Bursts of energy and emotion, music and sensuality, inspiration and edification defined an evening of poetry commemorating the month-long U.S. celebration of Black History Month, on February 29.
The Black History Month was originated by African-American scholar Carter Godwin Woodson to highlight the accomplishments of African-Americans and the overall unique aspects of their experiences that had been ignored from the time of slavery and racism up until the 1960s. It started as the Negro History Week in 1926 before it was extended and renamed Black History Month in 1976 and has since been celebrated every February.
Anyhow, the Conference Hall at the College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology, Makerere University, was packed with the country’s literati that along with students and budding literary talents spent two hours reveling in poetry.
For the sages of old like Prof Timothy Wangusa and Dr Okello Ogwang, the commemoration brought memories of the 1962 Literature Conference at Makerere that was attended by African-American writer Langston Hughes whose depiction of racism in his poems continues to move humanity long after his death.
On Wednesday February 29, Hughes’s famous poem, Herlem (1951) about a black American’s pain of being excluded from the “American Dream” because of the colour of his skin, was recited by Peninah Ninsiima. The audience could not help reciting achingly along: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat…Or does it explode?
Ms Ninsiima, a Makerere University Masters of Literature student also recited Nikki Giovanni’s Seduction (1997), and Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman – two poems that exude the sexuality Ms Ninsiima brought out with her idyll voice.
But it was Beverley Nambozo’s newest poem, Ssebo Gwewange! and its patent eroticism that rocked the house most, judging by the response it evoked. Call it a love poem or an interaction of lovers under the sheets, its first stanza goes: “You pound me like the ngalabi/ I slap the wall to your rhythm/ Sharp, unforgettable, your tightening subdued I moan like thunder…”
Exactly 22 poems – both Ugandan and American – were recited and sung with a lot of enthusiasm that resonated with all, because the issues embedded are universal, or as Dr Ogwang put it, are “issues central to the existence of humanity.”
You should have been there to hear the zeal in Dr Susan Kiguli’s voice as she recited her poem, Ugandan Previlege about the ideal of loyalty and brotherhood that are unfortunately vanishing from our society! And how frustration was tangible in her voice as she launched onto I am Back Home, depicting the muddled up country she still finds after four years abroad.
Prof Wangusa was there too, and from his 2006 anthology, Africa’s New Brood, he recited The XYZ of Love with its famous summation that true love is “when one of the couple finally dies –the other one fondly follows soon.” Prof. Wangusa is the Ugandan master of poetic playfulness and rhythmic satire.
And he had the audience when he performed Africanology, a magnetic swipe at the intellectual big man of Africa. The poem, on the surface, is about African think tanks that meet and set up “strategic organs” across the continent to “research and promote the ethos of Africanology.” Some of the organs include: “The ampthitheatre of Anti-Governmentology in Algeria/ The Bureau of Bankruptciology in Burkina Faso…” not forgetting “The University of Ubiquitoniquitology in Uganda…”
Then there was the Lantern Meet of Poets luminary, Jason Sabiti, reciting Amiri Baraka’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), Jean Toomer’s Portrait of Georgia (1923) and Margaret Walker’s For My People (1942) – charged poems whose mood and emotions Sabiti captured with perfect annunciation, timed pace, breath control and a stirring voice.
Susan Kerunen added her own music to the overall musicality of language with two songs, Akuru (a singing bird) from her third album by that name, and Akello, a folk song she learned from her mother that lures the children to come grab something to eat for, yeah, it’s dinner time! And yes, the nourishments were in plenty, and as Doreen Baingana thanked all for coming to listen to poetry, some were already stepping out to catch a bite.
The Black History Month in Kampala which started on February 2 with the screening of the movie, The Great Debaters, was organised by the US Mission in Uganda together with Femrite and the Department of Literature, Makerere University.