Fatherhood and Identity: A Dialogue with Nick Makoha
Nick Makoha is a Ugandan who fled the country because of the civil war during the Idi Amin dictatorship. He has lived in Kenya, Saudi Arabia and currently resides in London.
He represented Uganda at Poetry Parnassus as part of the Cultural Olympiad held in London. A former Writer in Residence for Newham Libraries, his 1-man-Show My Father & Other Superheroes debuted to sold-out performances at 2013 London Literature Festival and is currently on tour. He has been a panelist at both the inaugural Being a Man Festival (Fatherhood: Past, Present & Future) and Women of the World Festival, (Bringing Up Boys).
In 2005 award-winning publisher Flippedeye launched its pamphlet series with his debut The Lost Collection of an Invisible Man. A selection of poems from The Kingdom Of Gravity appeared in the pamphlet The Second Republic as part of the anthology Seven New Generation African Poets (Slapering Hol Press). Nick was joint winner of the 2015 Brunel African Poetry prize and has poems that appear in the The Poetry Review, Rialto, The Triquarterly Review and the Boston Review. His poem “Beatitude” is the newest addition to Being Human the third book in the Staying Alive poetry trilogy.
Makoha was one of ten writers on a programme called The Complete Works, a national two-year development programme for 10 advanced Black and Asian poets. During the programme, he was mentored by eminent poet George Szirtes. The Complete Works culminated in September of 2010 with an anthology Ten: New poets from Spread the Word (Bloodaxe Press), edited by Bernardine Evaristo and Daljit Nagra.
Nick Makoha’s debut collection is named for the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize-winning poem “Kingdom of Gravity”.
This conversation took place in the warm, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the cosmopolitan, busy city of London by Skype.
Gaamangwe: Nick, you have been exploring fatherhood in your works, and you once shared that when you had your daughter you started asking yourself “what does it mean to be a father”. I am curious to know if you have figured out the answer to this.
Nick: One of the things I have said before is being a father to me is like the floor. You never notice the floor but without it we cannot stand. I realized in my life, my father even when he wasn’t in my life, he was still an important factor. I have been in my children their whole lives, and they might not notice the impact of their father, but I’m very aware when children have an absence of their father, what it causes so it’s important for me to be in their presence, in their conversations, in their understanding, in their guidance but I think you can only have a theory about it while on the outside, but it’s one of those things you can only learn from doing. Everyone has their opinion of what a father or a mother should be. I will say for me, being a father is the floor.
Gaamangwe: When do you feel you are being a good father?
Nick: I think a good father is always checking on what they can do better. You become aware of your mistakes. I work very hard and sometimes I miss taking my son for a bike ride. I remember the first time I learnt to ride a bike, my mother and aunt taught me, but you know that feeling of being and spending time with your parents, that personal time that is only theirs and yours is important. I feel that I am at my best when I spend time with my children.
It can be a big thing or a little thing. It can be something as simple as reading a book, picking my son from school, taking him on a bike ride and having a meal together. I tell my children, and they must get fed up with this, but I tell them that I appreciate them, spending time with them because I know in time they will remember spending time with me. And sometimes we don’t always communicate to our children how important they are to us, even in the little things that they do. Sometimes they only think “oh my dad just wants me to get good grades”, or “my dad just want me to always be clean”, they don’t get that actually dad appreciates you being in your room and sleeping well.
I don’t know if you can always gauge if you are being a good father but I guess you can also gauge from what other people are saying to you. My friends told me the other day, “Man, you seem to have your kids on lock” or I went to the barbershop the other day and my kids popped in and the barber said “Man, you have some good kids”, so I guess you hear it in the mouth of others. But inside myself I am always noticing the areas that I can improve.
Gaamangwe: I resonate with what you are saying, especially on being present for one’s children. Because I think a father, present or not present, influences our sense of identity.
Nick: Yes, our father and mothers are like the sun and the moon, they are always present in our lives, whether they are there physically or not. What I am aware of, with my kids, is they pick up everything. A perfect example; one time I was brushing my teeth with my son and he started to hold the toothbrush the way I held my toothbrush. He wanted to lean the way I was leaning. So they are looking at the world and they are looking at you and they are thinking “how do I relate to this world?” and you are the thing that they trust. Sometimes your child can irritate you or you can get cross with them but you have to temper that crossness with love. You have to understand they are trying to figure out the world and there is going to be a time where they are going to be in the world and you won’t be, and you want to give them enough confidence and enough love to live in that world without fear. I guess that’s how I look at things.
Before my children came, it was just me, and then it was just me and my wife, and now it’s me, my wife and my kids, and so I am aware that who I am is constantly expanding. And I belong to these people, whether I like it or not. When I first came into this world I used to be my own person, and now I belong to my wife, I belong to my daughter, and I belong to my son. And I hope that their memory of me is one they can come to with pride or with pleasure. I don’t know if I am always doing that but I am hoping that what they get is “my dad had my back”, “my dad understood me”, and “I now understand why my dad did these things”.
Gaamangwe: Your reflection reminds me of your play “My father and other superheroes.” What kind of revelations are you learning about yourself, your experiences with your father and fatherhood in general?
