Femrite toasts to Bukenya’s influence and 80th birthday

Austin Bukenya (right) turns 80. Photo/Jimmy Odoki

What you need to know:

  • A cake was cut in celebration of Prof Austin Bukenya, a renowned writer and poet, upon his 80th birthday. He sang a song in French and a selection of  his poems were read to an audience of poets and writers.

The Uganda Women Writers Association (Femrite) hosted celebrated scholar Mwalimu Austin (Augustine) Bukenya on Easter Monday (April 8). The purpose was twofold: firstly, to have a conversation with the renowned writer and poet. Secondly, to celebrate his birthday. 

A literary titan by any measure, Prof Bukenya became an octogenarian on February 10. Such is the agility of the English literature professor that you can barely tell that he is 80.

On April 8, a great deal of people congregated at the outdoor space of the Femrite offices in Kamwokya, a Kampala suburb, to belatedly celebrate Prof Bukenya reaching the proverbial eighth floor.

The attentive audience in Kamwokya included poets, writers, students and literary enthusiasts. Those who were absent with apologies wished Prof Bukenya good health and many more years of happiness.

Ms Hilda J Twongyeirwe, the Executive Director of Femrite, used her introductory remarks to thank Prof Bukenya for clearing his calendar to attend the celebration lecture in person when he “could have been enjoying the holiday at home.” 

A selection of Prof Bukenya’s poems were read. Zenah Nakanwangi aka Zenah the Poet read I met a Thief”; Martina Nagasha, a student of Literature at Makerere University, read The Dancer’s Challenge; and Martha Uwera from Makerere University’s School of Law read W-W-Woman.

After the readings and performances, the conversation with Prof Bukenya followed, and it was led by Nassur Tab’an El-Tablaz, a teacher and author. 

Who is Mwalimu?
Prof Bukenya was born in Masaka where his father worked with the Police. He was baptised at the Kitovu Cathedral in Masaka and named Augustine Bukenya. He went to Kisubi seminary.

At the time he joined the seminary, he thought priesthood was his calling or vocation but that changed.

The thought of having to deal with moral issues of people as well as his own made him rethink the idea of priesthood. After four years, he left the seminary and joined Namilyango College.

Then he went to Dar-es-Salaam University and graduated in 1968 and returned to teach at Makerere University. It is here that his name Augustine was Anglicanised to Austin because of a strong British influence at the university (department?).

Prof Bukenya is known for his novel titled The People’s Bachelor. His plays, including The Bride, The Secret, and A Hole in the Sky, are just as critically acclaimed. As indeed has the anthology The Mermaid of Msambweni and Other Stories: An Anthology from Africa. His body of work that also includes poems such as the ones read out at the celebration lecture have been deconstructed in literature classes from the 1970s to date. 

Fleeing Uganda
Prof Bukenya is passionate about plays and drama. He fled the country to exile in 1977 because of his participation in the play, Oluyimba lwa Wankoko staged at the Festac’77 Festival of the Arts in Lagos, Nigeria. The play didn’t go well with Idi Amin’s regime. He spent 20 years in exile in Kenya and taught Literature and English at Kenyatta University. 

Prof Bukenya’s column in Saturday Nation entitled Reflections of a Scholar zooms into affairs of Kenya and their literary discourse. Uganda is usually reduced to something of a footnote in part because of the long time he lived and taught in Kenya.

Birth of Femrite
When Prof Bukenya came from exile and returned to teach at Makerere University, he shared an office with Mary Karoro Okurut (now senior presidential advisor on public relations).

The concept of the Association of Women Writers began from that office. When some of the students and budding writers would come to consult Mary Karoro Okurut, Prof Bukenya would offer his chair to them. 

“Through these interactions, he got to know many of us and became interested in issues of women writers and has been with us since the founding of Femrite in 1995,” Ms Twongyeirwe, who was a sophomore student when she first made it to the office, recalls.

Prof Bukenya says: “My parents were storytellers. An American who taught literature at Namilyango College, African writers like David Rubadiri and others have been a great inspiration to me. The philosophy of Ubuntu, time management and belief and faith in God have contributed to my achievements too.” 

Outside the literary world, the 3Ts—Teaching, Theatre and playing Tennis—keep Prof Bukenya fit. The saying retired but not tired fits him. Widely traveled and fluent in Swahili, French, Latin, Luganda, Prof Bukenya says he feels at home in East Africa although the noise pollution in Kampala bothers him so much. Many years ago, Gayaza where he lives was quiet and peaceful but it has become noisy with the urbanisation. 

“Literature should be taken to the grassroots. It is not enough to teach. Go and promote literature in local languages too; Luo, Luganda, Acholi, Lusoga, Lunyoro, Swahili etc.”