Poetry is the Language of the Streets: A Dialogue with Kagayi Ngobi
Kagayi Ngobi is a lawyer, author, performance poet, theatre practitioner, teacher and publisher. He founded Kitara Nation Publishing House alongside four other friends— they have 21 titles out to date. He is also the founding editor of the Kitara Nation Poetry Series. Kagayi almost became a full-time lawyer but this life choice changed course when he went to the National Theatre in 2008 to watch a poetry recital of Lantern Meet Of Poets. Kagayi then joined this association of poets, where he helped establish poetry clubs in secondary schools. In 2014 he was elected the president of the Lantern Meet of Poets and he led the publishing of the group’s poetry anthology, ‘What Shall We Name This Child?’.
Kagayi was born in Eastern Uganda, specifically in the region where the river Nile’s source is said to be. He is of the Soga nation from Kamuli (the flower) District.
Kagayi seeks to write in a language that is spoken and understood by every person— including the people on the streets in his homeland. He aims to document the reality of the society that he interacts with in his poetry. He has authored four poetry books: ‘The New Headline that Morning’ (2016) second edition (2021), ‘Pupu Poems’ (2018), ‘For My Negativity’ (2019), and ‘No Speaking Vernacular’ (2020). Also, his poetry appears in anthologies like ‘Rhymes, Metaphors and I’ and With Pens That Shout and Mouths That Shut’ published by Kitara Nation; ‘Streetlights At Noon Eclipse’, ‘Broken Voices of The Revolution’ and ‘What Shall We Name This Child?’— published by Lantern Meet of Poets; ‘Go Tell Home’ and ‘Wandering and Wonderings’ published by FEMRITE; ‘Fire on the Mountain’, edited by Danson Kahyana and ‘Dear Nev, Contemporary East African Writing’ published by African Writers Trust.
His poems have been adapted into a number of theatre productions like ‘The Audience Must Say Amen ‘ which featured at the Kampala International Theatre Festival (KITF), Story Moja Festival (Nairobi) and the AfriCologne Theatre Festival (Koln); ‘Arrest The Poem’ which featured at the Bayimba Festival, the Uganda National Theatre (shortly before it was banned from there) and at KITF; ‘For My Negativity’ and ‘No Speaking Vernacular’ both at debuting at the Uganda National Theatre. His poetry has also featured in ‘Ground Control’, a theatre play produced by Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin and has also acted in other plays like ‘Romeo & Juliet in Kampala’ (Africologne Theatre Festival) and ‘Footprints of Memory’ (Writivism Festival).
BY ELIJAH BWOJJI
This conversation takes place at Kagayi’s house in Seguku, Uganda. Upon arriving at Kagayi’s home, I found him outside his gate waiting for me; he held a shopping bag with food. When I asked why, he told me he had just gotten back from the market and proceeded to explain that he had forgotten to buy sauce. He welcomed me and took me behind the fence of his house. There, he found a pumpkin plant and plucked off the young leaves. After he completed the task, we went into his kitchen and had this conversation while he prepared brunch.
Bwojji: I am not sure we knew the strength of the Lantern Meet of Poets or what it could achieve. We talked about it, we dreamt about it, but we didn’t have true knowledge of what it could achieve with the collective.
Kagayi: The Lantern Meet was not built to last. It survived longer than we expected. The association was built for the University days, and after that, it was expected to fold up. The truth is, it has been a long hard fight to keep it going. Anything built without a plan for longevity cannot last, and longevity was never in the plans of the founders. The founders had a vision that would out-live all members but no plan on how to carry out that vision. We can’t blame anyone; we all did the best we could at the time.
The few of us who stayed through the course of everything have learnt a lot. From the very start, we thought we knew who we were and what we wanted. As a result, we were proud, arrogant and aloof to the money-making opportunities put before us. Many people wanted to work and build a network with us, but they got frustrated because of that.
Bwojji: I have been craving to write the history of the Lantern Meet, to archive such a time, but I know it is a long story that I may not be able to write. Many people went through the platform.
