African literature through the eyes of Taban lo Liyong

Taban lo Liyong during the interview in Kampala recently. PHOTO COLEB MUGUME

What you need to know:

  • Celebrated. Renowned writer and poet Taban lo Liyong is currently professor of Literature at Juba University, South Sudan. I first met him in October 1972, at the National Theatre in Nairobi.
  • I was with the Makerere Free Travelling Theatre. Taban lo Liyong, who had already made a name as a writer through books like The Last Word and Eating Chiefs and poems such as The Marriage of Black and White and Songs from the Congolese, offered the troupe of 14 a lunch treat.
  • So when I was told last month that he was in Kampala, I knew that I could now ‘revenge’ with an interview, writes Emmanuel Mukanga.

How far has African literature developed since Okot p’Biteks’s Song of Lawino?
University lecturers still teach as we were taught and literature graduates are becoming journalists, as if literature worldwide has not moved far.
Young writers are writing mostly about problems of growing up and criticising mothers-in-law. There are now many schools of approaches to literature and its analysis.
Feminism is a new approach to literature but it is concentrating on complaining about men. A Chinese philosopher said that ‘women hold up half of the sky and men hold up the other half’, so both have to hold the sky up. Women writers are leaving men behind. There is need for a foundation to set up workshops for both. Writer, Goretti Kyomuhendo’s efforts in setting up an African Writers Trust, a centre that serves both men and women, should be supported.
At the 1977, Festival of African Culture (FESTAC), in Lagos, which attracted even people from the diaspora, it was agreed that ‘The African Civilisation in Literature Secretariat’ be set up next to the FESTAC Secretariat in Addis Ababa. Then Emperor Haile Selassie, who had supported the idea, was overthrown and African literature has since then, been left hanging.

What can the different players like government do?
Research in Europe has shown that having the youth watch football has averted the third world war. Borrow a page from football. The ministry of Education should initiate, sponsor and organise educative drama competitions. Encourage the female child to go to school. Introduce compensation bride price or school tax like happens in South Sudan, for girls who have gone to school. The more educated the more the cows demanded for marriage.
There is need for an annual conference of teachers of language and literature at universities. The Speaker of Parliament, for instance, should sponsor or promote debating competitions.

It is said that if you want to hide something from a Ugandan, write a book. How can we develop a reading culture?
Charles Dickens used to read out loud. Invite people to reading sessions, just like stand-up comedy. Encourage people to have something to talk about.

You have published a book in Luo. What is it about?
I have written a play dramatizing the confusion of language on the tongue for people, ‘Lakwo Romo Pen Rut’ – ‘The Thief of a Sheep which was meant to be used in a ceremony after the birth of twins’. In Acholi, twins were unpopular because they encroached on food reserves. A ceremony was therefore conducted where ash was thrown at the naked bodies of the parents of the twins to cleanse them from doing it again and a sacrificial sheep was slaughtered.

Tell us something about your life’s journey
I was a beneficiary of an epidemic in Bobi, Acholi, which required all children in the area to have their jaws tested. The headmaster of Bobi Primary School who wanted pupils for his school, took advantage of the testing exercise and called in the local chief to help him recruit. I was interviewed on the chief’s lap, after which he ordered that I report to school the following Monday.
So in May, 1945, I joined P.1 in second term and some of my classmates were married men. One of my inspirational headmasters had completed O-Level at King’s College Budo, and had been trained at Buwalasi Teacher Training College. He used to tell us about Budo’s motto, Gakyali Mabaga, (we are just starting). Another teacher, Lakan Ogwang, better known as Cak Ngwec (start running) inspired me to run to school and I would get there when the boarding pupils were still slashing the grass.
I went to Gulu High School for Junior School, after which I joined Sir Samuel Baker School.
At Sir Samuel Baker School, I won a prize in essay writing and as the best student in English lifted the standard of English in the school. I was in the third batch of students who sat O-Level from there. After O-Level, I went to Kyambogo to train as a teacher in 1958/59, after which I taught at Gulu High School for two and a half years. Independence was coming and I was the secretary of the Uganda Peoples Congress in Acholi sub-region and our candidate, Alex Ojera (RIP) won a parliamentary seat.
To woo African countries, the Americans had a scholarship programme for Africa. I sat for the interview, whose panel was chaired by Dr Martin Aliker, with his wife, Camilla as secretary. In June/July, 1962, I left teaching and politics to take up the scholarship.
I did my BA majoring in Literature, with Journalism (minor) after which I proceeded to the University of Iowa for an MA in fine Art (Creative Writing). I became a Fellow of the International writers’ workshop.
When I came back to Uganda in 1968, I had hoped to join Makerere College, which with the Colleges at Nairobi and Dar es Salaam formed the University of East Africa. However Prof David Cook, head of literature frustrated me insisting that I had not done A-Level and therefore could not join them.
However, renowned historian, Allan Ogot called me to Nairobi College, to do research on the oral literature of the Luo and Masai in Kenya. A year later, James Ngugi (Ngugi was Thiongo) invited him to the literature department to help Africanise it.
I worked in Nairobi for seven years until I left for Papua New Guinea for two and a half years. I went through London where I was supposed to edit Africa Magazine, From London I joined Juba University in 1978. In 1979, I went to Berlin and when back in Juba, I met Eisel Kurimoto who took me to do research on words for numerals in African languages at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan.
In 1995, I became Professor of Literature, University of Venda, South Africa. In 2005, I returned to Juba University Literature Department until today. I was also inaugural professor of Social Sciences at the Curting University of Technology in West Australia.