on Prof Ngugi.

“And those of us who were here as undergraduates in the late 80s and early 90s know that Dr Katebalirwe Amooti made all Ngugi books required reading, and how “Decolonising the Mind” [1986 essay] became a little bible of sorts particularly the chapter titled “The Language of African Literature,” she said nostalgically. “We all recall the labels our tutors gave you…although I am more fascinated by a label given to you by yourself in your article “The Myth of Tribe in African Politics”: as a literary humanist, and hope to hear from you…what it chiefly signifies.”

So do tell, why would the Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine, not snatch every chance to return “home”? He was last here in 2004, and even on Saturday returned to his favourite topic of finding empowerment through a firm grasp of our mother tongues, and the language of the culture of our communities. He compared a person uninterested in mastering his mother tongue to an athlete who cuts off his leg before he competes in a race.

Ngugi was once described by a journalist as a “colossal storyteller with a resonant development message.” Indeed. He has suffered incarceration for his fierce criticism of bad leaders and social injustice. And in 2010, he was the bookmaker’s favourite to win a Nobel Prize for literature before he lost out to Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (or was he cheated out for his revulsion of neo-colonialism?).

Anyway, this all is part of the inexhaustible legacy of a man persuaded that “literature is the honey of a nation’s soul”. It also explains why his contemporary and friend, Prof Austin “Mwalimu” Bukenya blushed when Ngugi praised him for “coming up with the concept of ‘Orature’ – now a critical term used by scholars who don’t even know its origin.” In turn, a beaming Bukenya presented him a “special gift” on behalf of the Department, honouring him thus: “You inspire, we aspire.”

--Daily Monitor,  July 5, 2013

Right on the mark but running ahead of times

Literature: With faith as his guide, Hillary Turyagyenda wrote 16 books in three years, something not many authors can boast of, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

April 6, 2013, was the launch, in Kampala, of 16 books —a function codenamed “4x4” because the books were divided into four packs, each pack containing four books with interesting titles like God’s Economics, The Grand Scheme of Things, Miracles Don’t Just Happen, Days are Daisies, to mention but a few.

It is the first time this many books, by the same author, have been launched together in Uganda by a young man of 31 years. And these are not works patched together by the Nkrumah road printers. They are works of quality, published by the US-based company Createspace, and are available on in paperback at the average price of $12.

The author
Writer and Pastor, Hillary Turyagyenda
The inspired author is Hillary Turyagyenda, also a musician who plays the keyboard dexterously and has written more than 1,000 songs in the praise and worship category, and recorded four albums with 15 tracks on each. Little wonder that some of the guest speakers at the launch described him as “a man who is running ahead of times but right on the mark” – the spur to young people to tap into that dimension of doing things astronomically.

Dr Albert Rugumayo, who taught Turyagyenda at Makerere University in the Civil Engineering class, said, “he was always a top guy, always very cheerful and modest. To write 16 books of this quality in three years shows you what capacity he has – it really is phenomenal!” He compared Turyagyenda to the man in the parable of talents who maximised his talents and was praised and rewarded by his master (Matthew 25:14-30).

“He is highly motivated, disciplined and does everything with excellence and integrity. He has defined his purpose and is fulfilling it by engineering people’s hearts,” Dr Rugumayo added.

On top of his books and the music, Turyagyenda is a panelist on the radio talkshow, Concerning Spiritual Things, that airs on 96.6 Spirit Fm on Tuesdays at 8pm. He is also an associate pastor at Spirit and Word Church, YWCA, George Street, Kampala.

His life
The ambidextrous man was born in Entebbe to Sam Turyagyenda, an airforce pilot and Anne Kyomugisha, an electrical technician. As the first of five children, Hillary needed no prompting to grow up with a sense of responsibility. But like any child, he had his naughtiness playing out at Lake Victoria Primary School where he even joined Scripture Union to be near the beautiful girls therein.

But his true spiritual metamorphosis began in 1996 in Senior Two at Kako Secondary School in Masaka. There was a born-again crew in the school known as the “Upper Room People.” He was inspired by their knowledge of the Bible and unflagging belief that those who are in the Lord do “mighty exploits.” Turyagyenda got hooked, got saved and was soon filled with the Holy Spirit complete with the gift of speaking in tongues.

In A-Level at Makerere College School, Turyagyenda excelled and made it on government sponsorship for Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. It was in his first year at Makerere University that he first felt deeply within that he was going to become a minister of the gospel. True to his intuition, he resigned his professional job after five years to join full-time Christian service. The story of a young man of great promise quitting a coveted profession and a lucrative job at Shell Uganda Ltd, to preach the gospel dumbfounded most of his colleagues, relatives and friends.

“They saw it as signing up for poverty. But it is their insecurities that made them think so. Maybe they thought I would be bothering them, asking for money,” he says retrospectively, “But to me engineering was not it, and it’s very hard to go against your heart.”

His inspiration
It is also by heeding his heart that his writing began taking shape. It was during a university fellowship in 2001 that he felt driven to write devotionals and share them with brethren. He kept getting new insights and revelations as if God was telling him “write about this”, “write it this way.”

“There were bursts of inspiration reverberating inside of me —this fire that could not be quenched,” he says fervently. He found escape by spurting these inspirations on paper.