Kagayi: Actually, you can write it. The Lantern Meet story is an extensive one that not a single voice can tell. It’s like being taken to court. Each witness is asked what happened, and each of them describes the same scene but from different points of view. Tell us your side of the story. For me, the Lantern Meet story will only be complete if all of us tell our stories from our own perspectives.
Bwojji: Let me peel the Irish potatoes.
Kagayi: Okay, let me prepare the pumpkin leaves. What I know is that the next ten years of literary success here in Uganda belong to the people who have spent the last ten years preparing for that future.
Bwojji: I rarely go for poetry nights, and this is because I still carry the hubris that was instilled in me when I joined the Lantern Meet—it is something I am working to overcome. I find it difficult to reconcile that people think poetry can be reduced to a mere form of entertainment.
You do a poetry show for two hours. You perform several pieces, each lasting for four minutes. In such a short time, you bombard your audience with grand complex ideas and expect them to consume them when it took even you, the poet, way longer to harbour and develop those ideas. With music, it’s different. The musician performs but it doesn’t end there. You will find the song on the radio or on a streaming platform where the audience can follow up and get the chance to break down and enjoy the music to the fullest. Have you ever thought about this kind of follow-up where the audience can have a deep dive into a piece of poetry after the performance?
Kagayi: You’re right, and yes, I have. I have recorded an audio album but it has not worked out well. Personally, I try to perform as many times as possible to provide my audience with follow-up. For me, Covid-19 has been a blessing in disguise. It taught me that the best follow-up you can give your audience is a book and this has worked very well for me because during the pandemic’s peak,we could not perform physically, but people wanted access to our work. We started printing books because people still found relevance in our work during the Covid-19 lockdown. That’s how poetry books like ‘Don’t Love Me in English’ and ‘Rusho’s poems’ managed to stay alive even when we were not performing.
“Learning in English makes us disregard the original values of our information archiving system. There is no problem being a poet who does not perform. You can only recognize your poetics through the context of your culture, because that is the standard to which you hold yourself to.“
Bwojji: It feels like you’re saying Covid -19 reminded you that a poet is just a writer even in this postmodern era.
Kagayi: No, no. Not just a writer. A poet cannot survive only by writing, but a poet is not “just a writer”. I believe a poet is primarily a performer, and now I even have an explanation for those who argued with me about it. However, I prefer to explain in Luganda: Omuntu awandiika ebitontome aba mutontomi? Do you understand? How can you call yourself “Omutontomi” when you don’t kutontoma? Okutontoma is a verb so I am not sure you are a mutontomi if you are just writing. When we have the conversation in English, the definition of a poet includes writing, but when we do in our mother tongues, you will see it also mainly alludes to oral performance.
Bwojji: Maybe in our mothers’ language, there was no writing?
Kagayi: There was writing. For example, the Nyero Rock paintings, that is, writing. Also the designs on huts are all writings. The only difference from today is that then, language was functional and alive. Language meant oral communication and that needed to have unique sounds which we achieved through creating language and communication rituals. We didn’t have books, but we had fireplaces. We didn’t have libraries, but we had elders. Learning in English makes us disregard the original values of our information archiving system. There is no problem being a poet who does not perform. You can only recognize your poetics through the context of your culture, because that is the standard to which you hold yourself to. If you disagree with the culture and want to break away from it, know what you are breaking away from;know the rules because you can’t break it unless you do.
Bwojji: There are two things, the English language, which gives the poet leeway to write, and our culture/s, which permits the use of the sound of the land. The poet must be aware of both of these things. My current uneasiness with the poetry scene is that a poet performs a poem, but it’s only confined to that individual poet. If you are not that poet, you can’t perform the poem because the sound is only in that poet’s mind and not written on the page. This is why it’s hard to find people doing covers of poems as they do with music. The conversation shouldn’t be about whether a poet is a performer or not, but that even when the poem is still on the page, it should have sound, thus making the page a stage, the reader its audience, and the performer its narrator. This way the poem’s sound stays the same, and the performer’s job on stage is merely to put on dramatics and stimulating visuals to go along. In the introduction of the new edition of ‘The Headline That Morning’, you mentioned that most of the poems were written for performance and not for the page. You quote your brother giving feedback when he read the first edition— he closed his eyes, and the poems came to life in his mind and moved him, so why did you rewrite the poems in the second edition to fit only the page?
