‘I always tell myself, this might be the last time that I am performing’—Kagayi Ngobi chats to James Murua about his protest poetry (Plus: Read two of his poems)

Ugandan writer Kagayi Ngobi was the featured artist at the June 2019 edition of the Artistic Encounters series at the Goethe-Institut in Nairobi. Ngobi, one of his country’s leading poets, was featured alongside Kenyan musician and producer Chris Adwar.

Here, he speaks to The JRB Editorial Advisory Panel member James Murua about his debut poetry collection, The Headline That Morning, how Okot p’Bitek influenced him, the volume of poetry he published with Ugandan high school students, and his forthcoming work.

This interview includes two works of Ngobi’s: ‘In 2065’ and ‘No Speaking Vernacular’ .

James Murua for The JRB: How was the Artistic Encounters experience?

Kagayi Ngobi: The experience was enriching both as an artist and on a personal level. It was my first time collaborating with an artist who is not Ugandan in another country, so there was a lot to learn at the human level. I was performing for a new audience who perhaps had heard my name but had not interfaced with my works, so it was a good experience for me as a performer and I want to believe that even for the audience that was in attendance, they really enjoyed it.

The JRB: Your debut poetry collection, The Headline That Morning, was published by Sooo Many Stories in 2016. Tell us about the collection and how it has been received in Uganda.

Kagayi Ngobi: I started writing poetry in 2009 and in 2015 felt that I had matured to a level where I should put my work in print. The idea at the time was to self-publish, so I was looking for people who could help me make it a holistic experience. One of the people I talked to was Nyana Kakoma, who had just returned to Uganda from South Africa after attending an editor’s workshop. I wanted her to recommend to me some of the editors she knew who could help me make my work better. That is when she proposed, ‘I’m starting a publishing house next year. If you are willing to be patient just give me your manuscript then we will work on it.’ She told me to send her fifty poems and that’s what I did. After three months she wrote back to me and said, ‘Good work, this can get into print.’ After three months I had written more, so this is what I told her: ‘Here Nyana, I’m going to send you an extra twenty poems so that the decision for the fifty is not merely mine. It’s yours as well as the editor and publisher.’ Of the twenty poems that I sent her, eighteen made it in. 

In 2016, Nyana launched Sooo Many Stories and The Headline That Morning was the first title out from her new publishing house. It was a bold statement, because she was starting out with a poet and a poetry collection, in spite of the stereotype that people don’t buy poetry. Many thought that it would not work out, but we were pleasantly surprised when we launched it: the feedback that we got, the reception that the book has been having. Now there are schools that use it, at university it is also being used to teach literature and that’s how the work started to grow. 

In 2016 after launching the book I started a series of shows to promote it. Then the demand for the shows started increasing, too.

The JRB: Speaking about performances, how important are they for you as a poet?

Kagayi Ngobi: They are quite important. I believe that poetry first and foremost is meant to be heard—even when you write it. In the process of composition, you compose it believing that the reader is going to be reading it aloud in their mind. For me, the oral aspects of poetry are key. I’m also aware of the fact that most people don’t have time to read but do have time to listen or watch. The first poem in the book is, ‘Now today we shall listen to poetry’. Even when I was writing it I didn’t say, ‘today we shall read poetry’, I said, ‘today we shall listen to poetry’. 

I recognised quite early that one of the ways we can popularise our poems is to adapt them for performance. It is important for poets to memorise their works: it gives you an opportunity to interact with the audience,  when they are looking directly at you and you are looking at them. Then they see you as the poem. There is a way in which you personalise the reading experience if you have heard or watched someone perform the material. 

One thing that we also realised is that, previously—before memorised performances were popular—it was difficult for you to identify yourself as a poet if you were not published. But performing gave us confidence: as long as you wrote your poem and it was well critiqued—that’s also key—then you share it with the public and they begin to know about you as a poet. Performance became a pathway for most of us who did not know how to get there. For example, Nyana Kakoma first watched me perform in 2010. By the time I approached her and was telling her, ‘these are my works and I want to get them in print’, she herself recommended some of the poems that I should submit, because she knew them already. 

The JRB: You have performed across Uganda, in Germany and now in Kenya. Are you looking to perform in other spaces?

