The Desert and the Lake: A Dialogue with Serubiri Moses
Serubiri Moses is a writer and curator, and currently art history faculty at Hunter College. He is co-curator of the perennial contemporary art survey, Greater New York (2021), founded in 2000 at MoMA PS1, Long Island City, and previously was on the curatorial team of the 10th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art (2018). His curating and teaching centers healing, spatial practices, and anxiety.
He has participated in conferences, juries, curatorial residencies, selection committees in Africa, Asia Pacific, South America and Europe and has curated educational programs and workshops on language and urbanism; exhibition histories; and African feminist theory. His current research focuses on theory and art.
Recent publications and conference talks include: “Death as a Premonitory Sign” in Singapore Biennial Symposium. February 2020; “Violent Dreaming”. e-flux journal. 107. March 2020. He is co-editor of Forces of Art: Perspectives from a Changing World (Valiz: The Netherlands, 2020). He lives and works in New York City.
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation is the [brain] child of a shared interest in the lost and found; it was conceived in Kampala and came of age in New York City.
Davina: You’ve explored a wide range of non-fiction topics: writing in dark times, the exoticization of black female sexuality, using photography to resist stereotypical representations of black life, the role of nationalism in art history, how to create more democratic societies within exhibition spaces, and the role of foreign investment in influencing local aesthetics. Which writers have influenced your writing? Have you written any fiction?
Serubiri Moses: Though I have admired fiction writers, and still do, it would be a conceit to refer to myself as a fiction writer. Some of the deeper questions that shape my practice as a scholar in visual art and as a curator have to do with healing and with loss.
I often said that I was interested in artists who do not make art. But what I was really interested in was the change and the unexpected turn. By this I mean that I was inspired by artists who had experienced alienation, isolation, fall-out or failure, with an inquiry into such circumstances. And thus working on these themes I began my career in visual art in 2009, though it would take me until 2012 to start working as a scholar and curator.
Between 2009 and 2012, my engagement was very interdisciplinary. At the end of 2009, I finished my diploma in photography, and embarked on work in the field. In 2010, I worked primarily in photography, and soon transitioned to criticism. Between 2010 and 2011, I worked as a critic for the New Vision daily. Simultaneously in 2011, I began undergraduate studies in software engineering, and completed them in 2013. In those years, I spent a few weeknights playing violin with a chamber orchestra; on work breaks from writing and school I would play the grand piano at the national theatre during vacant hours, and often asked for the key, and on weekends, I read poetry at various writers’ groups.
In 2012 and 2013, I wrote long form essays for Start Journal of Arts and Culture (Uganda). I also published a number of essays in Chimurenga (South Africa) and Another Africa (Canada). Following artists who had unexpected turns, I began thinking about Kadongo Kamu, the modern folk music genre in Uganda, specifically about its engagement with melancholy. In 2012, I embarked on a study of the music that would focus on its metaphors, prodding meaning, or its lack thereof, in relation to our violent history.
Songs like Tereza, by Christopher Sebadduka, may sound like simple love songs, but touch on the theme of loss, and mirror our great losses of prior decades. Similarly, an artwork called Paradise by Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa (shown at the public art biennial in 2012) seemed to mirror this double meaning of Uganda as a paradise, and as a space with unexpected turn of events.
In terms of fiction’s influence, I wrote a short piece, Dark Times, about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and have found Jamaica Kincaid’s short stories and novels (Annie John, and The Autobiography of My Mother) very useful in enabling theoretical discussions in my work. Okot p’Bitek has been a constant anchor, as someone entirely misunderstood by academia. Taban Lo Liyong’s poems and essays continue to challenge me intellectually.
Davina: You’ve also written about Binyavanga Wainaina:—his “strong stylistic sensibility”; “his willingness to practice on the page”; his ability to “borrow the feeling of Tshala Muana or MBilia Bel’s music and hold it within a page of prose.”
I initially struggled with his memoir, by the way; despite several tries, I couldn’t read past five pages. A writer friend suggested that I wasn’t ready for it, and advised me to put it aside for a few months. When I picked it up next, I read it in one sitting!
What is your relationship with putting things aside? I’m also interested in your tropism towards certain words; I’ve noticed that you use ‘peripatetic,’ ‘poetic,’ and ‘precarity’ frequently.
Serubiri Moses: I recently reflected on writing that particular essay. I asked the question: what does it mean to speak to the dead? It is clear, to me, that I wrote it to mourn him in the place and way that I know how: writing. Speaking to the dead presents many challenges because they don’t speak back in writing.
In terms of putting things aside, I like to think of it as putting a different set of intuitions to work. This ‘sleeping’ period includes revisiting old ideas, notes, journals, lists. It includes strengthening relationships. Then, the poetic comes easily as I first published poetry in high school. Though in the last decade my poems have sometimes appeared in Kwani?, Jalada, and Badilisha Poetry X-change. Poetry helps clarify many things for me, including form and aesthetic.
Then, my father actually introduced me to leftist and Marxist political thought, community activism and small-scale communism. I learned later about socialism via Dar-es-Salaam, and Accra. Then, in terms of who is a precariat, a few years ago, my friend Moses Kilolo published a short story, An Immortal Precariat Goes into the Night.
