Gunning for Gurnah, Ugandan literary women go for the world

Abdulrazak Gurnah nobel prize

Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2023 Nobel Literature Prize winner.

What you need to know:

  • By logic and rights, I should be at the Kiswahili conference in Arusha, as I am a member of the Society’s Council of Elders.
  • You may also have guessed that Zena, like me, is a member of the Uganda Women Writers Association, FEMRITE.

I wish that, like some holy people, I had the gift of bilocation, the supernatural ability to be in two or more places at the same time. But alas, I am not holy enough for the gift (sistahili).

Otherwise, I would be sharing with you first-hand, eyewitness narratives of the bonanza of literary and cultural events with which we are closing the year. Just now, for example, I am debating with myself whether to officiate at a poetry performance in Kampala, attend the CHAUKIDU (Chama cha Uenezaji wa Kiswahili Duniani) international conference in Arusha or head for Makindu in Makueni County for a unique “Meet and Meat” gathering and palavering of East African literati over a spit of nyama-choma and a bowl of fermented porridge.

All these events, and many others, are happening almost simultaneously over the next few weeks. By logic and rights, I should be at the Kiswahili conference in Arusha, as I am a member of the Society’s Council of Elders. But then, the Makindu hafla (party) by the vibrant newly-formed East African Literary and Cultural Association (EALCA) promises to be a unique experience, with prospects of now rare reunions with vintage comrades, like David Maillu, Bilha Mwenesi and Peter Barasa, but also opportunities to make face-to-face acquaintances with a whole host of new and upcoming creatives.

As for the poetry show in Kampala, centred around a new publication, “I am a Woman, I am Love” by Zena Nakanwagi, I feel not only honoured by the invitation to preside over the proceedings but also excited by the challenge to speak, once again, on good verse about woman, my favourite subject. Zena, a new appearance on the scintillating Ugandan women writers’ scene, writes with a fierce honesty and startling lucidity that mark her out as a powerful feminist voice. “To all the men,” she writes in a haiku-like piece, “that I told I loved, I lied”.

You may also have guessed that Zena, like me, is a member of the Uganda Women Writers Association, FEMRITE. This brings me to another literary event that underlines my pathetic lack of bilocation. While I was studying Africa at Moi University’s Inaugural Conference on African Studies last week, as I told you, my FEMRITE sisters were cherishing (kumuenzi) their Mswahili brother, Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, at Kampala’s Kyambogo University (KYU). They dubbed their event an “International Literature Conference in Honour of the Life and Work of Abdulrazak Gurnah”.

I would have left that “life” bit out of the title, as it makes the illustrious author’s existence sound rather “final”. But, as I have already hinted, I did not attend the Kyambogo-FEMRITE conference in person. I was, however, following it closely through constant communication with my sisters, and I wish to share with you a few reflections about it.

First, rather irreverently and maybe irrelevantly, I was struck by the irony behind the Ugandans’ celebration of Gurnah’s Nobel triumph. As is now well-known, Gurnah, like many other Zanzibaris, was forced into exile, at the tender age of 17, by the traumatic events of the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964. The historical irony that sprang to my mind was that, among the leaders of the Revolution was a “Field Marshall John Okello”, a Ugandan, who was prominent in the armed activities of the “mapinduzi”.

Were our FEMRITE sisters, knowingly or unknowingly, extending a gesture of amends to Gurnah and his people for what Okello and the other revolutionaries did to them? The stated intentions of FEMRITE, however, according to their Executive Director, Hilda Twongyeirwe, was “to honour the first East African to win the Nobel Literature Prize since its institution in 1901”. This actually highlights the brilliantly positive aspect of the irony of Gurnah’s life and work.

Letting bygones be bygones, we East Africans (Waswahili as I call us) have welcomed back our eminent relative and he has magnanimously and gracefully accepted our welcome, as evidenced also by his generous gracing of the Macondo Festival in Kenya in 2022. I, indeed, speculate that the FEMRITE conference was probably inspired by Gurnah’s visit to Nairobi at the invitation of the Macondo organisers, who are mostly women. Why, indeed, should Uganda not borrow a leaf from Kenya?

Kenya actually featured prominently at the FEMRITE-Kyambogo conference. UoN’s Dr Godwin Siundu delivered a brilliant keynote address, and Masinde Muliro’s (MMUST) Prof Egara Kabaji, in his capacity as Africa Region’s Vice-President of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA) spoke on behalf of some of the sponsors of the conference. By the way, I was impressed by the number of eminent organisations that supported the conference. Apart from PAWA, other powerful sponsors included Kyambogo University, Fountain Publishers, Uganda’s premier book publisher, the Swedish Embassy and the Aga Khan Foundation.

That, of course, reflects FEMRITE’s unshakable confidence and persuasive powers that have kept it growing from strength to strength over nearly 30 years now. I was particularly impressed by the vigour with which they are striking out into the East African, African and international scene. The Gurnah conference at Kyambogo, for example, attracted participants from not only all of East Africa but also from South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Qatar and Germany, among others. Gurnah, however, was unable to attend.

Two book launches at the conference also caught my attention. Many speakers there, including Prof Kabaji, advocated writing in our home languages. As if to underline that, Lucy Lunyolo’s Kamalilo ka Lawino, a new translation of Song of Lawino, this time in Lumasaaba, was launched at the conference. Lumasaaba is a “Mulembe Nation” language from Mount Elgon, and readers as far inside Kenya as Webuye might have a go at the reading.

Also launched at the Uganda conference was Mourning Glory, Egara Kabaji’s latest novel, set in the volatile region between North-eastern Uganda and North-western Kenya. I can cautiously predict that this starkly realistic novel will make strong ripples if not waves on East Africa’s literary waters.

But that is a chat for another day.

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