Friday, January 25, 2013

How Ugandan women stole the literary torch from Kenyan writers

Muthoni Garland Photo/ FAITH NJUGUNA

Muthoni Garland Photo/ FAITH NJUGUNA   NATION

By EVAN MWANGI sat[email protected]

As Kenyans appear hell-bent on voting in their popular street thugs and all manner of criminals and suspects in March, a few lessons from writers from our neighbouring countries would be in order.

Ugandan women writers have especially been prolific, capturing the pain their nation has undergone at the hands of semi-literate demagogues who came to power on the platform of giving succour to the poor.

Mary Karooro Okurut’s The Invisible Weevil (1998) obliquely uses the motif of HIV and Aids to depict a country steadily drawn to the kind of collective death instinct that seems to be gripping Kenya by the medulla oblongata.

The novel is a compelling coming-of-age story about a girl called Nkwanzi and her boyfriend Genesis, who are born in a country full of turmoil.

They end up joining a guerrilla force fighting to overthrow a dictatorial regime.

Nkwanzi preserves her virginity for Genesis, but she is raped on the eve of their wedding.

They still get married and have a beautiful daughter.

However, when Nkwanzi is appointed to the new government, Genesis feels neglected.

He takes up a mistress and dies of what appears to be HIV and Aids-related complications.

Despite the unfolding tragedy that it presents, the novel is humorous.

It satirises women’s dependency on men and a nation’s belief in frauds as messiahs.

It is also against nationalism, as the dictator is removed from power through regional efforts.

Okurut equates the ascendancy of demagogues like the semi-literate Duduma to general moral rot in society.

Although he is clearly a thug from the outset, Duduma is not without solid support from some sections of the public.

At the moment things have turned awry.

Alcoholism is on the rise, as the nation turns to illicit brews in places run by “women who hide drinks under the bed.”

People are dragged from their offices and “shot on the streets like dogs.”

To make matters worse, a guy in power just “has to lust for someone’s wife or girlfriend and their man is killed.”

If someone in the ruling class wants your job, they will kill you immediately.

Okurut paints a failed African State and suggests that it is only women who can restore it back to health.

Unfortunately in Kenya, women are not faring well in the political arena.

They have joined the rest of the nation in the embrace of Thanatos, the deamon of death, son of night (Nyx) and darkness (Erebos), twin brother of sleep (Hypnos).

From the look of things, we are not likely to wake up even in 2017.

We’ll all have rotten by then.

At the moment, there is nothing we can do because as soon as you try to stop the nation on its path to self-destruction you risk immediate lynching.

Okurut’s symbolism captures a nation whose vitals have been eaten beyond repair.

The novel uses the weevil as its central motif.

A small insect, a weevil is capable of damaging stored grain.

Attacks from inside

The weevil attacks from inside, and by the time its destructive work is detected it is too late to save the grain.

“Duduma has brought a weevil that will take years to remove: the weevil of bribery and greed, of rape and inhumanity,” we are told.

Incidentally, most of the leaders we have chosen are like Duduma.

Even if some can speak fluent English, they have no agenda for the nation.

On their website the link to “issues” is blank; they are not creative enough to fake interest in the nation by listing issues as “free university education”, “free underwear” or “legalise marijuana and stone State House” as part of the “issues” on which their campaigns are based.

Let’s not complain when they shoot us on the streets as they tenaciously cling to power once we have voted them in.

Like Okurut’s Duduma, the leaders must target the educated elite who remind these leaders about their intellectual vacuity.

The eloquent lawyers and intellectuals shouting themselves hoarse about the legitimacy of people they know should not even be allowed to use a public toilet, let alone run for office, will be the first to be cannibalised when the aspirants come into office.

When I read Okurut’s The Invisible Weevil against the Kenyan politics today, I see no hope here.

We’ll soon be where much of Africa was in the late 1960s: a country ruled by popular crooks.

Goretti Kyomuhendo’s Waiting (2007) is a little bit more optimistic.

Her fourth novel for adults, Waiting depicts the resilience of Ugandans, as they are about to liberate the country from Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

The story is told from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl, and although she is to some extent naïve, there’s hope that things might change for the better if she “waits” patiently.

Kyomuhendo’s earlier novel, Secret No More (1999), presents the Rwanda genocide as a consequence of masculine aggression.

According to the novel, women have a prime role in restoring the sanity of the nation.

Although Ugandan male poets such as Richard Ntiru, Timothy Wangusa, and Austin Bukenya are better known in Kenya, Ugandan Susan Kiguli is probably the best poet from the region.

She writes in simple language that conveys the urgency of the subject matter at hand.

In one of her widely anthologised poems, the speaker says she has abandoned speaking in metaphors.

She explains that when it comes to talking about the violence that her people have suffered, there is no need to cloak the events in cryptic language.

Nevertheless, Kiguli’s poetry, especially in The African Saga, is replete with metaphors, for even not speaking in a metaphor is itself a metaphor for speaking truth to power.

Her latest collection, Home Floats in a Distance, is a bilingual (English and German) and exploits her lyrical first person narrative voice to explore the themes of gender and politics in Africa, including the place of exile in the construction of identities.

For her part, Doreen Baingana is the master of the short story.

Some of her work has been translated into Kiswahili for use in Kenyan schools.

She was shortlisted in 2004 and 2005 for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

Fellow Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko won the prize in 2007 with the story Jambula Tree.

The Caine Prize has been important in putting writers from the region on the continental and world map.

Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainaina won the inaugural Caine Prize in 2002 with his short story Discovering Home.

The following year, fellow Kenyan Yvonne Owuor bagged the prize with the acclaimed short story Weight of Whispers.

