How one Ugandan poet, Peter Kagayi, is surviving the literary desert one step at a time.
It is a thwarting affair to talk about ‘Ugandan writing’, a domain infamously described by Ugandan-Sudanese poet Taban Lo Liyong (The Last Word , 1969) as a literary desert for its lackluster publishing (mostly Secondary and Primary school textbooks) and its general void of new “African” literature. In spite of the barriers, a new generation takes writing to task. One individual of note is the young unpublished poet, Peter Kayagi who lives and works in Kampala.
Paul Kayagi. Photo | Serubiri Moses.
To borrow the metaphor of another Ugandan unpublished poet, I think of Kampala as a huge stage on which the President of Uganda and other politicians perform these highly dramatic monologues through riot police, newsprint tabloids and other media houses. I think of Kampala’s readers (regardless of what they read) as the audience, entranced by the spellbinding dramatic monologues, taking in word for word as gospel truth.
Kampala and its mostly tabloid and propaganda literature can be defined by a once glorious term: ‘African Socialism’, which more accurately points to Julius Nyerere’s efforts at the creation of socialist communities in Tanzania called Ujamaa. This a Swahili term, derived from the Arabic ‘jamat’ translates as communal prayer, based on the theory that a person gains their identity through community. Besides Nyerere’s writings (Arusha Declaration), the concept of Ujamaa though impotent within contemporay political spheres, has taken root and appears as Kwanzaa in America, and to a great extent survives in the lyrics of today’s Tanzanian Hip Hop musicians.
Kagayi has been greatly influenced by the writings of Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah. He was raised by working class parents (both teachers) in quite an intellectual environment, in which his father read the radical Drum magazine and he watched documentaries on revolutionaries such as Patrice Lumumba. It is no doubt that this ‘African Socialism’or Ujamaa pervades Kagayi’s poetry, as is the case with majority of current Ugandan literature.
Unlike most of this literature, Kagayi’s poetry burns with an anger. It is an anger that reminds me of persons such as Angela Davis, Nina Simone and Charlie Mingus. His poetic outbursts create a highly polyphonic language, in which Peter shames this current thought structure as having led to a society devoid of thinking. A point that he is not shy to attribute. “I think this government is committing an intellectual genocide.”
The young poet’s work to date looks earnestly at the individual’s primal need to think. Whilst he advocates this cause, however dogmatic overtones on Ugandan current affairs and issues such as homosexuality, the Media, tabloid and religious figures will no doubt polarise his audience. Yet if the audience comes to their own conclusions, perhaps Kayagi will have been successful to at least ignite thought and self-reflection.
The widely read Ugandan poet and anthropologist Okot p’Bitek (who cannot be absent from discussions of Ugandan literature) navigated the traditional forms of oral literature in his native Acholiland, collecting poetic improvisations from live musicians which often times were forgotten after recitation.
Okot’s many works prove that the lay man in traditional Ugandan society was actively allowed and commended for engaging in intellectual discourse through story telling, poetic utterances, musical meditation and dance meditation, astrology (in Buganda) and others. Kagayi’s work pushes this same point, that intellectualism does not solely belong to the ivory towers of today’s world (such as are in Plato’s Republic) but instead to each individual of society.
Thought Structures (excerpt)
As poets we like to think of ourselves as a few of those who like to think
But to think takes a lot of thinking thoughts that the audience should resonate with
And thus the thought structures and psychoanalytical patterns to be drawn
Have to have the backing of the thought-structures of the people around us
What am I saying?
That to think the way we think the audience must think that way
So that whatever we stand to project, or protect, to perceive and to protest
They must be the same things that society wants to project or protect, to perceive and to protest
Thus when we speak of things that annoy us and the State decides to silence us
It is not silencing the poets but silencing the audience that likes to think that it thinks.
What am I saying?
– Peter Kayagi
Thought Structures, no doubt, appeals to the political sensibility of the Banna’Kampala (people of Kampala). The language (Marxist rhetoric of us and we ) woven throughout the three page poem is one that is essentially similar or constant to television and print media, and yet it remains fresh for its extensive use of repetition creating a polyphonic effect like that of a tongue twister (as in Ugandan oral poetic traditions like Kyevugo). Kagayi begins the poem highlighting the poet’s right to think, and soon outrightly mocks the constant majority of ‘us’ as an “audience that likes to think that it thinks,” when in fact the thinking is engineered by the system.
Along with the continuing Americanisation of Africa including Coca Cola, Kellogs Cornflakes, MTV culture, celebrity tabloids and iTunes, we take a deep look into the continued intention of the colonialist to denigrate and to remove the indigenous from his native cultural ideology. Today, less and less people feel they own the right to think, a point that Kagayi’s poem makes strongly.
And while many young writers fight to conform to these standards of being either too English, or too American, along with writing exclusively for literary prizes such as the Caine Prize for African Writing, Kagayi is aiming at deconstructing thought structures at home in Kampala.
Writers in Uganda must often times fight to break through the ceiling to be heard, but as we can see with Kagayi, his bravery and cleverness has helped him overcome the cacophony of engineered thought structures that have denied newer voices leaving Ugandan literature to fade into the desert. In his work, we are witnessing the future of Ugandan and indeed, East African writing.
Peter Kagayi (b. Uganda) is an English literature teacher who trained as a lawyer and is an avid reader of Pan African literature. He insists that very early on he became aware of this process of intellectual genocide, after reading writers like Kwame Nkurumah and Leopold Senghor. He is part of the Lantern Meet of Poets, a biweekly writers meeting established in 2007 at Makerere University.
Written by Serubiri Moses.
Uganda | Doing our part to combat immappancy.