Maud, a Germanic female name that suggests “brave battler”, is widely associated with queens and other royal personalities. Among the many “Maud” queens that come readily to mind are Maud, Queen Consort of Scotland, Queen Maud of Portugal, and the Empress Maud, aka Matilda, probably the first woman to sit on the English throne.
For us in Literature, the most memorable Maud is probably Maud Gonne, the Irish revolutionary firebrand, who was the poet W. B. Yeats’ lifelong romantic obsession and inspiration. Yeats, from whose verse Chinua Achebe got the title of his immortal novel, Things Fall Apart, probably addressed to Maud Gonne the heart-rending appeal: “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
Anyway, the “Queen” Maud who thoroughly inspired me last week lives in Mbarara, Uganda, about 260km southwest of Kampala. I was answering her royal summons to appear at her court, together with Prof Timothy Wangusa, Prof Arthur Gakwandi and Prof Laban Erapu, for a literary event.
Now, those names (with the exception of mine) may sound vaguely familiar to literary scholars, but in Uganda they are really big, being among the first “canonised” local authors who are studied on the country’s syllabi. Nearly the whole “gang” is closely associated with Makerere’s English/Literature Department, and their works, like Kosiya Kifeefe, The Bride and Upon This Mountain, apart from their poetry, are or have been prescribed reading on all high school and university courses.
The fact that they were all positively responding to Queen Maud’s invitation just gives you a hint at how powerful this lady is. Prof Maud Kamatenesi Mugisha, an ethnobotanist and expert on herbal medicine, is the Vice-Chancellor of Bishop Stuart University in this heartland of the famed huge-horned Ankole cattle.
That identification of the lady as Vice-Chancellor obviously gives you a hint at one of the reasons for my own excitement at her invitation. Do you remember my “prophesying”, some time last year, that the era of East African female VCs was here? I had not even heard of Prof Maud then, although I knew of her elder VC sisters, like Prof Joy Kwesiga of Kabale University and Mary Okwakol of Busitema University, in the “Golden Triangle” on the Kenya-Uganda border.
The discovery of Prof Maud Mugisha seemed to support my prediction, and who doesn’t like being proved right every now and then? Even as late as last week, I expressed my hope and wish that the next VC of Makerere would be a lady don.
But back to VC Maud’s invitation to Bishop Stuart University, I was also deeply humbled by my visit to this modest but strikingly well-developed campus. Though considerably smaller than its vast neighbour, the Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), and hardly a decade into its career as a university, it is not a new educational institution.
In its many decades as Kakoba TTC, it is said to have trained some of the country’s best teachers and scholars, including Okot p’Bitek, as legend has it. Mbarara itself is rich in famous educational institutions, including the famous Ntare (Lion) School, the alma mater of both Presidents Museveni and Kagame, who still meet there and play football against each other on Old Boys Days.
The most important fact about Kakoba, now Bishop Stuart University, for me, however, is that it is the cradle of Kiswahili teaching and study in Uganda. I still have to learn the whole story. But the gist of it is that, while the rest of Uganda, under the central Baganda influence, rejected or frowned on the language, the Kakoba authorities decided to promote Kiswahili and train teachers capable of handling it at secondary level.
Most of my first Kiswahili students when I returned to Makerere in the 1990s were diploma holders from Kakoba, upgrading to degree studies. After further studies, they are now the driving force behind the promotion and teaching of the language. I had to pay BSU-Kakoba due respect and recognition for their foresight. I also urged them to keep the lead in promoting Kiswahili.
This brings me back to the language and literature “palaver” to which my fellow elders and I were invited. It turned out to be a grand reunion for us language and literature devotees across the generations. It was initiated by the Ugandan-Kenyan-American scholar, Helen Nabasuta Mugambi of the California State University Fullerton, who is currently a visiting Carnegie Scholar at Bishop Stuart University.
Now, Prof Mugambi was our student at Makerere in the mid-1970s. She relocated to the US in the wake of the tumult that followed the “disappearance” of her contemporary, Esther Chesire, at the hands of Idi Amin’s operatives. In America, she not only established the Kenyan (Mugambi) “connection”, but also became a prominent scholar, with several distinguished works to her name, like her (edited) ground-breaking essay collection, Masculinities in African Literature and Film.
In the preparations for the Mbarara workshop, she was assisted by young and energetic scholars like Alice Jossy Kyobutungi, the Dean of Humanities, and Dr Danson Kahyana, both of whom were our graduate students at Makerere in recent years.
So, there we were, generations of literati and linguists from Wangusa’s “class of 1967”, through my and Gakwandi’s “class of 68” to enthusiastic graduate researchers and undergraduates, sharing and savouring the joys of language, orature and literature.
But back to Prof Maud, the VC, I was surprised and humbled by the realisation that she attended several of our “working” sessions, despite her crowded schedules. A revealing remark she made at the opening session was that, even as a medical and ethnobotanist, she found works like Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino a rich source of medicinal information!
I was flattered to learn later that, at Makerere, she had studied with the late eminent botanist, my clansman and namesake, Prof Remegius Ziraba Bukenya. In the early days of my return to Makerere, when we got our mail through wooden letter boxes, he and I used to joke that he would get all my cheques while I ended up with his bills.