There is a popular fallacy by proponents of Ugandan literature that our literature expresses our cultural identity. But the proponents also bemoan our literature for being relegated on the national school curriculum.
Certainly, Ugandan identity is not a homogeneous concept. Yet again, placing our literature outside the global context is an absurdity because of crisscrossing of value systems. This debate that kicked off in the 1960s in Africa at the threshold of political independence is not new; when freedom became the hallmark for idealisation of the so-called authentic African literature.
This radicalism in literature fashioned the devastating effects of post-colonialism on African cultural reality. The question begging an answer is whether or not literary radicalism of the 60s has been sustainable in post-independent period.
The writers of the 60s were privileged in enjoying guarantees of immunity from external influences and self-censorship. Many of them had studied abroad; while at home, some of the writers in their formative years were taught literature by expatriate staff. After college, they globe-trotted to prestigious universities on paid sabbatical, sometimes delivering papers on quasi-revivalism and neo-liberal ideology - notions recurrent in post-imperial landscape but inconsistent, in their abstraction, with local conditions.
One gleans from African literary the grafting of classics common in university lecture theatres. For example, Ngugi’s Arrow of God weaves around deus ex machina in respect of articulating conventional spirituality in conflict with the new dispensation. The downfall of Chief priest Ezeulu is precipitated by death of his son, Obika. Underneath this, we see interplay between the gods and man facilitating the understanding of the nature of popular revolt against theocratic system in the dawn of a new era.
The same tragic undertone is resonant in Okonkwo’s suicide in Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe) as if in submission to irreversible forces of change. Soyinka’s, Ngugi’s, and Achebe’s preoccupation generally focuses on human condition battered by existential circumstances. In a recent interview with The New York Times Achebe admits “characters are subject to non-human forces in the universe.”
Unlike Achebe, Ngugi’s works spell a Grecian antidote to endemic misconduct by state functionaries. Soyinka and Ngugi regard divine power as allies in dismantling repressive colonial symbols and apparatus to allow the wheel of ‘cultural revolution’ to turn full cycle.
Attacking system flaws
It is evident that much of Ugandan literature gets its inspiration from the first generation writers. The first generations of African writers, ironically, are culturally dislocated in the Diaspora. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is at the University of California; Achebe at Brown University, while Soyinka is at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Okello Oculi in Nigeria and Taban Lo-Liyong is also abroad. African writers, like their protagonists, suffer the same sense of self-fragmentation. It is no wonder that African literature is laced with nostalgia against the backdrop of domestic institutional flaws.
Interestingly, on the one hand, a crop of writers in post-colonial nations, invest much energy in embellishing the systemic flaws as ‘agents provocateurs’. On the other hand, Moses Isegawa, famous for his book, The Abyssinian Chronicles bluntly diagnoses Uganda’s ‘sick soul’ seared by neo-colonialism, corruption, war, tyranny and HIV/Aids; and Julius Ocwinyo in Fate of the Banished, explores social disintegration in a much narrower northern Uganda setting. Both writers coincidentally echo the Elizabethan-Sophoclean tragedy and poignantly berate variously dogmatic doctrines of the Catholic establishment drawing upon their experience as ex-seminarians.
One though finds no unified cultural articulation in Ugandan feminist writing, which is generally based on oversimplified stereotypes. You will read a magpie of sorts in books written by Ugandan women authors such as Goretti Kyomuhendo, Ayeta Anne Wangusa, Mary Karooro Okurut, Christine Oryema-Lalobi, and others.
Cassandra by Violet Barungi celebrates aestheticism of urban middle class against the background of the liberal world of Hollywood. (Read the choice of fancy names of characters). With due respect to Ms Barungi, her heroine, Cassandra, presents an ambivalent cultural ideology. She juggles around two men, through treachery; yet the two men, Bevis and Raymond, are incidentally brothers, raising cultural and moral dilemma.
The Ugandan brand of feminism is not insulated against alienation effects. Cassandra, like Changes by Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo, casually takes a glimpse of women empowerment as content to live under the patronage of influential power brokers. Esi, Aidoo’s central character, neglects her daughter and divorces her husband, then begins to ride on the back of a wealthy man, Ali, for enhancement of her career and construction of a new self-image.
Some Uganda feminist writers have become unwitting apologists of patriarchy by politicising gender issues and roles for career advancement and self-actualisation. Liberated feminist writers, however, try to advocate a more moderate approach to the process of decolonisation to mark resistance to ‘male colonialism.’
The situation becomes even more complicated in view of radical feminists. In The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone, a Jewish, Canadian-born feminist, argues that gender inequality is imposed upon women through their biology; the physical, social and psychological disadvantages imposed by pregnancy, childbirth and child-bearing. She argues that unless women liberate themselves from ordained gender roles, their fight for gender equality will remain a pipe dream.
She suggests that women should do away with the institution of marriage and avoid pregnancy that men use to enslave them. She describes pregnancy as barbaric but instead urges women to opt for sex selection and in vitro fertilisation. Ugandan feminist writers in a way are ardent disciples of Firestone. Yet more conservative feminist writers feel revolted by Firestone’s nihilism.
The author’s background is crucial in guiding readers to where the writer stands in the moral axis of his writing since he aims at exploring fundamental truth. Agitation for Ugandan literature in the school curriculum is misplaced in my view, since advocacy for an exclusive content is driven more by commercial than broad cultural ideology. Our learning point should focus on integrating literature curriculum within the frame of our multivalent cultural orientations.
Jim Oboth is a Literature teacher.