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THE TOP 10 UGANDAN POETRY BOOKS (FROM 2000 -2020)

So, my list 3 of The Top 10 of ‘Everything Ugandan Poetry’ features my top 10 Ugandan poetry books in public circulation between 2000 and 2020. This is a long post, but please bear with me. I had to scratch my head hard to come to these 10 titles. Also, today I feature a special mention because I could not just avoid it all together! Please enjoy and let me know what you think.

1. Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol (2011) by Okot p’Bitek

Initially published in 1966, but first published by the East African Educational Publishing House in 1972, by 2011 however, Okot’s famous poetry book had been pre-printed 15 times by EAEP. Within that time an East African poetry genre known as ‘the Okot song-school’ named after the global popularity of these 2 poems had already been adopted by various scholars. Without a doubt, the personae Lawino & Ocol are now omnipresent metaphors of the postcolonial African identity question that clearly, won’t go away.

Side note: One day, when I was 15 and still at home for end-of-term holidays, I stood at a safe distance and recited those ‘Clementine lines’ aloud for my big sis to hear as she did her makeup in front of her mirror. It turned out to be the first time a woman would aim a shoe at my head.

2. Building the Nation and Other Poems (2000) by Henry Christopher Muwanga Barlow

“These poems, written over a span of forty-five years, were written for myself. I had no intention of publishing them…” Henry Barlow writes in his foreword.

A very shy writer published by Fountain Publishers, we should be thankful to Okot p’Bitek, the Zirimu’s, David Cook and Susan Kiguli for having convinced/encouraged Barlow to expose his poems over the years. As a great and prolific writer, his works had featured in a number of prominent publications but never in a single book as a collection. Enter Fountain Publishers at the turn of the century in 2000. And to think he would pass on 6 years later after giving us one poetry collection and one poetry chapbook…

Barlow’s poetry journey is one where the role of camaraderie to an artist’s career is highlighted. With many a writer not privileged with such a support system, imagine how many great works are still living in the dark…

3. The African Saga (2003) by Susan Kiguli

First published in 1998 by FEMRITE, by 2003 the book had undergone a second re-print. Arguably Uganda’s first female poetry star, Susan Nalugwa Kiguli turned heads in 1998 when her first collection was released. The first print having sold out in the first 30 days, the following year her fiery poetry book would win the NABOTU Book of the Year Award. Kiguli was not the first Ugandan woman to publish a complete poetry collection; that accolade goes to Jane Okot p’Bitek; but definitely she was the first female Ugandan poet whose poetry book sold like hot cake. To date, it is still one of FEMRITE’s best-selling titles.

4. No Roses from My Mouth, First edition, 2020  by Stella Nyanzi

The publication of this book’s 1st Edition broke the Internet for many ‘controversial’ reasons.

First, it was the timing of events:  thanks to a collective called ‘The Ubuntu Reading Group’ led by one of Africa’s leading literary avante-gardes Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire, the process of seeing this book come to life started while the author was still in Luzira prison having rejected bail. And it was published while she was still behind bars. Imagine the craze!

The second reason however is, that of Stella’s narrative about the book and copyright ownership. She says she did not know about the book idea until she was out of jail. The initial idea had been for her to write and ‘smuggle’ poems out of prison, and hand them over to Bwesigye who would in turn curate an online launch of the poems on her birthday. As for the already printed copies of the book, however, she would later acquiesce to their existence and even autograph them.

The third reason is the book had many grammatical errors. Clearly it had been rushed through the publishing process to meet the incredulous timelines of distribution & delivery. The critic A.K. Kaiza contextualises the presence of those errors in a great review you can read online. When Stella got out of jail, one of the first things she did was to publicly disassociate herself from her own book. But by then the first prints had already run out. They were given out for free!

The forth reason is that many people online and in academia, kept questioning whether Stella Nyanzi is ‘truly’ a poet even as they discussed her poetry. This vitriol marketed the book as it sparked debate upon debate.

The fifth reason, perhaps the most potent of them all, is the marketing strategy of UBUNTU READING GROUP. Perhaps one of the best-ever strategies seen in African book marketing, Bwesigye’s group did what all smart marketers would do: they branded the book as a cause. A feminist’s cause. The Nyanzists were all over social media. Though when Stella got out of jail, she also denounced them.

But yeah, what is not in doubt is that indeed Stella Nyanzi and Ubuntu Reading Group gave us a poetry book for the ages.

5. ‘Uganda Poetry Anthology 2000’ by Okot Benge & Alex Bangirana 2000, (Fountain)

The beauty about poetry anthologies, especially if you are a collector of poems like me, is that they introduce you to writings by people you never knew wrote poetry, or you never thought would appear in the same pages or even appear at all. First published in the year 2000, this book is dope like that. If you want to read Ernest Bazanye’s poetry, or find out what the K in A.K. Kaiza stands for, this is the book. Also, you will meet poets whose talents just run in their family blood: the Barlow’s, the Wangusa’s and the p’Biteks are all in here.

Great, great book.

6. ‘Waragi’ by Jedidiah Mugarura (2019)

Self-published in 2019, I bought a copy of this beautiful book of poems during lockdown through Facebook. It is the title that intrigued me but the poems, oh my word! The poems arrested my attention. What Jedidiah did in his book was to dismantle all the rules of writing poetry and a poetry book and to reconstruct them by his own hand. The book, reminiscent of Rupi Kaur’s ‘Milk and Honey’ also features illuminating illustrations drawn by the poet. But the overall thought structure of the whole book is an experience of its own. This book stands at the end of the first 2 decades of this century and ushers in ‘a new kind of young Ugandan poet: ‘the post-poet’. One inspired by different themes, novel ideas, trends and features of poetic expression and is using its agency to disrupt the traditional norms of poetry production. Mugarura is in the thick of it.

