Dr Susan Nalugwa Kiguli, an Associate Professor in Literature at Makerere University, has won a Lifetime Achievement Poetry award at the Civil Poetry Festival in Venice, Italy.
Kiguli received her award during a seminar at the Festival, where she was also guest poet of honour, on October 25, 2023.
The organisers underlined the point that Kiguli was the first African to win the prestigious award.
The news caught my attention for several reasons. The first is that the Laureate poet is a dear and close friend of mine. Although this youthful professor is nearly 25 years younger than I, I call her “Jajja” (cũcũ, nyanya, grandma), and she gladly addresses me as “muzzukulu/mjukuu”(grandson).
She is from my paternal grandmother’s “sheep” lineage, you see, and so she belongs to the ranks of my grandmothers in the complex Kiganda kinship hierarchy. So, I hope, you understand and excuse my inordinate celebration.
There are, however, several other, and more serious, points of literary significance to Susan Kiguli’s recent recognition.
Among these, I would like us to consider her status in our East African “Great Tradition”, and the skill and literary quality of her poetic work and its lessons for the rising generations of our versifiers. Then there is her striking social relevance, especially to her politically turbulent times and the relentless struggle for the African woman’s emancipation and empowerment.
We should also consider the significance of international recognition for our creativity, especially in the face of local neglect or even belittling on our home ground.
“Great Tradition” is a phrase we in East African literary studies attribute to our doyen, the late Prof Chris Wanjala, whose fifth death anniversary we observed last month. Wanjala borrowed the phrase from a book title by the famous English literary critic and teacher, Dr F. R. Leavis, who was briefly my teacher at the University of York in 1966. Leavis’ book, The Great Tradition, sets very high and strict criteria for accepting any piece of writing as “Literature”.
Wanjala used the “great tradition” epithet in mild criticism of what he rightly saw as the narrow, elitist and exclusively British text approach to literature that characterised the English Department at Makerere and its counterparts at other East African campuses.
But what I see in the rise of literary figures like Susan Kiguli is that there is already a strong East African Great Tradition which these new artists have inherited and are carrying forward with power and skill.
You will have noted that I am speaking of an East African tradition, and this is not wishful thinking. Literary writing in English may have started at Makerere, but its growth and development is a truly regional affair. Those of us who have been privileged to see it from this perspective can testify to this with basketfuls of incontrovertible evidence.
In the prose genre, for example, Grace Ogot, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Rebecca Njau and many of us small ones are as much Kenyan as we are Ugandan and, in many cases, Tanzanian by origin, education, residence and the topics we tackle.
The latter-day authors, like Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor or Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, can thus rightly claim to be successors to the tradition of the “dream weaver” and to be carrying it forward.
The clearest line of the great continuity of the tradition, however, is seen in the verse genre. From the pioneers, like Henry Barlow and David Rubadiri, the baton passes on to the mercurial Okot p’Bitek, then on to Kariara, Angira, Marjorie Macgoye, Micere Mugo and Timothy Wangusa, and now to Kiguli and her contemporaries. That all these poets have been or are also great teachers and have, indeed, taught those who are now practising the craft after them, should not be lost on the reader.
Kiguli, an international scholar with degrees from Makerere, Strathclyde and Leeds Universities, is a rich illustration of the characteristics of this creative tradition.
Like her predecessors and teachers, she is meticulous with language, economical but startlingly precise with metaphors and other linguistic devices, and strongly engaged with and concerned with the main problems of her society and times.
Born and raised in the almost constantly turbulent Uganda of the 1970s and 80s and coming to adulthood during the bitter civil war, waged mostly in her home area of the Luwero Triangle, Kiguli predictably makes these traumatic experiences the core of her subject matter.
“I hold a thousand tears in the cup of my skinny hand,” she writes. “I carry ten thousand wails in the deep hollows of my ears… I house ten million graves in the curls of my thinning hair.”
Yet sorrow and mourning are not the hallmarks of Kiguli’s verse. Rather, it is resilience and an irrepressible fighting spirit. Indeed, her best-known verse collection, The African Saga, which made history by being probably the first poetry book to go through two reprints within weeks of its publication in 1988, opens with a piece called “The resilient tree”.
There Kiguli writes, “A woman, a black woman, is a tree that will stand rain in all its shades, will receive showers, storms and hurricanes and still hold out by its roots.”
Indeed, assertion of the woman’s freedom, power and strength is a major theme in Susan Kiguli’s verse. This is not surprising, since Kiguli was one of the young women who joined Mary Karooro Okurut in the mid-1990s to found FEMRITE (Uganda Women Writers Association), which promotes women’s empowerment through literary activism.
Kiguli’s most assertive feminist poem is entitled, with obvious irony, “I am tired of talking in metaphors”. It ends with lines like, “all I want is (for you) to stop denying me. My presence needs no metaphors. I am here.”
I feel such lines are addressed to all of us who may be tempted to ignore the African woman, or assume that poetry and literature do not matter.
Should we always leave it to outsiders to recognise and honour the best among us?
- Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]