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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Time to tell our stories


Could it be that the main reason many influential Ugandans and Africans generally are reluctant about telling and having their stories published is because they have many skeletons in their closets that would come tumbling out? At least that was Prof. Zakes Mda's fear. It's also the fear of many because the process of writing the life story of oneself is equally the process of coming to terms with his past, which often is mix of the beautiful and the ugly. 

Prof. Mda with some of the participants
Prof. Mda who delivered the keynote address at the second edition of the Uganda International Writers Conference, an initiative of the African Writers Trust (AWT), finally overcame his fear and in 2012 published his first creative non-fiction book titled Sometimes there is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider.

"In this memoir, Mda tells the story of a life that intersects with the political life of his country but at its heart is the classic adventure story of an artist, lover, father and teacher," notes AWT Director Goretti Kyomuhendo. "There's no denying the raw honesty and inspiring penmanship of this work of note, especially in relevance to our conference theme - 'Memoir and Truth.'" 

Prof. Mda who teaches Creative Writing at Ohio University believes it's important for the African to tell his story; not the peculiar narrative that reinforces the stereotype of African suffering, but a narrative of an African rising; a narrative of how a poor African child can beat the odds and make it, a genuine portrait of who we are against misrepresentation by outsiders. Writing would also "preserve our disappearing world".

The South African practices what he preaches. He has published over 21 books, ten of which are novels. The rest are collections of poetry and plays, and a monograph, When People Play People, on how theatre can be used to develop a people. 

Even more interesting is that since 2000, Prof. Mda has been running a beekeeping project with the rural women in Eastern Cape. His wealth of experience and knowledge as an all-round author, teacher, Pan Africanist, well-travelled man, former exilee and beekeeper made him the perfect choice to discuss the Conference's  theme of 'Memoir and Truth.' 

The five-day event which started on Sunday afternoon but was officially opened on Tuesday at Fairway Hotel, brought together nearly 30 African writers of note and supporters of the art from Uganda, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Malawi, Cameroon, Somalia, US, and UK, including our own Daniel Kalinaki who is basking in critical acclaim for his recent biography of Dr. Kizza Besigye, Jennifer Makumbi, UK-based poet Mildred Barya Kiconco and Dr. Susan Kiguli, among others.

Prof. Mda lauded Uganda's literary heritage, citing John Ruganda and Okot p'Bitek among authors who greatly influenced him. He worked with Ruganda and learned a lot from him about theatre while from p'Bitek "I learnt how to write poems and plays drawing from the rich idioms of my indigenous languages." 

The participants looked into successful literary initiatives, talked about space and identity in African writing, discussed the rise of digital literature and the need to embrace it. But the focus remained on the shift to non-fiction, with Prof. Mda articulating the distinctions between memoir and biography - two genres through which the story of African people would be accurately chronicled while remaining faithful to the emotional truth that would help the critic to understand us better. 

The whole point being that there is a whole lot to gain from telling our stories. After all, if we don't write our story, the outsider who will truly never be close to our reality will tell it...superficially.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Another literary candle burns out


Uganda has lost another literary luminary. The retired ambassador, Godfrey Mwene Kalimugogo, who died on Sunday at the age of 71, was a prolific author and arguably one of the finest satirists this country has had. He authored 14 novels; a feat unaccomplished by any other Ugandan novelist. These were classic works half of which were the hotcakes during the golden era of Ugandan literature - the 1970s.

His third novel, Trials and Tribulations in Sandu’s Home (1974), was on the literature syllabus back then, and ushered Kalimugogo into the spotlight as a rare humorist. All his novels are packed with humour; leaving the reader in stitches, although they explore dark subjects like corruption, hedonism and the excesses of the rich and powerful.
The late Godfrey Mwene Kalimugogo was a literary genius
Sadly, at the time of his death, Kalimugogo was little known at home. Had Kalimugogo been an American, he would have died a billionaire, and there would have been several scholarly funds in his name. Not that he cared about money or the applause of men; he was a humble soul who did not ask for much.
In 2010, he said to know that his books were read and appreciated by Ugandans would be his best reward. His wish has partly been granted now that his 2009 novel, A Murky River, is on the A-Level Literature syllabus.

“He was a literary giant whose works will stand the test of time,” said Mary Karooro Okurut during the requiem service at All Saints Cathedral, Nakasero, on Thursday. The church was brimming with people from all walks who came to bid goodbye to the wordsmith who once said besides the joy of family, there was nothing else as enjoyable as reading and writing.

Kalimugogo believed the job of an artist is to recreate a situation. Thus, he became a keen observer of society and its dynamics; vividly recreating what he felt was of relevance to the contemporary world. In A Murky River for example, he explores the norm of refusing to honour those who deserve it. It is about a man, who in his obsessive pursuit of riches, abandons his mother, only to discover after her death that no amount of money could bring her back.

In his other works, Kalimugogo called corruption a “malignant cancer” and described the run-down public hospitals as “chambers of horrors”, not places the sick go to for healing and relief. In Bury Me in a Simple Grave (2009), which won a NABOTU award, he quips, “Is money, in the absence of moral and social values, any good?”

What distinguished Kalimugogo’s works are the rapid-fire witty lines and ego-centric characters who, in their arrogance, inadvertently reveal their rottenness through devilish deeds that plunge society down the pit of depravity.

Kalimugogo’s comical style is reminiscent of that of famous English author P.G. Wodehouse, who greatly inspired and influenced him.

Kalimugogo’s intimacy with literature developed at Nyakasura School in Fort Portal, which he attended from 1959 to 1964. He had come from the humble village of Kyokyezo, Rubanda County in Kabale District and topped his class to win a secondary school scholarship.

At Nyakasura, he became the student librarian, an opportunity he maximised to read all the great masters from Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, among other geniuses that sparked his own literary ambitions. It was not a surprise that at Makerere University, he studied literature and became the editor of the literary magazine, Pen Point, graduating in 1968 with an honours degree in English and Classical Literature.

In 1969, he joined the Foreign Service of Uganda and became a career diplomat in a number of countries, including DR Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya. He retired from diplomatic service in 2003 and devoted the rest of his life to writing and family.

During the requiem service, he was described by his wife and children as a loving husband and doting father, who inculcated in them the love of books, introduced them to great comedy and left them the legacy of loving God and doing good. Talking of his funny side, his son, Alex, recalled how his father once hand-wrote a letter in which he poured out his frustrations with Arsenal (the club he supported) and then gave the letter to Alex to deliver to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

His daughter, Pearl, described her father as “a great cook who made very nice chicken soup.”

According to his wife, Dr Grace Kalimugogo, the deceased started having poor health in 1978 but it was from 1983 that he was always in and out of hospital. In spite of that, he had inner strength and never allowed anything to stop him from performing his duties diligently. So punctual and virtuous was he that he even won two awards from Umeme for the rare knack of paying his bills on time, always.

Kalimugogo used to hang out at Speke Hotel with his best friend and fellow writer, Victor Byabamazima as they talked literature, politics and society over tea. When Victor died in July 2013, Kalimugogo’s life deteriorated. But he retained a positive outlook, finding solace in the Bible, which he loved to read a lot.

“My God knows what he wants for me,” he often told his wife. Well, his God wanted him Home, the Home of Everlasting peace and bliss to which he was called on Sunday.

--Saturday Monitor, January 31, 2015