Just Read: A Poetic Duet by Jane Okot p’Bitek Langoya and Sophie Bamwoyeraki

You will not take it for granted that yet another poetry collection is released in Uganda today. For me, it has been a year of discovering and appreciating poetry from this country. At the beginning of the year, I was privileged to delve into Mulumba’s “Poetry in Motion”, then finally tasting Kagayi’s work in “The Headline That Morning”. One thing common about the two collections is that they are from young Ugandan men and both span exactly 51 poems.

If poetry has been missed as a form of expression in the Ugandan literary community, we can all agree Kampala’s performers had taken time to revive it and then of course there would be that old argument about written vs performed poetry. A lot of the poetry being performed could not be located in print (perhaps on web page).

In this collection, nicely dubbed a duet, you have a stark contrast to the earlier poetry collections I had mentioned. First of all, here’s a name that’s been missing in literary conversations lately – Fountain Publishers! Where have you been folks?

Anyway, continuing with the review, this is a collection with poetry from two people, but more importantly both ladies with each their weight of experience. The name Okot p’Bitek is legend in Uganda, so when you see Jane Okot p’Bitek Langoya, you get an idea of who one of the contributors is. A lawyer by profession, she is one half of the duet that contributes to this collection. The other name, Sophie Bamwoyeraki is no stranger to those of us keen on things to do with schooling. The educator has co-authored English text books commonly used in secondary and primary school – Progressive English Course and Fountain English course.

However, let’s go beyond their names and professions and examine this collection. It’s made up of 12 different sections. Timothy Wangusa playfully suggests as he gives a foreword to the book, that maybe there is something to the twelveness

And about the twelve sections of this joint collection – what is in numbers? Twelve inches to a foot; twelve months in a year; twelve in a soccer team plus their coach; twelve Jacobean tribes; twelve disciples; twelve elders on heavenly thrones; twelve books of John Milton’s Paradise Lost; twelve years of a sound primary-to-secondary school education structure in a bygone Uganda;

The two writers give subjective impressions of what seem to be shared aspects of the Ugandan experience. And this will be a plus for Rotarians, there is an entire portion dedicated to “Service Above Self”.

I must admit, Sophie gave me a quiet shock with the lightness and probable childish nature of her first poems. They easily read as dumbed down for perhaps a non-poetry-savvy audience. Using methods like repetition, they appear as songs or anthems to be performed by a younger audience. This raises the question about whether poetry cannot be made for everyone’s enjoyment and whether it is for a certain brain. We can have this discussion after you read her later poems in the book because , then, you come to sense the poet Sophie coming out unhindered.

For example, her take on corruption in “Cancerous Growths” and “Sincerely Repentant” is simply fantastic using clever imagery and humour. I liked, for example, her use of cow in “Cancerous Growths”

Sweating. Faltering steps.
Visitor 0069 approached the desk. The cow bulging in his jacket pocket
This umpteenth envelope landed on the desk.
Officer TMK in a well-timed swoop of a kite spirited it off;
The khaki affair slid into the drawer
Huddling in the corner with the other cows.

The arrested minister’s repentant plea yet somewhat unrepentant plea leaves you, if not laughing, jeering at the selfishness of our public servants. A confession that starts like this

When I first moved Ministry funds to my personal account
I meant no harm. No harm. Sincerely, no harm.
I was only thinking about the bride price for my wife.
I was in fact anxious about my wedding feast of 500 guests.

Ends up like this

I will serve the sentence, but God,
There are many things I can’t undo. Several. Countless. I am sincerely repentant, but still I think,
I am innocent.
Yours, Penitent Child.

 

In an uncanny way, it reminded me of Henry Barlow’s “Serving The Nation”

Sophie’s trade gets richer and richer as she tackles more themes, some particularly more heartbreaking than others. For example in her poem “Dodge Ball After The War”, you are claimed with shock when you discover the tale she is telling

A metallic ball! They chuckled, giggled.
They wondered which traveller could have lost it. This mysterious ball heavier than other balls.
One threw it, the rest ducked, sprawled legs wide and jumped.

As it nears the end, you cover your mouth as if you just saw the unimaginable happen. She has a gift of making horrors visible. In fact all her poetry about war is heart rending. However one of her most powerful phrases has to be the one below. It was simply mouth stopping.

She did not cry, not even once.
I refused to believe that I carried this stone for nine months.

And those are the final words of that poem. You should read the ones before. I think this book proudly places Sophie as one of Uganda’s finer poets. Her poetry is a good mix of experience, wisdom, playfulness (yes, there are several poems filled with humour that impress), reverence and Ugandan-ness.

When it comes to Jane, her name precedes her. Whether this is a blessing or a burden, perhaps she will one day reveal. Nonetheless in her poetry there is a sense of a contemporary poet. It’s in the ironies she chooses to use, the events she picks upon (The Cake Festival), her pacifist approach, her disillusionment with promises of society; she is present.

Her recounting of the death of an accident victim in “Something Small” made me feel responsible, she takes no one captive in this. (Even in dismembering her poetry to show you what I mean, I feel I fail, for it makes sense as a whole, nonetheless ponder on these last lines of that poem)

The nurse takes one look at him
Turns back to her desk And makes a mental note Of another accident fatality
That she needs to record in her monthly report
To the Ministry of Health –
The Ministry is very interested in these records.

 

You will get it when you read the poem whole. Try though and see the gravity in just this one stanza that describes a failed vow and a hasty death that comes from domestic violence in her poem “For Better, for Worse”.

But his increased aggression
Seemed to strengthen her resolve to stay
And to honour her vows.
So he hastened the fulfilment of her vows
Through her premature death.

She has her humour bone too and when the war poems pass, and the broken vows poems pass, you might find one about bemusement in an exam paper. Outsmarted will surely amuse you with this line

The tick of the clock kept reminding me
That time was passing, And my future with it.

In honesty, the two women offer an enjoyable duet. The placement of the poetry is amusing because some moments you’re amused then you’re reminded to smile, then to cry and then to say a prayer. Woyi! Surely though, the one thing that should follow this collection is a live performance. It will appeal to all, and they must make sure to invite some government and army men because there are some issues here that need their ears.

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