Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlists: A Dialogue With Nick Makoha

Poet Nick Makoha is a Cave Canem Graduate Fellow and a Fellow of The Complete Works in the UK. He won the 2015 Brunel African Poetry Prize and the Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize 2016 for his manuscript Resurrection Man. His poems have appeared in The Poetry Review, Rialto, The Triquarterly Review, Boston Review, Callaloo, and Wasafiri. Find him at www.nickmakoha.com

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the cosmopolitan, busy city of London by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Nick, congratulations for being on the Brunel International African Poetry Prize shortlist. What does it mean for you to be shortlisted?

Nick: It means everything. I think there is a lot of work that goes in with writers behind the scenes, improving your craft, reading, workshops. So, it is always nice when there is an opportunity to show what you have been working on inside of your creative space and inside of your mind. Particularly the Brunel Prize because it does two things; it shows you a lot of good African writers, and it shows you where they are because they are all over the world. For me, it is an important way of engaging with a wider African literary community. This will probably be my last time to apply because my book is coming out soon but I have enjoyed the process and it has helped me to develop as a writer by just applying for this award.

Gaamangwe: You have won the prize before, so what inspired the collection that you selected for this entry?

Nick: It’s a body of work that I have been working on for a long time. I have probably been writing all my poems for probably the last five to seven years. I have been looking at the 1971-1979’s Idi Amin regime and I was looking at how to bring to life that moment of history, which in many people’s minds is almost a caricature of all the work or poems that have to do with that time. I didn’t start out that way intentionally; I wrote one poem which was actually about my cousin who used to live in Kenya and has now died but from that poem, poems about my life and Uganda started to drip through and I had to pay attention to that. That is pretty much how it worked and the way I work is that I focus intently on something. It took me a while to kind of get my confidence. I didn’t want to write things that I had heard before or how other people might write about war, so I really tried to find an original way of suggesting something that people already know. Everyone knows about some kind of war and everyone thinks they know about Africa and I was like; ‘’How do I open a conversation about war in a particular area of Africa that makes it seem necessary?”

Gaamangwe:  Besides illuminating the history of Uganda and the events that happened during the Idi Amin period, what do you hope you could illuminate further? This original angle, where is it leaning towards?

Nick: You always start something by digging at the roots, because you are as strong as the roots. What I want people to do is not just looks at my work but look at Uganda in general and not just glance it over. I feel East Africa has a lot to add to the creative economy, so I am hoping that my work will be one of several works that will emerge as originating from East Africa because the story is from Uganda. I am hoping that my work will be one of several stories that will show this place called Africa, this place East Africa, this place called Uganda and encourage people to find out more. I also hope this will encourage writers both native and in the diaspora to say “I’ve got a story to tell and I’ve got an interesting way to tell it’’ in the way that other writers have been doing. Poetically Derek Walcott did that for me, the way he spoke about the Caribbean made me confident to speak about my home land because even though I am not in my home land I still relate to it as home. I believe that we have an interesting literature and interesting stories which need to be told from that space. So what I am hoping is new is that people learn more about Uganda beyond the existing narrative of Idi Amin. Most times people forget that there were people affected by what happened because of Idi Amin. I took my wife to Uganda and she said to me, “Wow these people are really friendly and they are warm. I like this place”. If all you have for reference about Uganda is Idi Amin, then you have this one image that is overtaking the true image of Uganda. I hope the reader can see that there is much more to Uganda than her history.

Gaamangwe: So Candidate A is Idi Amin, right?

Nick: Yes, A for Amin. I wanted to highlight that people forget that he was selected. The British colonials wanted him in power and they thought he could be their puppet. On one level we look at it and say “Oh Idi Amin was so horrible” which he was, but we also have to ask and understand who put him in power and who gave him access to that power. A lot of the time you can just subscribe the blame to Africa and its dictators but we have to think and ask: what is the climate that allows that to happen repeatedly? What is the gain of the west in allowing dictators to destroy a perfectly running economy and then come in when it is almost destroyed and say we will help you?

Gaamangwe: I do wonder about what could have possibly stopped him?

Nick: The reality is that Idi Amin was a very menacing character but he wasn’t the only villain. We were up against a lot.  There was the colonial regime, where when it was told to leave after independence it didn’t want to leave. So it stayed and put their own puppets in power. There was a game that was being played and it was very strategic with the power of the people. There had a wild man acting as their puppet, and that enabled him to do all the damage he did.  He destroyed the economy and created havoc countrywide. And also made it difficult to reclaim our country.

