A translators’ diary by Annette Bühler-Dietrich and George Bwanika Seremba Translating the Mad Poet

Annette Bühler-Dietrich, Kagayi Ngobi and George Bwanika Seremba at the Kamapala International Theatre Festival in the Ugandan capital in autumn 2023 (Photo: private)

Last summer, the stage play «For My Negativity» by Ugandan performance poet Kagayi Ngobi was shown in Germany for the first time – at the africologne festival in Cologne. At the time, it was jointly translated and surtitled by the German literary scholar Annette Bühler-Dietrich and the Ugandan actor, theatre scholar and playwright George Bwanika Seremba, who lives in exile in Canada. In a two-part translator’s journal for PLATEFORME, the duo reflects on the historical and cultural background of Ngobi’s provocative poetry and the difficulties of an adequate translation into German.


A Perilous Nation on Trial: Kagayi Ngobi’s For My Negativity

by George Bwanika Seremba


The dramatic monologue For My Negativity, is a series of poems in the tradition of Uganda’s Okot p’Bitek’s famous Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. Lawino is probably the more memorable of the two seminal works that gave birth to the «Song School»; because of Lawino’s language and sharp tongue in her struggle to defend her traditions and world view against her alienated husband and his equally westernised or disoriented mistress. Okot’s ultimate reward was the agony of exile. One hopes Ngobi will never have to endure that or God-forbid, worse.

«Negativity» is written and performed by Ngobi himself, and directed by Kalundi Serumaga. The sharp, satirical monologue is a kind of ironic apologia in verse; with a running time of a little over an hour. Ngobi’s rails against the denialists who have turned a blind eye to the colossal ailments of their postcolonial State, but unblushingly turn ─he (the poet, town-crier and truth-teller) into a scapegoat. He is blamed, condemned and declared insane for revealing some brutal, virulent truths about an ailing colonial construct of a nation. Ngobi plays a lawyer, an allegedly mad poet and father among other personages. The performance unfolds against a white bedsheet hanging upstage, on which still-photographs and grainy footage is projected; occasionally combined with voice overs to reinforce both narrative and demonstrable, documented facts of Ngobi’s lament.

In a nation that long parted ways with common sets of agreed, incontrovertible facts and truths; Ngobi’s lament takes the audience through years of a harrowing, sordid history, to the source, nature, anatomy, diagnosis of the failed State his Country is. Its terminal ailment began a few short years after political or flag-independence. The performance starts with a voice over of Uganda’s first prime Minister Milton Obote; presumably moments after he accepts the instruments of power. Far more important than what he says, is his unspoken, ultimate goal of a monarchised «L’État c’est moi«; kind of life-presidency.

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

Those words attributed to Louis xiv may well be apocryphal but Obote would indeed, soon declare himself President by seizing absolute power. The federal constitution, agreed at independence; is the heart of the play. It was replaced by one which the members of parliament were advised to find in their pigeon holes. Those that opposed it were detained for years without trial. In short order, Obote then ordered the army to storm the King’s palace in what came to be known as the battle of Mengo on May the 24th 1966. The Kabaka (King of Buganda), was also the elected President and the only elected one, even long after his life was tragically cut short in exile (1969). The floodgates of tyranny were forced open before the dust settled on the ecstasy of self-rule and independence. It is that that leads to Ngobi’s unequivocal alarm: «The Ground Norm is up for sale!»

If there was a problem with the original, federal Constitution; it is that it was written and remained in the language of the coloniser, hence the poet’s palpable fury and constant lambasting of the Queen of England; Uganda’s erstwhile master. It was, indeed, Britain that constructed, the pre-fabricated country named after the central, largest and wealthy kingdom and nation of (B)uganda. The coloniser remained through Uganda’s official lingua franca; hence the rightful anger in the refrain, through many of the poems: «This land belongs to Queen Elizabeth». The fact remains that this rapacious violation, termination and shredding of the legitimate constitution threw the toddling construct off its natural orbit and it has been spinning like an errant satellite since.  Unprecedented conflict, violence; physical and psychic─ and alienation against the time and consensus-tested mores, values, and norms are the ruling, albeit, absurd, inverted and eventually naturalised logic.

