‘Mashariki 6’ conference asserted necessary literary, cultural power

Makerere University

The Makerere University Main Hall in Kampala. The ‘Mashariki 6’ Conference was held at the institution.

Photo credit: File | AFP

I promised you last week that I would tell you about the ‘Mashariki 6’ Conference that was going on at Makerere University in Uganda as we chatted. I thought, then, that I knew all that I wanted to share with you about the landmark event.

Now, however, after several attempts to delve into the experience and fathom its significance, I feel seriously challenged about where to begin, what to include and how to impress upon you the relevance of the four-day convention of some of the best minds on our continent.

Anyway, let us start with the facts. ‘Mashariki 6’ was the code for the sixth edition of the Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies Conference. It is a biennial indaba where literature and culture scholars, writers, artists, publishers and activists get together and share their latest experiences, experiments and findings in the creative arena.

The concept was initiated over a dozen years ago and developed by a group of then-young Kenyan scholars, who included Dr Grace Musila, Dr Tom Odhiambo and writer and journalist Parselelo Kantai.

The first edition of the Conference was staged at the University of Nairobi (UoN) in 2013, and it was agreed that subsequent conferences would be held after every two years.

Dr Musila was then based at Stellenbosch University and she brought to the event a strong South African dimension that has continued and even grown down to the present.

Anyway, the Conference has rotated around several university campuses in Eastern Africa, including Dar es Salaam, Bahr Dar in Ethiopia and Moi University in Kenya.

Makerere hosted the second edition of the Conference in 2015, and now, in 2023, they pride themselves on being the only university in the region to host it twice.

Well, Makerere is itself history in matters scholarly and academic in the region. As my friend, Dr Shikuku Tsikhungu of Kenyatta University, who attended the Conference last week, has observed, nearly everyone who is anyone in the region’s scholarship can somehow trace their roots to Makerere.

When it comes to literary and cultural matters, who can forget that Makerere was the launchpad for the mercurial Okot p’Bitek and his Song of Lawino cultural regeneration clarion call? Indeed, ‘Mashariki 6’ honoured Okot, with the first keynote lecture of the conference, delivered by my friend and former orature student, Prof Charles N. Okumu, on ‘The life and times of Okot p’Bitek’. There was also a screening and discussion of a Luganda language film of Song of Lawino.

As far as literary conferences go, Makerere got itself into the history books with the hosting of the landmark 1962 Conference of African Writers of English Expression, which introduced to the world many of the greats of 20th-century African Literature, like Achebe, Soyinka, Okigbo and our own Ngugi and Grace Akinyi Ogot.

This was to be followed some 22 years later by the 1974 Association of Commonwealth Language and Literary Studies (ACLALS) Conference, convened by the legendary David Rubadiri, that defied the Idi Amin dictatorship to present to international readership the emerging voices of my contemporaries, like John Ruganda, Leonard Kibera, Nuruddin Farah, and Jane Kironde.

My contemporaries and I were only peripherally involved in last week’s proceedings, a signal of our diminishing energies, but also an uplifting demonstration that those whom we taught and, indeed, some of those whom they taught, are now senior scholars and academic administrators, firmly in charge of the show.

The Mashariki Literary and Cultural Studies Conference (in which the Swahili ‘Mashariki’ replaced ‘Eastern African’, giving us the acronym MLCSC) was originally conceived with four main objectives, which it continues to pursue.

The first objective is to provide a meeting and networking platform for all stakeholders and workers in literary and cultural enterprises in the region, on the continent and, increasingly, across the world. I noticed that participants this year came from not only South and West Africa but also from Europe and the Americas. The second objective of the MLCSC is the stimulation of research production, involving not only the collection and analysis of field data but also sharing it with colleagues in the symposia and sessions of the conference and eventually publishing it in reputable peer reviewed journals.

The hands-on mentoring and guidance of graduate students and emerging scholars and other literary and cultural professionals is another objective of the ‘Mashariki’. This is done through not only workshop and training sessions in methods and techniques but also through young scholars’ guided collaboration with their advisers and supervisors on various projects and presentations. Observing some of these experiments at the conference reminded me of how my departed supervisor, Prof Pio Zirimu, and I initiated the Oracy/Orature project at Makerere back in the 1970s.

Finally, the conference aims at exposing participants, and the public at large to the latest, cutting-edge developments in literature, art and culture. Each edition of the conference has a guiding theme, and ‘Mashariki 6’ set out to highlight what they called “interpretative practices across Eastern African” literatures and cultures.

I am slightly simplifying the wording for myself. My understanding of this is that literature and culture are not fanciful little “decorations” to life but solid “practices”, concrete actions we take for our survival and improvement and for the survival and development of our societies.

A clear theme that emerged, for me, from the many presentations, discussions and activities of ‘Mashariki 6’ is what many of the participants called “activism”. Literary and cultural activism means constantly and consistently taking action to participate in cultural and literary practices and also using literature and culture to make ourselves and our societies more intelligent, more sensitive and more humane.

Makerere University, her College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHUSS), its School of Languages, Literature and Communication and my old Department of Literature, and all who helped them to host the ‘Mashariki 6’ Conference, deserve commendations.

They assured us that, as Prof Josephine Ahikire, the Dean of CHUSS, put it, “The humanities and social sciences are here to stay.”

- Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]