Kagayi: When I wrote those poems, I didn’t write them with the intention to get them published. I wrote them intending to perform them. Poems like In 2065, Ben Kiwanuka, and The Audience Must Say Amen are poems written specifically for recitation. I was not thinking about who would read; I was thinking about who would listen. The Lantern Meet had an approach which we used at our event— The Sunday Meet. The approach used during this event was one in which a poem had to be read out to the group members before it was staged/performed. This indicated that when you wrote, you had to consider both the experiences of the person who is going to read your work and the person who is going to listen to it. It also meant you had to play the role of your audience when you wrote. In this case, you wrote while reading and listening to the poem like a real audience would. Doing this over time made it easier for me to adopt it as a deliberate writing style. Even after leaving the Lantern Meet, I continued to use this approach. When I wrote poems like ‘How I grew Up’ and ‘Have You Heard the News?’ I was even more deliberate about it, and I made the characters more dramatic: “Someone run very fast and tell someone is in trouble”. I figured that it can be a style of its own, so when I write, I am deliberate in that I want the audience and reader to feel like they are in the theatre.
Bwojji: Why do you write? Why not be a politician? You have all the attributes of a politician. You can sway the audience with your voice, and people will follow.
Kagayi: Aah, I don’t know. I was not born into a family of politicians. I was born into a family of teachers. Whether in a classroom or through poetry, we aim to teach in everything we do. For example, my brother is a pastor; he teaches in the church. I think this life chose me. I don’t know if I chose it. I found myself here, and these things make me happy.
Bwojji: Do you think that the more you teach, the more you learn?
Kagayi: That is right. The more you teach, the more you learn, but it’s more than that. There is that phrase they use in Makerere about the teacher with the yellow notes. Some teachers teach the same thing all the time, but the teacher who learns is ready to evolve, challenge what they know and embrace new ways of research and sharing information.That is how I understand it. As I told you, when writing poetry, I like to imagine the audience. Being a teacher helps me have an audience that I can practise on and in turn, enhance the skills I need to engage the actual audience at my performances.
Bwojji: Going back to Omutontomi alina okutontoma. For as long as I have known you, you have insisted that poetry belongs to the streets— it’s the language of the streets. When the white man came, poetry took shape as the language of the courts. However, in our culture, way before that, poetry was the commoner’s language. It came alive in bars, markets, shrines, and bus parks. How have you managed to get your poetry to mirror the perspective that it belongs to the streets?
Kagayi: It’s in the themes I explore, my style of writing, and my language usage. One of the things that I get from the feedback people give me is that even though I am not the first Ugandan poet to be published, I am the first one a good number of them today have accessed in print. A common feedback I get is, “Kagayi, your poetry is so simple. You write about things that I understand and experience, and you use language that I use every day”. I will give you an example of what I mean when I talk about the language style I use in my poetry. There are poems with titles like, ‘Wamma, It’s Just A Thought’ and ‘Saagala Agalamidde!’. As for the themes I write about, when you read poems like ‘In 2065’ and ‘Headline That Morning’, you will see that I am referring to things happening in schools, things happening in Mulago hospital, and things happening around us. My poems reflect the current state and happenings, and that makes it easy for people to relate, especially people living in my immediate environment. As for people in the international community, when you write a poem like ‘Mr Foregin Aid’, you get them to listen. My most popular poem in Europe is ‘Mr Foregin Aid’, and it has gotten me many opportunities to perform. I also use bilingualism, wherein I mix Luganda words or indigenous words with the English language. The fact that I create metaphors people today can easily relate to makes my work appear ordinary in a way. Take for instance a poem like ‘Mr Tomorrow When I Wake Up’. Even the intonation I use in some of my poems, for example, a poem like ‘Tap Tap The Floor Tap Then Go’, reflects my culture and tradition. My ordinary lens is I am trying to tell my experience and bring my life of the streets to the stage.
Bwojji: How do you create metaphors? Take the first stanza in the poem Unofficial Metaphors:
To what places do clouds go when they tire
Of watching us doubt our existence?
Into what spaces do they climb to hide
From the sad scenes of our wounded movie scripts?