Kagayi Ngobi: Oh yes. Fortunately, there are many festivals of various kinds, the music festivals, the literature festivals, the drama festivals, the theatre festivals, and the poetry festivals coming up. The advantage with poetry is that we can blend into all of these. For example, I’m scheduled to perform at the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts this year and I’ve performed at the Kampala International Theatre Festival before and at Storymoja Festival. One of the advantages of poetry, as Prof Timothy Wangusa defined for us, is that it is words on the verge of breaking into song. You find that it’s easy to work with other artists and match them. So the opportunities that exist on the continent are open to any performance poet. 

The JRB: You have also referred to yourself as a protest poet. Are you comfortable with this classification? 

Kagayi Ngobi: I am comfortable with the title, because protest is another way of expressing love. You are demanding something that is better than what is here. I am not saying that I am ignoring the good things, but there are also the bad things that are happening. Protest is also a form of functional livelihood, because how else do you deal with disillusionment and apathy? If you accept the situation as it is then you are not going to be able to fight against it or do what you need to do to improve it. Every time we protest we highlight what can be done. The challenge with protest poetry, which is where I want to improve myself, is we need to start creating alternative solutions to the problems that we highlight. It’s not enough just to say, ‘there is corruption, there is tribalism, there is this and that’. I think that it is also key that we find a way of articulating solutions. 

The JRB: Uganda is known to be an unfriendly country to people involved in creative expression that is not very pleasant to the administration, making it a very unsafe place to do these kinds of things. How does the political poem come in and how do you deal with that?

Kagayi Ngobi: It is not [safe]. It is because people are afraid to speak that more than ever we need courage, and for me that has always been my standpoint. Every time I am writing a poem and it turns out to be political, what I tell myself is, ‘These are works that are going to be read fifty, one hundred, two hundred years from now. What would the people who will read them then say about we who are creating these works today?’

I take a lot of inspiration from Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino. He was fired and ran away to Kenya after he was threatened with arrest during the [Milton] Obote government [of the nineteen-eighties]. Three years after the book had been published, he was the director of the Uganda Cultural Centre, and was visiting Zambia when he was told not to return. There is this particular part of the poem where he talks about politicians and so the Obote government was uncomfortable with him being there, Uganda. So we missed out on his brilliance because he fled Uganda and moved to Kisumu, where he started the Kisumu Arts Festival. But then also the poetry he wrote while he was in exile, when I read it today it gives me an insight into what kind of life he had. Yes, he paid a price for his work—and not just him, so many other artists did. But when I read their work I get a glimpse of the society as it was then. For me, it’s something that I find more important than my own life, I find it more important than my own fears. I find that our collective memory as a society is something so powerful that we need to preserve its sanctity. So when I’m performing my poetry, I always tell myself, ‘this might be the last time that I am performing this poem, tonight or today’. How I perform it is going to be the memory that lingers after I am gone. I am lucky that I am still here, having had many ‘last moments’.

The JRB: You have been doing protest poetry for several years. Has it had any impact?

Kagayi Ngobi: Yes. There is a poem in The Headline That Morning that people in Kampala like so much, called 2065. It imagines Uganda in the future, but in a terrible state. I remember when I was invited to Makerere University to perform it one of the students said, ‘But every time we think of Uganda and they tell us to imagine it in the future we imagine the positive, things getting better. On reading your poem it says the opposite.’ It empowered some of those students, even some of my students, to also start expressing their dissatisfaction with the system, and as a result there are some issues that we have been able to highlight that people are now taking seriously. 

For example, the issue of language is a serious issue in our country and through poetry we have been able to address it. In my poetry company, Kitara Nation, we came up with a policy that if you want to join us, even though none of us has studied our mother tongues, we insist that you give us forty poems all in your mother tongue. Stretch yourself, because it doesn’t make sense if you are going to start reciting poetry in English and we are going to communities where people are not speaking English and calling ourselves national poets. So we said we must find a way of incorporating our mother tongue into our poetry. Now it has picked up, there are quite a number of poets in Kampala that are comfortable reciting poetry in their mother tongue. That way we have shown the value of our languages. Some of our friends are now being invited to kingdoms. 


