Artivism in writings of Uganda PEN ex-president

Danson Kahyana was almost fatally attacked in Kampala, now living in US

In Summary

• Ugandan scholar worth highlighting as Black History Month comes to an end

2023-24 Carr Centre Fellow Prof Danson Kahyana
2023-24 Carr Centre Fellow Prof Danson Kahyana

This Black History Month comes to a close as we celebrate yet another Ugandan author of gravitas, Danson Kahyana. The former president of Ugandan PEN is as a vocal writer in the region. His literary repertoire traverses the genres.

He is currently the 2023-24 Carr Centre Fellow, Scholar at Risk at Harvard University, USA. Like his vocal compatriots, the authors Stella Nyanzi and Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, Kahyana has borne the brunt of his acts of using art as activism. Two years ago, he was violently attacked by unnamed assailants in Kampala and almost lost his life.

In 2019, he was a visiting scholar here at Kenyatta University under the aegis of the East African Community. Students here still appreciate his mentorship in their poetry awakening. He helped bend their art in the direction of social justice and plant the seed of commitment in their art souls.

Through his writings, the vocal author seamlessly intertwines art and activism, wielding literature as a potent tool for social critique and advocacy. His body of work reflects a profound commitment to addressing social and political issues not only within Uganda but also on a broader global scale, shedding light on human rights abuses, political oppression and the struggles faced by marginalised communities.

As we mark Black History Month, we remember how in his edited poetry collection, Fire on the Mountain (2018), Kahyana delves into themes of political violence, oppression and resistance in modern Uganda.

Poems such as ‘Let’s Remember,’ ‘You May Not Mourn your Departed Beloved’ and ‘General to an Orphan Child’ paint the harsh realities endured by ordinary Ugandans amidst political turmoil and state-sanctioned violence. Through vivid imagery and powerful language, Kahyana confronts the injustices perpetrated by the state, issuing a compelling call for accountability and justice.

Beyond his poetic endeavours, Kahyana’s activism extends to his scholarly and journalistic pursuits. As a contributor to the Index on Censorship, he crafts incisive pieces on press freedom, government censorship and political repression in Uganda.

In addition to his literary activism, he has undertaken the role of editor for several anthologies that spotlight the work of marginalised and underrepresented writers. As I Stood Dead Before the World (2018), published by Ugandan PEN, offers a vivid glimpse into the lives and experiences of incarcerated individuals through creative writing penned by Luzira Maximum Security Prison inmates.

Similarly, ‘Striding to Triumph’ and ‘I Promise This Song Is Not About Politics’ amplify the voices of young poets from secondary schools and university law clinics, providing a platform for emerging talent and fostering dialogue on social issues through literature.

Through his diverse body of work, Prof Kahyana emerges as a signal at the intersection of art and activism in modern-day Ugandan literature. His writings serve as a powerful witness to literature’s capacity to challenge injustice, promote social change and give voice to the marginalised. As a writer, editor and advocate, he continues to inspire many of us to leverage our creative talents as forces for positive social transformation.

Armed with his pen, the Ugandan employs literature as a means to confront injustice, champion human rights and amplify voices of the marginalised. A critical examination of his major themes underscores the depth of his engagement with Uganda's sociopolitical landscape, affirming his role as an artist steadfastly committed to effecting change through his craft.

Central to Kahyana’s work is the theme of political violence and oppression, vividly portrayed in his poetry and prose. Through pieces like ‘Let’s Remember’ and ‘You May Not Mourn your Departed Beloved,’ he brings to light the brutal realities of state-sanctioned violence and the human toll exacted by political repression.

By depicting the experiences of ordinary Ugandans caught in the crossfire of political turmoil, this poet lays bare the harsh realities of life under an authoritarian regime, where dissent is met with violence and dissenters are silenced through intimidation and coercion.

Another salient theme in his oeuvre is the advocacy for freedom of expression and press freedom. As a former president of Ugandan PEN and a contributor to publications like Index on Censorship, Kahyana ardently defends the rights of writers and journalists to speak truth to power.

His articles on government censorship and political repression offer insights into the challenges faced by those endeavouring to exercise their right to free speech in Uganda. Through his artivism, Kahyana champions an environment where East African scribes can operate without fear of persecution or reprisal, underscoring the significance of a free and independent press in holding those in power accountable.

In addition to his literary activism, Kahyana’s critical scholarship contributes significantly to the academic discourse on African literature and human rights. His work, featured in esteemed scholarly journals such as English in Africa, Journal of African Cultural Studies and Social Dynamics, explores a wide array of topics.

These include the impact of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act on artistic freedom, representations of the right to healthcare in Ugandan literary and cultural productions and the depiction of the right to dignity among elderly citizens in East African fiction.

This is why, in this month of black excellence, we salute the lifework and social vision of Prof Danson Kahyana of Makerere University. His steadfast commitment to using literature as a vehicle for social justice mirrors the enduring legacy of black literature, both in the United States and globally.

Through his work and words, we are reminded of the ongoing struggle for equality and human rights, encapsulating the transformative power of the creative economies and the humanities in advancing this noble cause.

His message remains one for all times, as is that of the finest of black writers on both sides of the Atlantic: perpetuate the flame of social justice, honour the legacy of black writers who have paved the way before us and inspire future generations to continue the fight for a more just and equitable world in this age of precarity.

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