Davina: Why via Dar-es-Salaam and Accra rather than Blantyre and Nairobi, or Algiers and Nouakchott?
Serubiri Moses: It is through the University of Dar-es-Salaam, in its socialist influence on Kampala intellectuals, especially the writings of president Julius Nyerere and political economist Walter Rodney. In that context, Marx was parsed through a specific lens of socialist-oriented programs, Swahili culture, and various kinds of African philosophy. Then, socialism via Accra, largely through Kwame Nkrumah, specifically his re-articulation of the class struggle in an anthropological framework of culture.
I have been to both cities, and have witnessed the socialism of Nkrumah, Nyerere, and Rodney, but we can safely say that in Africa, one doesn’t need to visit Dar-es-Salaam or Accra to be impacted by the history of socialism. It is self-evident in various spaces and sites of commemoration.
Davina: You produced a radio documentary on recorded music; your way of “thinking through legislation on censorship and class struggle in Uganda.”
In what ways did that documentary anticipate the new regulations “gazetted to operationalize the Uganda Communications Act of 2013,” two of which have resurrected fears of regression to bygone years of violent state censorship?
That still photography is a target of the new regulations interests me. I’m thinking of a conversation with one of your graduate students about documentary photography; you spoke of the divide between “more standard and accepted reportage…depicting various forms of violence” and “more humane…life is going on…images.” Although the context was apartheid in South Africa, that conversation struck me as relevant to reportage in contemporary Uganda vis-à-vis coverage of violent protests during the current presidential campaign season.
Serubiri Moses: I got an appreciation of class tensions in Uganda in 2013. At that time, I worked on a radio documentary that aired on Uganda Radio Network. The proposal was quite simple: (i) to explore melancholy in Ugandan music; (ii) to locate metaphors for Ugandan experience. I found both in Fred Sebatta’s and Christopher Sebadduka’s songs. Those class tensions were apparent in the censorship of Sebatta’s Dole Y’omwaana, under claims of ‘vulgarity.’
To your question, the documentary did anticipate these incidents, because as one of the musicians interviewed said, nobody but the musician themselves can determine the meaning of their music lyrics.
The reality of displaying images of violence against Africans, that is, bodies slain, blood, and dismembered body parts, has a way of re-inscribing the violence that recent social movements in Africa and North America aim to challenge. This is speaking aesthetically. We retain the memory of the brutal violence of the 20th century, and even the 19th and 18th centuries. This memory is mostly suppressed, since we argue that liberation in the form of independence has cleansed the anger, and has healed the wounds.
I would say that seeing these images causes a re-inscription of that violence inside us. Those who used lynching imagery used it to counter terror. But what about healing? How do these images contribute to healing our long histories of violence?
Davina: A. B. K. Kasozi, Nakanyike Musisi and James Mukooza Sejjengo attempt to answer some of your questions in The Social Origins of Violence in Uganda, 1964-1985, which is a deeply unsettling book. Much is said about the violence that colonialism birthed, but not enough about the violence that Ugandans can’t neatly categorize as ‘a colonial invention.’ This book speaks also of a different kind of violence; one all of our own.
Serubiri Moses: At the 2015 history conference, The Use and Abuse of History, in Mukono, historian A. B. K. Kasozi was attending with his doctoral students. I met him there and got him to autograph a copy of his book Bitter Bread of Exile: The Financial Problems of Sir Edward Mutesa II During his Final Exile, 1966-1969, which focuses on Kabaka Mutesa II.
His writing, alongside Mahmood Mamdani’s writing, has been very formative for me. I read Bitter Bread of Exile, and, like you with Social Origins, I was left stunned and transformed. He begins the book with a simple question that speaks to your own. Why did Kabaka Frederick Mutesa II die in London, destitute and hungry? He goes on to unpack the various events of the coup by Obote, and the fact that England did not want to “annoy Obote” by supporting Mutesa financially in England.
He comes to the conclusion that Mutesa may have been caught in between various power configurations of the Buganda parliament, Uganda government, and former colonizer Britain. This reveals an obvious fact. Because it happened so recently as 1966, we have yet to heal from that violence. The humiliation and shame that the Kabaka died hungry and destitute, as A. B. K. Kasozi recounts, “living on tea and biscuits,” is something to contend with in the present.
In my conference paper, I engaged some of these ideas of obscured memory, though less explicitly than Kasozi. In a historical study of the Uganda national coat of arms, I claimed that the meaning and propagation of visual symbols as tied to the colonial economy was largely ignored. The paper was anchored in archival sources on Harry Johnson, who wrote important colonial documents. Though clearly erased is his contribution to the idea of Uganda as a ‘bird paradise,’ and his popularization of bird iconography in colonial Uganda.
Davina: What you say about bird iconography in relationship to colonial Uganda…I think immediately of the history of wildlife conservation…the violence required to wrest large chunks of land, on which all categories of ‘protected areas’ now rest, from the communities that owned or occupied it.