Nick: I didn’t actually go out to write a play about my father. As a poet, I never thought that I will step into play-writing. When I started my website, one of the things I wanted to do was do to a timeline and I started to think about all the important events in my life. And then I remember my friend Breis said to me “Nick man, why do you work so hard?” and I responded “You have to live like you have a new born child. Because if you have a newborn child you wouldn’t like to slow down, you will put in everything.”
And then I remember around the time that my daughter was born I remember it was around the same time I was attending workshops. At Stratford Theatre we were just playing around and writing stuff for months at a time. I had a daughter then. At her birth I remember thinking I actually don’t know what it means to be a father and that the way that I think of fatherhood doesn’t necessarily come from me watching and learning from my father. I realized for me it comes from watching TV and superheroes and comics and radio. At Stratford Theatre they just come up with an idea. And so the title pops into my head at the workshop that I did with an artist called Stacey Makeshi, she said come up with a title of whatever you want to do. And I wrote, My Father & Other Superheroes. What if I can talk to my old self what will I ask? What have I learnt from Muhammad Ali? What have I learnt from Superman? What have I learnt from the Hulk? What have I learnt from Bill Cosby? All this superheroes I have seen as a child. And from those lessons what could I teach? This man who is holding this baby what does he need to know to be a father. So that was kind of how the story started.
I have learnt a few thing; one is, as an adult I didn’t realized how angry I still was with my father for not being around in my life. So one of the things the play demanded, for it to be authentic, was that I forgive my father. Because I didn’t want to be the father that wants his daughter to love him, when he was not willing to love his father. That will make me a hypocrite. So one of the things I had to do was to genuinely forgive my father. I tried once, the first time I failed. And the second time, when we were taking it round for the second part of development I rang him up. The first time I was just telling him how wrong he was. But the second time I humbled myself and I don’t know why but I asked for his forgiveness. His response was “there is nothing to forgive. You are always my son and I will always love you.” And those are the kind of words that I echo to my daughter.
The second thing that I learnt was that after I had been through my cathartic process in the development, the play was no longer mine, it was actually for the audience. So every time I play I literally have to set aside as much as an hour of my time after the play just to talk to people, who want to talk about their dad, about my story and their stories of fatherhood, and what I have realized is that in general day to day living; we don’t really get opportunities to talk about our dads and their impacts, either positively or negatively towards us. So generally I set out time, one for the show, and one for the people afterwards to talk about their relationship with their fathers.
Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. I recently had a shift; my father and my mother are human beings. It’s something that still needs to grow deep in my being, because if they are human, then they make mistakes and sometimes they just don’t know. But to arrive at forgiveness, that’s a different dimension altogether. What needed to shift for you to get to the point where you were able to say I have forgiven my father?
Nick: There are several layers. The first thing is that a child relates to their mother and father almost like a superhero. In the sense that we don’t see their humanity. So my daughter and son they expect me to sort out their problems. They don’t see that I have my own problems. So one of the things that I had to learn was to accept my father, not just as a superhero but also just as a man. And as a man he has his mistakes. He has his strengths and weaknesses, and when I can see my father as a man, I could love him. Other than idolize him.
I have the benefit of being a father and understanding that it’s not as easy. To be a father is —it’s a joy, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not easy inside the climate and the spaces we exists in to constantly be present. Also there are things that are always calling you towards, whatever it could be, either separation or regret, and that’s hard. So it’s important to understand the forces of life. So with my father I now see that it’s not easy. If your father is out of your life, and they are separated, it becomes difficult because your mother and father are arguing, that doesn’t create a space for your own relationship with your father. So as a child, in my mind all I see is that my father wasn’t there. You don’t see your mother and father arguing all the time. You weren’t allowed access or maybe your father was married to someone else or they just have pressing commitment, as we all do.
When I was single my time was all my own but now that I have kids, its different. You don’t realize how much just having a child occupies your time. So if you have a father who has another family, and here I can see how raising one child by yourself is hard, now I understand how raising another child in another country can be hard. So having different interpretations that leads to the conclusion that “my father doesn’t love me” could be wrong. It could be as simple as my father doesn’t have access to me.
Also, I learnt that it’s almost like being a father or having any good relationship is like glass. If broken, it’s hard to mend. So you kind of have to really work hard to maintain the structure of fatherhood. I have to be cautious of the words I use, I have to be willing to say sorry, especially to my children. To always say sorry even when you are right you know. Because being right is not as important as being in a relationship. I think when we are children we are very righteous. You should be this. But at the end of day, our relationship is more important than being righteous.
Gaamangwe: I completely agree. So if we are talking about fathers, let’s pivot to fathers of countries. Idi Amin was the father of your Uganda at the time that you were born and his presence influenced and impacted your life, or at least the direction of your life. Have you been able to afford the same forgiveness to Idi Amin? Because I know that he has influenced a lot of your narrative around your identity, and your life experiences.
