The Uganda Women Writers Association (FEMRITE) hosted celebrated scholar Mwalimu Austin (Augustine) Bukenya on Easter Monday. The purpose was twofold; to have a conversation with the renowned writer and poet, and to celebrate his birthday. He entered the eighth floor earlier on February 10.  However his agility is admirable for his old age. A considerable number of people; poets, writers, students and literary enthusiasts gathered to listen to him. The audience could have been bigger if it had not been a public holiday. Some people sent apologies, and messages to congratulate the good Professor for his accomplishments over the years, wished him good health and many more years of happiness.

The Executive Director FEMRITE, Hilda J. Twongyeirwe introduced Mwalimu (Austin Bukenya) and thanked him for accepting to come when he could have been enjoying the holiday at home. A selection of poems by Mwalimu was read by; Nakanwangi Zenah aka Zenah the Poet read; “I Met a Thief”, Martina Nagasha, a student of Literature at Makerere University read; “The Dancer’s Challenge” and Martha Uwera from the School of Law, Makerere Univeristy read; “W-W-Woman”, a performance poet and others.

After the readings and performances, the conversation with Mwalimu Bukenya followed, and it was led by Nassur Tab’an El-Tablaz, a teacher and author. Mwalimu was born in Masaka where his father worked with the Police. He was baptized at the Kitovu Cathedral in Masaka and named Augustine Bukenya. He went to Kisubi seminary. At the time he joined the seminary, he thought priesthood was his calling or vocation but that changed. The thought of having to deal with the moral issues of people as well as his own made him rethink the idea of priesthood. After four years he left the seminary and joined Namilyango College. Then he went to Dar-es-Salaam University and graduated in 1968 and returned to teach at Makerere University. It is here that his name Augustine was Anglicanized to Austin because of a strong British influence at the university (department).

Mwalimu Austin Bukenya is known for the novel; The People’s Bachelor, Plays; The Bride, The Secret and A Hole in the Sky as well as the anthology of short stories; The Mermaid of Msambweni and other stories which have been read in literature classes from the 1970s to date. He is passionate about plays and drama. He fled the country to exile in 1977 because of his participation in the play, Oluyimba lwa Wankoko staged at the Festac’77 Festival of the Arts in Lagos, Nigeria. The play didn’t go well with Amin’s regime. He spent 20 years in exile in Kenya and taught Literature and English at Kenyatta University. Austin Bukenya’s column in SATURDAY NATION; Reflections of a Scholar features a lot of affairs of Kenya and their literary discourse while Uganda’s appears occasionally partly because of the long time he lived and taught in Kenya.

When Mwalimu came from exile and returned to teach at Makerere University, he shared an office with Mary Karoro Okurut (now a senior presidential advisor on public relations). The concept of the Association of Women Writers began from that office. When some of the students and budding writers would come to consult Mary Karoro Okurut, Mwalimu would offer his chair to them. “Through these interactions, he got to know many of us and interested in issues of women writers and has been with us since the founding of FEMRITE in 1995”, says Hilda who was then a second-year student.

Mwalimu says, “My parents were storytellers. An American who taught literature at Namilyango College, African writers like David Rubadiri and others have been a great inspiration to me. The philosophy of Ubuntu, time management and belief and faith in God have contributed to my achievements too.” Also the 3Ts; Teaching, Theatre and playing Tennis keep him fit. The saying retired but not tired fits him. Widely travelled and fluent in Swahili, French, Latin, and Luganda, Mwalimu says he feels at home in East Africa although the noise pollution in Kampala bothers him so much. Many years ago, Gayaza where he lives was quiet and peaceful but it has become noisy with the urbanization.

Literature should be taken to the grassroots. It is not enough to teach. Go and promote literature in local languages too; Luo, Luganda, Acholi, Lusoga, Lunyoro, Swahili etc. There should be more literary festivals and book fairs with due publicity to promote a reading culture. The only way to be a good writer is through reading. “Endeavour to attend the Festac Festival in Kisumu next month and come to Makerere University on Friday where Professor Arthur Gakwandi and I will be celebrated” added Mwalimu in his conclusion.

“Indeed Mwalimu is an old teacher who hasn’t really retired. He has just recreated the classroom or school in new spaces. Old teachers see the world and people around them as different places and pupils from the more familiar ones of the school of old, which would allow them to continue teaching.”, says Tab’an.

A cake for Mwalimu’s 80th birthday was cut as well and birthday gifts were given to him. He sang another song in French. You’re my beloved.  Au revoir!

Martina Nagasha:

“Encountering Mwalimu Austin Bukenya at FEMRITE was an amazing moment for me. His humility and easygoing personality made me wonder because a man of his stature would be expected to act differently. Interacting with him felt more like talking to a teacher or mentor. He generously served precious gems to us all. He said passion in what you do, self-respect, and faith in God and in people can help you be a better person. It was truly a blessing to meet Austin Bukenya and know his contribution to FEMRITE as one of its founder members.”

Martha Uwera:

“I loved that Mwalimu was jovial and answered all the questions. Catching up, networking later, great ambience, food and being in the company of like-minded individuals. What a wonderful event!”

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Written by Odoki Jimmy (2)

Jimmy Odoki Acellam is Coordinator of Heartsounds Uganda and a Mental Health Advocate.

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