Sometime in February, we boarded a Caravan van, courtesy of the Association of Ugandan Women Writers (FEMRITE) to Kabale. The we are Jason Ntaro of the Lantern Meet of Poets, Ernest Tashobya Katwesigye, lawyer, writer and educationist, Fred Musisi, country representative of the Danish Centre for Culture and Development, Glaydah Namukasa, chair of FEMRITE, Hilda Twongyeirwe, the FEMRITE executive director and Juliet Kushaba, also of FEMRITE. In Kabale, we found Lillian Tindyebwa, writer and lecturer at Kabale University, and Prof. Manuel Muranga, the principal of Bishop Barham University College, a constituent college of Uganda Christian University. This evening, we are climbing the Rugarama hill to talk about Literary Activism. What is its influence on building a market for literature? It’s the debate, oba dialogue’s theme. The speakers include Lillian Tindyebwa, Glaydah Namukasa, Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire and Hilda Twongyeirwe.
And so it rained. Not just cats and dogs but elephants too. Which reminds me, I heard–oba read somewhere–that the story behind the ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ phrase is that in pre-historic England, cats and dogs were kept in a house ceiling and sometimes it would rain so hard that they would literally fall on people living in the house, and that’s how it’s raining cats and dogs came to be.
Now cats and dogs were falling out of the ceiling of Bishop Barham University College Main Hall in Western Uganda. A generous Kabale rain began pounding rapidly on the roof, before pausing and resuming; stopping and starting afresh, as if we really had a terrible disagreement with it.
“Rain, rain, go away. Come back another day,” Ernest sang to the rain: but would it listen?
If we really wanted it to go away, we would have to kunamira at it while singing that song. It was as if exposing our inner thighs to the sky would distract the rain enough, causing it to stop. But it did not hear us. It continued pounding against the Main Hall roof.
We introduce ourselves. Lillian did break the ice. Juliet asked each one of us to introduce ourselves. A Camera flashed. Lightning struck somewhere. We couldn’t hear each other.
“Rain, rain, go away. Let the writers and their audience play,” Ernest sings.
Some of us turn to reading. Others turn to their phones. Mine has no battery, again. This could have been the opportunity to conversate my friend – courtesy of WhatsApp – on Rugarama. For some reason, we were both attached to this place. I had spent five years at Kigezi High School. But I won’t tell you more about this friend: leave me alone.
“Rain, rain, go away, let the FEMRITE caravan proceed,” Ernest sings.
Jason has only a scarf and a cap. I am sad ko for him. This place is so cold. It is almost on the hilltop, you know? And the rain adds salt to this injury. I have a sweater. But the cold has shown me that it can filter through. How is Fred faring? Glaydah is sorted: she has a sweater. Hilda is also sorted: she has a jacket. Hilda is from Kabale, ‘born over lakes’ she says. And so you’d think that she, at home in this hilly village, would bear this weather. We’re shocked to see her gritting her teeth, and warming up next to Glaydah. Ernest wears only a shirt. Bambi. Juliet who has been taking good care of us all, wears a woolen pull neck and you can tell that she is in control: she has defeated the lightning, thunder, and snowy cold of Rugarama.
“Rain, rain, go away, let the writers have an audience at the university college,” Ernest sings.
There are a number of authors in this small university college community. The university secretary mentions their names and then their accomplishments and I start feeling like a kind of impostor. Not the sort of impostor of the impostor-syndrome, but you really get where I am going with this one? One of the introduced authors goes on to read a poem about her mother. A tribute. A moving gesture of various proportions.
The hall is big. There is a video camera guy. But my mind is wondering if Kampala, hundreds of miles away, is enjoying the same heavenly showers. It’s already rained-ko in Kabale today. Actually this rain is digging into fresh wounds. It needs to stop. The grass outside is green. We have seen so many people cultivating gardens in town. Kabale people can be like that.
“Will the video guy manage to get any sound recorded?” asks Ernest.
“Rain, rain, go away. The caravan has to proceed,” Ernest sings.
Juliet, our session moderator, gives in to the rain as the sound of her voice is muffled behind loud pellets hitting the Main Hall roof. I decide to read one or two stories or excerpts from the Africa39 anthology. This rain knows that it is the ‘who, what, where, when, and why’ of our Rugarama visit, and it is really showing off. Too much arrogance! Shyaa! But then, a butterfly appears. A maroonish brownish thing. A dress-ish pattern with a silverfish lining. It’s flying too close to me. It has settled between Fred and I. Is it beautiful? I ask myself. Where do butterflies come from? I wonder.
“Bwesigye. Alert Fred for me?” Juliet asks.
I do. It’s his laptop bag. He needs to place it on a chair. The rain can’t be stopped. It has now become the proverbial flood of the Bible, and is entering the Main Hall. The running of water! Eisssh! This rain is like those cows that attack your millet garden. When they find it bearing fruit, they eat everything they possibly can, and then shit on what remains. What can’t those cows destroy? That is how this rain is: pouncing on our jouissance with forceful pangs, and taking what little remains left of it.