What words do they scream
When they watch God eventually spit
At the disgust of our careless dreaming?
And we call it a thunderstorm when clouds rumble
In this poem, the extended metaphor sets up the rest of the poem’s tone and emotion and captures the poem’s essence. How do you create metaphors like these?
Kagayi: Same for us here, people everywhere like using nature to tell how they feel and like I said, it’s about creating metaphors that people can easily reference. Using things people have gone through, creating images that are empathetic, and creating metaphors that lead readers to say, “This writer knows what I feel”, is something I am deliberate about. Thus, when I get feedback from someone saying, “I read your poem and connected with it”, I say, “yeah, I am glad that happened because it’s what I intended”.
Bwojji: I remember when you wrote the poem ‘In 2065’ in 2012. We, as a youth, were angry and that anger seeped into the work we created around that time. Since you wrote ‘In 2065’, some of the physical things in this country have changed. For instance, we have new roads, Mulago hospital has been repainted and new buildings added. However, it remains that ordinary people still can’t access these facilities. We even have a new road people have to pay to use. In your poem, the narrator is an ordinary man who, at 75years old, looks back and details how nothing has changed in Uganda since he was a young boy.The poem isn’t only about the physical things; it’s also about the unseen systemic disadvantages of the poor and common people. The roads being built aren’t for people who do not own cars, and you can’t ride a bicycle or walk on them either. Also, it is interesting that in 2012 we joked about the president’s son taking over the presidency after his father, and now their political party has already begun to front him as their next flag bearer. For me, ‘In 2065’ captures the spirit of the streets. Have you ever considered doing a taxi show? That is a way to give ordinary people easy access to you.
Kagayi: I’m glad you noticed that although ‘In 2065’ was written 10 years ago, it feels like it was written last year when you read it. To answer your question, yes I have thought of having a taxi show. For me, getting the audience is not the problem.What I am concerned about is how to get my message across effectively. For the last 12/13 years, I have written in English; English owes me nothing.. No one will come to me and say, ‘Kagayi, you never wrote in English’. However, going forward, I want to challenge myself to better communicate with the ordinary folk and not just in simple English, but in languages they are familiar with— languages of the street, which in this case are Luganda and Lusoga. Hence, I have decided that although I will continue to perform in English, I won’t write in English this year. I want to translate my poems from English to Luganda and Lusoga. Imagine pieces like ‘In 2065’ and ‘The Headline That Morning’ written in Luganda and Lusoga. I feel like if I put my poems in these languages, ordinary people will understand and my messages will be effectively communicated to them. Wherever I perform, be it on a stage, in a studio, in a market, or in a taxi, the most important thing is getting my message across, and this can only be done if I communicate in a language my audience understands. When people get my message, it creates traction for my work, brings more attention to the message, and communicates my empathy.
Bwojji: There you will be using the language of the currency.
Kagayi: Yes, the language of currency. I have been aware of all these things; I have been asking myself all these questions; I know there is a way and fortunately, we are still young. Well, maybe not young, but we are adult men with youthful energy. Art is the work of the mind and not of physical strength, so we can still do this for the next 30 years. You can even take 10 years off for preparation if you want. I look at my life in a cycle of 10years, and I realise that by 2032, I want to have perfected my style, voice, and delivery in these local languages. That is why now I am giving myself time to learn and evolve. As I was telling you, I have taken the initiative to say that starting this year, 2022, all my poems will be written in the local languages that I know, irrespective of how much I am inspired or the idea I want to write about. This is the focus and the effort I am taking up. As for my performance, I plan to come up with new ways to deliver my works to audiences.
Bwojji: Would you say that the Lantern Meet gave you the opportunity to discover your voice?
