So much hope does not kill | A book review by Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire

Image from Mucunguzi's Facebook Page
Image from Mucunguzi’s Facebook Page


Julius Mucunguzi’s book, Once upon a Time: The Story of Keeping Hope Alive is one of those feel-good books that you read to regain hope about your own life. If there is one thing that shines through this book the most, it is the contagious optimism that drives Mucunguzi, no wonder the book is published by Dennis Muhumuza’s Optimist Media Ltd. You will remember that Muhumuza writes a weekly column titled The Optimist for The Daily Monitor.

This book, the first title of Muhumuza’s publishing imprint is an orgy of optimism. At one point, I am tempted to ask if Mucunguzi is really human for he exudes so many good characteristics and says so many good things that some of us no longer think are possible! I can’t be as positive and optimistic as this man is. Blame it on Thomas Hobbes maybe.

It may be that Mucunguzi does not want to talk about the bad things in a book that is meant to inspire us. You can see this from how he mentions violent situations without going into details to point fingers or even mention the names of the bad people involved. If he mentions a name, it is to shine the bearer in good light. We do not know the name of the artisan who was making his windows and marketing them to other buyers for example. Or the badly-behaved roommate of his, in Mitchel Hall who would make sure they (his roommates) did not listen to good music on his radio-set.

I also think that Mucunguzi is actually a private person. He does not for example tell us the yummy details regarding how he courted Allen Mahoro, his wife, especially when we know that she had once rejected him when they were younger! I must admit that these are juicy bits of a story that expose our human vulnerability and I feel cheated when I do not find them. Mucunguzi talks more about his vulnerability and deprivation as a son of a poor man but not more. But we do know that Mucunguzi loved Begin Bridget while in Primary School and he is generous with the details of what happened to this infatuation. Mucunguzi also gives us important descriptions of life in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. His accurate historical descriptions are important for historians and students of post-colonial Uganda. He simply gives an apolitical, non-biased perspective to these events through his personal story. He takes us through the Constituent Assembly and Parliamentary electoral processes in which he played a role. He was a campaigner for Jack Sabiiti, and a strategist for David Bahati, both Members of Parliament presently. He also was sceptical that Rt Col Dr Kizza Besigye would beat President Museveni at the polls in 2001, despite covering Besigye’s campaigns.

Mucunguzi’ story is by no means an ordinary story. He struggled to find school fees for his secondary education, being helped by two White men: Hector Sutherland who catered for his tuition at Lake Bunyonyi SS, Bwama and Peter Gill who paid his fees at Kigezi High School. The Ugandan Government offered him a scholarship to study Mass Communication at Makerere and the Norwegian Government offered him a scholarship to study an MPhil at University of Oslo. While in Oslo, he discovered that the university does not hold an official graduation ceremony because its purpose is not to hold ceremonies! You may think that Mucunguzi got all the help he did on a silver-platter. But you could not be more wrong. Mucunguzi asked for every help he got. He rode on a bicycle to find Mr Sutherland and asked for sponsorship to go through secondary school. He got Mr Gill to pay his high school fees through correspondence after originally meeting him while he studied at Bwama Island, in the middle of Lake Bunyonyi, Africa’s second deepest lake. The receptionist at the Norwegian embassy Kampala told him that he did not qualify for the scholarship that eventually took him to Oslo but Mucunguzi insisted and applied. And he also got a soft loan from an embassy official to pay for his ticket to Oslo. His mantra is that you lose nothing by asking. If you do not ask, the default answer is no.

Meeting Mucunguzi in a London restaurant, as I did in 2012 when I paid him a visit, one does not see the mother of stories behind his rise to prominence to the near-top of his journalism and Public Relations careers. Mucunguzi is generous with complements, whether it is in his book or in person. When I met him in 2012, I was promoting my own chapbook, Fables out of Nyanja, and trust Mucunguzi to tell me that my humble stories inspired him to write his own, when he was travelling to Uganda to launch his autobiography. He has mastered the art of diplomacy and is very careful not to rub anyone the wrong way. Reading his book, one is sure no one’s feathers are ruffled the wrong way. He has an eye for the good things in people and assures them of this.

Occasionally, you will meet some typos that the editor and proof-reader should have smoked out but they are not too many to distract you from the story.

