Book Review : Flame and Song by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa

 It’s a flame, but it’s not sweltering. It’s a song, not the noise of boda boda men.

As finally I put down Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa’s memoir “Flame and Song” after 189 pages, the sunset/sunrise on the cover image finally makes sense. It’s a rich tribute to family. It’s a call to country. It’s a dare to the continent.

This is the kind of story 80’s babies might have heard in the lips of their parents or grandparents, the kind of story 90’s babies will “oooh” and “aaaah” at, the kind of story that generations before the 80’s can relate to. It in printed form is the kind of thing that gives our stories longevity, even permanence.

Philippa’s memoir explores heritage from a number of angles; within the family, within the country and outside one’s own country, deftly blending prose with beautifully told poetry. The memoir follows the theme of fire (flame). You will notice the chapters are named with a theme in line with fire: “The Hearth”, “Stoking the fire”, “Snuffing out the fire”, “Smouldering embers”, “New fires”, “And there are ashes” and “Rekindled”.

A fine cover and fine print, the quality of the book is another chapter of the changing face of Ugandan publishing which Sooo Many Stories is playing a huge part in.

The story starts on a sad note. And for those who know the name “Henry Barlow”, it is especially sad considering how it looks like in view of his famous poem “Building the Nation”.

Her poem “In Limbo” sums it up well in its final verse –

I am
in limbo
in the nothingness
between notes.

“The Hearth”, the foundational chapter,  gives a history into her family and concurrently the history of the new nation – Uganda. There are surprising facts there especially about the places we live in today, for example Kampala.

Kampala in the 1960s was a bustling town. It became a town centre in 1948 and was upgraded to a capital city at independence in 1962. The city was known to have been built on seven hills, but as it is such a hilly city, I never knew which the main hills were, and my seven hills were the ones where I grew up and spent time: Makerere, Kololo, Muyenga, Makindye, Mulago, Kibuli and Nakasero.

The more she goes on, the more those who were never born in those times begin to imagine and wonder about the places she mentions that no longer exist, like Drapers or Jaffries and wonder how places like Watoto used to look like before they were church buildings.

I think it is helpful that in her memoir there is more to the story than the buildings of the time although buildings do play an important role. There are things like the books of the times, the writers of the times, the music and movies of the times and perhaps most importantly, the politics of the times.

When she mentions names like Barbara Kimenye, my eyes light up. She goes on to mention more names, like Byron Kawaddwa, Robert Serumaga, Okot P’ Bitek, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton and the list doesn’t seem to end. There is a kinship in a sharing of literature and arts. Inasmuch as I never lived in that time I appreciate the power of art then as it is now.

The politics of the time is the most captivating part for me in this first part. When she talks about Uganda’s journey to independence, you start to understand why we have never had peace as a nation, if not physically, economically, ideologically.

It is on pages 14-16 that my eyes, heart and brain collectively weep a little. That after 68 years of colonialism 1962 would not be real freedom.

On the 9th of October 1962, Uganda gained its independence from the British. I had always believed that, in my earliest years, Uganda was peaceful, that we had had a smooth transition from the colonial era, and that the trouble only started with Idi Amin. Looking back, I now see the cracks in the very foundations of our independence, which made Uganda’s journey inevitably rocky.

Philippa, however goes inward and talks intimately about her family. At some point you feel you’re being let into her living room and being warmly taken through the family albums. You get well acquainted with her mother and father – Fayce and Henry Barlow; as well as her kin -Maliza, Estella, Fay and Chris yet that is not all, you learn about the extended family and the neighbours, all speaking into the spirit of community if not Uganda, then Africa is known for (It takes a village to raise a child).

The story continues in “Stoking the fire”. When she mentions “Ribena” and “Marie biscuits”, I remembered the times of my childhood when these were the accepted pairings of break time snacks! It’s interesting to note that a lot of things stayed the same for a long time even during the political changes.

A big part of this chapter is really about nostalgia especially if you have lived in the places she has mentioned or participated in the customs and traditions. Poems about “Katogo”, “Omudalasiini” speak to us of the power of communicating history and culture in seemingly simple things like food.