In 2065
by Kagayi Ngobi

Nothing will change that much, except I will be over 70 years
The roads will be the same
The politics will be the same
Kampala will be the same
In 2065 nothing will change that much, except I will be over 70 years

And I will go to Mulago to cure my rheumatism
And the doctors will say there is no cure
And the boda-boda man at the stage
Will recommend to me a West-Nile witch doctor
And I will go to my grandson’s school like my grand-father did
And I will be turned away for old age will be something forbidden

The president will be the president we have today
And in a wheel chair he will give the Nation Address
Only his son, then a field Marshall, will read it on his behalf
And he will talk on his behalf
And he will rule on his behalf
In 2065 nothing will change that much, except I will be over 70 years.

And Makerere University will be on strike and Major-General ‘Something’
Will order ‘Open-fire!’ on the students because their demand for fried beans
Will be a threat to the security of the State
And U.R.A will be taxing the air we breathe, the many times couples kiss,
The fart we excrete, the words we speak and the way we die
And will determine those who go to heaven
And to hell and will tax their corpses differently
In 2065 nothing will change that much, except I will be over 70 years,

And teachers will be begging on the streets to feed their families
Their wives will sleep with tourists to make a decent living
The syllabus will be the same shadow of what colonialists left behind
With systems too archaic and too alien too offer anything essential
And the students will remain cabbages and potatoes
And the ratio of the jobless to the job-hopeful will be nine to one
And like that life will move on,
And like that nothing will change

In 2065 children of eight will be using contraceptives
Children of eight will be going to night clubs
In 2065 children will not be children
They will be eating fellow children for breakfast and for break at school
And they will not wash their hands and will offer you a hand-shake
In 2065 children will not be children

And we will be the people in that future
Built from a present that promises not much
Except ageing

We will be there hoping to die soon.

© Kagayi Ngobi


The JRB: You have also published a poetry anthology, With Pens that Shout and Mouths that Shut. Please tell us about this project.

Kagayi Ngobi: With Pens that Shout and Mouths that Shut is an anthology of fifty-two poems that were written by the students of Nabisunsa Girls School, spanning six years. After my law degree, I started to teach poetry and Nabisunsa Girls School happens to be near my parents’s home, where I was staying at the time. My father walked there and talked to the headteacher and told her about his son who doesn’t want to practice law but wants to teach poetry. She was curious so she gave me a trial run for three months and then we started a poetry club where we had a weekly critiquing programme and performance shows.

The book is a collection of experiences from high school. The first poem is ‘The Raging Dash Song’ and it was written by a girl who was murdered in 2017. She was on a boda-boda and they hit her head because they wanted her phone. The murderer was kind enough to call home and tell them, ‘find your daughter’s body here’.  The process of compiling the poems at the time really became emotional and personal to everyone who was part of the programme. We sat down with the students and selected the poems that they loved the most. It is also multilingual, because we started encouraging students to start expressing themselves in their mother tongue.

The book is quite controversial because it has some poems in it that some teachers didn’t like. Since the protest culture had caught on, students had gathered the courage to speak truth to power. They started complaining about why they had to wake up so early in the morning, they are not given enough time to finish assignments, they’re punished in class, and so on, highlighting the challenges in our education system. There are poems about exams: why does education have to be about exams? Why don’t they prioritise students’ interests? There are poems where students are protesting against prefects, where they are saying ‘give us space’ and all that.

The JRB: The poems in this collection have been divided into different categories, politics, culture, school life and love. I really love the politics—these kids are really politically switched on.

Kagayi Ngobi: I was fortunate in that the school had an active debating culture, where students are always debating about issues taking place in society. It was relatively easy for them to turn that passion into poetry and start expressing themselves that way. We all deeply feel the effects of the political decisions that are made, even the teenagers. We all feel the stench of corruption, and we feel the rigours of tribalism, the divisionism. Children have their approach to truth, which they employed when they started writing their political poems. 

The JRB: Are we expecting any new work from you?

