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Of dreaming in tongues and the burning of Bibles

Saturday July 20 2019

 Go Tell Home

The cover of FEMRITE’s latest publication, Go Tell Home, a collection of verse. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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In what language do you dream? The perennial question hit me once again at the recent launch of FEMRITE’s latest publication, Go Tell Home, a collection of verse in which I am gratefully featured.

Also appearing therein is my friend and senior colleague, Prof Timothy Wangusa, whom everyone in Kampala’s literary circles calls either “Uncle Tim” or simply “TW”, in the Makerere tradition of referring to tutors by their initials.

FEMRITE, as you by now know, is the Uganda Women Writers Association, whose main purpose is to encourage the publication of writings by women.

After more than 20 years in the field, however, FEMRITE is now confident and generous enough to publish selected writings by all those who share her views and objectives, including the likes of us.


In any case, the FEMRITE fan base is so wide and varied that the organisation just had to devise ways of accommodating all of us.


So it happened that Wangusa and I, and a few other male versifiers, were included in what FEMRITE called its “poster poetry” publication, an ambitious enterprise that sought to combine texts and visual arts (paintings and drawings illustrating the verse). Another dimension was that the verse had to be submitted not only in English but also in our “first” languages.

Knowing my background, FEMRITE in her wisdom asked me to submit my verse in English, Luganda and Kiswahili.

This delighted me no end, but you can imagine the challenge of verbal gymnastics to which it subjected me.

It was as if I were illustrating the difference between first, second and third languages, referring to their order of acquisition, and primary, secondary and tertiary languages, indicating the frequency with which I use them.

I may have first learnt Luganda in my life, then English and eventually Kiswahili. But because of my professional and residence situations, I primarily use English, then Kiswahili and Luganda in that order in my day-to-day transactions. This obviously affects the fluency (facility and felicity) with which I use the languages.


Maybe this is why, when I was asked to contribute to the project, I wrote my 20-line piece, “Raindrop on a Plantain Frond”, in English. I will let you amuse yourself, for now, by guessing how I rendered that in Kiswahili. If you write and let me know, I promise to write back and share with you.

Back to the “dream language”, however, the question was, this time, raised by Prof Wangusa’s congratulations to the FEMRITE Publications on their affording us the opportunity to publish in our first languages, the “languages in which we dream”. Is this reminiscent of Mzee Ngugi? Indeed it is, and even Prof Wangusa, whose latest collection of poems is in Lumasaaba, the language of Mount Masaaba (Elgon), indicated that he is considering producing his future creative works exclusively in this tongue.

You know my views about that approach. I prefer to fire with all the guns I possess. As for the language in which I dream, my answer is now consistently that it depends on what I am dreaming about. I am not good at all about remembering dreams. But I specifically recall a childhood dream in which I was definitely speaking Luganda. I was relatively monolingual in those days.


My latest remembered dream, however, was in Kiswahili. It was a bit of a nightmare (called jinamizi in Kiswahili). I had invited a speaker to talk to my students, as I often do in real life, especially with my graduate classes, and for some reason, my students started heckling the guest speaker. I remember clearly telling the class, in my dream, in Kiswahili, “If you’re going to heckle anyone, please, heckle me.”

Anyway, language is a highly volatile and variable tool, and we need a great deal of versatility and flexibility in handling it. As I told a distinguished audience in Nairobi recently, “language is always already changing, even as we use it”. If we do not keep this constantly in mind, we risk either totally failing to communicate or being misled and perverted by opportunists who use the “quibble with words” to distract us from truth and reality.

Some time last year, a loquacious but ill-informed pastor across our western borders ordered his followers (“sheep” they call them) to burn every copy of the Bible that contained the phrase “Holy Ghost”. This was because, according to the pastor, “ghost” is demonic and un-Christian and, therefore, unfit for Christian consumption. Goodness gracious! The best English translations of the Bible, including the “Authorised” (King James’) Version, happen to have been made when the Anglo-Saxon “ghost” and the Latin “spirit” were used interchangeably.


I understand that many copies of the Good Book were burnt at the behest of that man of God. But then, it will be only a matter of time before every copy of the Bible that contains the term “gospel” will be burnt, because “gospel” comes from “god” (good) and “spell” (utterance). Is it not witches and wizards who cast spells?

I did not join in the recent hue and cry over the Vatican’s proposed changes to the wording of the “Our Father”, for two main reasons.

The first is that I think it is suggested somewhere in Holy Writ that we do not really know how to pray, and it is only the Spirit that makes meaning of our moaning and groaning.

Secondly, I do not know how you can build a sustainable argument either way unless you can convincingly take us to the exact original utterance of the person who originated the prayer.

Of the making of new translations there is no end, for the simple reason that language is endlessly changing.

To end on a lighter and happier note, Prof Wangusa assured me that he is reconsidering his earlier resolve to stop writing in English. This is good news because I think he is arguably the finest stylist in the language this side of the continent.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]