“Happy New Year,” is a graceful greeting at the beginning of each of these time units. It is a generous, forward-looking wish. But there are various comparable formulae in our communities.
In Lwoo (around Gulu and Lira) we say, “Apwoyo (afwoyo) mwaka manyen’” (thank you or I appreciate you for the new year). South of the Nile, the Baganda say “kulika omwaka”, apparently congratulating you on surviving the old year.
We can thus divide the wishes into three groups: those who dwell on the past, those who thrive in the present and those who look to the future. But when all is said and done, there are no rigid dividing lines among the phases of time.
As T. S. Eliot put it, “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future.”
Such thoughts are inescapable at points of transition, like the end of one year and the beginning of another. “In my end is my beginning,” to quote another one from Eliot. Do you remember my telling you about Januarius, the two-faced guardian deity of the gates of time? Well, January is here and it is time to mull over the intricacies of time.
I remember our teachers, like Mazrui, p’Bitek and John Mbiti at Makerere, and later, Odera Oruka and his colleagues of UoN’s “sage philosophy” school, arduously working at formulations of an African concept of time and its implications for our development.
One such formulation, I think, was that, for the African, time is not a linear past-present-future progression. Rather, it is a circular continuum in which the individual, situated at the centre, simultaneously accesses, affects and is affected by various points on the circumference.
I know I am dabbling in matters for which I have neither head to comprehend nor tongue to articulate. But I could not help pondering and wondering about the mysteries of time as I celebrated this season, surrounded by the heart-warming company of my children, grandchildren and other relatives and close friends. For the family did come “home square”, as they do every couple of years, and that was almost literally from every corner of the globe.
It was delightful to see the array of hair styles and skin and eye colours, and hear the accents, ranging from typical Cockney to laid-back American drawls. The little ones had grown stunningly big, and I could no longer lift them up to hug them and say hullo. Or is it me who is growing too old and weak to cope as I used to?
Indeed, the whole thing came home to me when I was emphatically prevented by my grandchildren from delivering the surprise present I had prepared for them.
I am never good at presents and gifts, and since I had not seen my dear ones in quite a while, I could not think of any material gadgets to impress them.
So, I decided to surprise them with a live musical package. I would play and sing to them a clutch of Christmas carols and other popular ditties, and even ask them to sing along, and even dance around with me. That would be a treat, would it not? I would put to good use that electronic keyboard that I acquired two years ago, and at which I have been working assiduously.
I was even more motivated when Ronnie, my brother, who is a regular instrumentalist with our church choir, agreed to “accompany” me on his guitar. In reality, he would be singing and playing the leads, and I would be accompanying him, since my playing is barely adequate at best, and my singing is, well –“just”, as the Ugandans would cryptically put it.
Anyway, we lined up the pieces and rehearsed ardently for the occasion. We polished carols like "Oh Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night" (which this year turned 200 years old since its dramatic birth in Austria), and even the French "Il est né le divin enfant" (he is born the divine babe), so popular around here that it has parallel profane lyrics about the rowdy drinking sprees with which some neighbours celebrate.
"We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and the wistful "Away in a Manger" were also on the playlist. The Irish "Lord of the Dance", with a boogie-boogie beat, would have everyone on their feet, and we would crown it all with the East African revival Kiganda praise-song, "Tukutendereza" (we praise you).
But the dream concert never got anywhere near there. We struck up with "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and almost immediately, the whole “audience” of beloved little ones fell upon us and our instruments. Each little mouth and hand wanted to sing and play the popular tune and there was a veritable scramble for the keys and strings of the instruments, as well as a raucous chorus of “singing” voices.
The worrying part of the show was that our participating audience seemed to take “banging” out a tune quite literally, punching, poking and pulling at the instruments with uninhibited energy.
While we hoped that the keyboard would survive the onslaught, our worry about the guitar was that the strings could snap and cause serious injury to the faces and eyes of the spectator-performers. The fun just had to be cut short and we regretfully hung up our instruments.
But the enthusiasm and energy of that brief moment left me fascinated about the tremendous potential of our new generation. Properly inspired, these new world citizens are ready and rearing to go. Our challenge is how to firmly place this rising generation at the centre of their times and guide them on how to choose the best from all that surrounds them.
Indeed, I realise that my tunes are not necessarily their tunes, and the way they play theirs cannot be dictated entirely by me and my age-mates. All we can do for the young is give them our love and trust, and let them make their own music.
Apwoyo mwaka manyen!
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]