I’m reminded of a few lines from Giles Folden’s In The Name of Mary, written in 2000, after his travels to Kanungu in the wake of the fire that killed several members of The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God:
“Up at Father Dominic’s imposing house, the smell is bad. It takes a little time, as you look about, to realise you are standing on the soil where the bodies have been reburied. There are banana plantations all around. I think of Churchill’s remark about Uganda being a paradise, the much-quoted “Pearl of Africa”. No one ever quotes the next bit – about paradises being rotten beneath the surface.”
I’m thinking: why the Crested Crane and not the Rwenzori Turaco? Why does the Crested Crane get to climb up our court of arms but Fox’s Weaver doesn’t?
“Like any researcher on African historical writing, philosophies and oral histories, I think one should have a strong consideration for those things we were told ‘not to touch.’ The traumas of the family, the questions around death and dying, family lineages, and the question of ritual, ceremony, and memory.”
Serubiri Moses: I could not have put it better! Why not Fox’s Weaver and the Rwenzori Turaco, or why not the Omuziro and Akabbiro, to use a local example, such as Nsenene (grasshopper clan), or Mbogo (buffalo clan). On the Pearl of Africa by Winston Churchill, you inspired me to find the quote.
“Uganda is the pearl. The Nile province and the Lado Enclave present splendid and alluring panoramas. Even the march from Nimule to Gondokoro is through a fertile and inspiring region. But thereafter the beauty dies out of the landscape and the richness from the land. We leave the regions of abundant rainfall, of Equatorial luxuriance, of docile peoples, of gorgeous birds and butterflies and flowers. We enter stern realms of sinister and forbidding aspect, where nature is cruel and sterile, where man is fanatical and often rifle-armed. Cultivation—nay, vegetation, is but a strip along the river bank: and even there thorn-bushes and prickly aloes are its chief constituents. We enter two successive deserts as contrasted in their character, as redoubtable in their inhospitality, as Dante’s Circles of the Inferno: the Desert of Sudd and the Desert of Sand.” (“Chapter X, Down the White Nile,” My African Journey, Winston S. Churchill, 1909.)
Churchill’s descriptions of Uganda as a “pearl,” “gorgeous birds and butterflies,” and “Equatorial luxuriance,” remind me of the idea of paradise as something overpowering in its allure and its beauty. However, the rest of it, when he talks about “nature is cruel and sterile, where man is fanatical and often rifle-armed” and “thorny-bushes and prickly aloes are its chief constituents,” and “Dante’s Circles of the Inferno: the Desert of Sudd and the Desert of Sand,” are horrifying, though they reflect the theme of peripeteia, or a reversal of circumstances, and an unexpected change of events. The passage recalls the desert metaphor used by Taban Lo Liyong, and, a passage from Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa, in which he uses the metaphor of the abyss from the biblical Book of Revelations to describe Uganda, with similarity to the circular suffering evoked in Churchill’s allusion to Dante’s Inferno:
“It was during the depths of his suffering that Serenity came up with the only political statement he ever made. He said that Uganda was a land of false bottoms where under every abyss there was another one waiting to ensnare people, and that the historians had made a mistake: Abyssinia was not the ancient land of Ethiopia, but modern Uganda. Buoyed by intermittent bouts of optimism, he would go over his statement, looking for ways to improve it and make it attractive enough for ambitious politicians to pick up, for he believed that the time had come to change the name from Uganda to Abyssinia.” (pp 440)
I think both Taban Lo Liyong and Moses Isegawa were writing through extended metaphor: desert and abyss. Isegawa used ‘abyss’ to name biblical Abyssinia, and towards his representation of the depths of hell in the bible’s Book of Revelations in tandem with a view of modern Uganda. Lo Liyong used the desert to signal the desert of literature, but perhaps echoing another biblical metaphor of deserts in which we find the ‘dry bones.’ I do think that Isegawa was greatly influenced by the bible, since he attended Catholic seminary, and his profession as a history teacher.
Davina: You have written about being without a “model to craft an entire practice of writing books on contemporary art in Uganda”; about being “dumbfounded” by how your own reading “consisted of white American and French theorists from the 1970s.”
Do you still, some five years later, feel that you are without models?—or have you since found some? And what other political, philosophical and historical texts do you recommend to art writers and researchers in East Africa?
I’m interested in making the stories of Uganda’s past available and readable; but how do we do this while resisting the temptation to turn history into an official-sounding and official-looking thing that’s restricted to official-looking establishments?
Serubiri Moses: Davina, it is hard to say much has changed in the time of five years alone. What I was discussing in the article is a bigger problem that shapes the field of African art history. In this field, the site of the debate is not in Uganda, but in the United States, France, Germany, and other countries in Europe. Many books are being published on the topic, but without East African contributors, with almost no account of East African artists, and more recently debates in criticism by Enos Nyamor and Balimunsi Philip challenged the assumption that there were “no master artists to speak of in Uganda.” Could the debate shift to East Africa?
Then, the broader question is not just about models, it is also about readers. If the books are academic, they are written for graduate students. But why would I be writing for graduate students alone? That is an issue.
In reference to the site of scholarship, Dr. Nansubuga Makumbi talks about how post-coloniality centers Europe as the primary audience and object of its analysis. History is treated as something quite dangerous, especially recent history. The colonial history is fine to talk about because British people no longer rule Uganda.
