Samantha Maw is studying a Creative Writing MA at Lincoln University in the U.K. and is a member of Lincoln Creative Writers and Outspoken Poets. A part time English lecturer, she has finally gained the confidence to impose her poems and blogging skills (couragechasers.com) on the general public. She lives in Lincoln, enjoys performing at spoken word events, and leads story time at the local village library.
A Poetic Adventure in Uganda
I used to live and work out in Kampala, Uganda and in May I had the chance to fly over for a couple of weeks and not only catch up with friends, but find out what was happening in the Kampala poetry scene. It was an added privilege to be able to meet and interview Faith Atuhumuze – her debut collection `where the night sings` is now available to buy from Blue Nib Publishing.
I began my Ugandan poetic adventure by attending a production called `With Pens that Shout and Mouths that Shut` at the National Theatre.
Uganda’s National Theatre
This was a performance directed by Daniel Omara and produced by Kagayi Peter. Both are performance poets. Kagayi is a poetry coach and has a collection out called `The Headline that Morning`. The performance was a collaboration between Kagayi and the girls from The Rhymers Club at Nabisunsa Girls School, Kampala and was a dramatic presentation of the poems they had written between 2012 and 2017. Each poem was set into a script with a variety of actors, scenery and props, and no-one read from a page; it was all memorised. Local instruments were used and some poems were set to music. The poems were a fascinating insight into the life of a teenage Ugandan girl in contemporary Kampala. The difficulties of juggling the influences and expectations of local culture, religion and modernism were a recurring theme.
“Why do I write?”
Topics also included school life (Dear Mr. Teacher Man; I’m not that bad really ), politics (Wamma my Dictator, Wake Up Uganda) and love (My Heart is Setting off to Mars). Most poems were in English; some were in Luganda. A comedy duo entertained us between each poem and they were both genuinely funny (I’d go so far as to say a female Ant & Dec). The poets were excellent at involving the audience, who in turn were very responsive and clicked their fingers in approval throughout the acts. We were also asked questions and given phrases to repeat at the appropriate time.
I thoroughly enjoyed the performance – I was surprised at how professional it was and was overwhelmed by the fact that poetry played such a central role in the lives of these young girls. It gave them a voice, a platform to speak from, and people were starting to listen. Music, rhythm, poetry, song – they all play a significant role in Ugandan culture. `The creative economy is booming,` Kagayi said in his closing words at the end of the show. “We are trying to move away culturally from the idea that REAL poetry is only Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth. For us REAL poetry gives the ordinary person a way to engage with society in a creative way; to make their mark”.
In her poem Legacy, Angwech Faith puts it like this:
My name will not be whispered in corridors like it were blasphemy,
No. It shall be shouted on rooftops and all will say,
“Hear ye, hear ye…!”
And those who doubt my existence if they even dare to peer
into the recedes of history they will see that at one time,
I was here.
Later that week, I attended the Tontoma Poetry Jazz Session in Kansanga, organised by the Ugandan Arts Trust. It was an evening attended by artists from Uganda (Shirley May), Nigeria (JoeJoesKy Awo), and the DRC (Mugay Gideon). After the performances, Kagayi Peter was invited to discuss with the audience whether true poets are those who learn and perform their work. It was a heated debate and reminded me a little of a Pentecostal church service, with people waving their arms and affirming each other’s point of view.
Kagayi Peter at Tontoma Tontoma
By the end of the session I was convinced that as a spoken word poet, I really should have a go at learning some of my poems. Kagayi talked about poets practising their craft like a pianist might practise their scales or an actor might learn lines. They should internalise and memorise each poem, throwing their whole body into the performance like an athlete. “Poets are like preachers,” he claimed, “They have something important to say and need to put thought into how they say it. Reading a poem introduces a third party – you are putting up an automatic barrier between you and the audience. The tradition of oral literature is that you involve the audience fully.”
Kagayi drew our attention to the idea of the traditional village poet; part of their job was to announce the arrival of their army before a battle between two tribes. It was a serious, brave and noble responsibility. It took preparation. I like the idea of a poet being a spokesperson, the one who leads people into battle. “Language isn’t just about words,” he went on. “It’s about intention and self-belief. Communication is verbal and non-verbal.” Regardless of what I think about poets always needing to learn their work by heart, I was impressed by Kagayi’s philosophy, and the passion he had for his art.
Poets and artists get together regularly in Kampala to discuss issues affecting their work.
I attended a few more poetry events over my time in Kampala; including an evening called INVERSE featuring the musician Wake, Heights the Preacher, Devis the Poet and Kiira Waibi. They were all part of a group called The Potter’s Clay Performers. This was on an outdoor stage in the grounds of Smokey’s Restaurant & Lounge on Nakasero Road and was again, a series of dramatic poems within a variety of short sketches about God, love and politics. And again, we enjoyed lots of local music, chanting, dancing and singing, and plenty of G&T’s.
The INVERSE poetry event
I finally managed to pin Kagayi down for a short interview. In typical `Meet the Poet` style I asked him the following questions:
How and when did you become interested in writing poetry?
In 2008 a friend invited me to watch a poetry recital at the Uganda National Theatre. It was staged by her poetry group, the Lantern Meet of Poets, made up of university students like myself. The performances showed me how to enjoy poetry in innovative ways. It made me love poetry more. That experience gave me impetus to join the group. We met bi-weekly to critique each other’s works and we staged a bi-annual poetry recital at the Uganda National Theatre. This routine ensured we wrote, critiqued, performed, and published our poetry.
Where do you get your inspiration?
My inspiration comes from the experiences I encounter in my daily life. These influence both the aesthetic as well as the thematic aspects of my art. I believe my art and I are the same and we reflect each other.
Describe what your role as poetry coach involves.
I help people improve on their skills in the composition, performance and archiving of poetry. For those who already write, I help them with transitioning their works from the page to the stage . I also help in creating poetry events that the community can enjoy.
What is happening in the poetry scene right now in Uganda?
More young people are taking up performance poetry as form of expression. A number of poetry events have pegged themselves to our calendars. A variety of poetry collections, anthologies and audio albums and publishing houses have started up recently. We also have public discussions and debates about our poetry culture today. The scene is certainly more vibrant than it was ten years back.
How can people internationally get in touch with you and read more of your work?
We can interact through social media, Facebook (Kagayi Ngobi), email ([email protected]) and my published works are available for order and delivery at turnthepageafrica.com.
I wanted to leave you with one of Kagayi’s poems from The Headline that Morning, but as he is a performance poet I thought it better to add a link to a video of him reciting, `The Audience Must Say Amen`. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdX3O0ERV_E
Enjoy – and if you are ever in Kampala, check out what is happening. The creative economy is most definitely booming!