Monday, May 14, 2018


Lessons From a Veteran Scholar
By Alexander Nderitu

Alexander Nderitu (left) with Prof Austin Bukenya
I wasn’t going to talk to Prof. Austin Bukenya. He had just delivered a riveting talk to aspiring writers at the AMKA literary forum which holds monthly meetings at the Goethe Institut Library in uptown Nairobi. With so many young people, mostly women, clamouring to talk to and be photographed with the distinguished Ugandan-born scholar, I lost hope of a one-on-one conversation with him and resigned myself to catching up with ‘the usual suspects’ – people I knew purely by virtue of attending various literary events around the country. As I was tying up a conversation with Ugandan lawyer/writer Alexander Twinokwesiga, however, I noticed Prof. Bukenya walking slowly from one glass-walled room to another and in the process, a white envelope dropped from his brown jacket to the floor. I dutifully picked it up and caught up with the professor, calling out his name. As he thanked me, I took advantage of the encounter to introduce myself.

I had been very impressed by his earlier assertion that, ‘The future of reading is on the Internet’, and I told him so. Conventional wisdom is that senior citizens are techno-phobes, but Prof. Bukenya is not a man to be easily pigeonholed. He has remained dynamic, travelling widely and mastering several languages including Kiswahili.  I told him that I authored Kenya’s first digital novel in 2001 and was a believer in digital literature. As we exchanged contacts, more disciples invaded our space and our dialogue deteriorated into a photo session with the ‘retiring scholar’ as the centre-piece. 

L-R: Alexander Nderitu, Alexander Twinokwesiga, Prof. Bukenya and Eddah Mbaya
Prof. Austin Bukenya, best known to Kenyans for his Saturday Nation column and the poem I Met a Thief, was born in Masaka, Southern Uganda, in 1944. He attended high schools around Kampala and Entebbe before joining the University of East Africa (Tanzania) in 1968.  He later advanced his education via higher degrees at the hallowed Makerere University (Uganda) as well as Kenyatta University (Kenya). The wearer of many hats – academic, novelist, actor, dramatist, poet, literary critic, inter alia – Prof. Bukenya has taught languages, literature and drama at Makerere and universities in the UK, Tanzania and Kenya. In addition to that, he has also had residences at universities in Rwanda and Germany. A significant potion of his life has been spent in Kenya (which rubs shoulders with his native Uganda) and, amongst other things, has been Director of the Creative and Performing Arts Centre at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. 

Now a distinguished scholar with a strong record of supporting women’s writing (especially with Uganda’s FEMRITE), it was a no-brainer for him to be invited to the AMKA literary forum which chiefly promotes writing skills amongst womenfolk. And he seemed happy to be there, although for some reason he was ‘rocking’ a deep-purple shirt with a brown jacket and tie. I am not Tom Ford or Louis Vuitton’s Virgil Abloh, but I’m pretty sure those colours don’t run together! As usual with AMKA, the audience was primarily composed of young aspiring writers, of both sexes. Also in attendance was AMKA Executive Director Lydia Gaitirira – a champion of women’s writing – who formerly at Kenyatta University. The moderator was Prof. Tom Odhiambo from Nairobi University (UoN).  At some point in his talk, Prof declared, ‘The writer is dead, long live the reader!’ This could have been a reference to ‘The New Criticism’, a popular form of critiquing developed in the US the 1940’s that analyzes a text based purely on its own merits (as opposed to speculating about the author’s background, influences, mental state, age, gender etc). Shakespeare once wrote that, (in drama) ‘the play is the thing’. Under ‘The New Criticism’, the writer may as well be non-existent: the text is the thing.

Prof. Tom Odhiambo talks about AMKA

Much of the discussion, however, revolved around the Swahili language, East Africa’s de facto lingua franca and one of the official ‘working languages’ of the African Union (AU). Some snippets:

‘You write in the language in which inspiration comes to you. And you write in the language that you think your audience will understand...You can write in all languages. I write in English and Kiswahili.’