Oddly enough attempts at Africanization have been incomplete, and reflect a sense that the status quo of Makerere University, originally conceived as a foreign department of the University of London and Cambridge through policies of British colonial education, has not really changed. So, the Africanizing of the curriculum and the making of an African university is yet to come.
Historians such as John Mbiti or Bethwell Allan Ogot published amazing work, but let me ask you: since you have undergone your entire education from elementary to graduate level in Uganda, have you read cover to cover, Mbiti’s book African Religions and Philosophies, or Ogot’s Zamani: A Survey of East African History?
Davina: I haven’t read either, incidentally, but will be sure to do so soon. And, yes, I see what you mean. I’ve always thought it odd how for instance Nakanyike Musisi’s Women in African Colonial Histories, George W. Kanyeihamba’s Constitutional and Political History of Uganda: From 1894 to the Present and Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism aren’t required reading for all ‘advanced level’ students in this country. I think of this as a manifestation of what you said about how dangerous recent history is.
Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa recounts how one of her colleagues, art educator Kitto Derrick Wintergreen, said, “You know, Emma, Ugandans never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
That really interested me, Moses; it spoke to my increasing fascination with the intersection between myth, fiction, and history. How many stories that are officially recognized as Uganda’s ‘history’ are mythical? How many are fictitious? I think about this a lot.
Serubiri Moses: A notable paper at the 2015 conference that showed similar limitations about ‘what we know’ about Uganda was by historian Samwiri Lwanga Lunyiigo, who discussed the idea that before the British had left Uganda, they destroyed evidence in the form of documents. He said they deposed these in Lake Nalubaale (also Lake Victoria). This metaphor of destroying archives has remained with me since then. I have tried to bring it up on numerous occasions, and on every single one I was met with profound disbelief or profound denial that it ever happened.
My research on Kadongo Kamu, which began in 2012, though not related to my presentation at the conference, was what pulled me into the vortex of historical literature, noticing for example how in the archives of The Voice of Uganda newspaper, Kadongo Kamu musicians of the 1970s, such as Fred Sebatta, Dan Mugula, Christopher Sebadduka, Misusera Ssegamwenge, and others, were completely left out of that archive of the seventies newspapers. I wondered about this erasure, as it appeared to me to be both surprising and unquestionably violent.
The only mention of Kadongo Kamu that I found was in 1977, in a report on the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos, Nigeria. The fact that Kadongo Kamu isn’t considered an ‘official’ history but rather as some kind of ‘folkloric’ tale confirms your suspicion. The broader question for me has had to do with which history is deemed ‘official’ and which one is deemed ‘pedestrian,’ ‘rude,’ ‘vulgar,’ ‘folkloric,’ and ‘non-existent.’
Davina: You mentioned extended metaphors, earlier, which is what drew me, as a teenager, to the Book of Revelations, although I barely understood what the rich imagery and heavy symbolism therein represented. I was also very attracted to the Song of Songs—to lines like “your eyes are doves,” “your two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies,” and “now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples.” Sebadduka’s comparison of Tereza’s eyes and breasts to stars and tennis balls recalls the poetry of such lines.
I’m also reminded of Samson Ssenkaaba’s performance, one evening, a few years ago, in the national theatre (now The Uganda National Cultural Centre) auditorium—how the rich idioms, the power and passion of his expression, sparked my interest in Luganda poetry.
Serubiri Moses: I should say that I am not alone in my research on and fascination with Kadongo Kamu. I have to mention that musicologist Professor Sylvia Nannyonga-Tamusuza has worked on archiving Kadongo Kamu at the music archives at Makerere University. Then, literary critic, professor, and poet Susan Kiguli has written scholarly articles on Kadongo Kamu, and gave a memorial lecture on Elly Wamala.
In visual art, professor and lawyer Angelo Kakande has written about the music and its use in Uganda’s delegation to FESTAC in his doctoral dissertation, among other scholars. In the research I carried out in 2012 and 2013, I interviewed music critic and journalist Joseph Batte, who pointed out that Nabutono by Elly Wamala was the very first Kadongo Kamu song released in the mid-century.
I like your observation about Luganda poetry in Kadongo Kamu. I identify certain aspects of the lyric form that relate directly to music. So, for example, in that song Tereza, there’s a general use of words that is strictly musical, and not containing meaning in every line the way a Shakespearean sonnet might. For example, “Maama nnyabo” and “Woowe dear” hardly mean anything literal, along with the song’s refrain, “(…) ya Tereeza maama.” Though the refrain and the phrases have a musical importance: the sustained note, as well as what is called ‘gonno’ in Luganda music performance, imply a specific voice and expression comparable to crescendo, or vibrato.
However, the poetry emerges from a combination of this musical note that is sustained and expressive combined with statements like “nebw’olaba nkozze” (You see that I have grown thinner) which hold the lyrical content. “Tereza ng’onzita” (Tereza you have killed me) is sung with similar ‘gonno’ and on a similarly sustained note, emphasizing its lyrical content. A love song may seem lofty and even lighthearted, that is, it may sound musically ornate or even soothing, but the lyrical content can provide a counterpoint –– perhaps this contrast is created to emphasize the lyric.
