What you need to know:
I could say little about his person, except that, I am in awe of him. The fellow has buckets of courage too. Where Stella Nyanzi is searing, Rukirabashaija is coldly clinical.
We dropped in on the Ghanaian capital Accra a few days ago. Accra has many dreadlocked cool men and women, in kente wear, thick turtle horn-rimmed glasses, alternative bags, speaking big English, who play their jazz and reggae off vinyl, and read all the top 10 selling books by African authors every year.
It’s likely a grander 21st-century version of the crowd that travelled in the triangle of the mid to late 1960s Makerere between University, the National Theatre, and the Heartbeat of Africa, Uganda’s national dance troupe when Kampala was Sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural and intellectual capital.
Naturally, on one of the evenings, for a treat, one of our partners took us to a concert at a jazz club. On stage was two-time Grammy-nominated reggae artist Rocky Dawuni.
I was both delighted and surprised by what awaited us. We live in a time where computers and automated keyboards are pervasive in music, thus we rarely encounter the original thing, complete with a wind section, guitars, drums, fully dressed backup singers, and everything you hear is being produced live by the musicians on stage.
Dawuni, who is 52, also has a work ethic that you don’t run into much these days. He did song, after song, no drama, as if it was going to be his last show. This was old school. And being reggae, you had an audience sprinkled with older folks than you would at Fik Fameica’s (Walukagga Shafik) show. Someone pointed out that a man and woman who were giving their legs a good shake at the front were the American and Colombian ambassadors to Ghana, respectively, adding that “only at a reggae concert will you see that”. Oh, at our table, was Fabrice Rulinda, the mayor of Entebbe. Wonderful son of the soil.
Now some of those dreadlocked, kitenge wearing intellectuals were into the music for the night but wanted to talk books the next day. So we met up.
Turns out they wanted to talk about novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, and his “The Greedy Barbarian” that bent the noses of some Ugandan rulers terribly out of shape. Rukirabashaija, who was imprisoned and tortured for his book, won the 2021 International Writer of Courage award.
Unbowed, Rukirabashaija recently published his second book “banana republic: Where Writing is Treasonous” inspired by his horrific experience at the hands of the state. I have never met Rukirabashaija, and to be honest, I read “The Greedy Barbarian” quickly, and haven’t laid my hands on “Banana republic: Where Writing is Treasonous”.
I could say little about his person, except that, I am in awe of him. The fellow has buckets of courage too. Where Stella Nyanzi is searing, Rukirabashaija is coldly clinical. Where Nyanzi channels contemporary protest form, like Dawuni with his purist reggae, Rukirabashaija harks back to an age-old satirical tradition to tell a present-day story. However, I couldn’t get away with saying only a little about what I thought of his book, especially in a “wider African context”.
The book is mostly the story of Bekunda and her little boy Kayibanda, who cross borders fleeing from peril, in need of a haven. The country they end up in gives them sanctuary, the local folks show them compassion, and they do well. But Kayibanda, who some see as portraying elements of President Yoweri Museveni, does not give the country love back. He torments and pillages it.
“The Greedy Barbarian” has captured attention because it is a relatable African story. But, as I observed, it is also uniquely the perspective of a 34-year-old author, though steeped in an ancient tradition. Bekunda and Kayibanda are recognisable realities of exile and displacement of an age in Africa. For many generations of Africans, including in Uganda, flight, and exile are what define them.
Along with them, the alienation of not being accepted in your sanctuary, and the humiliation of negotiating your way daily and having to be thankful for crumbs. There is gratitude that is due for the embrace and warmth of your hosts, but also the resentment at the moments you were made to feel worthless and second class. It’s an internal conflict that never completely goes away.
If your experience is post-1986 southwestern and lower eastern Uganda, it is one of relative stability, and displacement is something your consciousness has to travel to find. “The Greedy Barbarian,” I said, should be the first volume of a three-book series. I would love to see the version Rukirabashaija writes when he’s 52 like Dawuni.
And yes, it told a lot that I was sitting down with some very clever folks far away in Accra and they wanted to discuss Rukirabashaija and “The Greedy Barbarian”, not Idi Amin, not Joseph Kony, not Museveni, not Mahmood Mamdani, not Okot p’Bitek, and not Bobi Wine, as the new Ugandan essence.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”.