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Monday, June 2, 2014

A star that lit all corners of the world

Award winning author, poet and civil activist Maya Angelou’s philosophy on life was, “I think you say to life – I am with you kid; let’s go!”. Described as a renaissance, this approach to life took the poet, author, dancer, playwright, director, actor, professor and civil rights activist to extraordinary places. Dennis D. Muhumuza reflects on her life that touched many world over. 

It has been three days but tears of grief stream on down the eyes of millions of people who met her physically or through her works. The pain in their hearts is intense because their icon, Maya Angelou, is gone.

The late Maya Angelou
The African-American author, poet, essayist, editor, composer, performer, director, lecturer and civil rights activist, died quietly in her home in North Carolina, on Wednesday, at the age of 86. Social media immediately rippled with tributes about a woman who came from a broken family, endured biting poverty, cruel blows of racism and childhood rape, but still rose to global recognition as an inspiration to countless people.

“My mission in life is not merely to survive but to thrive and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style,” she once declared, and went on to fulfill it to the letter.

Goretti Kyomuhendo, writer and Founder of African Writers Trust, was won over by Maya’s first autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) before she devoured and savoured all of her works.

“For me what stood out most from her writings was that she always wrote from the heart. She wrote her ‘Truth’ - her writing resonated with emotional truth hence making it more believable, more powerful.”

Ms Kyomuhendo also shares what it was like to meet Maya in person: " In 1997, I was invited to participate in the Yari Yari conference which brought together hundreds of African women writers (and women of African descent) from around the world. The conference was held in New York and Maya Angelou was scheduled to speak. I waited patiently as she made her way out of the room after her presentation; and I was rewarded with a firm, powerful handshake and a tender, wise, knowing smile! I felt inspired to go back to my hotel that evening and write some more. The memory of that special moment is still deeply etched on my mind! Sleep well, Dear Sister."

Anyway, that memoir, which ushered Maya into the limelight to the point of no return, captures the author’s early life, including how she got raped at the age of seven; an experience so traumatic that it made her silent for five years.

David Benon Kangye, a literary scholar at Makerere University, says this is the book that paved way for women to open up on topics like rape. “It is argued that the likes of Oprah (Winfrey) were inspired by Maya Angelou, whose works remain central to the study of the poetry of civil rights movement at university level,” Kangye says.

Indeed at one time, Oprah said, “What stands out to me most about Maya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken; it’s how she lived her life. She moved through the world with unshakable calm, confidence and a fierce grace...she will always be the rainbow in my clouds.”

It is that ability to inspire the famous and the ordinary that Maya will be remembered for. A Ugandan girl whom she inspired with poetry took to writing that genre as well and went on to win the inaugural BN Poetry Award in 2008. Lillian Aujo, who has since had several poems and short stories published, says of Maya: “Her verse is simple yet nuanced, and beautiful. What I admire most about her is her graceful resilience against whatever was going in her life and society.

If the role of the writer is to educate, heal, explain, portray and examine all aspects of society, as Sudanese writer and academic Michael Baffoka once explained, then Maya Angelou excelled in all.

The prolific genius whom Barack Obama praised as “one of the brightest lights of our time”, may be gone but she lives on. “In your words, in our hearts, you will live on Maya,” affirms Femrite Coordinator Hilda Twongyeirwe.

Her popular works
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die (1971): The first of her poetry collections.
• And Still I Rise: (1978) The author’s third volume of poetry including two of her most well-known and popular pieces, Phenomenal Woman and Still I Rise.
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986).
On the Pulse of Morning (1993): The poem Angelou read at President Clinton’s first inauguration.
A Brave and Startling Truth (1995): The poem Angelou read at the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002): Her sixth memoir, which describes her friendships with both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X and her reactions to their assassinations.
Letter to My Daughter (2008): A collection of essays about her life that notes.
Mom & Me & Mom (2013): Her final memoir, about her mother who disappeared when Angelou was three, only to reappear a decade later.

--Saturday Monitor, May 31, 2014