How Ugandan women stole the literary torch from Kenyan writers
Posted Friday, January 25 2013 at 19:17
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The future does not belong to the parochial nationalist or the tribalist who votes for his fellow tribesman and certified suspects.
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.