Parallel festivals and a Ugandan queen of many nationalities

Mama Grace Emily Akinyi Ogot

Today marks the eighth anniversary of the departure to the “promised land” of our literary matriarchal ancestor, Mama Grace Emily Akinyi Ogot Nya’Asembo, the “Gem of Gem”. Medic, broadcaster, political trailblazer and cultural innovator, but, above all, story-teller par excellence.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Stories, and especially our sisters’ intimate stories, are, once again, uppermost in my mind.

This is for several reasons. Still deep within International Women’s month, last Friday we launched Resilience, an anthology of the real-life stories of Nairobi’s female street vendors and hawkers, sponsored by AMKA-Creativity, an advocacy and empowerment NGO, in conjunction with Nairobi’s Goethe Institut.

Then today marks the eighth anniversary of the departure to the “promised land” of our literary matriarchal ancestor, Mama Grace Emily Akinyi Ogot Nya’Asembo, the “Gem of Gem”. Medic, broadcaster, political trailblazer and cultural innovator, but, above all, story-teller par excellence, Hayati Grace Ogot occupies a unique seat among the founding parents of East African literature. All of us should be joining Japuonj Prof Bethwell Ogot and his family in remembrance and celebration of Mama at her shrine in Yala.

Speaking of Mamas, the potentially most explosive East African woman’s story of this year started breaking in Kampala in the middle of this week. Her Royal Highness Sylvia Nagginda, the Queen of the Buganda Kingdom, who is also known as the “Mama” of the Baganda/Waganda, is publishing a tell-all autobiography that is keeping everyone there and much everywhere else on tiptoe even before it hits the public shelves of our bookshops. I will tell you a little more of the whats and whys of this in a moment.

First, however, let us share a brief spiritual moment from momentous worship (ibadat) activities unfolding among us this and next month. Ramadhan, the Muslim month of fasting (saum), one of the pillars of the faith, starts next week on Wednesday. You will remember my telling you of the beginning of the Christian fast (Lent) on Wednesday, February 22. It is still on and will run for at least another week alongside the Muslim fast.

The Christian Lent will culminate with a holy week, ending on Easter or Resurrection Sunday, on April 9 this year. This, with all due respect to Islam and Christianity, compares, for me, with the final week of Ramadhan, which will be the 15th-22nd (or 21st) of April this year, ending with the Eid-ul-Fitr. The “night of power” (laylat al qadr), when Allah is specially generous with the believers, occurs during this week, as I might have told you in the past. I also noted that, as the Christians and Muslims celebrate their significant festivals, the Jewish believers will be observing their Pesach or Passover festivities. The significant dates in Judaism this year are April 5-13, counting from sundown each date.

These parallelisms, however, are not coincidences. They are clear reminders to the adherents of these faiths of their common origin from the Patriarch Abraham. That is why Christianity, Islam and Judaism are called Abrahamic or Ibrahimic faiths.

I narrate and rehearse these facts for two main reasons. The first broad and general one is the need for believers of any faith to be well-informed about their faith and generously open-minded about the faiths of their neighbours. It is indescribably painful to see people discriminating against one another, insulting one another, persecuting one another and even killing one another, in the name of their God, even when the roots of their faith are obviously the same.

The second reason, closely related to the above, is my exuberant enjoyment of and pride in my multiple heritage, cutting across ethnicities, nationalities and faiths. I told you of my great grandfather, Ramadhan Mukasa, the Ugandan Muslim convert and refugee who became a mlowezi (settler) in Bagamoyo and laid the foundation for my Islamic and Swahili claims. I could tell a library of similar stories about the other strands of my Baganda, Christian, liberal Western mix. We modern Africans are ethnic, cultural linguistic, racial and religious “mélanges” (mixes or “michanganyiko maalum”).

Our challenge is how to manage all these strands in us to make sure they work as a blend and not as a riotous confusion condemning us to lifetimes of neurotic existence. Pluralism, both within oneself and among one another, is an exciting but very challenging experience. The first step towards its positive operation is the open-mindedness and generous acceptance we suggested in matters of religion above.

This brings us to the Queen’s autobiography. Whether we are royalists or not, we all seem to have an amount of fascination for the royal, whether glorious or scandalous. I noted, for example, British Prince Harry’s book, Spare, is on the shelves of every bookshop I have recently visited in Nairobi. Lady Sylivia’s story, titled The Nnaabagereka (Supreme Organiser), using her official title, is an obvious attention-grabber.

She already enjoys an enthusiastic, not to say fanatical popularity among her Baganda people, who comprise about a quarter of the Ugandan population and are advantageously located at the centre of Uganda and its Kampala capital. Moreover, the step of a royal consort publicly telling her own story is an absolute first in the over-1000-year history of the Kingdom.

But, even before I, a rather reserved royalist, read this story as the Queen tells it herself, what strikes me is the stunningly complex, multicultural nature of her personality. A recent brief biography of her in our sister paper, The Daily Monitor, recounts how she was born to young Baganda aristocrats in Britain in 1962.

At a few months old, she was flown to Uganda in a baby basket to be brought up by her grandparents, because her parents, both students in London, did not have the means or the time to look after her.

Then, soon after high school in Uganda, it was the USA, where her mother had settled and where the future queen did college, graduate study and professional studies. She seemed settled down to work and live there until she was invited back to Uganda by the Baganda monarch, to whom she had been recommended as “queenly material”.

The story of a Brito-American Ugandan queen should give some insight into the complex multiculturalism of the present-day African.

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