What you need to know:
- If women and men of letters were celebrated in East Africa, Prof Timothy Wangusa would be the poet laureate. He is the region’s master of verse
Makerere University’s first couple of academic PhD degrees were presented to the graduands by an illiterate Primary 3 drop-out, military Head of State and chancellor of the university, General Idi Amin Dada. One of the recipients, Professor Timothy Wangusa, recalls the historic occasion with chagrin.
Then a young academic in 1975, he angrily almost took up an attractive offer to teach at Kenyatta University, which would have altered the course of his life.
But the turning point was not to be, for Makerere moved to promote him from junior to senior lecturer, so he stayed on.
Prof Wangusa remained at Makerere throughout the dark days of the military regime and the subsequent unstable regimes, until he was conscripted into the country’s Cabinet as minister of Education in 1985 by the short-lived junta of General Tito Okello. Ugandan soldierly presidents seem to have an affinity for the celebrated poet, for even now, Wangusa is a presidential advisor to General Yoweri Museveni.
Advising the President, however, is not a full-time job and the Literature don is still in active teaching 44 years since he was first appointed a junior lecturer at Makerere University in 1969 after completing his Masters degree at Leeds University in the UK.
Having once headed the Literature Department at Makerere and the Faculty of Arts as Dean, he also served as Vice-Chancellor of Kumi University, and later helped set up the Department of Languages and Literature at Uganda Christian University of Mukono, near Kampala, where he still works as a visiting professor.
Prof Wangusa has in fact done far more teaching and less writing. Or rather, less publishing, for he spends a lot of time writing, and then re-writing.
“I am an incorrigible revisionist,” he says in explanation why besides his memorable poems, he has only published one novel so far — Upon This Mountain. Its sequel, Between Mountain and Wilderness, has been ready for five years now but has so far not got a publisher. In the works is his third and final novel to complete the trilogy, Into the Wilderness.
“It was determined long ago that I would write three novels before my travelling days are done,” the old don says matter of factly in his small office at UCU. At 71, he still looks good for another active 20 years in the classroom.
Professor Wangusa admits that he writes very slowly because of the habit of turning back to revise every sentence.
And of his own works, the one he is most proud of took him 30 years to complete – it is a 15-word poem entitled ‘The Trinity Tree.’ Thirty years to write 15 words? It took him that long to compress and reduce the concept of the Holy Trinity — the most difficult Christian doctrine — to a tree, and come up with:
The Father in the Root;
The Son in the Shoot;
The Spirit in the Fruit.
“I keep on revising and rewriting until it sounds right,” explains the poet. “For poetry is sound, speech and song — the three S’s.”
What about Psalm 23 Part Two — ‘The State Is My Shepherd’, his allegory of the Biblical Psalm 23, which almost every student in the region encountered during their O’level days? Even that took him quite a while to arrange, as he worked and reworked every line. And that is the one in which Wangusa startlingly plays one of the poets big roles — prophecy. Poetry is Prophecy, as a line in ‘The State Is My Shepherd’ reveals:
“It preserves for me a bank account, in the presence of devaluation; It fills my pockets with allowances, my salary overflows.”
That was written in 1968, when Uganda was quite stable and its economy performing very well, but Wangusa was talking of devaluation, a virtually unknown phenomenon that was to take place 15 years and five regime changes later.
“And I have lived it,” muses the man who has lived through and borne the brunt of the country’s economic hardships, for he has never left Uganda for the proverbial greener pastures. That line on devaluation was pure prophecy and he says it had nothing to do economic projections — hardly his forte. Over two decades after it was written, President Yoweri Museveni publicly recited ‘The State Is My Shepherd’ during a graduation ceremony he was presiding over at Makerere University.
Wangusa has always keenly observed the State and his hardest times were obviously during the Amin days, though he never fled and obviously never got killed. He could not remain a completely detached observer and recalls that because of his originating from near the Kenyan border, he helped many colleagues flee the country to save their lives.
“I had an aunt living in Bungoma and several times drove fleeing colleagues’ families through military checkpoints to safety in Kenya,” he recalls. Some of the hair-raising escapes he engineered are to feature in his third and final book, Into The Wilderness.