Davina: David Pier’s Language Ideology and Kadongo Kamu Flow describes Kadongo kamu as “a popular music genre” that “first emerged in the 1950s as part of a post-war flourishing of guitar-based genres throughout central and east Africa”:
“Although the name ‘kadongo kamu’ highlights guitar-playing, it is the storytelling that has become most essential to the genre’s identity. In some recent kadongo kamu recordings, the guitar has been dispensed with altogether in favour of synthesiser accompaniments, while narrative complexity remains the genre’s defining feature.”
It’s difficult to speak of language, storytelling, and identity in East Africa without invoking Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature or contentions about Taban Lo Liyong’s decades-old reference to East Africa as a ‘literary desert.’
In his response to Chris Wanjala’s Who appointed Taban Prefect of East African literature?, Lo Liyong, described as “a poet and writer whose experimental works and provocative opinions have stimulated literary controversy,” names The River Between and A Grain of Wheat as “our best works of fiction”:
“They are classics. Why our budding writers do not use them as models to be emulated, I do not know.”
The River Between was actually on my junior secondary school’s literature syllabus, and A Grain of Wheat was on my sister’s senior secondary school literature syllabus. But of course we didn’t analyze texts the way we now would in, say, an MFA in Creative Writing class. I’m curious about your idea of an Africanized MFA curriculum.
Serubiri Moses: I appreciate what you cited on narrative complexity in Kadongo Kamu. I wish this were the level of appreciation in the university. In an article on the African university, Mamdani writes about the fact that African universities like Makerere were external departments of the University of London and Cambridge; they followed precisely the same curricula, and have since the time of their founding considered these as the standard. While describing a process of ‘Africanization,’ it is also possible to speak about a specific pessimism on the Africanization of the university.
The debate focuses almost entirely on the use of African languages and epistemologies, and how objectionable this paradigm is within the university. We see for example how countries like China and India have successfully continued to graduate doctoral students in Mandarin and Hindi respectively, and continue to teach Chinese and Indian philosophy. Yet, we continue to be pessimistic about African philosophy and African languages and their role within education at large.
The preference of most African universities is either a ‘refined English’ or ‘refined French’ model of learning. Further, Arabic isn’t innocent either. Africanized arts curricula in Arabic would have to take into consideration the Arab role in the slave trade, and Arabic-style colonialism in Africa over the past centuries.
While South Africa is ahead in the sense that they have graduated their initial cohort of doctoral students in isiZulu and isiXhosa, Uganda and Kenya, even with past efforts at decolonizing English departments, still have some way to go. I also recognize efforts being taken by Mukoma wa Ngugi and Moses Kilolo and others to provide platforms for translation in the field of creative writing.
Davina: This post offers some answers to the question of how many dissertations have been written in African languages; it includes information about Gatua wa Mbugwa’s PhD dissertation in Gikuyu and the first PhD dissertation in Yoruba.
Otherwise, I heard a few years ago that Apollo Milton Obote named himself Milton to pay homage to English poet John Milton, whose poetry he is supposed to have loved.
Irving Gershenberg opens Slouching Towards Socialism: Obote’s Uganda with a brief description of what happened before Warrant Officer Sam Wilfred Aswa announced, on Radio Uganda, that President Obote had been deposed:
“Aswa listed eighteen grievances which had led the Army to take this action. The eighteen points included a number which related directly to Obote’s economic ideology and policies. Beginning in October 1969 Obote, a friend and disciple of Nkrumah and Nyerere, a man whose personal dedication to socialism was widely accepted in Africa, began to define a strategy which would move Uganda to the left. Whether or not a causal relationship can be shown to exist between the Obote government’s attempt to embark on a socialist program and the January 1971 coup, it is instructive to examine this program. This may serve to reveal pitfalls to be avoided if a viable socialist system is to be constructed in Africa.”
Many of my friends speak of being disillusioned with capitalism; but it is to Nyerere’s (and Nkrumah’s) socialism that they are turning for hope. Perhaps if we had as many university halls of residence and roads named after Obote, an interest in his brand of socialism might seem more intuitive.
Serubiri Moses: Thanks for pointing out Gatua wa Mbugwa’s doctoral dissertation. With regard to Obote and socialism, this is yet another historical debate. I would say that there have been many socialisms and Marxisms in East Africa. Julius Nyerere’s socialism is the most visible, but also from the University of East Africa in Dar-es-Salaam, we had Walter Rodney, Mahmood Mamdani, a younger Yoweri Museveni and Issa G. Shivji.
In the 40s, there were farmers’ unions for coffee growers in particular. We also had a level of free education at university level, and free healthcare in some cases, in a way that capitalist countries like the United States did not. Other models of banking such as savings schemes, farmers’ and midwives’ associations were also more socialist oriented models of finance and organization. Then, the government structure that was created during the transition to Independence, the LEGICO, seemed to follow socialist principles in its attempt at ‘grass roots’ and ‘representative’ politics. Socialist, too, in my mind, was the whole tradition of sending the ‘best of the district’ to Makerere and to the colonial schools.
In terms of more capitalist-oriented forms, Uganda was not a free-market economy until the late eighties. Land continues to be a divisive issue in Uganda. The Marxisms have re-emerged in recent years. I do see the People Power Movement as a Marxist and socialist movement. Similarly, I see the #Pads4Gals movement as a feminist Marxist and socialist movement.
