Gakwandi and a few rebels of Ugandan literature

Mr Charles Onyango-Obbo

What you need to know:

  • Karooro became a pioneer of feminist literature, with a handful of books under her sash. With Wangusa, they dabbled in politics. Wangusa’s de tour was brief. 

On April 5, there will be a celebration at Makerere University to mark the 80th birthdays of two important figures of Ugandan and East African literature; Arthur Gakwandi and Austin Bukenya.

For the majority of his active writing and teaching life, and the burdens of exile, Bukenya worked outside Uganda. Most of Gakwandi’s has been in Uganda. Gakwandi taught our merry band of misfits and angst-ridden young Ugandans literature at “the Hill”. So today, we reflect on him and his academic co-conspirators. Though away, Bukenya was, however, a hovering presence. We shall speak of him another time.

Those were the dying years of Field Marshal Idi Amin’s rule. Openly outspoken scholars at Makerere University had either been murdered or fled into exile. In 1977, playwright Byron Kawadwa had been killed by Amin security operatives, for his play “Oluyimba Lwa Wankoko” (Song of the Cock) which they read as a criticism of his brutal rule.

In the literature community, Kawadwa’s death had a chilling effect. However, writers and scholars like Gakwandi who remained, didn’t necessarily go silent. Most resorted to clever subterfuge that the deadly State Research Bureau officers and their lackeys couldn’t decipher easily.

Makerere became strewn with lecturers whose type you probably don’t see much of today. In the Literature Department, Gakwandi was the most disarmingly self-effacing. Soft-soften, he plied his trade with a reserved air. If you couldn’t write plays and novels, what would you do? There are many things one can do. Gakwandi borrowed the voice of the writers who were out of the dictators’ reach and focussed on their message.

He doubled down on what in the trade is called literary criticism; the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. In 1977 Heinemann published Gakwandi’s “The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa”, which examined the writing of leading African authors like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka. These things worked at many levels. On the face of it, we studied these writers’ styles. But at deeper levels, we read the meaning of their stories in our context. In the dictator in Ngugi’s novel, and the thieving rulers in Soyinka’s work, we saw our own. None of it was ever vocalised in class, nor written into class essays. It was all held in conspiratorial silence.

Gakwandi was self-effacing, but not so his confederates in the Literature Department. They were all particularly clever, though. Of those whose wisdom I personally drank from, Timothy Wangusa and Mary Karooro were closest, both mild-mannered. Wangusa was cryptic, liked the double entendre, and tortured us with mind-benders. Karooro was more forgiving, bringing a sunny disposition in grim times.

The late Fred Opal had an eccentric streak and would take us on abstract flights. He kept an air of mystery about him. The late Austin Ejiet, later of “Take It Or Leave It” fame column in The Monitor, was the most brooding and perhaps intellectually visceral. He opened the doors to the nightmares hidden in the great literary works. And he plumbed the politically incorrect.

And then there was the late Francis Kidubuuka, pan-Africanist, and son of the soil. Kidubuuka was like that favourite uncle whom you love spending weekends with, bringing to a boys’ night out, or travelling with for “kaboozi” on a long journey, but not someone you invited to dinner with your in-laws. He had an incredible salt-of-the-earth quality about him and was never afraid to tell dirty jokes and “heavy” African proverbs.

One time he served up a Lusoga proverb, and as the Basoga classmates ran for cover under their desks, he translated it into English: “A man’s wife is like a thorn tree. If it doesn’t pierce when you are climbing up, it will pierce when you are climbing down”, he said. Gakwandi would never go there, even with a gun held to his head.

We have never had time to think much about the world they bequeathed. We never dwell much on these things, until in later times when we have been refined by the bludgeonings of life and are more reflective. I have canvassed, and in Uganda and East Africa, I find no work of literary criticism that rises to the level of Gakwandi’s “The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa”, 47 years later.

Gakwandi went on to publish his first novel, “Kosiya Kifefe” a story about growing up in post-independence Africa, in 1997. We lost Opali, Kidubuuka, and Ejiet. Wangusa has been more prolific, with five books and poetry collections since, and he continues to write newspaper columns.

Karooro became a pioneer of feminist literature, with a handful of books under her sash. With Wangusa, they dabbled in politics. Wangusa’s de tour was brief. Karooro’s became an enduring pursuit. True to himself, Gakwandi dipped his toes in diplomacy.
They opened our eyes to a world around which some of us are still travelling.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, 
writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3