Nearly every Kenyan who went to school after the 1970s has encountered the poem ‘I Beg You’ authored by the Ugandan poet Laban Erapu.
Our writer, James Murua, recently caught up with the academic, poet, writer, and publisher at the Uganda International Writers Conference. Excerpts.
SN: Some authors storm the stage with a bang, becoming an instant hit to readers; others gain fame after the third, even fifth work. How was your beginning like?
LE: In 1969, my final year at Makerere, I participated in a competition, organised by Oxford University Press, in which I wrote a winning novel which was published under the title Restless Feet. The novel was published when I was in the UK as a Commonwealth scholar at the University of Edinburgh. It was widely read over the years because it was a simple children’s story based on folklore.
Over the years, Oxford University Press finally gave the rights back to me and I have since withstood the pressure to release it because I have wanted over the years to find the time to revise it. It was an undergraduate story and I wanted to look back as an adult and see if I could develop it and release it under the title Wanderlust. It is still a work in progress.
SN: So you finished your scholarship in the UK then came back home?
LE: I came back with a Master of Letters degree from Edinburgh and came back to Makerere to teach. Those were turbulent times under (Ugandan President Idi) Amin’s rule and I found it difficult to settle down. Somebody called me to say: “If you value your life, you had better move very fast across the border because there is a contingent of soldiers coming to your house at the university to look for the property of one of the ministers who is in exile.” That minister was my in-law. So I drove my wife and child to the airport at Entebbe, put them on a plane to Nairobi. I followed by road through the Busia border.
So I therefore went into exile without a job. The idea was then to continue from Nairobi to Zambia where my fugitive in-law was based. He was teaching at the University of Zambia. I went there with the understanding that I could easily get a job with that university which proved to be a bit tricky. Eventually I started teaching at the Department of Literature there, without a work permit. Then Kenyatta University College came up with an offer and I packed my bags again and left.
I taught there for two years and it was there that I was head-hunted for a change of career by Henry Chakava of Heinemann Educational Books. Chakava was starting a new phase in the company and he got me to join him as the publishing manager with responsibilities that were very challenging and exciting for an academic. At the time I joined, Heinemann Kenya was publishing about 20 books a year, a modest number. By the end of the next decade, we were producing close to 200 books a year.
What did it take to have a book approved for the famous Heinemann African Writers Series?
With the Heinemann System there was a triangle with London at the apex where the work was eventually published and then there was Nairobi and Lagos. If any new work came in, any novel, play or collection of poetry, London would send a copy to Nairobi and Lagos and have someone in London to also read it. Three reports were generated from the main centres of the African Writers Series and if any two of them said that this was publishable, then the work was published. If two raised queries and only one was satisfied with the work, then it was referred back the author for revisions. The author would go through them and resubmit and then go through the same triangle until finally it was rejected or accepted for publication.
How long were you at Heinemann?
I stayed at Heinemann from 1976 to 1982 when I was given another offer in Uganda to reactivate the Uganda Publishing House. My task was to return books into the school system after Amin’s time. There were children who were leaving primary school and secondary school without seeing a textbook because the teachers would go to the neighbouring village to photocopy a chapter or two and use those for teaching. That was an untenable situation and I felt that it could be corrected if I came to the helm and used the experience that I had with Heinemann Educational Books in Nairobi.
How was that experience?
It was not very exciting because I found myself in a political situation under (President Milton) Obote II, which was quite uncomfortable because the Uganda Publishing House was not an entirely independent entity. It operated under the Milton Obote Foundation and the people who controlled the foundation were not very sympathetic towards publishing. Whatever funds that were generated went to other things. But publishing became extremely difficult even with funds that came from places such as the World Bank. It was very difficult for me to find my way and I was constantly fighting a political battle.
This went on until a programme to support education was started. Still, some of the people often sought to divert funds to the activities for the Uganda People’s Congress, their political party. Those of us who raised objections and tried to use the funds for the work that the schools depended on found it very difficult and in the end I was dragged before the president to answer for my sins. The president let me go but I didn’t stay long as I was warned that there were people who were after me. I was told that since my family was in Nairobi I might have to think about them and go. So I packed my bags and again drove back to Nairobi where I started working with Heinemann again. I would then work in South African universities as I did my PhD thesis.
You have had a colourful life in publishing. Do you still enjoy giving back to the industry?
I love mentoring. I have reached a stage where I feel that if I can help make you achieve your dream, I will help you do so. If your dream is to write a book, I will be there to make it easier for you. Writing a book is not a difficult thing. Once you decide what you are going to write about, you know the subject area, you must have some expertise that you are using. You don’t choose an area in which you don’t know anything.
When you are here, I ask you to give me the structure for your book, let’s do a skeleton, let’s go through the feet, through the legs, let’s got to the trunk, let’s got to the neck, let’s connect it to the head.
It must be logical; the idea must move in such a way that it makes sense. The direction must be clear. Then you sit down with this skeleton and put flesh to it.
That’s the writing.
It’s not easy, 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. When it is done, I come and do a little surgery here and there as your editor and finally I will breathe life into it when it is published and it goes out on its own feet as a book. The book lives its own existence. It doesn’t need the author. Other people may come and help it this way or that way; the critics, the readers, the booksellers and various people. Otherwise a book is like a child. A child is born and never goes back to its parents.
It always grows as far away from the parents as the situation demands.
‘I beg you’
By Laban Erapu
‘I beg you,/If you feel something like love for me, /Not to let me know it now /When I feel nothing so certain for you.
Wait until you’ve conquered my pride /By pretending not to care for me.
I beg you, /If you think your eyes will give you away, /Not to give me that longing look /When you know it will force the moment /Wait until our heartbeats have settled /Then put your head on my shoulder.
I beg you, /Not to let us surrender to passion /Until our liking has grown to love /Let’s stop and look back /Let’s draw apart and sigh, /Let’s stand back to back, /Let’s say goodbye for the day /And walk our different ways /Without pausing to wait For an echo to our last word.
I beg you /If you find yourself interlocked /In my embrace, /To kiss me and keep me silent /Before I start making promises /That time may choose to by-pass – /Wait until our hands are free, /Then listen to me; /Wait until our love is primed
Then give me your hand.’