Thursday, December 5, 2019


‘The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.' - James Baldwin

Exiled Somali scribe Nurrudin Farah (one of Africa’s best-known living authors) disparages the hijabs/burqas/bui buis that women are required to wear in public in conservative Muslim communities:

‘I think there are only two ways to think about sex…The minute you cover everything in a hijab, in a body tent, you are making people think about the hidden thing…Somalia is no longer relaxed (about sexual discourse).’
Nigerian novelist and journalist Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s first novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms (Parresia, 2015/ Cassava Republic, 2015), addressed the issue of female sexuality – a taboo subject in many places, not least in northern Nigeria which is predominantly Muslim and ‘conservative’ in cultural matters. A snippet from a Deutsche Welle online article:
‘The subject of Ibrahim’s novel is the sexual emancipation of Hajiya Binta Zubairu, a Muslim woman in conservative Nigeria. It is a society in which women are denied the right to sexual desire, especially when they have fulfilled “the obligations of childbirth” and are post-menopause. Binta, who belongs to this category, speaks for millions who have previously remained silent. She has done what society expected of her and lived according to its rules and yet, nonetheless, succeeds in liberating herself from its constraints by having an affair with a local crook 20 years her junior.’
The author, a recipient of the 2016 Nigerian Literature Prize, had this to say about his career:

‘Even before I could write, I was drawing pictures. Then when I learned to write, I took off…In northern Nigeria, there is a tradition of literature. Most recently, there is a literature written in Hausa…I think literature is a way for Nigerians from different regions to understand each other…My intent of writing Season of Crimson Blossoms was to tell a good story. I tackled the issue of sexuality because in the north, we talk about sex in hushed tones, sometimes you don’t know where religion starts and culture begins…We need to talk about things people are not talking about – relationships, sexuality – things that push barriers, and have conversations about things that shape the way we think..The steps that need to be done to bring African literature to international community, it starts with us – the writers. When you have publishers from the continent, they give writers the avenue to tell stories the way they want to be told. But most importantly, we have to write.’
Other modern African works of note that address the issue of female sexuality include Taiye Selasi’s rather highbrow coming-of-age story, The Sex Lives of African Girls, Lola Shoneyin’s novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and Chinelo Okparanta’s novel of same-sex relationships set during the Nigerian civil war, Under the Udala Trees.

Clearly, opinions on the expression and exhibition of sexual matters differ greatly, not just from culture to culture, but even from individual to individual within a given culture. Famed African-American intellectual, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, was one of those opposed to graphic sexual descriptions/public discourse, believing it to be contrary to traditional African culture. A quote from his lecture on ‘History of the Zulus’:
‘African women don’t talk that way. Clinical descriptions of sex belong in a medical book. You don’t just go around talking about clinical descriptions of sex. It’s a highly personal, confidential thing between a man and a woman. Group sex is as bogus as group therapy!…It’s a personal, secret thing to human beings. And it is a matter of manoeuvre and negotiation and conviction and convincing between two human beings. And even if it fails, you don’t go out and publicize. It still remains a confidential matter between two human beings and not the community. You give it that dignity. And Africans gave it that dignity. And they didn’t shout about it.'
And then there’s this:

In 2014, Booker Prize winner Ben Okri (Nigeria) won the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for his novel The Age of Magic. In an article titled ‘Ben Okri Wins Bad Sex in Fiction Award For Scene Featuring Rocket Going Off’, Mark Tran wrote (in The Guardian):
‘An “ecstatic” love scene featuring a rocket going off somewhere in the night has earned Ben Okri, winner of several prestigious literary awards, a more ambiguous trophy – the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award…The Age of Magic, Okri’s 10th novel follows a team of filmmakers, shooting a documentary about the idea of Arcadia, who wind up in a hotel by the lake in the shadow of a looming mountain. The 1991 Booker winner scooped the prize for a love scene involving Lao, the film’s presenter, and Mistletoe, his girlfriend…Unable to attend (the prize-giving ceremony), he (Okri) issued a terse and less than ecstatic statement: “A writer writes what they want to write and that’s all there is to it.”…’