Kagayi Ngobi: Yes. I now have three poetry collections coming. The first one is called Pupu Poems, which is also protest poetry. I wrote these poems when the ruling government in Uganda decided to table the age limit bill [to make anyone eligible to run for president, even after they turn seventy-five]. I wrote those poems during that process until the case went to the Supreme Court. It’s my first trilingual collection: I wrote it in English, Luganda and Lusoga. It’s also a collection of song poems. I took inspiration from our nursery rhymes and the folk songs that we used to sing as children, so they have those rhythmic, repetitive patterns. 

The next one is For My Negativity, which is one poem but it is thirty-six pages long. I wrote it after someone asked me, ‘But why do you write a lot of negative poetry? Isn’t there any other way that you could express what you are feeling?’ In the poem I try and explain why I feel and say what I say. I realised that if I want my poetry to have more impact I need to find a way to deal with political and social situations that is not polarising, but brings us together to start having conversations about these challenges. I realised that some of the people on the other side of the stage may not be aware of how we are feeling. 

My third book, which is called No Speaking Vernacular, is inspired by a story that I knew when I was growing up. When I was about six years old my cousin, who at the time was in Form 5, was suspended from school for three weeks for speaking his mother tongue. His parents were out of the country so it is my father who went to pick him from school. My father was friends with the headmaster and he thought that there was a way that they could work it out. The headmaster insisted that they had to suspend him as they wanted to make him an example. I found it strange even when I was young how you get suspended from school for speaking your mother tongue. For me this is an issue where it doesn’t matter whether you are pro-government or anti-government, the preservation of our heritage is important. 

So the poem is about this head teacher who is trying to instil the ‘no speaking vernacular’ rule in this particular school. The poem goes on to detail how the policy is implemented, how it is enforced, how it is protected, how the children respond to it and how the teachers respond to it. I have been able to share it with some of my friends in private spaces and they love it. I am so glad because some of the issues that we discuss in our protest poetry should be discussed at a social level. That way we could come together to find solutions that take us forward.


Excerpt from ‘No Speaking Vernacular! (Woloolo)’ by Kagayi Ngobi

FOR YOU
GRACE DAMBYA

AND THE REST OF US
PUNISHED AT SCHOOL
FOR SPEAKING

OUR MOTHER TONGUES.

1

Aha! It’s you Dambya

Today I have caught you!
Today you are not escaping me!
Dambya, I have heard you
Today I have heard you
With my own ears
You have said GWE

Get out get out
Get out of dorm
Come outside here
You let him pass
Come, come, come
Every day, every single day,
They report to me
That you use vernacular
And every time I ask you
You deny, you say they lie,
And you can deny, Dambya-
You are so good at denying
But today I have caught you
With my own ears!

I have heard you
Speaking vernacular
Today no denying!
Today no?

But Dambya, why? Why
Do you always speak vernacular
And you deny?
Dambya why are you so local?
What do you not know?
The school rules and regulations?

Who allowed you
To speak your mother tongue?
Dambya, if you cannot talk English
How will you learn?
If you cannot talk English
How will you pass?
If you cannot talk English
How will you communicate?
If you cannot talk English
Where will you get a job
In the future?

The reason your parents
Brought you to this school
Is so that we transplant
The village out of you
And make you civilized

You have to speak English
All the time, all the?

Excuse me! Yes, you!
Run to the staff room
You know where I sit?
Check under my desk there
You will see my stick
You know it, not so?
Bring it to me
Hurry I don’t have time

Dambya, the reason
I am going to give you
15 strokes of that cane
Is not because I am a bad person
No, it is because I want to remove
That village out of you
That is why your parents
Brought you to this school

Lie down, ah, ah
Sorry for what?
Dambya if I do not cane you
You will not understand
Dambya no bargaining
No, no
Sorry for what?
Ah! Ah!

Dambya lie down
Sorry for what?
Dambya no, no
No negotiating

Today I caught you
With my own?

Lie down.

Dambya, you know
The school rules not so?
No speaking vernacular
Full stop.

Aha! This is the stick
I was talking about
As flexible as I like it!
Dambya you know
What it is up next, not so?
‘Sugar Special Time’

Hehehe! Go down
You touch there
I don’t count.

© Kagayi Ngobi

Header image: Kagayi Ngobi addresses the Goethe-Institut Nairobi. Credit: Julian Manjahi.

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