Today, he admits all the books and music have had a toll on him but whenever he sees the results, he rests and rejoices in what the Lord can do through an individual surrendered to Him. Turyagyenda recalls how he used to devour the works of American thriller authors Sidney Sheldon and Robert Ludlum of the famed Bourne trio.

Not wanting to embark on his writing technically unprepared, he read Plain English by Harry Blamires, which taught him the art of conveying his messages with powerful simplicity so that the principles of life he explores in his literature can be understood by everybody who can read English.

He attributes his success to “six faith-builders” headed by his close friend Ronald Niyonshima that provided an environment in which he flourished: “They are big thinkers, great believers and people of limitless possibilities that nurtured by faith, sparked my love for the Word.

“Niyonshima tended to see the unusual elements in me, and would prophesy over my destiny, saying, ‘I see your ministry growing exponentially. You can hardly shrink from any challenges when you are surrounded by people like these. They have been the greatest spiritual catalysts in my life and continue to be the source of the drive to excel and achieve more.”

His purpose
Everything he does, he concludes, is designed to inspire people’s faith toward receiving from God: “The Lord is putting us to saturate the market with these things which will build His people. I encourage people to support the ministry financially and spiritually so that they, too, can be part of changing and transforming lives.”

--Saturday Monitor, April 27, 2013

Caine prize anthology launched

By Dennis D. Muhumuza

For a true story lover, it is a great feeling being so near writers of fine fiction; listening to their diction and vocal modulations as they read from their works, watching their facial expressions, and wondering what notions rotate in their ever creative minds.

For that, Uganda’s literati could miss anything but not last Tuesday’s launch by the British High Commissioner in Uganda, Alison Blackburne, of African Violet and Other Stories, an anthology of 15 stories including the five short-listed for the 2012 Caine Prize, published by the Uganda Women Writers Association (Femrite), one of the eight co-publishers of the Caine Prize anthologies.

All eyes were on last year’s winner, Rotimi Babatunde, as he read an excerpt from his winning entry, Bombay’s Republic, a hilarious, albeit poignant account of a Nigerian soldier whose heroic exploits in World War II gets into his head so much that upon return he forms his own republic.

Uganda’s only flag bearer in the anthology, Beatrice Lamwaka also read from her story, Pillar of Love, about a lesbian who seeks to divorce her spouse because she wants to have children, but changes her mind when a date with the only man she has some interest in goes wrong.

The book launch was part of annual Caine Prize workshop – the first of its kind in Uganda – that took place from April 16 until April 25. It brought together 12 writers from seven African countries, with Uganda represented by upcoming writers: Lillian Aujo, Davina Kawuma, Hellen Nyana and Daily Monitor’s Harriet Anena who earned applause after reading from her work-in-progress, The Small World of His Highness, an exposé of the intrigues and sexual politics in Uganda’s corporate world.

“We believe in the intrinsic value of artistic interaction,” the Administrator of the Caine Prize for African Writing, Dr Lizzy Attree, said of the importance of the workshop. She meant a comprehensive interaction that involved serious writing, critiquing each other’s works and learning from the more experienced writer Veronique Tadjo and animator Pam Nichols – brought to sharpen the participants each who at the end of the nine-day workshop were expected to have completed writing a story for inclusion in the 2013 Caine Prize anthology to be published on July 1, 2013.

These stories are automatically entered in the 2013 competition. Hopefully one of Uganda’s four, will swing us back to the front page and save Monica Arac de Nyeko from the ‘lonesomeness’ of being the only Ugandan Caine Prize winner for her story Jambula Tree in 2007.

Not that we are doing that badly. Dilman Dila is on this year’s 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlist just a couple of months after Angella Emurwon won the 2013 BBC World Service International Playwriting Competition. It is clearly not by accident that Uganda was chosen to host the 2013 Caine Prize Workshop. Our literary stature is considerably growing from glory to glory, thanks largely to the consistent efforts of Femrite.

Although no male Ugandan writer participated, Femrite in collaboration with British Council, took the participants early on the day of the book launch, to St Mary’s College Kisubi to “highlight the importance of creative writing and literature to people of all ages and backgrounds,” said Femrite Coordinator Hilda Twongyeirwe, and “inspire the next generation of writers.”

The launch also coincided with the International Book and Copyright Day, which celebrates the role of books in civilisation and promotes copyright. Charles Batambuze, the Executive Secretary of Uganda Reproduction Rights Organisation (URRO) discussed the copyright question, urging all to respect the intellectual property of others by not pirating or even photocopying for personal benefit without seeking permission from the rights owner.

The combination of literature, at the launch, with other art forms like music and poetry performances is an acknowledgement that literature cannot flourish in isolation and that interdependence is important for the industry to develop. Spoken Truth freak and culturalist Nakisanze Segawa put up a rhythmic and forceful performance in Luganda, of a political poem about corruption and selective justice that excited many.

Then Ife Pianki who describes herself as “a poet who sings” first gave the artists some advice of sheer significance and timeliness when she challenged them to always “take creative risks and try new things.” She unlocked the emotions of her audience with a moving performance of a motherly poem on how to treat and not mistreat children.

Overall, you could tell the future for Ugandan literature is more promising. African works are likely to infiltrate every part and inspire the world to look at our works with new, profound interest.

--Saturday Monitor, April 27, 2013