Mucunguzi has worked with The Monitor, The New Vision, World Vision, Makerere University, The Commonwealth Secretariat and he recently started work as a Communications Advisor at The Office of Prime Minister. If his mission with this book was to inspire, there is no doubt he does it very well although I can’t help but accuse Mucunguzi of being too nice, too generous, too positive, too optimistic about life. But maybe this is the real secret of life. Maybe this is the special ingredient of his genius. Always keeping hope alive.

Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire is a writer and law graduate of Makerere and Central European Universities. He is a British Council Global Change-maker, a Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance Associate, a Youth Advisor to Washington, a Generation Change Uganda Chapter member and a Do School Theater Fellow. His work has appeared in literary and academic publications, including the Uganda Modern Literary Digest, Short Story Day Africa, Saraba magazine, New Black Magazine, AFLA Quarterly among others.

Bwesigye is a co-founder of Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE), the organisation that brings you The Writivism Festival.

A Response: Lawino is a classic if not for its historical or political value, for its art | Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa



In an article in The East African, Tee Ngugi writes about how Lawino crippled our art and ideology. He asks, “So what are we to make of the reputation of Song of Lawino as an African literary and polemical classic?” And responds, “As we have seen, its art is woefully overshadowed by its “utility.’”

Joel Benjami Ntwatwa responds to this:

This is a response to Tee Ngugi’s thoughts in the East African that Song of Lawino has crippled “our art, ideology”. Tee chooses to pit two writers who are African against themselves on the basis of art versus utility. That literature’s art should be enough to cause change on its own without imposing certain things on the writers.

I have read Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino but I have not done the same for Sedah Senghor. So perhaps I will be a bit biased in my response. There are schools of thought that unaware of the non-partisan nature of art attempt to claim art for themselves and refuse to share. I feel there can be genres which have some qualities art meets but a group of people with an agenda should never decide what is in a genre. Writing, I have always believed, is an expression that can be used to emit views of an individual or a group of individuals. However, I think it is not right for any group to speak on behalf of others and declare that a certain type of writing allows you into their circle. I think Makerere’s view was motivated politically not with the view of the art and perhaps in this sense I agree with Tee Ngugi. However it begs the question, what ideology is Tee Ngugi referring to?

Having read Okot P’Bitek, I would not make the claim that the writing while pushing an agenda was emptied of its art. Sure, even while in school, most of the literature books from African authors were pushing a nationalistic ideal or the issues that came with it, the literary sense was alive and strong. I remember having been very angered by the fact that in The Lion and the Jewel, it was Baroka, the uneducated man and not the young poetic Lakunle that won over Sidi, the Jewel. I was already romanticised with the idea that poetry, education, eloquence were what made a man. Indeed in some way the book reminded me that there are several things that make a man. However, I do not think I would have enjoyed that book if it was empty of art and just purely ideal. Still, originally I never saw this as a nationalistic, political agenda. In some books it is quite overt, like Carcass for Hounds. You are infected with a need to evangelise for Africa but it is not artless.

Art is art. The ongoing debate about what constitutes African literature and an African writer is unnecessary. When you ask me what constitutes African literature, I feel that already you have tried to make literature your slave. Should it not be literature that talks about African issues, or European issues or Gypsy issues? Why must art have a race? And why must the artist be forced to fit into that race? Why can’t literature simply be a partner or a worker? And not a slave? If I wrote poetry drenched with the ideals of Western Capitalism, would it make me an American poet? If I wrote with the mind of a Gazan citizen, would it make me a Gazan poet? Would my poetry be accepted as Gazan literature? Art can be used to favour your cause but should not be enslaved to it. Nonetheless, the works that were used to push agendas cannot be derided for pushing agendas if you notice their literary gene. Okot P’Bitek wrote beautifully. So did Meja Mwangi in Carcass for Hounds.

Tee Ngugi is obviously being very subjective as seen when he writes: P’Bitek bemoans the denigration of Acholi culture in dry, literal phrases that are devoid of mood, Senghor’s poetry takes us on a subtle, sensual journey. We listen with Senghor to the oars “dripping with falling stars,” and we experience the guilt-tinged pleasure as he sits anxiously “in the shadows of our secret.” Senghor’s poetry is transcendent, Okot’s is pedestrian.”

Senghor’s communication of political and cultural messages is subtle, the messages dreamlike, for he is concerned with achieving his artistic purpose. P’Bitek only uses the resources of art superficially.

