africologne (3): A history of Kagayi Ngobi’s poem «For my negativity» «Nothing has changed that much»

In cooperation with the africologneFESTIVAL we present a series of four essays by African and Afro-diasporic artists who reflect on their performance work as an act of resistance and at the same time take a critical look at postcolonial power relations. In his contribution, the Ugandan poet Kagayi Ngobi, who will present his spoken word performance For my negativity during the festival, describes how dangerous life can be for a political poet in his home country  – and how he finally abandoned his law studies to dedicate himself to a precarious existence as a poet.

The author, editor and performer Kagayi Ngobi (Photo: Katara Nation)

by Kagayi Ngobi

On Thursday night 28th April 2022, while on his way home, the scholar, poet and critic Danson Kahyana was waylaid and brutally beaten by four men. In 2019 he had written in the foreword of my book FOR MY NEGATIVTY that writers, like soldiers, guard the nation. That while soldiers may defend it «with guns and bombs from external aggression», writers on the other hand use «pen-points and barrels of their pens» to «defend it from deadlier diseases that eat it from within.»

I assure you, his reasoning above was not why he found himself among «goons who knocked out his teeth and took all his possessions», as one newspaper put it. Rumor has it, perhaps his fate was sealed in 2018, the year he compiled and published a book of poems about the 2016 Ugandan Army attack on the Rwenzururu royal palace. It happened in the town of his birthplace Kasese in Western Uganda where, according to Human Rights Watch, over 100 people died.

The year he released the book, Kahyana also published a paper in which he coined the phrase «diagnostic poetics». By this he meant «the use of poetry to probe into post-independence realities with the aim of discovering the ailment of Africa». He had wanted to understand, through the analysis of Okot p’Bitek’s poetry, the «disease Africa is suffering from» that keeps «preventing it from achieving a cultural revolution.»

Kagayi Ngobi on stage (Photo: Ute Langkafel)

I also don’t know why, but since Uganda attained independence on 9th October 1962, some Ugandan poets have been getting in trouble for their writings about the nation’s uphill struggle to create its identity. Their reflections and styles vary, as their troubles do.

4 years after the Union Jack had been lowered for the Ugandan flag to be raised, Bitek’s seminal long poem SONG OF LAWINO appeared in print. 2 years later, it would get him fired from his job. Hailed as the first in the league of the ‘East African song school tradition’, the poem, as the scholar Ernesto Okello Ogwang put it, «offers a critique of the essence as much as the rhetoric of development and of independence.»

«By then,» Bitek told Bernth Lindfors in the late 1970’s, «the political situation in Uganda had changed a lot. Uhuru had come, and we were already beginning to abuse it.»

And 57 years counting, poets in Uganda still wage war against this ‘Uhuru Abuse’. The battle to expunge its roaming ghosts still comes at a cost for which some like Kahyana have paid a high price. But their impact remains. Their poeming persists. The grips around their necks tighten but their voices get louder. Hello, Stella Nyanzi.

Maybe, as Kahyana portends, the persona in my poem FOR MY NEGATIVITY is at war with diseases like «mediocrity, greed, impunity, autocracy. And the worst of them all, self-deification–», which have given «birth to strange fruits» (like) «pessimism.»

Where is the lie?

Kagayi Ngobi with dancer Kifuko Moureen Drichiru, performing in «Romeo&Juliet in Kampala» (Photo: Bridgeworks Köln)

Since independence, Uganda has gone through successions of political turmoil but in 1986, there came a fundamental change and «so the mustard seed was sown.» At the beginning, everything appeared good but as years went by, things started to feel bad. «We had everything before us, we had nothing before us», Dickens would have said. As children of the revolution, we grew up in these vicissitudes singing «We are the pillars of tomorrow’s Uganda». Modern technology came. We were now digital natives of the world, ‘The Millennials’. By then poetry was still largely a classroom and examinations affair.

Between 2002 and 2007 when Russell Simmon’s ‘Def Poetry’ aired on HBO, it coincided with the creation of YouTube in 2005. This changed poetry globally. Young poetry lovers in Uganda, for example, encountered a poetry style and culture that, hitherto, their formal education had largely rendered unfamiliar: the art of performance poetry, or to be precise, spoken word. In Def Poetry, some youth found new tools to use to amplify their contemplations: the stage. All roads led to a new poetry movement in Uganda.