Although his novels draw heavily from the life he has lived, unlike Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wangusa’s writing is not “committed”. Ideological commitment seems to be the main bone he has to pick with Ngugi, the man into whose footsteps Wangusa always stepped. “I joined Makerere just after Ngugi had left, and I entered Leeds to find Ngugi had just left,” he muses. “And in both institutions I found he had left a mark.”
And while he holds Ngugi in high esteem for his versatility of format as a novelist, playwrite and essayist, Wangusa faults the Kenyan writer for his obvious ideological commitment — “which is both a good and bad thing” he adds, declaring that Ngugi is at his best in A Grain of Wheat, which is free of ideological commitment. He believes Ngugi was greatly influenced by a great don at Leeds called Arnold Kettle.
Of Nobel Literature Laureate Wole Soyinka, Wangusa is ambivalent. “I salute Soyinka but I would have given that prize to Achebe,” he says. Soyinka can communicate well when he chooses to be accessible to the common reader, the public of ordinary school leavers as in Telephone Conversations, Trials of Brother Jero and Lion and the Jewel. “But half of the time, he is inaccessible, impervious!” But Wangusa asserts.
He has unreserved praise for Chinua Achebe, whom he describes as the “Supreme Novelist who does extraordinary things with words that belong to everyday speech — the way ordinary people speak. Achebe never sends us to the dictionary.”
Interestingly, while acknowledging Things Fall Apart as a great historical novel, Professor Wangusa deems simpler No Longer At Ease as Achebe’s best work saying “It is contemporary and will always be.”
On another African great, David Rubadiri, Wangusa summarises him in one sentence: “He will only be remembered for one poem — ‘Stanley Meets Mutesa’.” Then charitably, he adds that if Rubadiri is lucky, his ‘An African Thunderstorm’ and ‘An African Vigil’ could also be remembered when the African golden book of poetry is written in future.
And trying not to be immodest, Wangusa says he hopes three of his own poems could make it there. Besides the 15-word ‘The Trinity Tree’, he thinks his other two best poems are ‘Bishop Of Cows’ and ‘XYZ Of Love’.
I am disappointed that he doesn’t rank ‘State Is My Shepherd’ among his top works — but then I am not a connoisseur of poetry.
So before I leave the professor’s office, I decided to grab a quick lesson on poetry and literature for myself, and ask generally what literature is for.
“It is about the beauty or the pity of being human,” he answers before I finish the question. It is a celebration of being human. The subject matter can be social or scientific, hence the literature of scientific wonderment.”
To illustrate, he gives me the example of his poem, ‘Meeting Adjourned to 6,200 AD’. This poem was inspired by the comet Hale – Bopp, which was sighted in July 1995, and was said to pass by the Earth every 4,000 years. Wangusa happened to see its beautiful tail on the horizon one evening as he stood on a hill at Mukono in 1995.
Professor Wangusa has done his part promoting writing in Uganda. Besides teaching for over four decades, he was chairman of Uganda Writers Association and founder of International Pen Uganda Chapter. He regards today’s commercialism as the main obstacle in the way of talented young writers. Even at his own stature, he still finds it difficult to get a publisher for his second novel. “Yet I know this sequel is even better than the first novel,” he says and wonder, “What chances then does a young, unknown entity have with publishers who first do the arithmetic to see if they can make a good profit from publishing your work?”
But he urges the young writers not to lose heart, noting that even Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino was rejected by over 20 publishers before someone decided to give it a chance. He advises upcoming writers to keep opening up audiences through newspapers “which are usually helpful”, and opening up readership clubs on college campuses and in townships, adding that reading occasions should not only be for poetry recitals but for prose as well.
Observers say Timothy Wangusa’s writing has its roots in his strong Gishu/Masaaba cultural origins and Christian upbringing, which are discernible in his poetry collections and novel. The deeply spiritual don agrees, saying that to be irreligious would be to be dishonest with himself.
“My intuitive response to nature outside and inside of me leads me to affirm the presence of an organising, living designer spirit.”