To critique the first comment, I am certain there are those who have enjoyed both Senghor and P’Bitek. And some have enjoyed P’Bitek without necessarily acquiescing to his purpose. And then secondly, to adjudge that P’Bitek uses resources of art superficially I think is really condescending. How can you read P’Bitek and not be impressed by the art? The critics of P’Bitek have valid points but to say that he was artless and dry? Saying Song of Lawino has failed as art and as ideology derides the man and his art. Art cannot be calculated as you would a Science. You cannot measure a certain variable against another and achieve a measure. I cannot imagine an artless P’Bitek writing Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol to merely further a cause. Of course he has the heart! If he can, then he is a scientist, who has learnt variables and equations but has no heart.

Song of Lawino is a classic if not for its historical or political value, for its art; to me especially for its art. The new school need not cut their wrists over the old school. I believe both schools are misguided by trying to put art in a box. Literature is breath. Whether it stinks or is foul, it is breathed, it comes out of life. Life lives. Maybe the boxing of art is for scientific purpose. But if it is boxed with our mindsets of neo-African, or Pan African, I think we are the problem, not the art. The Bible says somewhere “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Kwani? can speak, so can Makerere and both can live at peace.

Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa loves art and its aesthetics. Keen on poetry, prose and drama in that order. He has been a silent observer of the Ugandan literary scene for over two decades and is planning to add his own work to it. His favourite work is Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Currently, his prose and poetry is available on Hope…Never Runs Dry.

Judging the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize | Doreen Baingana

cw-doreen-baingana-photo-creditOne afternoon early last year, I was looking through my email, deleting the usual spam and pseudo spam when I saw an interesting-looking one: I was being invited to be a judge of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2014. To read stories and be paid for it: imagine that! Reading is what I do, even when I should be doing all sorts of other useful things, so this was the perfect assignment. I double-checked to make sure it wasn’t spam.

As the judge from the African region, I was to join four other judges: Marlon James from the Caribbean; Courttia Newland from the Canada/UK region; Jeet Thayil from Asia; and Michelle De Kretser from the Pacific region. The Chairperson of the judging panel was Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. You may read all about them here.  All in all, I knew I was in for some great discussions and debate.

For the first time, there would be no prizes for books. Commonwealth Writers, the organisation within the Commonwealth Foundation that runs the prize, chose to focus on the short story in line with its main goal of finding and nurturing new talent across the commonwealth. I should state right away that I am not writing this blog post on behalf of Commonwealth Writers or any of my co-judges and that any opinion expressed here is entirely my own. I confess I was rather sad to see the book prizes go, as my winning the Commonwealth Prize for First Book, Africa region in 2006 gave me lots of good publicity (and a trip to Australia!). But I won’t argue the value of one sort of prize over another here; I prefer to retrace what I experienced from reading all sorts of stories from across the globe.

I got to read about 130 short stories over the first quarter of this year, dividing them up to about ten stories a week, more or less. No authors’ names were on the manuscripts, all I knew were their nationalities. The geographical expanse covered by the stories was mind boggling (and I’ve finally found an excuse to use that phrase): I read stories from Guyana to Canada to Ghana to South Africa to Kenya to Singapore to India to Fiji to New Zealand and Australia and back to Belize and beyond. What struck me most, though, was how these far-flung (to me) writers were able to wield a single tool—the English language—to fashion individual and diverse stories. They made the language their very own. We all know about the dominance of the English language globally—one could say almost half the world uses it—but there is the fact and then there me being immersed daily in multiple flavours of the language so that it was no longer a set of words that more or less originated from a small damp island somewhere, but instead was this gorgeous evidence of human creativity: the ability to take what is available and manipulate it into varied forms of beautiful expression: wild, sedate and in-between. I was reminded of what Derek Walcott said on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I paraphrase: The English language is a tool of the imagination. I’m sure this can be said of any language: it is malleable and will resist ownership. You can make it suit your needs even within the bounds of its grammatical rules. This is why poetry will not be exhausted as long as humans exist. So it’s high time we moved beyond debates of ownership and tired questions of “Why do you write in English?” Enough already.