In Kenya, there have been many attempts at socialism. While there has been outright attack on communist rhetoric in Kenya since the days of Jomo Kenyatta, and Daniel Arap Moi, there were attempts at Kenyan socialism in the political work of Oginga Odinga and Tom Mboya. In the late 1980s and 1990s, there was Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement, clearly socialist and feminist in its articulation of planting trees. More recently socialist tendencies appear in the early 2000s; the collective called Concerned Kenyan Writers (including Ali Zaidi, Binyavanga Wainaina, Sitawa Namwalie, Wambui Mwangi and others).
The University of Nairobi had a strong Marxist faculty during the 70s and their students who influenced the student body and its activities which writer Isaac Otidi Amuke has written about in Chimurenga Chronic. I would say the same for Makerere, though the student body has been so weakened that there is barely any Marxism to speak of, except hints at socialist politics in The Lantern Meet of Poets.
Davina: In the fourth of Eight letters to a Young Writer, Teju Cole asks “…have you experienced the sensation of a text that felt like it was targeted not to a general reader but to you in particular? Have you felt, at times, a sort of pact between you and the writer?”
I have felt the pact between myself and writers on countless occasions, incidentally. But I’ve also felt a pact between me and several characters. For instance, when, in An Immortal Precariat Goes into the Night, Awinja brought her nose closer to Elliot’s shirt, when she “took a full, brief inhale that took in his mild cologne,” I could relate on so many levels. The idea of attraction by olfaction is close to my heart; so, I instantly felt, reading that bit, as if I knew Awinja…as if she might become a close friend if I met her in real life (which of course I never will but you know what I mean!)
The context in which you mentioned that story was related to ‘precarity,’ so perhaps the next question should be: “what is the cost of remaining desirable to a lover in a capitalist-oriented context?”
Serubiri Moses: I think the short story’s themes are directly related to questions of love as a financial transaction, and the ‘visibility’ that is often required—including the perfume in the story—to gain access into a social space. For me, the story relates the forms of visibility that order urban life, and what happens when we are no longer visible.
Elliot’s precarity is about whether or not he is visible, and how much does that visibility cost him? It is clear that neoliberalism is a thematic within the story because Elliot incurs a lot of debt. And so, it is like that song, Malaika, a love song in which the suitor says, “Pesa za sumbuwa roho yangu” (Money is disturbing my soul). Love, financial debt, and a mixture of the two, seem to characterize many people’s lives in cities.
Davina: Namwali Serpell praises Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s “magisterial first novel Kintu”; says it “…continually diverts us from…our preconceptions about Africa”:
“Makumbi’s depiction of local culture also bears little resemblance to standard notions of African “authenticity.” Her Uganda is an unabashed amalgam of Europe and Africa, in everything from cooking to spiritual possession to mental health to sexual mores.”
I’d like to juxtapose Serpell’s thoughts on Kintu with a conversation you had with Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire about the middle-class backlash against Edrisa Musuuza’s (a.k.a. Eddy Kenzo’s) ‘broken’ English: her “unabashed amalgam of Europe and Africa” vis-à-vis your “strange hybrid of states of mind and physical space.”
Serubiri Moses: In research, I focused on urbanism of Kampala through an understanding of language and social stratification from the present dating back to the colonial era. To make a comparison, the media and its issues of censorship in the city continues to reflect old separations in the city. Some recent writing has taken on the racism behind Kampala’s masterplan.
In the city, you find spaces that were built for the ‘expatriate’ European civil service, and churches they attended, schools their children attended and the neighborhoods they lived in. It is no coincidence that today these same neighborhoods are the most expensive to live in, while the ‘African’ zones such as Nakawa and others have literally become slums, or have been bought out by corporate manufacturing industries, effectively erased.
A similar segregation happens in the media. Kadongo Kamu did not appear in the English media during the 1970s, except in global events such as FESTAC. Hence, what does this erasure say about these separations between ‘African’ and ‘European’ zones of media, language and space? Considering the place of African language newspapers in Acholi, Luganda, and Lunyankore is important.
Further, I have to respectfully object to Namwali Serpell’s reading of Kintu by saying that there are many indicators of social class that shape the world of Makumbi’s novel. While a strict economic reading may not be suitable, Makumbi is geared toward spirituality, which she views as one of the spheres in which a distinct African Christianity has evolved. While this in itself is an example of syncretism, it can be argued that radical forms of African Christianity have been contested. Examples are Ugandan composer Joseph Kyagambiddwa, excommunicated for ‘adjusting’ Biblical text to suit his Luganda masses; and John Mbiti, who has been excoriated for a “lack of rigor” by his fellow African philosophers.
Davina: Makumbi rallies us to bring “the Africa before colonization into our creativity, forcefully.” But, I must admit that I struggle with imagining Africa, Uganda, before colonialism. Do you have any advice for me?
Serubiri Moses: I do. Like any researcher on African historical writing, philosophies and oral histories, I think one should have a strong consideration for those things we were told ‘not to touch.’ The traumas of the family, the questions around death and dying, family lineages, and the question of ritual, ceremony, and memory. The Kadongo Kamu documentary was quite challenging to research, because it evoked the ‘taboo’ topics. I learned that memory is alive and well, yet we’re fed a different narrative.
