I told you some time ago of Michael Jackson, who fell in love, in song, with a Liberian girl and told her about it in Kiswahili. I think I am also falling in love with a Liberian lady, called Ellen, and I wanted to tell you about her, in Kikwetu (our home language).
But I will put that off till later, maybe closer to Women’s Day next month. In any case, my love is still secret, and I have not told even her about it.
But I know love has been in the air for me, as I suppose for many of you much of this week, regardless of your age. Indeed, one of the discoveries I made in the course of the week is that one is never too old to fall or to be deeply in love and to enjoy the exhilarating adventure.
How do I know? Well, I turned 74 last Saturday, as some of you might have heard, and I was pleasantly surprised, even startled, to find that the whole celebration of my birthday turned into a recollection, and “collection”, of love. This was all the more touching because I had actually not planned anything particular this year, my mind already focusing on the Diamond Bash I intend to have in Nairobi next year.
But the big surprise was just round the corner. “Surprised by Love” is a common theme in culture and literature. Prof Timothy Wangusa’s poem ‘Surprised by Love’, for example, depicts the emotions of an ageing man whose romantic fire is suddenly kindled by an almost accidental touch.
My surprise began when Pascal, a distinguished gentleman whom I taught at Makerere in 1972, dropped in on me in mid-January and asked me to connect him to some poetry lovers. He had just set up a hotel in Entebbe and he wanted to have a community of lovers of poetry meeting regularly at his establishment.
My first reaction to that was a feeling of surprised pride that a disciple of mine still considered poetry a worthwhile activity even at his hospitality premises, 46 years after I taught him. Maybe my Makerere teaching had not all been in vain. But those are the usual fancies with which we teachers of middling ability like to console ourselves.
But Pascal is a man with whom I can justifiably claim a close affinity. He followed me not only into the noble profession but also into seeking an alternative home in Kenya when the chaos in Uganda became deadly.
In Kenya he distinguished himself as a teacher of English and drama at eminent schools like Matuga Girls in Kwale County and, later, at Saint Mary’s School in Nairobi. At Saint Mary’s, he even taught my sons, which he humorously calls “paying me fully back in my own coin.”
As if that were not enough, we even found ourselves next door neighbours on a lane off Rhapta Road in Westlands, when that neighbourhood was an exclusively leafy green residential area. We even acted together in theatre guru Luka Wasambo Were’s production of Macbeth, at the legendary Donovan Maule Theatre in its twilight years. I was the good old King Duncan, whom Macbeth assassinates, and Pascal was my son, Malcolm.
That is all of more than thirty years ago, but the memories are sweet and poignant, and once they are triggered, they can hardly be stemmed. Peace, Pascal’s wife, reminded us, for example, of a poetry reading session we had, at just about that time, at Jonathan Kariara’s house, also at Rhapta Road. Peace particularly remembered us trooping to the guest wing of the house to say hello to Jonathan’s mother, who was visiting from Murang’a.
But for me, mention of Jonathan’s house cast my mind further back to that truly “poetic” affair, when Kariara hosted Ghanaian literary great, Ama Ata Aidoo, when she was expecting her daughter, Kina. I think I have mentioned the “event” before, although I must confess I never heard it first-hand from either Jonathan or Ama, despite my many interactions with them.
Maybe I will persuade Ama to narrate it to me, if I happen to be blessed with another encounter with her one of these days.
What I have definitely heard from her is that she always regarded Jonathan Kariara as a “dearest” brother.
Back to Pascal’s search for poetry at Entebbe, I had a ready answer for him. Predictably, when you mention poetry, love and community, my mind flies to FEMRITE, the sisters in the Uganda Women Writers Association, with whom I have been celebrating the felicitous trinity (love, verse and community) since 1996. So I suggested FEMRITE. I even told him that it is with them that I had celebrated my previous birthday.
Mwalimu Pascal cottoned on to the idea immediately, and even suggested that we should combine the launch of his poetry sessions at the hotel, by FEMRITE, with a celebration of my birthday. Thus it was that we found ourselves at the lovely little Palms Beach Hotel on the shores of Lake Victoria at Entebbe, regaling ourselves with performances not only from Uganda but also from Rwanda, Russia and elsewhere in the world.
Since many of the FEMRITE ladies are also my former students, the occasion also turned into a sort of grand reunion of some of my English and Literature graduates, from the earliest, like Pascal, to the latest, like Eva Nabulya. Dr Nabulya of Makerere is an “ecocritic”, who has written persuasively about environmental concerns in the drama of the likes of Austin Bukenya and Okoiti Omtatah.
Is there a moral to the tale? It might be that living long, as I have done, may sweeten the memories of what would have been dull and humdrum events of everyday life.
More importantly, especially for my students, we should always strive to take that bit of poetry with us wherever we go. Its power to unite people across places, times and generations can hardly be exaggerated.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East Afri- can scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]