Kagayi Ngobi on stage (Photo: Kitara Nation)

In 2009 I was a law student when I started writing and performing poetry. That was after I had joined the really cool, talented and humbly ostentatious group the Lantern Meet of Poets. We were mostly in our early 20’s. Poetry was our passion. We shared weed, books, poems, poetry videos, movies, music, documentaries; we lent each other our tastes. The Uganda National Theatre was our home. You could bring a poem and the group would hungrily ‘delve into it’. We spoke our minds. Iron sharpened iron. It was a spectacle both empowering and disempowering. If you never saw poets debate, agitate, praise, grimace, cry, decry, shred, stand in ovation, defend all in the name of a poem, then surely you missed the lantern Meet!

When I joined the group, their influence on me grew, but poetry was only my weekend’s pre-occupation; a thing I took seriously but wrote about lightly. It was for individual pleasure. I could write a sonnet every now and then, perform a poem here and there, attend a few poetry events and at the end of the day, read my law books; basically, poetry was plot for leisure.

But before long, as many of us left university, the question of purpose arose and became the epicenter of the group’s existence. Why did we write poetry? What legacy did we want to leave? Where should we focus, on writing or performance? The answers varied as our road shattered and split. We knew what we were, not what we would become. Personally, by then I had been inspired enough to resolve poetry was my calling.

By 2012 I had shelved my law degree. I was now a full-time poet with the Lantern Meet, a high school poetry coach and poetry teacher. That year on 9th October, Uganda was to celebrate 50 years of independence. With a lot of talk going around on the question of how truly independent our country was, 50 years on, we were inspired to contribute to the debate. That zeitgeist changed us. We wrote like we had never written before. The political had become personal. In November we staged our show BROKEN VOICES OF THE REVOLUTION. The stage roared. The show had a unique resonance on us all. Newspapers called us many great things. My favorite was ‘the walking wounded.’

That season helped me reflect on the poetry road I had taken. Looking back, it was the night of that recital I grew more guts to write and recite the way I feel like. After I saw how the audience and my friends reacted to my poems, I began looking out for more poetry in everyday life. I ditched the iambic pentameter stuff and versified rhythms within my surroundings.

When I left the Lantern Meet in 2015, I was still writing and reciting poems. Poetry was my therapy. But I had to make it work. I went to different spoken word poetry platforms that had now mushroomed around Kampala to vent though my verse. Not satisfied with the environment, with the help from dear friends we started THE POETRY SHRINE, a poetry night where we experimented with various forms of performance arts and merged them with our poetry. That period was inspiring. We gave birth to and popularized the one man/one woman poetry show concept in Kampala.

Kagayi Ngobi in «For my negativity» (Photo: Kitara Nation)

Yet still, there were more questions than answers. The more I looked for inspiration, the more questions I found. Why do I write? Why do I perform? To whom do I write? Why don’t I perform in my mother tongue? Is poetry only in poetry in English? Who is my audience? Should it even matter?  How do I live off poetry?

I did not have answers, just poems. I felt I was writing more like myself but I was not always confident when I faced the question ‘in what language do you dream?’ One day, I could not explain to my grandmother who does not speak English what poetry meant. That day my education embarrassed me and I desired to un-educate myself. The incapacitation made me grasp the extent my schools had unschooled me out of my heritage.

Since that day, I began questioning the whole thing of English poetry vis-à-vis poetry in English. My image, my spirit, all my writings, my thinking, and everything I knew about me, I put under inspection. I still write and recite poetry (even in English) as I ponder on the creation story of my identity. Along the way I even changed names; dropped Peter for, first, Mutanga, then finally Ngobi, a name from my mother’s clan.
This was nothing new. Other writers before me had faced similar trials and all seemed to agree that identity is a huge and almost insurmountable crisis the African must negotiate every day. Nonetheless, my recent poems, some of which raised such questions, resonated with audiences. I grew accustomed to folks walking up to me to offer feedback about my performances but trust me, never trust audiences; today they love you, tomorrow they are scared of you.