I would also really try to consider colonial journals like Uganda Society Journal, and the narratives of explorers, as well as Ugandan and Kenyan historians like Bethwell Alan Ogot. What is difficult about researching pre-colonial Africa has to do with ‘what we know.’ And often ‘what we know’ is what is constantly reified in the media and in education. For example, an artist that I have worked with, Immy Mali, recently began researching the history of slavery in East Africa. She began in Uganda, and considered oral sources, and tracing sites of the slave trade. Then she went to Mombasa to continue her research there.
I think that the task can be daunting, but that’s because of what Professor Valentin Yves Mudimbe called the “marginality” and “exteriority” of the body of knowledge on Africa. We have been forced to face European contexts, and revere European sources. The challenge is how to take seriously our historical sources, be they oral, written, gestural, performative, musical, or architectural.
Davina: Thanks for the advice. Incidentally, I was until about a month ago reading Ben Grant’s book, which explores the writings of British explorer Richard Francis Burton; I became too depressed to continue, however. Although I’m aware of the horrors of colonialism, that particular encounter with it was most demoralizing.
Your mention of B. A. Ogot is timely. I was reading his paper, one of many about the general history of Africa, which he opens with three challenges faced by historians of the great lakes region:
“A historian attempting to reconstruct the history of the interlacustrine region of East Africa between 1200 and 1500 of the Christian era is faced with several major problems. First, the 300 years represent an era for which we have scant oral tradition or linguistic data. Nor do we have any adequate archaeological data. The oral traditions, for example, are replete with legendary father-figures who are variously identified as gods, fathers of all the people, founders of clans, or as introducers of food crops (such as banana or millet) or of cattle. The stories of their exploits have been forged into popular traditions whose historical validity is difficult to establish.”
I mentioned the paper to Nakisanze Segawa, whose novel explores one of many things we are told not to touch, i.e. Kabaka Mwanga’s sexuality. Segawa’s keen interest in historical narratives and her work on translation often conspire to lock us into long discussions about history and identity. We discussed the Batembuzi and the Bachwezi; how when teachers spoke to us about either in primary school, it wasn’t in any way that suggested direct ancestry and kinship; for everything related to descent, we were required to turn to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Serubiri Moses: Yet another historical debate! Christian sources are what provided G. W. F. Hegel the idea that in Africa all were sorcerers. I believe the precise source is Herodotus. That Hegel believed that there was no ‘spirit’ in Africa reflects the idea of his view of history at large.
If Hegel’s Geist is faithful to its sources in Herodotus among other Christian sources, then yes, we can safely argue that in order for African history to be appreciated all such Geists would need to be abandoned. It is a Hegelian model of history that focuses on the spirit of nations, that kind of thing that we learned in school from 19th century Britain.
I agree with your thoughts on the overwhelming presence of violence in colonial explorers’ texts. I felt the same way reading Henry Morton Stanley’s writing. It is incredibly difficult to think about the scene of violence. It appears that we have very few tools to do so.
I have been completely dumbfounded by the story I heard from several sources that Buganda was organized on Lake Nalubaale. Some objects in the Uganda Museum would prove this, such as the ‘magic object’ which was stolen by the British and is now housed at the museum, which was used for over-water battle.
The mythologies around boats, and the ability for diviners to ‘call up’ the body of someone drowned far out in the lake, shows that there were techniques developed to deal with the ordering of living space and territorial space on the islands in the lake.
There’s even a Luganda novel, Nketta mu Bizinga, by E. K. N. Kawere which follows similar mythology about the islands. The lake is a confluence of many interrelated histories, and in some ways could be said to be at the center of the region’s social and political history.
Davina: The calling up of bodies recalls the fantastic stories I heard as a child, about fragile flowers, growing in the middle of forests, that cured people of ‘night dancing.’ The over-water battles make me think of science fiction, and remind me of Nnedi Okarafor’s proposal for explorations of what has been:
“…Africanfuturism is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West.
“It’s less concerned with “what could have been” and more concerned with “what is and can/will be”. It acknowledges, grapples with and carries “what has been”.”
Serubiri Moses: I spoke earlier about the search for sources in the past, and to the spaces of memory, whether tangible or intangible. Time and history are topics of interest, which intersect with Nnedi Okarafor’s work in science fiction and Afrofuturity. The fact that many art critics and historians have described African art as resting beyond the physical is intriguing. It transforms how we view not only physical objects, but how we view time and history as well.
I recently taught a class in which I discussed Yoruba words for beauty, and found it interesting to hear the students reflect on ideas of interiority as opposed to the objectification that we are conditioned to view art from. Similarly, I appreciate how time may be viewed differently being nonlinear, cyclical, or recurring.
Davina: Your mention of that class in which you and your students discussed Yoruba words for beauty (I am so jealous!) reminds me of a recent article by Charles Onyango-Obbo, and of Elizabeth F. Oldfield’s consideration of, among many things, the sources (and evolution) of some words:
“In Luganda, the etymology of mukyala and omukyala illustrates that the terms carry with them the associations of visitor/stranger. Mukyala (the polite alternative to Mukazi), meaning lady, and omukyala, meaning lady/wife, both derive from the root kyala – visit. Kyala implies that the African woman occupies a different space because she is always a visitor.”