Kagayi: Definitely. Without the Lantern Meet, I wouldn’t be the person I am. Maybe I would be a lawyer who likes poetry. Do you understand? I wouldn’t have been able to explore the potential of my literary creativity if it wasn’t for the Lantern Meet. The Lantern Meet was a poetry program which taught me how to commit to my goals. We had a show at the end of every semester; I had to be at the ‘Sunday Meet’ every two weeks. It may sound simple, but learning the art of committing to it was very important. There were also measures to guarantee quality in writing, quality in performing, quality in critiquing and quality in publishing. These things have stayed with me—the good, bad and the ugly. I keep telling people, “You see me creating good books but you can’t begin to imagine what my first books I produced looked like”. Thanks to the Lantern Meet, I now know what to avoid; what to do better. I would not know the things I know now, If I didn’t go through them with the Lantern Meet. The same applies to my performance. Young people these days are not as dedicated to the process as we used to be. They came when the stage had been set, and all they wanted was to perform without preparing themselves. Even the value of critiquing and getting feedback has been lost.
Bwojji: Capturing my voice in a metre in which it can sit is something I still struggle with as a poet. I believe this is because deep down, I still carry the voices of those who came before me and the awareness that I am making way for those who will come after me. A community raised me, so the language I use is not just mine, it’s the language of the people who raised me. When I read your poetry and the poetry of Wobusobozi, Ojakol, and Ngabire, I feel like you have achieved it. Is this because you consumed a lot of African literature?
Kagayi: Yes, yes, that’s true. Consuming African literature also shaped my attitude towards African culture in literature. It made me admire it. We young writers and poets are privileged to have the examples of people who made a good impression on us of how Africa can look like in literature.
Bwojji: When you write poetry steeped in social consciousness, you are often using a megaphone as you are tapping into the collective understanding of the theme. However, it almost feels like a whisper when you write about love because it is directed at one individual. Everyone is an expert on love, and the language of love is not the language of the street. How have you managed to balance writing about social issues and writing about your personal life?
Kagayi: Before I joined the Lantern Meet, I knew I loved literature, but I didn’t know how much I would love writing because I had never had the experience of being a writer. In the schools I attended, we didn’t have writers’ clubs or anything like that, but I loved reading so I invested time in that— I read novels and poetry. As for where I grew up, you couldn’t go to your peers and tell them about book things. All we talked about were things like football and movies. I was surprised when I encountered the Lantern Meet, a group of individuals committed to reading and writing. When I joined, they allowed me to nurture my passion for writing. The purpose for writing is something I discovered when I was with the Lantern Meet. Writing became a way for me to communicate primarily with myself, even before communicating with an audience. It doesn’t matter what issue I am writing about; when I write, I am my first audience, and I write for my own sake and sanity. So whether I am writing a love poem or a poem about a social issue, this is how I approach writing. Of course, more than just writing to myself, I am responding to various emotions and maybe even directly to certain people. For example, I wrote ‘In 2065’ after I was challenged to write my own poem about a futuristic Uganda. I went to Femrite and I gave this guy feedback on his poem titled “Uganda Reimagined”. I told him, “This is a good poem. It’s a good idea. The problem is, it’s not active; it’s too paper-like. Since it’s meant to be a kind of prophecy, why not give it a prophetic tone?”. The guy responded, “Okay, why don’t you write your own?”. That very night, I did exactly that. I wrote my own poem and took it to the Lantern Meet. There are instances like that. I wrote the poem, ‘How I Grew Up’ when I attended a workshop on writing for digital animation. In the first session, we were told to write about ourselves—I think that is one of the most difficult things someone can ask me to do.Where do I start? How many pages should I give you? We were supposed to write in prose, mention our names and so forth.Instead, I wrote the poem ‘How I Grew Up’. It was the best way I knew to talk about myself. I remember Deborah Assimwe (founder and director of KITF) was our facilitator and she liked my poem. She engaged me and advised me on how I could make what I already had a better poem. Bwojji, I am able to write socially, politically, and culturally because it’s my life. I use my work to reflect on my life, and my life happens in all those dimensions.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Tealee A. Brown.
Elijah Bwojji is the beloved son to his mother and father, a storyteller and an avid consumer of literature. He is a member of the Lantern Meet of Poets, producer of theater productions and audio-visual productions. He cofounded ibuajournal.com, an online publishing outfit in Kampala Uganda. He moderates A Poetry Meet, which is a space poets and poetry lovers come every fortnight to read and critique poems they have written. When he is not thinking about why leaves fall off trees to die, he freezes motion to tell stories in snapshot moments using photography.