At 67, Kalimugogo’s voice quavers with age but his enunciation remains perfect. He took Dennis D. Muhumuza back to the formative years that connected him to literature; a connection from which he has never extricated himself.
Not much is known about Geofrey Mwene Kalimugogo but he is a prolific force in Ugandan fiction. His first book, Dare to Die, was released in 1972 but it’s his third novel, Trials and Tribulations in Sandu’s Home (1974) that distinguished him as a witty writer; the domestic comedy immediately got on the literature syllabus.
Kalimugogo has since published 12 novels - a feat that’s yet to be matched by any of his contemporaries. In 2004 and 2010 respectively, A Visitor Without a Mission (2003) and Bury Me in a Simple Grave (2009) earned him honours from the National Book Trust of Uganda. His novels are not products of pure imagination, seeing the realness with which they depict the experiences of everyday life. “The job of an artist is to recreate a situation,” he says.
This he ably does, exposing corporate greed, corruption and the alarming gulf there is between the rich and the poor; issues of concern that a Ugandan reader easily identifies with. A Murky River ((2009) is, for example, about a man who worships money so much that he forgets his mother, only to discover after her death that no amount of money can bring her back.
His 2010 release, The Honourable M.P. Who Resigned, exposes the politics of opportunism, intrigue, sycophancy and the force with which the virtuous are exterminated, while in Bury Me in a Simple Grave, he realistically captures a society in which today’s generation disrespect elders. “In the old society, the respect of the young for the older was sort of glue that kept society together,” he says with a faraway look, “But all that is getting loose; a young man telling his grandfather to go to hell was unthinkable. And in writing this book, I thought, ‘What does that presage?’” he said.
In a pithy style, enriched more by repartees, the tongue-in-cheek and satire, Kalimugogo presents egocentric, highly patronising, capricious and loquacious megalomaniacs that love their booze and live by the dictum, “For God and my belly!”
And beneath the humour are deep moral lessons. “As a Christian, I believe men and women should do good things because that’s what makes the world a better place,” he says.
The humour, he confesses, has much to do with the influence that English writer P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) has had on him. “Wodehouse is the funniest person I’ve ever read in my life,” he says. “I don’t enjoy writing or reading dark material; I find it very difficult to put myself in a sad mood as a writer. I love good humour, satire, farce written in fresh and good language.”
His connection to literature; from which he has never extricated himself, began at Nyakasura SSS, where he studied from 1959 to 1964. “The school had a first-class library and in S.4 and S.5, I was the chief librarian,” he says. “By the time I joined Makerere University College of the University of East Africa in 1965, I had read all the great masters: Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Alexander Pope among others.”
At Makerere, Kalimugogo enjoyed the finest literary interactions that were to shape his literary ambitions. His contemporaries included John Ruganda, Prof Timothy Wangusa, Rose Mbowa, and Laban Erapu among others with whom they used to meet to discuss books and critique their own writings. “The atmosphere was absolutely on fire with the passion and desire for literature,” he says nostalgically. “Our lecturers were extremely sharp and eager and the department of literature was running an internationally recognised literary magazine, Penpoint, which I edited in 1967.”
Kalimugogo graduated in 1968 with an Honours Degree in English and Classical Literature. He joined the Foreign Affairs Ministry in 1970 and worked in Kinshasa, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Nairobi before he retired in 2003 to spend the rest of his life writing.
In his demanding diplomatic schedule, it’s amazing that he could still find time to write. “It’s because, apart from the joy of my family, there’s nothing as enjoyable as writing and reading.”
The light-skinned author would like to see more indigenous works on the national curriculum because “they have the most immediate relevance to the Ugandan audience.” He advises budding writers to read widely because “it’s the only way a writer can establish a wide scope of literary reference.” Kalimugogo comes from Kabale District, is married and has four children who are avid readers. “Knowing that my books are being consumed and appreciated by the reading public is my best reward,” he concludes.