I don’t think they realised how gruesome he would be, they thought that he had no brains. He had some brains, and this insatiable need for power. The thing to also understand, is that while we were being colonized they removed us from power and from the decisions affecting our country.

So when you place anyone in there, it is a drunk sense of power. I am not saying what he did was right but it was a dangerous position to put just one man in it. It needs people who can hold the man in power to account. You have to ask yourself why didn’t the colonials intervene sooner? Why did they allow that to happen?  They still allow this to happen, Uganda is not the only place where this has happened. It is something they have done before and something they will do again and that is my biggest concern.

Gaamangwe: I understand the yearning for power and how that drove a lot of the activities that happened during that time but I am disturbed by the kind of mind he had.

Nick: I think any person is capable of extreme good and extreme bad and evil. It’s like making a soup, you add certain ingredients to the pot and it will taste a certain way and if you add too much it will taste a certain way. What you have to understand is that the conditions allowed for a person such as Idi Amin to become a dictator. I don’t think he woke up and said “Hey I am going to be dictator”. I believe there were many factors that aligned themselves that allowed him to make choices. The choices that he and others made led to the constant spiral of events that happened.

These choices are what made Uganda what it is and many decisions were made that we have to think about responsibly when placed in that position. There was paranoia, world agendas and tribal agendas (Uganda became about tribal feuds as opposed to our differences bringing us together). There were many factors, we can’t just look at Idi Amin as this one entity of evil against this beautiful country. That is what I hope the poems and the book intends to look at.

Gaamangwe: How are you and other Ugandans trying to un-occupy this history?

NIck: For me, I have turned it into art.  Because art is a way of looking at beautiful and horrific things in the world. The way that we get over it is by allowing ourselves to look at it as opposed to what we do in most times of trauma; avoiding, suppressing or denying. What I am hoping for is we can learn it from looking at this.  We can have a discourse, and hopefully transformation and eventually change. We also can’t forget our pasts because part of the error that we keep making is because we forget our pasts. The past is not meant to be remembered with judgment, it is to be remembered as learning tool, as a guide, as a way of understanding people.

As for Ugandans, I can’t speak for them but I hope there has been change.  We as a nation are moving on and I think only time can answer; what is life for Ugandans right now, what space do we occupy in the world consciousness, what is the life of a typical boy or girl in Uganda, and what are the prospects for prosperity in Uganda. If there are green ticks in those areas then we can say that we are moving on. What I want as anyone would want for their country is that my country be a player in the world economy, I want my country to be the one where the native Ugandans are thriving, for me as an artist to thrive artistically, in business and science and within families. That we are not a nation that is just persecuted by war. That for me would be the measures of success.

Gaamangwe: For Ugandans and other black people we have been persecuted a lot for the bodies that we inhabit and for the lands that we inhabit these bodies in. You explore this in the “Black Death” poem. I wonder if it’s also in the same stream of line about Idi Amin or it was a different theme all together?

Nick:  Although it’s parallel with Black Lives Matter, “Black Death” is still about Uganda. A lot of times when we focus on war, we focus on the opposing powers – that this country is fighting against this country, this tribe against that tribe and this party against that party. What I was interested in with this poem is that while people are discussing the rights and wrongs of what they believe, they are leaving behind the bodies.  I wanted to look at how bodies were affected. The poem focuses on the loss of life and the value of life, and hopefully it shows the value of black lives. Sometimes when we talk about dictators in African countries, we don’t realise the loss of life and what that means. So the poem hopefully shows the value of the black body.

Gaamangwe: This is true. We need to look more on how lives are lost and altered forever. I think the work that you are creating with this collection is very important.

Nick: Thank you, I appreciate that. I hope this collection also encourages other artists to look at their countries in Africa and to write stories about them because that is important. Otherwise our stories will always be told by other people. One of the things that Kwame Dawes brought to my attention is that; “The most interesting story right now is the African story” and that has many shapes. So we need to claim that and write the Africans version of things. We also can and have to participate and contribute to the world dialogue, with our point of view in its different forms.

Gaamangwe: That’s the exact reason why I do Africa in Dialogue!  Thank you Nick, and all the best of luck with Brunel International African Poetry Prize and your poetry.

NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize.

Download the full book HERE: Conversations with Brunel Poetry Prize Shortlist

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Africa in Dialogue is a weekly online interview magazine, that engages in dialogues with Africa's leading storytellers in the fields of literature, poetry, film, theatre, television and art. Africa in Dialogue is created by Gaamangwe Mogami.

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