7. ‘A Nation in Labour’  (3rd edition) Ber Anena 2018 (Self-Published)

In the 3rd edition, Anena does a huge disservice to her readers and many aspiring poets: she clearly disassociates herself from the first and second editions of her award-winning collection and only acknowledges the third edition which brought her the 2018 Wole Soyinka price. In fact, if you have not had the opportunity to see the first and second editions of ‘A Nation in Labour’, you might think the 3rd edition is merely a re-print of the 2015 original book. It is not.

If you, too, read the 1st and 2nd editions, you would easily tell the kind of trajectory Anena’s poetry took to get her to the level of earning a Wole Soyinka handshake. And indeed what a poetic miracle Anena’s editing made of her book! I do not know what happened but, out of nowhere, Anena re-worked the entire aesthetic of her 2015 text and in 2018 created perhaps one of Africa’s best-ever poetry collections on war. If you asked me to recommend top-notch poetry editors who turn a poem into wine, Ber Anena would be up, up there..

8. ‘Wondering and Wandering of Hearts’ edited by Hilda Twongyeirwe & Susan Kiguli, 2017 (FEMRITE)

17 years after Fountain’s Uganda Poetry Anthology was unveiled, FEMRITE released Uganda’s most comprehensive poetry anthology. The year was 2017 and no Ugandan poetry anthology with the same or more number of contributors as Fountain’s had been produced yet. FEMRITE dared to dream and gave us another collector’s item. In this particular book of 77 Ugandan poets, the p’Bitek sisters Jane and Julianne share back-to-back magnificent pieces.

The editors also did a good job at introducing the readers to many young poets some of whom, after 7 years make the anthology a book of poetic prophesies. Future poetry stalwarts like Benard Mujuni, (then) Harriet Anena, Lillian Aujo, Gloria Kiconco, (now Dr.) Jacob Katumusiime, feature alongside seasoned poets like Acaye Kerunen, Bob Kisiki, Justice James Ogoola, Timothy Wangusa, Austin Bukenya, Susan Kiguli and others. It is a book I would recommend you keep if you find one.

9. ‘Fire on the Mountain, Creative Work on the Buhikira’ 2018, edited by Danson Kahyana (Dovesong Publishers)

It is rumoured this book must have got its anthologist that thorough beating which claimed some of his teeth. This anthology, unlike the ones we have seen above, is topical. It captures the creative spirit of Ugandan (and Kenyan) poets and playwrights during the time the government of Uganda stormed the Obuhikira in Kasese in November 2016, resulting in numerous deaths on one hand and military promotions on the other. The contributors through creative writing document their feelings about that incident in this book. It features writers like Monica Arac de Nyeko, Rushongoza Begumya, Mildred Kicinco, Stella Nyanzi, M.M. Ntangaare, Wanjohi wa Makokha, Susan Kiguli, among other gems. Dedicated “to the memory of all the people who perished in the Palace”, it is a historical book literally red with rage.

Well curated.

10. ‘Broken Voices of the Revolution’ by the Lantern Meet of Poets 2012 (self-published)

In November 2012, the ‘National Theatre poets’, as the Lantern Meet of Poets were also known, launched a dope poetry anthology at their poetry recital. Despite the performance of its publication being public, this is the only poetry book on this list that I can say was published ‘underground’. With no ISBN and no copyright page, basically the anthology has no ownership. And that was basically how the Lantern Meet community functioned.

Yes, the Acknowledgements page recognizes some members of the Lantern Meet of Poets for “the tireless efforts” into the project but there are many more who made the group click that remained unnamed. In the Introduction page, Ojakol Omerio gives context to the zeitgeist the Lantern Meet created and anthologised the poems. It was the year Uganda celebrated 50, years of independence and with much public fanfare going on, the group wrote, published and staged a public performance of poems that contemplated the country’s journey of independence. In concluding his intro, Ojakol makes what he calls “a bold assertion” and describes the Lantern Meet of Poets as “The New Movement”.

The book also features poems that were written, selected and arranged for a poetry show that shared the name of the book.”The poetry in this (anthology) is arranged for recital purposes” as Ojakol writes.

The book features some of Uganda’s best protest literature that combines the aesthetics of the stage to add to the flavor of the poem on and off the page.

Special Mention: ‘One Little Guitar’ -Paul Kafeero/Kathryn Barret Gaines, 2012, Tourguide publications Kampala- Uganda.

The translated lyrics of folk singer and songwriter Paul Kafeero’s songs are very poetic in both appearance and structural appraisal. But first wait… on the copyright page, it states that the copyright in the book is co-owned by the Paul Kafeero Foundation and the translator. We also know that translators own the copyright of the translated works. So the English versions of the songs, the ones I call poems, who owns the copyright in them? ‘Omwana w’omuzungu’, no?

So will I be appraising Kafeero, or his Barret-Gaines, creativity? Does it even matter?

Also, there are elements of Kafeero’s creative writing skills that the translator could neither translate nor transliterate. For example, those Kafeero songs he sang without repeating a single word, no translation in the book captures that aesthetic.

Anyway, the book left me there.

And before I get lost further in the identity politics of appropriation, language and copyright, let’s just say, despite the loose translations in some instances, Kafeero’s bae does an excellent job at publishing him posthumously. And this bilingual collection is full of stories and metaphors that only Kafeero could have crafted. It is a rare gift of knowledge that will enrich a reader’s imagination with philosophical thoughts.

………………………………………………………

Thank you for reading

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Written by Kagayi Ngobi (1)

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