Nick: I don’t know if forgiveness is the right word but what I am doing with my poetry is opening up a dialogue, because I have noticed that we don’t really talk about this period of our history as Ugandans. So one of the processes of healing is this, because pretty much the legacy of our leadership in our country has been that we have leaders who stay in their position for a long time and to me that isn’t necessarily a democracy. What happens is we have a situation where a period of time 1971-79, where there was a lot of killings and a lot of pain and a lot of hurt, that turned our country into one what we interpret as civil war. So what I want to do is open a dialogue about that because the only way you can heal a wound is to clean it. You don’t neglect a wound, you don’t forgive a wound. You look at the wound and you deal with the pain there. The rotten flesh, you deal with it, the pain that it causes in you, and you clean it.
So as far as Idi Amin, that’s what I am doing with this poetry collection “The Kingdom of Gravity”.
Gaamangwe: Powerful. I love the poem “Kingdom of Gravity” already.
Nick: Thank you. Yeah so what I want to do is that a lot of the time when I am a writer in the diaspora and a lot of time when you mention to someone Uganda they mention Idi Amin and they say it with a smile. But when you think—that’s kind of someone saying to a Jew or a German “Hitler”, so what I want is for people to kind of understand not to be so careless with the way that they frame Uganda.
I am saying; Let me explain to you what Uganda is through poetic notion. And maybe then you will be more willing to actually look at what we are talking about and not necessarily what you think about it. That’s what I hope I am doing, and also you have to write from what you are about. What forms the person that I am is that I had to leave Uganda, because of that regime and so rather than to neglect or avoid or obscure this part of my history, I thought I will just talk about it. It wasn’t easy because I didn’t know where to begin but that’s pretty much what I am doing and I am not sure if it’s a lesson of forgiveness or more of a lesson in cathartic release.
Gaamangwe: I like that. I have been obsessing lately about this notion of legacy, of what we inherit as people in terms of our histories or the things that have happen to our forefathers. I am fascinated by how a history as horrific and hard as yours impacts Ugandans and the way that they navigate the world?
Nick: I can’t speak for all Ugandans but what I can say or assume is that it must be traumatic to come from a regime where your leader is a dictator. But also, I took my wife to Uganda and she said “wow, Ugandans are such nice people”, so on one hand, we have all these beautiful people and on the other hand is, they suffered under such a regime. So I thought to myself, there must be an impact on that and what people do is we don’t usually approach it, we ignore it and the West sees an advantage in it. What I want to do with this narrative is to highlight what happened in Uganda in an artistic way, much like the way people in the west, like Shakespeare, who took the historical events of that time and turned them into plays and poetry. I believe that we have an important history that should be archived in an artistic way and I hope I am doing that.
Gaamangwe: And the power of writing our history in artistic ways is that poets, like you, can create this multi-layered piece of art, which has different stories and narratives and pieces of wisdom. How do you approach this process of writing something intentional like the history of a country?
Nick: I think they are layers to being a poet and being a poet is like being a student in martial arts. So you might have an ability or no ability to begin with but in order to get better as a martial artist you need to train. So when I look at the form of a poem, from the moment I realized I wanted to write about Uganda, to the moment when I say my book is coming out, I had to grow mentally.
There is a wound; I would have loved to stay in Uganda, when I think about it. It’s not nice that I had to leave my country. So I didn’t realize that upset or that shame until I had to learn to deal with my shame. So that’s how much of my writing starts. Attending to the wound.
The other was just reading a lot, and finding ways in which to understand the history because the history of Uganda is painted in a different way, depending on which person is telling the story. So the West say “Idi Amin is a dictator”, which is true but also he was their puppet. But they will never say that. Also the other things you have to understand is that Uganda is one of the most beautiful countries in Africa. It’s one of the most fertile countries in Africa. So it is a place of great importance to the West so if you look at all the conflicts that happened in and around East Africa, somehow in some way Uganda is involved, so part of our history isn’t just coincidence. There is manipulation from the West and how they engage and relate our story. And I thought wouldn’t it be better is one of our own wrote our own narratives, because if we keep having other people write our narratives how do we reference ourselves?
How I wrote the title poem “Kingdom of Gravity” I remember I was actually on a writing retreat for black writers (CAVE CANEM). We used to have to wake up every morning to write a new poem. I remember having the first line around four ‘o clock. Each line just kept coming. I would say the first line and the next one just kind fall out, almost like a song, and it just kept coming like that until breakfast time. So I literally wrote it down in one sitting.
The way that I write is strange. I sit at my desk with my books, and I am kind of chanting the poems out, walking around the room, because sometimes you can’t believe and you wonder where the words come from. I have been thinking about Uganda as a poetic thing for probably the last ten years. Maybe even a bit longer. In my first pamphlet “The Lost Collection Of An Invincible Man”, I have a poem about my cousin who died in Kenya of sickle cell and I think that that was the first time as a poet that I actively talked about My Africa. A friend who is also a poet said to me “Nick, your best poems come when you talk about Home”. I didn’t realize that even when I am not talking about Uganda, Uganda is still on my mind.”
Gaamangwe: I love that. This has been an amazing reflection. Thank you.
Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.
Find more information about Nick Makoha’s work and debut collection “Kingdom of Gravity” at the following links;