As the Americans say, when you are given lemons, make lemonade. I say, add a dash of mango, pineapple or juju. A number of Caribbean writers took it further; they were not afraid to write their stories in Creole. It became the task of the reader to adjust, to make that mental and emotional shift into the world of the story—which is what a story should require you to do anyway—rather than the task of the writer to water down their style. It spoke to me of a certain confidence in their Caribbean identity. In a more practical way, these were dialects that any English reader could understand, as opposed to say Sheng from Kenya, which requires knowledge of Kiswahili, or the first languages of many writers from Africa and Asia. A good number of published Nigerian writers use Pidgin just as skilfully, but, for some reason, this was rare in the stories I read from Nigeria and other West African entrants. What a waste of a rich stylistic resource! For some of those stories whose language was stiff and stilted, the writers could have freed themselves by using dialect or the kind of English that is actually spoken in the stories’ locales. The attempt at some proper ‘book English’ has ruined many a good story. The stories that rose to the top from all the regions did not have this problem, of course.

Here’s another thing I observed from the weak stories: there were certain trends from region to region. The African writers loved melodrama. It was as if a story was not worth telling unless there was a grisly murder, or an abandoned child who later becomes a hero. I don’t know if it’s the influence of Nollywood or telenovelas or both. Could this be a carryover from oral traditions that emphasised action over, say, nuanced character development? Story-telling is a performance, and that is how style is infused into the action. How this can be effectively transferred to the page is our challenge. Even those of us who did not sit by the proverbial fire listening to our grandmothers’ folk tales are influenced by this millennia-old tradition, whether we like it or not.

Murders happen and children are abandoned, of course, and must be written about. The issue is not what, but how. In fact, the overall winning story, Let’s Tell This Story Properly had quite some dramatic action, but it did not come at the expense of the other basic elements of a good story: character development, style, theme. Rather, all these were deployed with finesse to form a wonderfully crafted whole. The winning story from the Canada/UK region, “Killing Time” is a fine example of how the quiet and seemingly ordinary moments of everyday life woven together with expert hands can resonate just as powerfully.

Curiously, a large number of the stories I received from India and Bangladesh had a similar theme: women’s oppression. Are there Femrite-like institutions spread across these two countries, I wondered, or is the problem so severe that writers are compelled to dwell on it? Again, I have no problem with this theme as such; in fact, I am a card-carrying feminist, who believes fiction can be used to bring attention to social issues, thus my involvement with Femrite. In any case I was not the only judge, so my personal biases, which we all have, were countered by the number and diversity of the judges. But my main concern is craft: theme should not suffocate the story or reduce it to a political pamphlet.

At the other end of the spectrum was the overly crafted story; an issue I observed mostly in the weak stories from the UK, New Zealand and Australia. This is not surprising as writers from these regions have greater access to writing classes and MFA programs. The danger here, for a writer who is not confident, is for stories to be workshopped to death as the writer over-edits the story in response to multiple comments. Either the language becomes flat in an attempt to be perfect or it is over-written, bringing attention to the writer herself rather than the story. One treads carefully here because these faults may not be as obvious as the ones I mentioned earlier. Thankfully, our discussions as a group tempered any personal bias.

Fortunately, there were more than enough stories from all the regions that impressed and astonished us as judges. There were stories that just would not leave my mind as I waded through many more. Stories that sung with originality, uniqueness of voice and language that I wanted to memorize like a poem. The challenge was selecting only one winner from each region and one overall winner. The shortlist of twenty is ultimately, for me, this year’s achievement.

Overall, this experience enlivened in me an old cliché: art is universal. In the short space a story is spun, I was able to relate to and empathise with individuals, albeit fictional, in real life and fantastical situations so different from my own. Story erased any alienating distance. In the best stories, I became the characters. We need not worry; the short story is alive and thrives and still carries meaning across the globe.


Read the stories of the regional winners here:

Let’s Tell This Story Properly, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda)

A Day in the Death, Sara Adam Ang (Singapore)

Killing Time, Lucy Caldwell (United Kingdom)

Sending for Chantal, Maggie Harris (Guyana)

The Dog and the Sea, Lucy Treloar (Australia)

Entries for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize open on September 15, 2014. The closing date for entries is November 15, 2014.

So there is this time PBS NewsHour visited my home… | Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva

Branding is the new editorial and blogging is the new story-telling. There are thin lines between vanity and humility amongst writers. As a poet who dabbles as a part-time traitor with a novel half-way done and a number of published short stories, I am here to write, me.

