ART CHECK

Artists as rulers, or writers’ commitment in modern Uganda

Book review of a collection of Ugandan literature

In Summary

• 'Fire on the Mountain' is a blazing collection of poems and plays written as an archive of the Kasese clashes

Kahyana, Danson. Eds. Fire on the Mountain: Creative Work on the Obuhirika. Kampala: Dovesong Educational Press, 2018, 116 pages. ISBN 978-9970-618-002.

The history of Ugandan literature is inextricably tied to its revolutionary politics. This is the case especially in the unfolding post-Independence era. An outstanding Ugandan critic, Prof Austin Bukenya, treats the theme of terror as one of the latent and salient enduring (pre)occupations of Ugandan writers.

From the literature of the dark Idi Amin era to the ones that map the long Museveni years, conflict and confrontation endure as forces in the literature of Uganda. A cursory look at novels penned by Bahadur Tejani, Jameela Siddiqi, Robert Serumaga, Mary Okurut, Julius Ocwinyo, Goretti Kyomuhendo, Moses Isegawa and more recently, Jennifer Makumbi, vindicates the good professor.

 

The evocative plays of Uganda authored by John Ruganda and taught in Kenyan schools and colleges further consolidate the prevalent images of violence and political turmoil identified by Bukenya recently, and much earlier by the octogenarian Prof Peter Nazareth. The latter is an exiled Ugandan writer expelled by Amin in the 1970s, whose seminal essay, “Waiting for Amin: Two Decades of Ugandan Literature,” was published in 1984.

The country continues to capture the regional and international limelight in the wake of internal calls for greater democracy and freedom of dissent. Ubiquitous are the media reports on the political actions of activists such as Dr Stella Nyanzi and the maverick legislator Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, a popular musician-turned-politician among others.

Recently, a new book has been published that captures a troubling yet now almost forgotten event in the current affairs of Uganda, what the victims now call Obuhirika, or the Kasese clashes of November 26, 2016.

On the fateful day, heavily armed government security forces stormed the premises of the local king Charles Omusinga of the Rwenzururu Kingdom in Kasese, near the Rwenzori Mountains. The mountains are famously known as Mountains of the Moon and are a vital tourist attraction in Uganda.

The storming led to casualties, chaos and enduring trauma. This was after a stand-off had ensued between the central government and the local kingship administration. Kingship exists in modern Uganda as a constitutional institution mainly for cultural heritage purposes.

Lives were lost, property destroyed in the attack that uncannily brought to mind the historic storming of the Kabaka’s palace in Kampala in 1966. Pundits argue that this event, a half a century earlier, ignited the successive coups that map the development of Uganda since her Independence, her literature, too.

The Kasese clashes form the subject of the new book, which is a product of critical and creative energies of a constellation of shocked Ugandan writers across the generational and gender divide.

 

Fire on the Mountain (2018) is a blazing collection of poems and plays written as an archive of the event. The haunting pieces in the book, which is aptly covered in red hue, have been edited and compiled by Dr Danson Kahyana, the current president of PEN International, Ugandan Centre, and a published poet, too.

The new book is a collection of 41 powerful and traumatic poems, two short but haunting plays and two essays by ace scholars from Kenya and South Africa, one as the foreword and the other as the afterword.

Each of the works exhibited in this anthology of atrocities, offers a searing insight into the bloody event. Images of naked women young and old in ropes, dismembered bodies of palace guards, petrified children amid smoke and explosions abound.

Desolation and terror accompany the reader from page to page, with the rhetorical question repeating itself like a baton from the hand of one writer to the next in the text: did the confrontation between the king and the government, Kasese and Kampala, both Ugandan, surely have to end this way?

The new poet Bash Fahad Mutumba laments in “Possessed Men”, These Men…/flogged our children/with whips embedded with nails/then rubbed hot pepper/into their tender eyes. (p. 32). His unspeakable acts are elaborated by his peer Violet Nakusule in “Arise and Mourn”. She laments: Arise ye mountains of the moon!/Arise and weep ye beautiful Rwenzori/Arise and mourn for thy children are no more!

And the litany of elegies continues unhindered in the lamentation of greater and better known Ugandan poets, such as Timothy Wangusa, in his opening pieces, “Mountain Ablaze” (p.23) and “National Skulls Exhibition (p. 24-25), as well as Susan Kiguli (p. 26-27) and Laban Erapu (55-58). Each of these poets, famous scholars in their own right, too, decrying the excessive use of force to solve national problems of their motherland.

This anthology reminds us of the centrality of the artist in our modern societies. Artists remain the sensitive points of their own communities. They are the tongues of conscience when the season of anomie visits our proximities. Through their joint effort, these Ugandan writers bring to life the idea cemented in our minds by the book of essays on culture and values entitled, Artist, the Ruler (1986) by the late Okot p’Bitek, Uganda’s most famous poet, that artists, rulers too are.

The commitment they show whenever states cannibalistically feast on their own is evident through language and creativity (p51-52). With artistic melancholy, they weave testaments for the present and the future through testimonies of the vanquished voiceless.

It is in this light that this book ceases to be a document of information and entertainment. It attains a higher form as a space where the voice of conscience of a nation calls for reason to prevail in the wake of national disagreements in our countries, even as it calls for justice for the victims, be it poetic or otherwise.

The book offers a vivacious view of a kaleidoscopic moment in recent Ugandan affairs and the arts. On September 27, 2018, the Egyptian National Centre for Translation wrote to the book’s editor to have it translated to Arabic, perhaps to continue the quest for social justice at the heart of the unfolding Arab Spring in northern Africa and beyond.

 

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Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University