“Rain, rain, go away. The caravan has admitted that you are powerful,” Ernest sings.
There is a young man in the audience wearing a dashiki. I have a shirt like that at home. Different colour though. This is encouraging. Afropolitans in Rugarama! African print is gaining ground as the fabric of choice. I smile. Manuel Muranga comes. He is the boss of this place. He greets us all, then shakes Lillian’s hand firmly. He hugs Hilda, shakes Juliet’s hand. Ernest stands to have his turn on the handshake. I follow suit.
“Dear Rain, I would use the F-word on you were we not at a Christian place.” It is not Ernest singing but it is me cursing under my breath. And anyway, I would have cursed loudly had I not been cleansing my tongue of swear words.
How do we start over? How do we pick up from where we left off?
The sky is still grumbling but there is a little relief. There is only a drizzle. No more pounding-pounding. But why is Rain like this? The maroonish-brown butterfly is now hovering all over. The camera guy has resumed his job. The Principal is seated. Juliet decides to resume the session despite the drizzle.
“Rain, you are a useless jealous wicked thing.”
“Why caravan?” Juliet asks, then explains, “We have up to this point been to Ndorwa SSS, Bubaare SSS, Brainstorm High School, and St. Mary’s College Rushorooza. We shall continue to other places tomorrow. Most of the writers on the caravan come from communities in Kabale.”
“FEMRITE is interested in taking writers back to their communities.” she says, then adds. “Last year, the caravan went to ten districts in the Central, North and East of Uganda.”
Have you noticed that I am lazy? I am not listing the districts. I do not want to sound preachy. We have many preachers in the room already. This is a Bible College. Correction: It is a former Bible College. Kale. Whatever.
The Principal interrupts. Reminds everyone that there will be readings on Runyakitara and in Rukiga. Kale. Runyakitara is different from Rukiga. Hurray! Hugs to Prof. Muranga. I need to live near this man. He is an expert on Rukiga and does not believe that Runyakitara is the same as Rukiga. Isn’t he brilliant?
Hilda starts off. Then, Lillian develops a cold as we are seeing.
“We need to create awareness about Ugandan literature. We know so little about our own writers,” Hilda says.
(Covers face) I didn’t know the writers the Reverend and university secretary mentioned today. Woweeee! Hilda is preaching and I am her convert. She tells Ernest that his poetry belongs to us and the community. Our works are communal. Tufia Kwa! FEMRITE is serious about this business of Ugandan Literature. They want a special paper on the syllabus for only Ugandan works. Tindamanya, how do I feel about that? I agree and disagree.
I read Lillian Tindyebwa’s Recipe for Disaster in Senior Secondary Two. It saved me from the boring Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and that Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Mpozi, who wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? Manya Mark Twain! How!?
From Nyanja village really, I had neither time nor place for buccaneers or buccaneering diction: manya rum, manya ‘Ho ho ho!’ And some of my classmates were having fun, kumbe me, I was just there. Booooooreeeeed! They should have put Lillian Tindyebwa’s book on the syllabus for us at Senior Secondary One and Two. It wasn’t on. I read it, not to be examined and it made sense. It was a missed opportunity; I was sitting exams answering about novels that I didn’t enjoy. Because of this, I agree with Hilda. But let’s not talk about how and why I disagree. I will save you the burden of hearing this, and stick to recalling Writivism, that is when my time came to speak.
“Rain, rain, where is your sting?” Ernest continues.
Lillian takes the floor. Kale she was not developing a cold, seeing the way she eloquently spoke. Hmm!. I think rain just made me a little drunk.
“It is about time we treasure our own,” she says, then adds, “Let’s spend money on Ugandan books. We need to engage actively in loving our literature. They say mbu we don’t write because of oral tradition. But it has died out. We even watch the English Premier League!”
She fails to name a contemporary footballer in the English premier league and turns it into a joke. We laugh. Lillian is a calmer preacher than Hilda. She advises us to read Nansubuga Makumbi’s novel Kintu. Yeah. She gets it. Historical fiction is important. I am silly naye. I am almost cheering and screaming because I really love Kintu my feelings deserve a new spelling. Lurve. I should stop being dramatic.
Who will speak next? Glaydah or Bwesigye? I do not want to be the last speaker, who usually gets more questions from the audience to answer. It should be Glaydah. Not me. Lillian is still speaking anyway. It is getting dark. Of course there is light, but the sky is sulking even after showing us Who is Who of The World with its urine! Lillian has finished. Glaydah goes on next. I will be last.
Yamawe! Oba I speak in Rukiga? I go back and forth from English to Rukiga, until I decide that Glaydah and Fred may not understand. Kale.