On May 22, PBS NewsHour visited my home and interviewed me for close to four hours about me. I talked, showed off my family, talked, sighed, yawned, read, watched the clock and was not even half-way done after it was all over.


Beverly prepares for her interview with Jason and Victoria from PBS Newshour
Beverly prepares for her interview with Jason and Victoria from PBS Newshour


When I received their email a few months back, my response was the usual one I give to international media that are interested in my work.

“Absolutely! Yes, I will be honoured.” I have a template.

When I asked my friends and family in the U.S who they are, they all told me they are huge. I then contacted my good friend Google for more information on them. It took me days to unravel anything of remote interest in the archives of my brain, publications, friends and non-friends wondering why they would travel to a country brimming with award-winning writers and pick me. It was time to get my Bev on.

I have only been short-listed for Poetry Foundation Ghana and long-listed for Short Story Day Africa, so it’s certainly not my writing. It must be the Poetry Award that I have been coordinating over the past six years with significant success. There have been numerous articles on the BN Poetry Award. Journalists who like or dislike poetry, funders who understand and don’t understand poetry and the sea of poets from the continent and beyond that have shown great interest in the award. I could talk about it forever to PBS. I decided that would be the niche of the interview. I would tell them how the first year in 2009, I moved around for three days on a boda boda to deliver invitations, how the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, now the Speaker, accepted the invitation as Guest of Honour, just a week to the event. I would tell them how this year 2014, after the award extended to Africa, from being an award targeting Ugandan women, there were more than 1,500 submissions. I would tell them how each of the Judges this year, are people I met just a year ago and who have become fast friends and literary mentors. I would tell them how I survived the Westgate terrorist attack in Nairobi in 2013 where I had gone with the winners of the BN Poetry Award.

I would not tell them the awkward stories about my life. How several women, men and organisations who are known publically in Uganda for their leadership and entrepreneurship have hired me for work, after which their disingenuousness causes them to flee without paying. I would not tell them how several of these have issued bounced cheques, refused to respond to emails, used my work without acknowledging and  still they are called Uganda’s leading entrepreneurs and leaders. I would not tell them how many times, we have held BN Poetry Award ceremonies, even without resources but the event had to go on. I would not tell them of the misinterpretations of frenemies who still ask, What have the winners gained from the award? Even though the winners have attended the Storymoja Hay Festival, dined and reminisced with Sitawa Namwilie, Nii Parkes, Kwame Dawes, Teju Cole, Giles Foden, Dinaw Mengestu, Kofi Awoonor (RIP) and many more. They have been mentored by the best writers from the continent, received autographed copies of Half of A Yellow Sun  by Chimamanda Adichie and have had their poetry reviewed by Dr. Susan Kiguli. The winners have received 500 US Dollars, 300 US Dollars and 200 US Dollars for first, second and third positions respectively, they will be published in Prairie Schooner Magazine and several anthologies, have participated in countless spoken word events, have travelled because of their BN Poetry Award win and well, does the word validation even have a price to it? No, I would not tell them about these frenemies.

PBS NewsHour, Victoria and Jason, with energy, purpose, smiles and lots of time and questions, came to my home on May 22, just after 10am. It was fun. They even caught my daughters scribbling on the wall and my husband at his laptop. That is a normal day in our house after all. I chose to wear shells because it was the closest I had to a traditional piece of clothing, which was clean.

Surprisingly, they did ask me about my writing and a few questions about my personal intentions when writing poems, especially At The Graveyard, Unjumping, Bujumbura and I Baptize you with my Child’s Blood. Unjumping, in particular, which is the title of my chapbook collection published in 2010, is a poem I thought nothing of until it manifested itself in peoples’ lives as a form of healing. It suggests creating clean slates in our lives, reversing the unconstructive and walking newer paths.


They were professional, kind and interested. I wanted to tell them that the 2007 Caine Prize winner Arac de Nyeko was in Kampala. It would have reflected badly though, since no journalist from here had interviewed Arac on her current work and no well-intentioned arts manager from Kampala had organised a reading for her.

I am grateful for the opportunity because somewhere in the back of my exhausted and befuddled mind, it means that I am doing something valuable by being me. I am grateful because the people in my life who have been good listeners of my dreams, supporters of my insane ideas, mentors, prayer-warriors and leaders, have a reason to go on allowing me, to be me.