Idi Amin left an indelible mark on the Ugandan story. Even though Uganda has tried to exorcise this period it is stuck on us like a stain. “Snuffing out the fire” shows this quite well. In the stories we see the giant’s mark on the whole country. On the Israelis, the Asians, on how it created new forms of speech like

“Gundi bamutute” and “Gundi baamututte”. The politics of the day affected everything even the education of the time. Of the anxiety of children waiting for their parents wondering whether they’d come home today.

Her thoughts on this era give a new intimate look at how Idi Amin affected the social structure of the country. How rebels from Tanzania failed in their rebellion, the ban on miniskirts and how they changed the fashion of the time, State Research Bureau etc.

“Smouldering embers” has a particular focus on her teenage life especially at Gayaza. You’ll find things like “cow dance”, the issue of pocket money, meals and more. The chapter also slightly talks on the question of faith with a beautiful reminder of a tradition at Gayaza that makes Christianity endearing. Sadly, the ugly head of Amin rears itself again as she narrates the effect the death of Archbishop Luwum had on her schooling.

The heaviest chapter in the book is “And there are ashes”.

Death is a recurring theme in this chapter. The passing of gatekeepers, of generations. Introduced by a sombre poem “Ashes”, the chapter talks about all the people in her life who pass away and none of it in peaceable conditions.

The end of a life echoes loudly

Even when death is expected.

Silence reverberates where once the rhythmic beat of heart, the vibration of voice, the pulse of breath sounded.
Cold filling up the spaces where love-fire once forged lives
together –

and there are ashes.

You are there with her in the sorrow of her “Maayi” as she travels home from a foreign land to bury her mother. With her as she loses her brother and sister. You are there with her in Kenya High School when you learn with her that “Uncle Jack…was killed last night. Shot.” You protest the news because “Uncle Jack was a dentist, not a politician or a soldier.” You learn the reason he was shot in dismay. How lawless our country has been.

There is a glimmer of hope and a feeling of nostalgia in this dark chapter, the place where she writes “When Daddy was offered the job of head of the civil service, he took it. It was his chance to help rebuild the nation.” You appreciate Henry Barlow, not just for his poetry but for the sacrifices he made.

The poem “The VIP Room” is perhaps the most powerful in the entire book because it talks about our current apathy.  Each stanza is packed with so much power you’d be cold not to feel her loss.

‘The builder of the nation is dead.
But he was old,’
they said.
Waiting three days
for the physician
to say ‘His heart is okay, you can fix his hip’
and then have the surgeon disappear
to a conference, they say.

‘The builder of the nation is dead.
But he was old,’
they said.
In the VIP room, on the 6th floor, of our
national flagship hospital
we loved him and prayed for him.
It was all we could do,
impotent against a system
that made us grateful for crumbs.

As she concludes, the questions she raises are about identity. Where is home? How does language fit in? How about names? Are we passing values on to the next generation or letting them find their way in the dark.

The closeness of her family is a dream to many however it teaches a lot about how a healthy life should look like. Like I said at the beginning, this was a beautiful tribute to family, a call to country and a dare to the continent which is still divided on languages, and names, and tribes.

An enjoyable read, you want to meet Philippa and hug her. The book is light yet heavy. It may not dwell extensively on issues but her story telling and poetry certainly endows a heaviness into the message. The image of the cover comes to mind again, she is talking about sunsets and sunrises. Memoirs and calls to dream better.

A must read for all living generations especially in Uganda.

Pages: 189
Publisher : Sooo Many Stories
Year: 2017
ISBN: 9789970956036



6 thoughts on “Book Review : Flame and Song by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa

  1. Wow. This is a very strong review. It is only a review yet I feel the spirit of Phillipa's memoir. You have an eye for very intimate parts in the book that draw me in and make me want to buy the book immediately. A must read. I must read it. Thanks.

  2. This is literally the first time I have read the review before opening the book! I cannot wait to get started on this book... I am soo fired up for it, I have a feeling it's going to be one of those books...


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