Okot p’Bitek, Fugard’s ‘The Island’, and Museveni’s Uganda in 2018

Charles Oyango-Obbo

The last nearly three weeks have been a difficult one, as the saga of the torture, release, and re-arrest of Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine) and other MPs played out.

I cannot remember a time when a Ugandan hashtag - #FreeBobiWine – trended so much on social media.

I spent some time checking profile photos on Twitter, which are of Bobi Wine, and last week he did the impossible – he surpassed African favourite, slain charismatic Burkina Faso leader Thomas Sankara, Nelson Mandela, and new kid on the block Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed!
And there was also something new.

I might be wrong, but I have not read so many statements online by Ugandans saying the torture episodes and beat down of innocent by-standers and journalists over the Bobi Wine events made them “ashamed of being Ugandan”, and how it was “exhausting to be a Ugandan”. The sense of helplessness, not just of shame, was deep.

These emotions speak for themselves, so I shall not flog them further. I will tell a small story.

After April 1979, with the overthrow of military dictator Idi Amin by a combined force of the Tanzanian army and Ugandan exile dissident groups, a wave of euphoria swept the country.

We were, really, still kids then, but the Amin years had matured us rather quickly. We were still afraid, but dared to hope. It looked like nothing could go wrong. It was hard to be cynical.

The Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF), the government that formed after Amin, and the interim Parliament, the National Consultative Council (NCC), were nothing like Africa, and possibly the world, had seen at that point.

No government and parliament in Africa had ever had, and probably will ever have, as many PhDs, Masters degrees, and professors as the UNLF and NCC had.

We believed that, surely, though Uganda of Amin had sank into the sewer, the clever people in the UNLF would pull it up and make it the shining Pearl of Africa.

But our country, and its politics, proved too much even for the UNLF geniuses. It all came crashing down.

By the time the disputed election of December 1980 came around, it was hell again. Some people had fled back into exile.

When the darkness came, people barricaded themselves in their homes again, but they weren’t safe. Daily, soldiers and all types of gunmen went on rampage murdering and robbing Ugandans in their homes.

But, still, not everyone gave up. Though Milton Obote and his UPC had stolen the election, there were many, relying on his rather good record in the early years of his first rule between 1962 and 1970, who believed him when he said he would “just turn the switch on” and Uganda would go back to its glory days.

Obote, a man with a gift of the gab, used to describe Amin’s government as a “reegime ooof murrdeer and teerroor”, hanging on to the words for dramatic effect. But by 1982, it was difficult for many to tell the difference.

And so enter Okot p’Bitek, he of Song of Lawino fame, and undoubtedly one of the greatest African poets.

Bitek had returned from exile after the fall of Amin, and in the bleakness of the time, tried to engineer a literary revival. He got a concession to run Norman Cinema, which later became Kampala Pentecostal Church. Around that time, Bitek brought a Nairobi University performance of Athol Fugard’s play, The Island.

Fans of Fugard should skip the following bit. “The Island” is a South African apartheid-era drama, set in an unnamed prison, but was clearly Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other comrades were held.

It is the story of two cellmates, one whose successful appeal meant that he soon would be released, and the other who must remain in prison for many years to come.

It is a harrowing play in the hands of good actors, with nothing else, but just the lights focused on the two of them. We sat in the audience, almost motionless as we read the meaning of the play into the despair of the day.

The play ended. We stood up and gave the Kenyan cast a long standing ovation.

We sat down, and Bitek, the troubled years amplified by a poet’s sensitivities etched on his face, walked to the stage. He thanked the cast, and then tried to comment on the play. He couldn’t. His voice, cracked with emotion. He walked off the stage without another word.

We filed out of the theatre in knowing silence, uncomfortable in the meaning of what we had just witnessed.

The hope and promise that came with the fall of Amin had remained chained in prison. And freedom belonged to others, not us.
The last few days, many Ugandans had that 1982 Moment.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa.
data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]


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