Wangusa: The day Yoweri Museveni read my poem, except for line on military

A chat with the veteran scholar and poet Timothy Wangusa on his life as a university administrator, an MP, a minister and his upcoming book written in Lumasaaba. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Wangusa, whose novel Upon this Mountain, has attracted critical scrutiny by Prof Carol Sicherman among others, recently completed writing a new collection of poetry that is now with the publishers, and emailed Prof Chris Wanjala and I to tell us that if we were interested in reading poems in Lumasaaba or Lubukusu, he had something for us coming soon.

David Cook and David Rubadiri’s Poems from East Africa was, for some of us, the entry point into the world of East Africa’s written poetry. It had, among many other beautiful poems, "Kilembe Mines" by Timothy Wangusa, the man who recently turned 75, having lived as a novelist, a university bureaucrat, parliamentarian, Cabinet minister, and back to university teaching, all the while writing unforgettable poetry, published in different anthologies, and appealing to readers beyond literature lecture halls.

Among Wangusa’s ever topical poems are "The State is my Keeper", which "Professor Ben Sihanya", a top constitutional lawyer, loves to cite because it parodies the troubled state in East Africa, and "A Taxi Driver on his Death", which compares handily with Wole Soyinka’s "You Must Set Forth at Dawn".

Wangusa, whose novel Upon this Mountain, has attracted critical scrutiny by Prof Carol Sicherman among others, recently completed writing a new collection of poetry that is now with the publishers, and emailed Prof Chris Wanjala and I to tell us that if we were interested in reading poems in Lumasaaba or Lubukusu, he had something for us coming soon. Our conversation went on, by mail and telephone — in Lubukusu for the fun of it — and yielded reflections of a sagacious mzee with lessons to all about patriotism to our countries, service to humanity, and loyalty to a discipline. I share some of the excerpts here:


Saturday Nation: Your love for literature, especially poetry, is widely known in Eastern Africa. You were one of the first East Africans to study poetry for postgraduate certification. What inspired you to delve into poetry, given that it is generally perceived as the most challenging of literary genres?

Timothy Wangusa: You are right. I obtained my MA and PhD in poetry in 1969 and 1975, respectively from Leeds and Makerere. I can humbly claim to be among the East African pioneers to earn post-graduate certification in poetry. There are two reasons for my lifelong addiction to the enjoyment, teaching, and writing of poetry; even granting that I have turned out to be both a poet and novelist. One is that from early childhood I was endowed with a sensibility for recognising language niceties and oddities, and for keenly responding to the beautiful and awkward in nature and the community.

Secondly, from the eighth year of school, the then Junior Secondary II, I carried in my breast pocket a published mini-selection of the poems of the English poet John Keats (1795-1821), which I won in a reading competition and which I memorised and recited to myself through the subsequent four years of high school — till it fell to pieces!


SN: Reading your works, one notices your fascination with the idea and power of the word as the germ of literary imagination. How did you grow your interest in this? Any models that you emulated?

TW: I still hold on to the thesis of my 1982 Inaugural Lecture, delivered at Makerere University upon my appointment as Professor of Literature, entitled ‘A Wordless World’: No language, or no words — equals no civilisation, no inventions, no fire, no wheel, no splitting of the atom, no human progress, no humanising of the sciences and other professions!

With words, original man named his world and became its master; without the inventive word of poet and prophet, any future emasculation of language (or its replacement with silence and technological signals) would spell doom for the human race. Therefore my fascination with the power of the word is to do with my perception that with words the literary artist fictionalises, poeticises and re-invents his known world — or shall we say that he delightfully and instructively distorts, defamiliarises, and fractures that known world by holding a cracked mirror before it?

I would identify my influences as the various critical literary theories from Plato to the present that I have had to study, sieve, and teach. So I have ended up with notions like: Words bite, words sting, words kill, words build, words delight, words transform, words transfigure, words regenerate, words degenerate... and so on.


SN: Well, let’s talk about the words ‘curriculum review.’ As one of the pioneer East African literary minds, from the 1960s when you joined the academy, and still hanging in there as it is, you have certainly participated in debates about curriculum reviews and in the claims and counter claims regarding the revolutionary tone and content, or lack off it, of such reviews. While some critics have called some of these revolutionary, others claim that there has been nothing really revolutionary in the literature curriculum reviews. What do you think?

TW: The Literature content of my BA programme at Makerere (1964-67) was entirely Anglo-centric, the subject of study then being known as English and taught in the Department of English. From the beginning of the 1970s, the majority of university departments of English in East Africa and elsewhere in Africa rightly embarked on dramatically or gradually changing their names as well as curricula: to Departments of Literature operating curricula with generic or Afro-centric core courses and non-core courses in international literature.