This really fascinated me! I hope that you’ll organize more classes like this for your students!
Serubiri Moses: I appreciate your comment about the Yoruba glossary on beauty. On another note, these Luganda proverbs remind me of the ways that women have been kept out of African history. In this regard, it is important to reflect on Dr. Wambui Mwangi’s argument that the Gikuyu word for woman, Mutumiya, means ‘the silent one.’
I am interested in how Mwangi takes Mutumia and draws up a whole list of processes that have silenced women from the Kenyan narrative, starting from the women who protested the arrest of nationalist leader Harry Thuku in the 1920s.
For citations of Luganda proverbs in relation to gender, Isaac Ssetuba’s paper presented at the Cairo Gender Symposium organized by CODESRIA is worth checking out.
Davina: When you spoke earlier of melancholy in Ugandan music, I also thought of Philly Bongoley Lutaaya, who lived abroad during a much earlier period of Uganda’s post-independence era. I’m an eternal fan of his sad and thoughtful songs, many of which invoke the indelible loneliness and homesickness of the diasporic experience.
These days, partly because of social media, perceptions of the experience of life abroad have changed. The relentless rush of glorious images from Facebook and Instagram suggest that life abroad is an extended episode of boundless pleasure. Until videos of Ugandans abroad, in various states of mental and/or physical anguish, surface.
For two weeks straight, we are enraged; we fundraise for airfare; we berate the government; we swear to take better care of each other; etc. After which we promptly return to our ritualistic fear of missing out, and just like that life goes on. You mentioned ritual and memory earlier. Are we making a ritual of our forgetfulness, or is there simply too much to focus on at a time?
Deus Kansiime writes about ‘literary deafness’ and ‘literary blindness’; how Akiki Hosea Nyabongo’s The Story of an African Chief and Okot P’Bitek’s White Teeth were published long before Things Fall Apart. It can’t be a coincidence that Nyabongo and p’Bitek were struggling within ‘an anthropological framework of culture.’
Serubiri Moses: This is indeed fascinating that you bring up forgetfulness, memory, and diaspora in a discussion of Okot p’Bitek, Akiki Nyabongo, and Taban Lo Liyong. I came across Africa Answers Back in the interview that Taban Lo Liyong gave to Bernth Lindfors. I think the three of these figures were all in this ‘diasporic’ space. They were away from home.
Lo Liyong’s experiences at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he encountered Akiki’s book for the first time, are very telling. His perspective is informed by the formation of these bibliography catalogs and The Association for The Study of Negro History, and the Journal of Negro History (United States), shaped by the ideas of founders such as Arturo Schomburg, for whom a Center for Research in Black Culture is named after. The other is Nyabongo who spent time in Oxford, and read ethnographic work done on culture in Buganda. The third is Okot p’Bitek who also spent time at Oxford, where he studied with the noted social anthropologist Edward Evan-Evans Pritchard who was his dissertation advisor.
Okot p’Bitek struggled with finishing the doctorate, because he argued that he wanted to use methods that were familiar to his people, such as folklore, and oral narratives. Pritchard objected to this and failed him, so he never passed his doctoral exam.
I think we have been discussing some of what these three figures went through. Each of them went through the same problem of attempting to find the ‘right’ methods to engage Africa and its complex history and contemporary situation. They were all somehow attacked for being innovators in form and method, and subsequently all were unceremoniously removed from canon of ‘great’ African literature. Yet their greatness, their innovativeness, their sensitivity to epistemological violence, and their willingness to remember even while dislocated in Euro-America, are all undisputed.
Davina: Let’s close with your thoughts on healing, Moses. To use typical Ugandan conference-speak: “What is the way forward?”
Despite the hope that we placed in ‘independence,’ it hasn’t healed the wounds inflicted by decades of violence. So, what next?
Serubiri Moses: If there’s one thing that I have learned from Kadongo Kamu, it is that melancholy isn’t something terrible, simple, ‘tragic’ or something to be frowned on. On the contrary, feelings of melancholy exist in Kadongo Kamu songs in a form that is actually quite accessible, or to be clear, intelligible. I place Sebatta alongside Joseph Brodsky for this reason.
I realized that songs like Tereza by Christopher Sebadduka, and Dole Y’omwaana by Fred Sebatta are not merely ‘love’ songs; they are songs that help us make sense of our pain. Many of the songs reflect on the complex situation of life through metaphor; they reflect our deeper desires, and simultaneously our inner losses.
Photo credit for featured image of Serubiri Moses: Marissa Alper, 2019.
Davina is a reader who happens to like writing. She writes in several forms (including poetry and essays) but is for some reason most drawn to the short story. Stories are how she makes sense of the world, and of her (imagined or otherwise) moral, intellectual, spiritual, and physical place in it. She’s committed to the creation of a legacy that equalizes the telling of stories. Her range of interests include [eu]social media, the mothering of the tongue, and English which, despite our sincerest efforts to preserve it, keeps breaking (sometimes into more pieces than we can pick up).