What you need to know:
- This was a lofty class that included the likes of John Ruganda, Timothy Wangusa, Okello Oculi, Rose Mbowa and Micere Mugo.
- All these scholars back in the 1960s rose to become treasured academics.
After my visit to Makerere University, I was pushed by some readers for a sit-down with any of the literary bigwigs of the Makerere University Class of 1964.
This was a lofty class that included the likes of John Ruganda, Timothy Wangusa, Okello Oculi, Rose Mbowa and Micere Mugo. All these scholars back in the 1960s rose to become treasured academics.
We have since lost John Ruganda and Rose Mbowa to the cruel jaws of death. I had to look for Oculi, Wangusa or Mugo. I could easily reach Wangusa. Oculi and Mugo live in the West.
Prof Susan Kiguli of the literature department at Makerere University linked me up with Prof Wangusa for the much anticipated conversation. We met at his home in Mukono Municipality, on the outskirts of Kampala City.
After a Ugandan meal, we sat under a palm tree at his well-spruced, expansive home. Wangusa’s wife, Margaret Nerima, whom he calls “The consonant of my longevity”, joined us.
“You were privileged to have studied in some of the best schools such as Budo, Makerere and Leeds. How did these great institutions shape your writing career?” I asked.
“At Kings College, Budo, I majored in English and this laid a firm foundation for me in the languages,” he said. “Budo taught me to choose well. My spouse, Nerima, is also a product of a top school — Gayaza High School.
“I also studied English at Makerere University in my second and third year as a major. I was plunged into creative writing by Prof David Cook, a household name in East Africa. At the University of Leeds, where I was admitted for my postgraduate studies, Prof Peter Nazareth further encouraged me into the world of art.”
“Speaking of Makerere,” I asked, “tell us about the Class of 1964.”
“My Makerere Class of 1964 produced some of the literary giants of our time. Ngugi wa Thiong’o had just left when I joined the college. John Ruganda and Rose Mbowa later became drama gurus.
Okello Oculi and I got deeply involved in poetry. Prof David Rubadiri was our senior as he taught our group. Prof David Cook inspired us through writing workouts. Once in a while, we would visit his home for writing tutorials.”
“John Ruganda, a former seminarian, loved writing and it was not a surprise to his classmates when he penned his first play, Black Mamba, during our second year of studies.”
Wangusa, who is now 78, holds the rare feat of being the first to be conferred with a doctor of philosophy (PhD) in literature at Makerere University in 1974. He recalls with nostalgia the graduation ceremony that the then president Idi Amin presided over. “We were only two who were awarded PhDs. The other graduand was from sports science.”
I probed him on who is the biggest among his poetry peers.
“What are you tempting me to say? We are all different. David Rubadiri echoes the English masters in his epic poem, “Stanley Meets Mutesa”. On the other hand, Okello Oculi mimics Okot p’Bitek’s “School Songs” in “Orphan”. I’ll give credit to P’Bitek as the grandfather of East African poetry. His works, especially Song of Lawino, enjoys a cult status among readers.
“Upon This Mountain is one of your most notable works. What was the experience writing this novel?” I asked.
“The novel has some resemblance with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Whereas Achebe’s novel is built on the lead character Okonkwo, who is a man of high stature, Upon This Mountain is about a three-year-old who grows to high school.”
I asked him about the place of sequels as this paperback is the first in a trilogy.
“Though it’s designed to be a three-part series, I’m still working on the third book, Beyond the Wilderness. Sequels are not popular. When the first writing of any writer is a success, whatever they write afterwards is merely imitations and shadows.”
“Where have the mushrooms gone?” I asked.
“This poem is about environmental change.” He said. “The speaker asks his clansmen where the mushrooms have gone. The poem is a rendition of Austin Bukenya’s play, A Hole in the Sky.”
Wangusa was made an associate professor of literature in 1981 at Makerere University. “I got my professorial title on the same day with Okot p’Bitek.”
I asked him about Taban Lo Liyong’s painting of East Africa as a literary desert. “There is a lot of writing in East Africa since the old days. Taban was mistaken in the 1960s that East Africa was barren in literary matters. Maybe he thought that oral literature, which has existed for centuries, was not literature.”
I thereafter punctuated our talk with his experience in government.
“It’s ironical that you’re a senior presidential adviser in Yoweri Museveni’s government on literary affairs, yet you’ve maintained a satire attack on government systems,” I said.
“I no longer serve as the president’s adviser,” he said. “I stopped two years ago after two decades. I suppose someone in State House read between the lines one of my poems, “Africa’s New Brood”.” He read part of the poem: “Africa’s New Brood is for you/Kabila, Kaguta and Kagame/It’s for you/Kampala, Kigali and Kinshasa.”
“Do you regret your exit from State House?” I asked.
“I was never in State House. My portfolio was to advice the president on his publications.”
The writer is a contributor to the Saturday Nation and the secretary of the International African Writers Association (IAWA) based in Abuja. [email protected]