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BUKENYA: Why, I nearly forgot I was Uganda’s cultural laureate

Friday June 24 2016

Just now I am still up there on a pink cloud

Just now I am still up there on a pink cloud after presiding over the great do. I promised I will be there at the third ceremony in 2019. PHOTO | BILLY MUTAI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

Austin Bukenya
By Austin Bukenya
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Did Michelle Obama actually say “swagalicious”?  That was the kind of English up with which I could not put, especially when I was bringing up my children. Whenever they said things like “humongous” or “teeny weeny”, I would say, “Mind your language, please.”

This was an allusion to our favourite TV comedy series of the time, Mind Your Language, featuring Jeremy Brown and his chaotic bunch of London immigrants struggling to master some English. Even today, when we have a get-together, we play some of the videotapes of the comedy for a good laugh.

But one thing we were all silently agreed about was that we were not to speak the variety of language those people used. Explicitly, I brought up my dear little ones with the acute awareness that they were never to be slovenly with language, any language that they spoke.

My children probably thought that I was being a tad too fussy about mere words. For even after the advent of mobile phones, sms texts and the like, with the presumed “linguistic” economy that they occasioned, my family’s communication was expected to be devoid of monstrosities like “da” for “the”, careless punctuation and truncated, non-grammatical agglomerations.

The main reason why people brutalise language in electronic messages is sheer laziness and the lack of willpower to think out clearly what they want to say. Now that my children are grown up and professional communicators, they often tell me that this severe respect of language is probably the best thing I ever taught them.



Anyway, I was thinking that Michelle Obama is, deservedly, an unfailing fashion icon and trend-setter. So, I could use her “swagalicious” self-indulgence as an excuse to tell you, in “Ugandese”, how I recently “ate swagger” at an awards event in Kampala. This was the second triennial National Heritage Awards ceremony by the Uganda Cross-Cultural Foundation (CCFU), which was itself celebrating ten years of vibrant cultural activity and advocacy.

The ceremony was held at the Nommo Gallery, right in the heart of Kampala, and I, humble scribe, was the guest of honour. I would deliver the citations and present the trophies, and cheques, to the laureates.

The Nommo Gallery, a collection of smallish, rusty mabati-roofed bungalows, is itself steeped in Ugandan history. Dating from the early 20th century, it was originally set up as a guest wing of the colonial Governor’s Kampala lodge.

Even after uhuru, when Kampala City became the capital, that arrangement more or less remained, with Government House Entebbe becoming State House and the Governor’s Lodge in Kampala being renamed State Lodge.

The graceful memory from those early uhuru days, when the Obotes resided at the State Lodge, is that Mrs Miria Kalule Obote, the First Lady, decided to donate the guest wing of the Lodge to Uganda’s creative artists, where they could create and display their works. The Gallery was named Nommo, and it became part of Uganda’s Cultural Centre, which it remains to this day.

The Nommo is associated with some of the greatest names of visual artists who lived and worked in Uganda, like Elly Kyeyune, Theresa Musoke, Ignatius Serulyo, Kenyan Gregory Maloba and Tanzanians Sam Ntiro and Matt Mosha. All these are scions of Makerere’s famed Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art.

It is to this hallowed shrine of creativity that I ascended to bask in the glory of the unique achievers that the Cross-Cultural Foundation was honouring. The invitation stunned me a little at first. But come to think of it, I realised that it was a follow-up on what had happened three years earlier, when I was one of the winners of the inaugural National Heritage Awards in 2013.

My award at that ceremony, held in Entebbe as part of an international conference of cultural trusts, was in recognition of my contribution to our “intangible heritage”, especially in the promotion of oral literature, or orature, as we renamed it.

So, like a previous beauty queen crowning a new one, here I was, crowning the new awardees who were following me into the distinguished CCFU’s Cultural Hall of Fame. This year’s winners were also divided into two categories, namely, tangible heritage and intangible heritage. The intangible heritage includes such activities as literature, language, music and indigenous knowledge, while tangible heritage defines undertakings like crafts, buildings and technologies.

This year’s top three “intangible” winners were the royal musician Albert Sempeke, posthumously, a music family from Busoga at the source of the Nile and Richard Cwinyaai Atya, founder of a performing troupe in West Nile that artistically promotes Alur culture.

The Alur, who live near the Uganda-Sudan and Uganda-DRC borders, are the westernmost members of the Uganda Luo family that includes the Acholi, the Lango and the Jopadhola. I wonder if my friend “Omera” Humphrey Jeremiah Ojwang has been able to visit the Alur.

The “tangible” winners included St Peter’s Secondary School, a Kampala institution, and the Madhvani family. Both are guardians of historic buildings which have been maintained and renovated for over a century and are still in functional operation. Nsambya’s treasure is “Fort Jesus”, a structure that has been a church, a missionary residence and currently a girls’ dormitory.

But the most delightful winner in this category for me were Dr Yahaya Sekagya and his group, who are preserving an indigenous forest where they promote herbal and traditional medical practices. This reminded me of my play, A Hole in the Sky, where Nguvu Kikongwe, a healer, successfully treats a cancer-struck tycoon with herbs from a forest, which the tycoon has been recklessly hewing down.

But I should be telling you more about the Cross-Cultural Foundation. It is doing a wonderful job not only in the advocacy of cultural rights but also the creation of cohesion and peaceful co-existence and progress in our multicultural societies.

Just now I am still up there on a pink cloud after presiding over the great do. I promised the CCFU I will be there at the third awards ceremony in 2019.