Source: ‘Changing the Literary Map of Africa’ (2019):


We’re in Uganda, a small but agriculturally-blessed country in Eastern Africa. Dambya, a student at John Speke High School, is caught by the headmaster - Mr. Full Stop – speaking in his mother tongue. In a bid to enforce the 'No vernacular speaking' school regulation, Mr. Full Stop goes to great lengths to humiliate Dambya in order to deter other students from speaking their indigenous languages…

What you have read above is a scene from Ugandan poet Kagayi Ngobi’s forthcoming theatrical production, No Speaking Vernacular. A fusion of poetry, dance and song, the show explores the themes of language and identity in African schools today. It pulls back the smiling mask of education to reveal the frowning face of colonialism and its effects on African culture. There is no corner of the continent (apart from Ethiopia) that can’t relate to the issue of cultural domination by historical colonial powers. It is still not uncommon to hear various parts of the continent being referred to as ‘Anglophone Africa’, ‘Francophone Africa’, ‘Lusophone Africa’, and so on. In fact, there are more French and English speakers in Africa today than there are in France and England respectively! And it’s no coincidence. As Kagayi’s play demonstrates, ‘children who speak their mother tongues in schools’ are subjected to ‘physical and psychological violence and humiliation…in a bid to make them “more civilized”.’ But what does this do to indigenous languages and the collective self-esteem of the Africans? Many artistes, thinkers and educators have voiced concern about the privileging of foreign languages over indigenous ones but most learning institutions and the power elite don’t seem overly concerned about the cultural decline.

The publicity poster for “No Speaking Vernacular”

Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan novelist and academic, is probably the continent’s best-known ‘language warrior’ and has fought for vernaculars on many fronts. He has repeatedly said:

‘If you learn to speak the languages of the world and cannot speak the language from your culture, that's enslavement; but if you learn the language of your culture and then learn the languages of the world, then that's empowerment.’

Along the same lines, speaking at the AMKA writing forum in Kenya, Ugandan intellectual Prof. Austin Bukenya urged upcoming scribes to embrace indigenous languages:

If you write in your own language, you are giving it an image. Experiment. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to be ground breakers...Write in your mother tongue – or father tongue...Every language is storehouse of knowledge. With every language that dies, a culture dies.

In the same vein, Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop - a Senegalese historian, linguist and physicist – once said:

European languages must not be considered diamonds displayed under a glass ball, dazzling us with their brilliance.

No Speaking Vernacular is slated for 13th September 2019 at the Ugandan National theatre. Kagayi Ngobi’s previous theatre experience includes the shows Footprints of Memory, which was perfomed at the 2019 Writivism Festival, and For My Negativity, which was staged in June 2019 at the Uganda National Theatre.

Ugandan poets Harriet Anena and Kagayi Ngobi in
“Footprints of Memory” (Photo: Courtesy)

Footprints of Memory was written by poet Harriet Anena and directed by Deborah Asiimwe. A fast-rising literary luminary, Harriet Anena is the author of the poetry collection A Nation in Labour which won her the Wole Soyinka Literature Prize in 2018. The Footprints of Memory show was divided into 4 parts that depicted love at cultural crossroads, the memories of the Lord's Resistance Army war in Northern Uganda, the plight of love of a courageous man, and the state of politics in modern Uganda. The poems were entwined with song and percussion and the overall performance received a standing ovation from the audience.

For My Negativity was a one-hander:  written, performed and directed by Kagayi Ngobi himself! In it, there’s a State Research Bureau Television show whereby the TV host interviews a Lawyer and a Poet.  All roles were played by Kagayi Ngobi.

A scene from “For My Negativity” (Photo: Courtesy)
No Speaking Vernacular is a timely piece of theatre and Kagayi Ngobi is one of the most relevant
poetson African soil.