‘We are self-conscious in Kiswahili in Kenya but I think we need not be...Tusiogope (Let’s not be afraid)...Writing is something in which you can reach perfection…Kitovu cha Kiswahili kiko hapa Kenya, na naona tukienzi...Nawahimiza (wandishi ibuka) mwandike kwa Kiswahili (The centre of Kiswahili is here in Kenya, and we should cherish that..I urge you upcoming scribes to write in Kiswahili).’

‘The best thing that happened in the 8-4-4 (Kenyan) educational system was making Kiswahili a mandatory subject.’

‘What keeps many people off Kiswahili (literature) is the showy language. We should aim for communication, not impressing (others)...We want a show, not a showoff.’

Circa 2003, he said, the Ugandan constitution recognized Swahili as the 2nd official language after English. However, there is a push to make Luganda and official language as well. (Luganda is widely spoken in the capital, Kampala, and its environs):

‘Kiswahili has been the official language of the (Ugandan) military ever since the British Protectorate was set up. The police and army used it...None of the Ugandan languages (eg. Luganda) can compete with Kiswahili as a national language because of local factors (eg. resistance by other language speakers to play second fiddle to another local tongue).’

Poetry was also discussed at length. (Kenya has a high density of poets and numerous poetry-based events are held across the country.)

‘Verse strikes us because of the symmetry...That shape has got to be heard as well as seen...It’s not just what we see but also what we hear...And if you don’t have that (component), you don’t have effect.’

‘Verse requires compactness, economy of words...Poetry has to be palpable.’

‘Tukisema hili ni shairi huru, hatusemi halina umbo, halina ubunifu, na kadhalika...Halijakosa muundo.’ (‘Free verse does not mean “formless verse”. Free Verse is poetry that finds its own form.’)

‘You can’t say that people like Said Ahmed Mohammed and Alamin Mazrui when they write mashairi huru (free verse) – which they have done – that they don’t know what they’re doing.’

And there were tips on writing and literature in general, something the Makererean has often done with his newspaper articles. More words of advice:

‘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.’

‘The learning of a language, if you are a writer, never ceases.’

‘Every language is storehouse of knowledge. With every language that dies, a culture dies.’

Prof. Bukenya and his teacher, Pio Zirimu, fused the words ‘oral literature’ into the more elegant ‘orature’, a term that is now widely accepted in local literary circles. He expounded on this subject:

‘ “Orature” is a term we coined in the 1970’s to describe and legitimize “oral literature.” “Oracy” is a skill, a counterpart of literacy. People have to be taught to speak. People who can’t talk to each other have problems…We should combine oracy and literacy. They are pillars of the same thing.’

With reference to such words as ‘oracy’ and ‘orature’, PEN-Kenya President, Khainga O’Okwemba, asked about the professor’s knack for coining new words. ‘What informs your decision to create a new word?’ Khainga, a poet and journalist, wanted to know. Bukenya said that – while orthography must be adhered to - the key ingredient was a need for the word. For example, he said, a good salutation for a military dictator (the kind of strongman who comes to power via a coup de etat) would be, ‘Your Gunjesty!’

But, seriously speaking, should terms like ‘oracy’ and ‘orature’ be added to the English dictionary? My take is that if pop singer Beyoncé Knowles could add the adjective ‘bootylicious’ to the Oxford dictionary and American novelist Joseph Heller could give us ‘Catch-22’, then there’s no reason why East African intellectuals cannot also contribute words to the English language!

Photoshoot session, in the Goethe Institut Library, after the talk
After the professor’s talk, a young audience member and ‘performing poet’ called Larry Liza asked to perform I Met a Thief from memory and his request was granted. The professor watched, bemused. When the performance was over and the poet had bowed and shaken the lecturer’s hand, the latter smilingly said, ‘I can’t remember all the words (to the poem) but I don’t think you left anything out. You see – the writer is dead, long live the reader!’

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