During my tenure at Makerere University (1969-2001) and Uganda Christian University (2003-2017), the changes have not been merely in terms of course titles but indeed with respect to critical, generic, and regional perspectives. One most welcome development has been the central importance now accorded to the study of oral literature, previously a non-subject!


SN: In your career, you have served as a senior administrator at university level, an MP, and equally senior Cabinet minister in Uganda governments. How has your cumulative experience in all these shaped your perception of literature and its scholarship in our current society?

TW: Let me share with you a couple of instances when my literariness rubbed shoulders with Uganda’s Head of State. The first was in 1986, when the brand new President Museveni came to Makerere University to officiate for the very first time as Chancellor at a graduation ceremony. As part of his maiden speech, he quoted in full (except for one line) a “parody” poem by a certain Timothy Wangusa entitled The State is my Shepherd: Psalm 23 Part II (from a Ugandan poetry anthology by the title, Creative Moments). Clearly, he had understood the poem as concerning the exaggerated material benefits Ugandans expect from the Dtate. Most interestingly, the one line that His Excellency skipped was, “Its (the State’s) guns and pangas comfort me.” 

The second instance was in late 1989 in parliamentary chambers where President Museveni was chairing a sitting of the National Resistance Movement (NRC) meeting as a committee of the whole House, convened to brainstorm on the way forward for the country and the non-party National Resistance Movement (NRM). My humble contribution, alongside a few other points, was that the military was at the time a formidable pillar of the State, among a total of 10 pillars enumerated by NRM; and I contrasted the role of the army with what Professor Ali Mazrui had in 1964 falsely taught us first-year students of Political Science (which gave rise to my poem, The Walking-stick), that the army was just a walking-stick of the gentleman we call the Government. To disprove Mazrui’s notion, the presumed walking-stick had on January 25, 1971 in Uganda taken over the functions of Mr Government, and Mr Government had become the walking-stick! President Museveni was so well-disposed to what I was saying that when I checked my watch, I saw he had allowed me to speak beyond the allocated five minutes (as to every speaker from the floor) to 30 minutes.  

Need I illustrate any more the possible impact of literature on the body politic and the public, and the necessity for sustained literary creativity and literary scholarship?


SN: One of the challenges of growing a regional tradition of literary scholarship include the limited and erratic dialogues between literary and cultural scholars spread in different universities in the larger eastern Africa. What do you think should be done to remedy this situation?

TW: That is a hard one! The limited and erratic dialogues are surely a product of several contextual constraints. One of them is most likely inadequate financial resources, or perhaps unbalanced and poor allocation of research and conference funds to literary and cultural sectors by parent universities. The pressure must be kept on by concerned scholars for recognition of these sectors as integral components of university curricula and national development priorities that should merge the technological with the humanistic. And one other solution could be the crafting of selling scholarly project proposals by concerned scholars that can attract financial sponsorship from international agencies and promoters.


SN: In view of the generational shifts that have happened and are happening in university faculties in the region, what do you think is the future of literary scholarship in eastern Africa?

TW: I suppose that every generation of literary scholars in our region, as elsewhere, has to hold on to what it has sifted from, received or ready-made theories, amalgamate this with contemporary literary view-points or stand-points, and if possible create a new analytical synthesis. To the end of the 20th Century, we were in the era of post-colonial literary theory. But in Africa, we are presently beyond post-colonial times and matters. So it is high time we forged beyond Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s de-colonial concept to something like ‘Post-de-colonial Literary Theory.’


SN: We understand that one of your poetry collections, written in Lugisu, is nearly off the press. What should your readers expect?

TW: Yes, Bilomelele bye Lukingi Masaaba (Poems of Mount Elgon) is being published in Nairobi by Nsemia. It is my first book-length imaginative work in LuGisu/LuMasaaba. But it also includes the English version of the poems on facing pages translated by me.

The subject matter and thematic concerns of the poems may be broadly sensed from the section headings of the four groupings of the collection: ‘Poems of Origin’ (historical); ‘Poems of the Seasons’ (occupational); ‘Poems of the Knife’ (cultural); and ‘Poems of Posterity’ (environmental).

My reviewer has observed as follows: “As a category, the work is characterised by being phenomenally rooted in indigenous culture. And besides being strongly lyrical, it is dynamic, dramatic poetry....

The main motif of the poetry is the male circumcision rite of passage practised among BaMasaaba of Mount Elgon. Equally central to the poetry is the mountain itself, which shapes and determines the rhythm of daily life.”


Godwin Siundu teaches literature at the University of Nairobi