The Babishai Niwe Foundation celebrated their tenth anniversary starting on World Poetry Day 2019 on March 21, 2019. The team led by founder Beverley Nambozo celebrated with a retreat to Kabale, Uganda with several poets in tow for the Babishai Poetry Festival 2019. Lillian Akampurira Aujo who was the first winner of the Babishai Poetry Prize 2009 shared with us her experience from the Ugandan town.
Every writer will tell you they need space to write. Aside from it being physical, this space is more importantly metaphorical; in order to write, the writer needs space in their head. Change of scenery and environment usually achieve this effect.
In a country where hardly any funding is given to the creative arts, it is hard to just get away from work, school, or home, and just go on a writing frolic. So when such an opportunity presented itself in the form of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation tenth anniversary celebrations, I was overjoyed.
I was looking forward to the cool picturesque hills of Kabale and its fresh air, and in this, I was not disappointed. Our vantage point to Lake Bunyonyi was enough to calm the mind’s eye; the resort’s decor charmed me from the moment we arrived. Needless to say by the time we left I had marked out a favourite couch, upholstered in velveteen lilac and lavender.
We had a barbeque by the fire, we shared poems, and it was interesting that despite the country, age, and gender differences we all spoke one language; the language of poetry. A self-diagnosed insomniac myself, I could relate to Cindy Lynn Brown’s poetry on insomnia. I was especially taken by how she personified this mammoth intangible element that pre[determines] a person’s demeanor, output and essentially the rhythms of their life. As a creative, I have often suffered fitting writing into the straightjacket 9am to 5pm life that we Africans are predisposed to. I know, I make it sound like a sort of illness, but it is in the sense that it can feel oppressive when the little energy one has is spent feeding the capitalist machine, instead of one’s writing. So I knew that my erratic sleeping patterns had a toll on me but I hadn’t quite found the words to express it. Coming to BN at 10 years, I meet Cindy Lynn Brown, a Danish poet who talks about this bedfellow who induces anxiety, tinnitus, and puffy eyes, etc, but life has to be lived. I suppose humans involuntarily seek out other humans to counter the feeling of experiential isolation as they go through life. These seemingly tenuous connections with other writers strengthen my tether to artistry because I see that I am not alone in trying to give faceless things like insomnia a face. And if one can see that face then we can deal with it. Of course, at a basic level, it is also comforting that someone across the boundaries of colour and heritage grapples with the same issues you do.
In Jami Proctor-Xu’s poetry, I felt the fear and horror of living with the knowledge that humans use rape as a tool to break men and women in war, in peace, and in mundane daily life. I think about this often, and how the world is impassive to the individual and collective suffering of sex offence victims; the body is a warzone as long as you are human. What better way to share the human experience than through our suffering? In this statement, I am intentional with the collective ‘our’ because it is only with empathy that we can become a better human race.
Simon Ortiz, an indigenous American poet drew my attention to that age old debate on whether African writers should write in their local languages and not the language(s) of the colonisers. He preceded each address with a greeting in what he termed his ‘indigenous’ language. His greeting included a mini oration of his lineage, which is no different from most of our local languages in Uganda. Here I felt, again, that nothing unites people like the human experience. I admired the rooted way he spoke of his language and culture, and it struck me that most of us, born and raised in African cities, have little or no knowledge of their local languages; we speak and write well in English, while our languages languish in our foggy lineages. There’s also the type of African who speaks their language with shoulders slunk, yet when Simon opened his mouth in his native tongue, what glided out was a musical pride.
Poets are always in conversation with language and I am no different. Consider for instance the way Simon Ortiz used(s) the term ‘indigenous’ languages of the Native Americans, and it with it is instantly imbued with the understanding that original inhabitants of the USA were Native Americans. When he used the same term in reference to Ugandan ‘indigenous’ languages I paused and time seemed to do a time warp to colonial times when the colonisers tried to kill their languages. Etymologically, the word ‘native’ would make sense, but then in the Ugandan contest ‘native’ immediately transposes to our bitter colonial past. Simon narrated how post the 1924 American Indian Wars, Native Americans were literary forced to wash their mouths out with soap, so that their tongues could forget their languages. As a child in 90’s post colonial Uganda I had to hold out my palms for caning as punishment for speaking ‘vernacular’ in school. I realised that the erasure of our local languages is something I have taken lightly, and I know many of my peers have done the same.
Then came the visit to Kabale University Faculty of languages, which I hope the students benefited from. As it is with someone you meet for the first time, there was a sense of eagerness and mild mistrust from the students to us. However, the lecture room grew noisier as we started the sharing sessions with the students in split up in groups. Their eyes lit up when I pointed out that the myths, legends, Kwevuga, folk songs, that they all know so well, is actually poetry. They performed some of them and after that, they looked calm. I could tell that they did not expect snatches of Runyankore in my own poetry; as I grow as a writer I find that I cannot ignore the issue of my lineage, and that in some cases, something is lost if I don’t maintain it in Runyankore. I told the students that they could write in whatever language they felt comfortable in, yet some of the more proficient ones in the Runyakitara languages had never considered that option; they felt they were expected to write in English only. What was encouraging is that a good number of students were keen on the proposed poetry club at the university.
At Grace Villa, a space managed by Ruth Bahika, that supports girls with education, health care, and a home, the girls welcomed the Babishai team with Traditional songs and dancing. They then performed poetry and shared their trophies as the indomitable and unbeatable football team in Kabale District. Grace Villa girls have excelled, despite their foundation of abusive and distraught homes, which they fled from. Some of the girls have won scholarships to leading universities worldwide; and are professional accountants and teachers.
I did not get much time to actually write but I jotted down several things as my mind began to open up in Kabale. Babishai at 10 was a huge success and the team, led by its Founder, Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva, was great.
Lillian received an award from the Babishai Niwe Poetry Team, for her noteworthy strides in poetry and the indelible mark she is making on the continent.
Here are more images from the festival.