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

Apart from Mutesa each of the «tenured» heads of State has only tightened the authoritarian grip; extending the frontiers of strong-manist, gun- rule in the name of self-perpetuation and aggrandisement.

«Open your wound/ To let out your pus»; Ngobi implores them all and their acolytes. Among the more recent assaults on the people, are the taxes. Hence the refrain: «But before I am taxed for my apology…». The colossal environmental wreckage of the land, the rampant corruption, are all part of the poet’s dirge and ironic apologia. The «Sugar» and salt-give-away» event/s at the grotesque political campaigns add more salt to the vast people’s wounds and a form of ritual self- affirmation for the self-perpetuators. Voter-be-warned «viewer discretion is advised.» Ngobi intimates to us six times.

The constitution was long nailed to a cross the poet bears, as well as the dustbin-suitcase. His children have long wished for death instead of their wretched lives; «Is there a heaven for corruption?», he asks on their behalf, at the traditional shrine.

There is a faint hope and tiny glint and swagger as he evokes some of the pillars of integrity, who perished in the killing fields of Amin:  Archbishop and martyr: Luwum, Ben Kiwanuka (Chief-Justice), playwright Byron Kawadwa. He also invokes and celebrates his ancestors.’ The appearances of the disappeared and even the legendary Lawino, whose father was actually a celebrated warrior; may signify stirrings of something. Ngobi salutes his ancestors and exits dancing gracefully, singing; perhaps imbued with a little hope.


George Bwanika Seremba (Photo: Kathleen Lantos)

George Seremba holds an MPhil and a PhD in Theatre Studies from Trinity College Dublin. He served as an Assistant Professor at Case Western Reserve, USA, and held the IWP Fellowship at Brown University (RI). His essay «Myth, Mythopoeia and Robert Serumaga’s Majangwa» was published in the African Theatre Association’s APR (2017).  Seremba is also an actor and playwright; has appeared on Television and the Movies in Ireland, Canada and the USA. He has performed in numerous plays, including Athol Fugard’s The Blood knot, Master Harold and … «the boys», as well as his autobiographical play, Come Good Rain, for which he won a Dora award for Outstanding New Play. His monograph Robert Serumaga and the Golden Age of Uganda’s Theatre (1968-1978) was recently published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, in the UK. Canada has been home for Seremba since the mid-80s. He continues to lecture and research, perform and write for the theatre.


For My Negativity – Questions of Translation

by Annette Bühler-Dietrich


Kagayi Ngobi’s long poem For My Negativity is the basis for a play with solo performer, music, audio recordings, and projections; the play text contains the lines of the poet character as well as stage directions but no transcripts of the excerpts from radio news.

The poem is in free verse, mostly in English but with expressions and phrases in Luganda and Lusoga. It works with some recurring phrases such as «I am sorry for my negativity/my melancholy …» as well as the modified oath of the Ugandan constitution:


So, before I am taxed for my apology
Before you make me swear
This land belongs to Queen Elizabeth
For God to save my forsaken country
I am sorry
For my melancholy.


Aber bevor ich für meine Entschuldigung beschuldigt werde
Bevor ihr mich schwören lasst
Dieses Land gehört Queen Elizabeth
damit Gott mein verlorenes Land rettet
für meine Melancholie.


In the play, references to Ugandan society past and present abound – references to the national flag, to corrupt politicians, to street food, to literature, to name but a few. All of this in a language, sometimes rhymed, which uses poetic images, alliteration and anaphora, and inversed, often condensed word order. Some terms only become clear in the course of the protracted rereading/rewatching of the play and its performance. Kagayi’s battle with English –  «Because I hate this / English language too –»  further turns English into a language malleable for the poet’s purposes. It is not the Queen’s English which needs to be spoken. In order to break the dominance of English, the poet inserts some national languages, understood by the local audience but not by the spectators in Cologne. Nevertheless, he insisted on keeping these lines their original way. Since terms like «tebawuliriza» are repeated in English, «they do not listen,» they, just like other terms in the play, can be understood because of direct translation or context. Their use in both languages serves length and sound but also address.

