An Interview with Timothy Wangusa.
My name is Natasha Sebunya. I am a huge fan of ANTHEM FOR AFRICA. My, it’s so rich. Thank you so much for this book. I learnt, laughed and healed after I began to understand the political situation we are in as Ugandans:
a) You have been signed to Kitara Nation and your trust in our brand means everything to this organization. (It was a humbling experience to bring your book home to my father who you taught in S.1.) Why did you feel you could trust us with your manuscript?
(I taught the teenage boy who was destined to be the father of our own Natasha Sebunya?? In what year, what goodly school was that, and what was his full name then?)
After two interactions with two separate teams of Kitara Nation, when they visited me towards the end of 2020 at my home in Mukono Municipality, I developed every confidence in your vision, evidenced by your aggressively marketed young titles, and I am proud and honoured to be associated with your youthful artistic energies. How else could I hope to rejuvenate my flagging poetic energies in my evening years?
b) By 1995 you had been an author for about 25 years by your admission, in a fine institution; how come by then you were still being discovered?
Although a couple of my poems first appeared in an international anthology (New Voices of the Commonwealth) in 1968, my first collection of poems, Salutations, did not appear until 1977, published in Nairobi (without being proofread!) during that hardest of decades in Uganda.
By1993, when Professor Claudio Gorlier visited Makerere, my second collection of poems, A Pattern of Dust, was still in manuscript form, finally published the following year, 1994, by Fountain Publishers – a typical Ugandan publisher not keen on publishing poetry – of all things! My next two verse titles, Africa’s New Brood and Poems of Mount Elgon (Bilomelele bye Lukingi Masaaba), of course, still lay in the medium future, published in 2006 and 2017, respectively.
c) In the 1995 preface of the first edition, Professor Claudio Gorlier theorizes on why African poetry in English was somehow overshadowed in critical attention by the impressive, parallel achievement of fiction from the continent. What is Ugandan poetry’s place within our society and beyond?
Poetic output from the African continent has been as impressive as the fiction. But, yes, critical attention for the former has been less, simply because criticism of poetry is a harder task than criticism of fiction! As evidence, in any random Department of Literature at University, only about 2 out of 10 lecturers are willing to, or have the prerequisite analytical tools for critiquing or teaching poetry! (You might say that the 8 out of 10 are non-inquisitive, intellectual cowards.) In Uganda, it is therefore a real pleasant surprise to find a Natasha Sebunya outside academia who is so insightful about poetry!!
d) Why do you consider ANTHEM FOR AFRICA to be your best work to date?
It is in Anthem for Africa that I deal in a rich spectrum of knowledge, ideas, histories, geographies, moods, modes, versification, linear and stanzaic variety, etc. It is also a work of “high seriousness” (never mind the frequent satiric and comic humour.) Where else have I invoked the creative muse as many as three times, had an omniscient, trans-chronometric narrator, and a narrative thread running through an entire work?
e) What was your writing process for this book? How long did it take you to write the book?
There was a background to the writing. That was, namely, years of reading and research, self-education, excursions into past African achievements, struggles and failures. I made library voyages to past African civilisations, including Egypt, Mali, and Ethiopia. As for the writing process, I happen to be an un-apologetic revisionist. I write and re-write, and re-write, and revise. Maybe it took me as many as 10 years!
f) For all its rich diction, humor and fantastic imagery Anthem for Africa is not a very hopeful book. With a celebrated coup that turned on its citizens, I felt very much that we are stuck in this unyielding loop doomed to repeat the same mistake. As a teacher what advice do you have to young Ugandans about navigating this place?
Yes, Anthem for Africa does not paint a rosy picture of current Africa or an Africa of the immediate future. But in addition to highlighting the very highest in its past (pyramids, shadoof, un-colonised Ethiopia, Sundiata, MAUMAU, Maji Maji, etc.), the poetry challenges our African populations to politically grow up to the point of resisting bad governments, and to stop foolishly celebrating armed toppling of ruling regimes – as our shared humanity deserves better than that!
My “elder statesman” advice to both young and fellow old wordsmiths is that “there is no end to the interminable wrestle with words”! There is no easy shortcut to creating a literary work where all the various elements “dance together in a consort.” A very important aspect of our calling is to be always writing something and to be always reading something by a practiced writer.
g) How did you come up with Afrolandia, Afrozania and Kirinyagandia?
Thinly disguised indeed, “Afrolandia” (for any African country) connotes Uganda; the “…zania” gives away Tanzania; while “Kirinyaga”, the indigenous name for Mount Kenya, tells us what “Kirinyagandia” is.
i) I think I have a clue on who Masaya fat cheeks and Omujozi Mujozi, but please confirm for the audience; do you see some parts of yourself in Namwenya, the poem’s narrator?
“Masaya” (which intentionally half rhymes with “Messiah” = “Saviour”) in Mbale region is a male surname, literally meaning “Someone with fat cheeks” (such as a certain Ugandan Afande – past or present!). As for “Ojozi”, there was a general presumption in Uganda that anybody whose name commences with an “O” must be an outlandish non-Muganda, non-Muntu, a “mukaanyabulo” (and that, by implication, any one such to assume headship of the nation was act of impudence, “kujoga” (however spelt!).
As for me – supposing my name was Owangusa or Ongusa??
j) You could have written fiction, for all we know. Why did you choose to write poetry?
I mainly chose the path of poetry from quite early, instinctively or intuitively, only to be persuade later on (via Samuel Tailor Coleridge, 1772-1834) that “prose is words in their best order”; and “poetry is the best words in their best order”. (BUT: my slighter works of prose fiction have all along run parallel to my verse efforts. Isn’t my novel Upon this Mountain perhaps better known than any of my poems??)
k) According to you, who are your top 5 favorite Ugandan poets, and who are a must read for this up and coming generation?
Who is/are a must read? (That is my personal secret!) Otherwise, I should say that only that poet is “a must read” whose work combines a fresh vision, passionately felt matter, and informed craftsmanship.