How Goan Peter Nazareth tried to literalise Amin and Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

American Rock and Roll singer and actor, Elvis Presley.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Nazareth showed that the lyrics of pop songs and other events of popular culture could be profitably read and interpreted as creative texts.
  • Nazareth is best-known in East Africa for his critical writings and his novels, especially In a Brown Mantle and The General Is Up.

Peter Nazareth is now an octogenarian. That puts him in the same venerable rika of literary elders as his friend and Makerere contemporary, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Nazareth, the Goan-Ugandan-American literary maestro, is best-known for dragging the rock-n-roll idol, Elvis Presley, into the lecture rooms of American universities. His trail-blazing experiment introduced the teaching of the pop song into (English) literary studies.

Nazareth showed that the lyrics of pop songs and other events of popular culture could be profitably read and interpreted as creative texts. He was probably prophetic of folksinger Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature. We in Makerere knew or assumed that he had borrowed a leaf from our orature efforts.

Nazareth is best-known in East Africa for his critical writings and his novels, especially In a Brown Mantle and The General Is Up.

I remember attending a function, in 1972, at a friend’s house just across the road from the Makerere main campus, where we interacted with Nazareth and listened to readings from In a Brown Mantle. The novel, then just published by the East African Literature Bureau, had attracted a lot of attention for its striking allusions to Pio Gama Pinto. One of Kenya’s Independence struggle heroes, he had been mysteriously murdered at his Westlands Nairobi home in 1965.

Nazareth’s narrative, however, was a broad and subtle exploration of the palpable rise of anti-Asian racism in the early years of East African independence. The topic was handled variously by several other writers of the time, like Bahadur Tejani in Day After Tomorrow, Jagjit Singh in his angry and outspoken poem, “Portrait of the Asian as an East African”, and Laban Erapu in one of his radio plays.

I, too, wrote in one of my narratives of the time that if the rabid racism continued unabated, the affected citizens “would be demonstrating down the streets of Nimela” (a disguised name for one of the East African capitals).

Idi Amin terror

Well, the racism continued, and in Uganda, it did not even allow for any protests or demonstrations. A few days after our 1972 Makerere function, Idi Amin decreed the expulsion of all Asians from Uganda within a period of three months.

Indeed, Idi Amin, and his disenfranchisement and deportation of nearly all of his “brown” (Asian) compatriots, is the subject matter of The General Is Up, Nazareth’s gut-wrenching second novel.

Nazareth based his novel on his first-hand encounters and experiences of the frantic activities leading up to the perilous departure of the expelled Ugandans, most of whom had never been out of the country.

His narrative captures with unforgettable power the traumatic ordeal of life under the Idi Amin terror. I analysed The General Is Up in detail in my Makerere dissertation on terror and violence in the Ugandan novel. I believe I mentioned to you my intention to publish my study under the title “An Idiom of Blood”.

As part of my study, I did an interview with Peter Nazareth. My questions were put to him live and recorded in Iowa, US, by my friend and literary colleague, Okiya Omtatah-Okoiti. Yes, the fiery and famous mtetezi wa umma (people’s advocate) was in the US in 1993, pursuing his literary interests in residence at the world-renowned International Writing Program of the University of Iowa.

Peter Nazareth, a long time professor at the University, was closely associated with the Program, and he was instrumental in getting promising East African writers, like Omtatah-Okoiti, to participate in and benefit from it.

Nazareth is, however, a man of many parts. A chance encounter, online, with a recent interview in which he recalls his experiences in Uganda and elsewhere brought back to me several of my own memories that, somehow, interweave with his. I will share with you only one here, about my Goan Ugandan friends and the identity dilemmas they faced.

Moments of crisis

The Goans’ European heritage facilitated their connection to the British colonisers, while their Catholic Christianity linked them easily to the African converts. I had several Goan close friends among my schoolmates at the elite church-sponsored high school I attended. Among these were the brothers Carasco, Ben and Joseph, who eventually joined me as colleagues at Makerere in the early 1970s.

They had to leave Uganda amid the Idi Amin fiasco, but Joseph came back almost immediately after the first “liberation” in 1979. Already of professorial rank, Joseph Carasco led the first industrial action at Makerere, demanding “liveable” conditions in those difficult times. Unfortunately, Joseph died in a plane crash as he was returning to Uganda from a scholarly conference in West Africa.

That was a Ugandan of the mettle of Pio Gama Pinto, and others, who did not hesitate to wade into the fight for fairness and justice, when the demand arose. You probably know that Kenya’s second Vice-President, Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi, was of Goan descent, though with a Maasai mother. 

Nazareth, too, tried to get a job at Makerere, when he returned from graduate studies in Leeds in the early 1970s. But, as he says in his recent interview, he was hired instead at Uganda’s Ministry of Finance, for reasons he did not understand. Anyone familiar with Ugandan stereotypes would have told him, with a chuckle, that Finance was the place for him “because Goans do not steal”.

It was perhaps such stereotyping that hindered effective integration of Goans into the community to which they were evidently passionately committed. Nazareth suggests as much in The General Is Up, in a memorable scene of confrontation between D’Costa, the leading character, and his best African friend. Under political and other pressures, most East Africans were not able to stand by their compatriots in moments of crisis.

That, indeed, is the gist of the recent book, Twilight of the Exiles, by Cyprian Fernandes. Reviewed in the Nation by one of our colleagues, it is an analytical and well-researched exploration of Goans and their role in the building of modern East Africa.

It would be a very good introduction to the creative work of Peter Nazareth.

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