In 2004, another Kenyan, Parselelo Kantai, was short-listed with his short story Comrade Lemma and the Black Jerusalem Boy Band.

Uganda, too, has done well with international prizes.

Jackee Budesta Batanda was Africa’s regional winner of the 2003 Commonwealth Short Story Competition with her short story Remember Atita.

Glaydah Namukasa took the Macmillan Writers Prize Africa for her novel Voice of a Dream in 2005, a prize won before by such great artists as the Zimbabwean Yvonne Vera (The Stone Virgins).

Uganda’s Beatrice Lamwaka was Caine Prize nominee of 2011 with her short story Butterfly Dream, as was Kenya’s Billy Kahora in 2012 with the story Urban Zoning.

Although she missed the Caine Prize in 2004, Doreen Baingana was awarded the Commonwealth Prize of 2006 for her collection of short stories, Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe (2005).

Call to arms

Baingana’s Tropical Fish is a collection of interrelated stories that depict in lush language the stories of three sisters in Uganda and abroad.

The story registers the different way African women are viewed outside the country and at home.

Other writers from Uganda include Ayeta Anne Wangusa. Recalling Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, Wangusa’s Memoirs of a Mother (1998) is written in the form of a fictional biography, in which a Ugandan woman tells about her mundane marriage.

The richly poetic novel is a clear call to arms against all the outmoded rules that govern male-female relationships in Africa.

East Africa’s foundational women novelists are Kenyan: Grace Ogot, Rebeka Njau, Pat Wambui Ngurukie, and Marjorie O. Macgoye.

But today most of women’s novels are Ugandan.

Before the 1990s, Uganda was best known for its poets and dramatists, most of whom were male. But it is women who have spearheaded Ugandan cultural renaissance.

Even if the Kenyan public might not heed Ugandan women writers’ warning against allowing ruffians near seats of power, the literary community might learn a thing or two from these innovative artists.

Like the successful Kenyan writers such as Muthoni Garland (main picture on previous page), whose Tracking the Scent of My Mother was shortlisted for Caine in 2006), most of the thriving Ugandan writers are affiliated to what Doreen Strauhs creatively calls in a PhD thesis written for the Goethe University Frankfurt “literary NGOs” (Lingos).

This might be the right time to strengthen and diversify Lingos.

Most of Uganda’s women writers are associated with Femrite, the Uganda Women Writers’ Association that author Mary Karoro Okurut founded in 1995.

Femrite was officially launched in 1996, and is the publisher of Kyomuhendo’s Secrets No More, Okurut’s The Invisible Weevil and, among other books, Violet Barungi’s Words from a Granary (2001), a collection of women’s short stories.

Some of the challenges Femrite faces are obvious. The works don’t appear too keen to criticise the Museveni regime, an artistic choice that suggests censorship.

The writers predictably use Idi Amin as a ritualistic whipping post, as if all is well in Museveni’s Uganda.

Like our Marjorie O. Macgoye who ends Coming to Birth (1986), in 1978 to strategically avoid talking about the paranoid Moi regime (1978-2002) in a story about Kenya since the 1950s, many novels by Ugandan women writers end with the overthrow of Idi Amin or the euphoria occasioned by Museveni ascendancy to power.

When compared with books by commercial presses, such as Mary Abago’s Sour Honey (Fountain Publishers), Femrite books are physically of lower quality in spite of their aesthetic value.

Those published abroad are remarkably different from those printed in Kampala.

Among the best-packaged books is Kyomuhendo’s Waiting, published by the respected Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

Following the London-based Kyomuhendo’s example, Kenyan writers should not listen to the empty talk about limiting themselves to national boundaries, especially when these self-righteous strictures are coming from low-level pseudo-intellectuals who have tried their luck abroad without success, and who have failed to make a mark in anything they try their hand at locally.

Although gratuitously invoked out of context by Kenyan nationalists to justify their insular postures until they are lucky to be offered some junior job abroad, the French sociologist, anthropologist, and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) never encouraged useless nationalism.

Bourdieu advises us in Rules of Art that “one loses the essence of what makes for the individuality and even the greatness of the survivors when one ignores the universe of contemporaries with whom and against whom [artists] construct themselves.”

Against the grain
He is nudging us against confining ourselves to any set of writers because even artists like Gustav Flaubert create their work against the grain of movements that see themselves as opposed to each other, such as romanticism and realism.

Studies of literature should be relational.

We should read new writers alongside their forefathers.

Any new-fangled canon that ignores foundational artists like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Karen Blixen, Kenneth Watene, and Elspeth Huxley would only be useful to those headed nowhere.

Like Bourdieu, we should be wary of disciplinary and locational boundaries.

Explore as far afield as you can.

Especially people without godfathers to get them jobs locally would rue the consequences of wearing nationalistic or tribal blinkers in the choice of the materials they read and analyse.

When the literary history of our nation is written, you won’t be judged only against fellow low achievers from Rwathia or Nyakach.

Only reformers will feature in that history; we’ll leave the rest to the foreigners you speak against, such as Pierre Bourdieu, to intervene on your behalf and include you in a quick footnote.

Thus, Kenyan writers need to position themselves globally, using and re-purposing the aesthetic resources at their disposal to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Some Ugandan women writers like Kyomuhendo, Baingana, Kuguli, and Monica Arac de Nyeko have been fairly successful in this regard.

The future does not belong to the parochial nationalist or the tribalist who votes for his fellow tribesman and certified suspects.

It belongs to those who refuse to take the beaten track, those ready to experiment with language and talk about forbidden themes.

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