For the translation, the references to Ugandan history and society first needed to be elucidated. Here, George Seremba’s knowledge of languages, culture, and history were indispensable. Once the references were clear, the priority was first to find a way to maintain the rhythm of the text and the length of the lines – both because it is poetry and because the subtitles eventually had to correspond to the flow of the performance. The possibility to coin composite words in German as well as the flexible German word order helped achieve this aim.

Kagayi Ngobi performing «For my negativity» (Photo: Jackson)

Kagayi’s phrase «I am sorry for my negativity» posed more problems since no German phrase worked. I finally decided upon «sorry,» a frequent word now in German. «Negativity» eventually remained «Negativität». It sounds stilted in English – and remains so in German. Conversations with the author brought out that this stiltedness was intentional: people had accused him of being too negative in his poetry – as if the poet’s negativity was the societal problem and not all the other ills he addresses in his play.

All financial matters – the sale of the constitution, the heaven for corruption, the precarity of living conditions in a slum in Bwaise because the national resources have all been privatized – form a continuous thread throughout the play. When the poet thus says «before I am taxed for my apology,» one can hear both, taxed and accused, and one way of translating it is to alternate between the two terms.

Another thread is Kagayi’s use of the bible as intertextual reference, a reference he supports on the visual level with the image of himself as a Christ-like figure carrying the crucified constitution. During the production the cross later turns into a gun and the reference to abused Christianity in a country known for its religious fundamentalism is replaced by a turn to the traditional divinity: «Dear Moulder, creator of all things». As George Seremba notes, in Lusoga the equivalent to «moulder» is used for the divine. In German, I struggled with the term. For the final version of the translation I now think of «Erschaffer»; any substantivized German word referring to the molding of clay would sound strange in the context. The tone of address also had to be maintained and I kept the elevated style of the English version.


For our politicians,
I come to you,
Giver of good health;
To tell you of your children
Left in villages asking
The fire of Jjajja ssalongo
A difficult answer
To a simple question
I ask you on their behalf:

Is there a heaven for corruption?


Wegen unserer Politiker
komme ich zu dir
um dir von deinen Kindern zu berichten
zurückgelassen in Dörfern
mit einer Frage an
Jjajja Salongos Feuer 
nach einer schwierigen Antwort
auf eine einfache Frage
ich frage für sie:

Gibt es einen Himmel für Korruption?


Finally some of the references like «the sugar-and-salt-giveaway-ceremony» (see Seremba) or the eatable «rolex of orature» could only be deciphered through context: A «rolex» is the name of a popular street food in Kampala. Eventually, it was hardest to maintain the flow of the text which occasionally draws on hip-hop and other music.


Doom glides in a centipede,
Terror flies in a vulture,
Fear manifests in a snail trail,
The signs of a fox tail-shed
Have ripened our Fate


Verhängnis tausendfüßelt dahin
Terror im Geierflug
Furcht im Schneckengang
Die Zeichen eines schwanzlosen Fuchses
haben unser Schicksal reifen lassen


Whereas Kagayi maintains a balance between rhythm, rhyme, colloquial and elevated style, I myself struggled not to sound too much like Friedrich Hölderlin’s late poetry. However, for the revolutionary «mad» German poet of the earl 19th century and Kagayi’s mad poet, there might be some common ground.



Annette Bühler-Dietrich (Photo: private)

Annette Bühler-Dietrich is a translator and scholar. She has translated plays and prose by francophone authors such as Hakim Bah, Raharimanana, Aristide Tarnagda and Sami Tchak. The radio drama Pisten… (directed by Christine Nagel), based on her translation of Penda Diouf’s play Pistes…, won the award of best radio drama 2022, chosen by the Deutsche Akademie der Darstellenden Künste. In 2021 her translation of Raharimanana’s Revenir was nominated for the Longlist of Prix Première. She is a professor at the University of Stuttgart and her research focuses mainly on drama and theatre of German or French expression.

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