Since my Lantern Meet days, I was always puzzled by folks who, before or after I had performed, took me aside and, seemingly out of concern, asked me why my poems were ‘very political’. What satisfactory answer could I give? That life is political? And how they would insist on preaching caution to me, sometimes right before censoring my work! What could I say back? That I am a product of my times? Their reactions emboldened my writing. A lot was going on around the country that was inevitable to notice.

Kagayi Ngobi in «For my negativity» (Poto: Kitara Nation)

In December 2017, the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda was controversially amended and the Presidential age-limits repealed. We had seen this trend. History was repeating itself. Those who hoped for a change in government felt hopeless. A generational resignation arose. In that political climate my poems could have written themselves.

Through those moments I was inspired to write and publish my second poetry book YELLOW PUPU POEMS. It’s a tri-lingual collection of verse which in its introduction Kalundi Serumaga thinks «is about to become a declaration of war.» After it came out in 2018, the language cautioning my poetry changed. From being called ‘political’, now it was termed ‘negative.’ I was neither amused nor surprised. In the heat of that ‘do not touch it’ constitutional debacle, our country’s fragile divisions built on political lines tipped. They manifested everywhere and poetry was not spared the ignominy.

In some corners, my poems were now brazenly branded ‘anti-government’. Why then, should I have been surprised when the Uganda National Theatre, in mid-2018, canceled my company’s poetry production ARREST THE POEM after its premiere?

As years have gone by, I have watched audiences grow from loving to fearing to silencing my poems.

Kagayi Ngobi in «For my negativity» (Foto: Jackson)

The inspiration to write FOR MY NEGATIVITY found me seated at the back of a taxi. It was a Friday night in the middle of July 2018. I was on my way home from a performance poetry night organized by Nsubuga Davis A.K.A. Davis the Poet.

A new wave of young spoken word poets had just taken Kampala’s urban poetry scene by storm and Davis was one of them. On this night, he had just staged his one-man poetry show LINES AND RHYMES. Many moments that night had stood out, but for me, there was particularly one that could not leave my mind: his drummer’s poetry performance in one of the interludes. Mugoda Gordon A.K.A. Wake the Poet had recited a poem that had robbed me of my mouth. Its title was NEGATIVITY.

That night the traffic jam was for World Cup. Cars moved in delayed motion but I could not have been more grateful. It was the perfect mood to ruminate. My mind kept racing back to Wake’s poem. It kept speaking in my head! The passengers around me had become obsolete. I was all by myself but not with myself. Through his performance I had teleported back to the lantern meet days when my friends and I asked ‘what role a poet played’. His poem triggered in me an existential dilemma I had inadvertently been confronting for a while, yet now I had to defend: the question of my identity as a poet.

In my head there was no answer, but only questions with all kinds of background noises. My memory summoned voices cautioning against my poems. It evoked me to reflect on the times we were living in and how as a poet I felt about them.

My body was still in the commuter van but my spirit was running riot. The night sky was full of stars as my mind filled up more and more questions. A clap of resistance thundered inside me as I inwardly asked: what is negative poetry? If poems are negative, are they wicked? What is negativity anyway? To whom is negativity negativity even? If I see the bad, should just keep quiet and hold on until the good arrives? If my poetry is negative, am I anti-hope, so to speak?

Lost in thought and out of reason, as the unsettlement of Wake’s poem grew on me, something in me wanted to respond.  I needed to explain my poetic self. I needed to respond or else I would burst. A sudden urge to voice my mind came over me. I took my phone out of my pocket, opened the note-pad and started writing.  The first lines of the poem today were actually the first lines I wrote that night. After moments of contemplation, I went back to the top of the page and wrote the title on my mind: FOR MY NEGATIVITY.

Kagayi Ngobi in «For my negativity» (Foto: Kitara Nation)

I started writing the poem around the time I was challenging myself to write a poem a day. I was into my third week of consistency. I normally do this exercise to re-charge my creativity. Around that time I was also listening to Kae Tempest, reading Edmund Spencer’s ‘Prothalamion’ and, more keenly, Okot p’Bitek. I had always wanted to understand his song-school poetry style and hoped one day to write a poem in similar fashion. How, I did not know; but the opportunity to find out presented itself on the night after Davis’ show. I was there in the taxi minding my poem when I realized the chance had come.