“We need to make Literature known as a way of creating a market for our own work. Literary activism promotes writers, readers and literature generally,” Glaydah says before drifting to the reading culture. “Literary activities have improved the reading culture… FEMRITE and the Lantern Meet of Poets are going to the grassroots.” And she has stopped.
Eh! It’s my time ooo.
And the rain has returned! Imagine! Has it been seeing me taunt it? It’s not a cool thing you know! Kale. Hilda, Lillian and Glaydah already said so much. I do not really have to say anything.
“Writivism started in 2012 to promote the work of younger emerging writers,” I state briefly.
Then the rain. Then I stop soon enough, I hope. Then we shift to the back of the room where the lighting is better. Then it continues pouring.
We stop for the rain to reduce. It does reduce to a drizzle and the Q&A session begins. I am happy for the rain break. People can forget about my presentation. Someone mentions the quality of publishing. Then Ruben tickles the elephant in the room. “How do you do literary activism in a foreign language? There is need to do it in our languages,” Ruben is pushing it.
He says, “Literary activism needs to penetrate the local level. People who read Bibles in their languages will read novels in their languages.”
Someone else asks a pointed question, “Where is New Era magazine that FEMRITE used to publish? Where did it go?”
Someone else says that the price of books is too high. Very prohibitive. You need to nurture readers. Teach children how to move pages, lines, pictures and words when still very young.
And then a Christian verse shoots through all the comments: “Your labour in the lord is not in vain.”
The comments from the audience are non-forgiving of the contemporary African writer. These are micro-wave-heated writers. Ouch.
“What will our people read? We do not want them to read junk,” One voice shoots through.
Paul Turyagumanawe says, “There should be a strategy for capturing beautiful writing on new platforms like Facebook.” He shares a hilarious joke on Facebook: “Boys send money and new gadgets to girls they love, yet send cheap things to their mothers.” Before adding, “Such things get people reading.”
The responses ought to be lengthy. Glaydah starts giving a summary on FEMRITE activities in schools and the weekly readers and writers club. Hilda adds, by talking about the Tukosawa clubs and novel writing mentoring scheme. About language, she admits that we are all trapped, in a way. We need some balance. She tells us that she writes in both Rukiga and English. She says that the New Era magazine metamorphosed into Word Rite, which is now published online.
Fred comes in to answer some of the questions: “Substandard books on the market are a reality but we need to be patriotic. There are also nicely done books. We can’t use the existence of the bad ones to not buy the good ones.”
As usual, I fell asleep at some point. Do you blame me? Our event was more than three hours at this point. The rain and the coldness and-and-and. I wake up when Prof. Muranga takes the microphone. Actually, there is no microphone, but you catch the drift? He is the one on the floor right now.
He starts by clarifying his earlier comments. “There is a difference between Runyankore-Rukiga and Rukiga-Rukiga.” He gives an example. “Noorugahe is Runyankore, and Orarugahe is Rukiga.”
The Runyankore version is usually the one considered Runyankore Rukiga. Paul Turyagumanawe says almost satirically as if to mock the Christian University principal and reverend, “I’m happy to find out that God can hear Rukiga. All languages are equal is the sentiment that is not yet said categorically.”
Prof. Muranga defends his position, “By the way, I am a linguist besides being a reverend,” further making the cause for pure wisdom as opposed to biased comments, you know. He says that Runyakitara is not a language per se. It is about mutual intelligibility of languages. It is not a replacement of any of the languages that are mutually intelligible.
“There is no such thing as standard Runyakitara,” he clarifies, “Each of the languages is standard in its own way.” Have I also added that Muranga is one of the contributing authors to the Katondozi, a thesaurus project led by President Yoweri Museveni that made me curious? It seemed to enforce one language (the Runyankore, also Museveni’s language) over the other mutually intelligible languages in the Runyakitara family. This is why his comments excite me. It is important to stress the autonomy of each mutually intelligible language in this Runyakitara group. It is important to mention that Runyoro and Rutooro are independent languages even if mutually intelligible to the other languages in the Runyakitara group.
Actually, from now on, excitement will carry me back home. Tomorrow, we shall continue the caravan with a trip to Kacereere, beyond Lake Bunyonyi, Hilda’s home. I can’t wait. I am high on Rukiga-Rukiga. And the rain knows that it is important to send me to bed, and so as soon as I reach home, as long as I rest my head on the pillow, the skies start their thing. These language debates are always like this. They happen today, and then a wave of things come in between, and they happen again, and we go to sleep again, only to start afresh later, and be interrupted and sleep and start again.
Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire (@bwesigye) was born in Kabale, raised there, and now lives in Kampala. He holds an LLB degree from Makerere University and an LLM in Human Rights from Central European University. His short fiction and commentary has been published by Saraba, Chimurenga Chronic, The Guardian, This is Africa, Music and Literature, African Roar among others.
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