Of sitting in V.S. Naipaul’s Makerere chair, and personal recollections of the legend

Saturday August 18 2018
By Austin Bukenya

The late Sir V.S. Naipaul first came to East Africa in 1965, just before I first went to Britain, in 1966.

He went to Uganda to take up residence as the first Senior Fellow in Creative Writing at Makerere’s English Department.

I, on the other hand, headed for the University of York for a summer term’s study of English Literature under such luminaries as Prof Philip Brockbank and the legendary Dr F.R. Leavis.

Being apprenticed to such scholarly gurus was the main route through which most aspirants of my generation built our early careers. At the time I was at York, our eventual teachers and pioneer indigenous lecturers at UoN, Makerere and Dar-es-Salaam, like Pio and Elvania Zirimu, Grant Kamenju and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, were in Leeds, under the mentorship of the likes of Arnold Kettle, my future teacher too, and his colleagues.
At York, I was with George Mhina, the first Tanzanian Director of the Institute of Kiwahili Research (Tuki) at the University of Dar-es-Salaam. He was apprenticed to York’s linguistic authorities like David la Page and Rebecca Posner.
I was to meet Naipaul later in 1966 when he visited us at Dar-es-Salaam and gave a few lectures. I can hardly remember now what he talked about. But I clearly recall his losing his temper when a young man (quite probably his fellow Caribbean native, Walter Rodney) asked him what Naipaul thought was a provocative (not to say rude) question. Both Naipaul and Rodney could be quite combative when the occasion demanded it.
Neither historian Rodney nor novelist Naipaul were as famous then as we know them today, but they were steadily building up their careers. Naipaul was quite well-known to us literati through his early works, like The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr Biswas, whose greatest virtue is, I think, their “readability”, a characteristic of good literature which has become increasingly emphasised in contemporary creativity and criticism.
A few of us senior undergraduates were later privileged to interact close up with Naipaul at a reception which our teacher, Prof Molly Mahood, gave for him at her house on campus.

A little detail I remember from that is Prof Mahood asking Pat Naipaul if she was vegetarian (considering her husband’s Hindi background), and Pat answering airily that she was “carnivorous”. This lively lady, née Patricia Ann Hale, who played a significant role in Naipaul’s career, passed away in 1996.
The Naipauls returned to their Makerere base in then-troubled Uganda, where Milton Obote had violently overthrown first President Sir Fredrick Mutesa, and scrapped the federal-style independence constitution. The turmoil that followed these events was apparently the inspiration for Naipaul’s award-winning narrative, In a Free State.

Those of us familiar with the local scene in the 1960s can even approximate a few of Naipaul’s characters to real-life personalities, some of them eminent Makerere residents.
But In a Free State was only the first in the clutch of Naipaul’s Afrocentric writings, including the Zaire/DRC-inspired novel, A Bend In the River, which I studied with one of my English classes at the USIU-A in the mid-1980s. Apparently, Naipaul’s residence at Makerere motivated him to explore Africa, both physically and conceptually, in fairly serious depth.


Curiously though, I do not remember any significant exchanges or reciprocal comments between him and Uganda’s new literati, like Okot p’Bitek, whose Song of Lawino appeared in 1966, the year of Naipaul’s residence.

It is said that Naipaul’s tastes, regarding literary achievement, were rather selective, not to say cavalier. But we do not want to be judgemental, especially of our dear departed.
But my curiosity was also aroused at V.S. Naipaul’s passing on, that I have heard very little about him from those of my generation, like Timothy Wangusa, Laban Erapu, Peter Nazareth and Micere Mugo.

These, and many other then aspiring writers were students at Makerere during Naipaul’s residence and I would have expected them to tell stories of his mentorship of their early efforts, or of the influence of his presence among them.

Maybe it is because I never asked them, or maybe they have told the stories and I have simply not encountered them. I should look around.

In any case, I should not point fingers. I have told you that when I first returned to Makerere in the 1990s, I was first appointed to the same post that Okot p’Bitek, Nuruddin Farah, Robert Serumaga, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and, before them, V.S. Naipaul had held.

This was the writer-in-residence slot, officially called Senior Fellow in Creative Writing. The “fellow” is expected to write, of course, and Ngugi, for example, worked on parts of Petals of Blood during his residence. Naipaul is said to have refined, if not finalised, his draft of The Mimic Men at the “Hill”.

But, apart from writing, the holder of the post should also advise and mentor aspiring writers.

Truth to tell, I do not think I performed admirably, during my stint in Naipaul’s chair, at either writing or mentoring young writers.

Maybe some of the things I published later were “incubating” in my mind, and I may also boast of having interacted with writers like Goretti Kyomuhendo, Rosemary Kyarimpa, and Hilda Twongyeirwe, who have been pillars in the FEMRITE literary movement.

Their founder, and author of the anti-FGM novel, The Switch, Mary Karooro Okurut, was also a colleague, and the Caine Prize winner, Monica Arach de Nyeko, was also my student. But neither they nor I can quantify my contribution, if any, to their success.

So, why should I expect glowing tales of Sir V.S. Naipaul’s contribution to the growth of Ugandan writing? Suffice it to say that he lived among us and he wrote, and wrote well. He may often have sneered at, and even provoked, Africa, India and his own Caribbean.

The question for us to ask is if there is not much to sneer at or even brutally criticise in our colonial and post-colonial societies.


Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]