It took me about 4 months of writing and re-writing to complete the first draft. Initially, I had thought of writing one long block poem but later realized I could also create a series of them, each part posited from a different but connected general idea the poem would espouse.

Kagayi Ngobi in «For my negativity» (Foto: Jackson)

Friday 12th October 2018 was the first time I shared the complete poem publicly. It read it to a group of poets who normally converged at the Makerere University poetry night ‘Kelele at Makerere’. Wake the Poet was in the audience. Davis too. Earlier that the day, Makerere University had held a memorial symposium for the late poet, scholar and diplomat, David Rubadiri. Was it serendipity that the poem was ready for sharing on the night he was commemorated? I had printed the poem out and it stood on 27 pages. When my time to present came, I read each page like my life was on the line. By the end of the poem, my voice was loud, as I danced off stage singing its last lines.

I kept re-writing it as I continued performing bits of it. At the beginning of 2019, I decided to adopt all the 7 parts of the poem into a one man play. A week to its premiere in July that year, along with 3 other poets, my mother included, we performed at the African Writers Trust Literature Conference poetry night. The event was proudly sponsored by The British Council. I recited Part One of the poem entitled, ‘Before I am Taxed for my Apology’. Had I known the uneasy silence I would have caused to invade the room as I uttered the lines, «I’m sorry for my misery/Because I hate this English language too…» maybe I would have reconsidered being at the event all together.

At the end of the night, a lady I never met before walked up to me and, after a hearty greeting, proceeded to inquire if I had ever been arrested for my work. I said no; to which she laughed and replied, «Because they have never heard you» and then immediately walked away.

The play’s premiere a week later went well, I think. It was at the Uganda National Theater. The standing ovation that night was special; kind of healing, actually. But the play had almost been called off mid-way, had it not been for the timely intervention of one of the theatre’s managers.

We staged it again in 2022 at the same venue, this time for the Kampala International Theatre Festival. The event was almost called off as the organizers were threatened with imprisonment. For the first time in their 9 years of curating plays, they had been asked to procure from the Media Council of Uganda a festival permit and also a permit for each of the plays to be showcased, including works in progress, a week to the festival! Eventually the permits were granted a day to the opening. My play had been programmed as the festival’s opening act and yes, the show went on. Considering what we went through to stage it, it was a statement.

Because in Uganda, writing and performing poetry can be harmful to your health. Eyes and ears are always on you. You have to write as if you are already dead. «As if nothing can be done, or said, to save you.» Rumor has it that someone at the theatre tipped off the Media Council soon after attending one of our technical rehearsals. We were not surprised.

What was new?

The author, editor and performer Kagayi Ngobi (Photo: Katara Nation)

Kagayi Ngobi is a Ugandan playwright, poet, performer and publisher. He has worked on 6 plays, published 4 personal poetry collections and published 25 books by other authors. A former lawyer, he gave up his practice in 2011 after realizing a gap in the way Ugandan stories were authentically told. That year, he became a teacher of literature and poetry in high schools across Uganda. This is when he noticed an even bigger gap in Uganda’s education system, which does not prepare young people to turn their talents into literary careers. This was the motivation behind him founding Kitara Nation, a poetry organization that works with young emerging artists to equip them with skills to re-imagine their agency in shaping Uganda’s literary landscape. Kagayi remains committed to working with young artists, publishing Ugandan content and challenging romanticized ideas of African lived experiences.

This text was written as part of the programme «Violence and Resistance» of the africologneFESTIVAL 2023. Supported by the German Translator Fund as part of the Neustart Kultur programme of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media and the Kunststiftung NRW.

As part of the africologneFESTIVAL, Ngobi Kagayi will present his performance «For my negativity» at the Orangerie on June 7. He will also take part in the round table «Gewalt und Widerstand/Violence and Resistance» on  June 5 at 9 pm.

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