The first time I saw Uganda, it was through Barbara Oketta Musiime’s eyes. Those small eyes that carried many stories – Kony, Northern Uganda, Femrite, Museveni, Amin, porridge – and left many unsaid. It was 2012; we were both residents at the Ebedi Writers’ Residency in Iseyin, Oyo state. Some of the unsaid things, my own eyes would see six years later.
On August 14, 2018 when my feet kissed the earth in Uganda, Barbara’s words came alive even as the country became a being, breathing, welcoming. At the customs, everyone filed in neat queues. The officer asked what I’d come to do: an academic workshop organised by the Arts Managers and Literary Activists Network; who was financing the trip: University of Exeter and University of Bristol and me; where I would lodge: Hotel Acacia. Basic questions: convincing answers. He requested 50 dollars – payment for visa-on-arrival. He stamped my passport and waved me off. I stood there, rooted for a while. I did not expect it would be so easy, so straightforward. I’d expected some Nigerian-style bureaucratic question: ‘Aunty what did you bring for me?’ That question shoved at me every time I returned to my country, arrogant, just like the heat that slapped my face. The immigration officer, the waiting child of a wealthy man; I, the errant servant that their father had sent on an errand. So, that was the first of many surprises in Uganda: a customs officer just doing his job.
As the car meandered through several bends between Entebbe and Kampala, it was strange that there were no potholes, only road bumps. The hotel room – a small cosy thing – had a mosquito net drooping over a bed that reminded me of the bedrooms in Roman films. There was a television I never turned on. A bath that ran hot and cold, its shower head like an old telephone, complete with the dial board. Most of the first day was spent indoors, resting until hunger became an unbearable, unwelcome guest.
With fellow Nigerian workshop participant, Dr Aliyu – a lecturer at Bayero University, Kano – we found our way to Shoprite, a few metres from the hotel. It was sunny yet breezy, reminding me of harmattan in Nigeria. Shoprite – a big building with one entrance and thick railings – reminded me of the glorious days of Silverbird Galleria in Lagos. It was a delight to find several made-in-Uganda products on the shelves: local tea, fresh milk, and more. I wanted to eat something familiar but different. Rice pilau, in its black meaty glory, it was. I did not know how it would taste but it was rice. As a side dish, I added some veggies; veggies are veggies. There was something different about the Shoprite Bread – lighter, not as sweet, but it was bread.
At the payment counter, the dollar card Aliyu held made no sense. The dollars in my hands had no value. Yet, we had to pay before we could take our bought items. So, we kept them with the cashier and headed out for alternatives: a bank.
At the bank, the female security officer with the punk hairstyle that peeped out at the back of her cap smiled with all her teeth when she heard that I was Nigerian.
‘You are Nigerian?’ she asked again, as if to be sure that I was not impersonating a country that she loves so much.
‘Nollywood? I love your movies.’ She went on to reel out the names of actors, movie titles and gossips that I did not know of.
That was when I knew how big Nollywood was, that was when it became a giant, just sitting down there in her eyes, becoming alive in her words. Inside me, I wished that Nigeria’s fame as a country would bring the same joy that Nollywood brought this woman.
She told me of how life is hard in Uganda, of how she comes to work very early in the morning from a town beyond Kampala, of long bus rides, and of her dream.
‘I will like to move to Nigeria one day,’ she said.
She smiled that wide toothy smile again, in response.
I wanted to tell her that Nollywood is not reality – maybe a slice – but not the whole loaf of reality. I wanted to tell her that all that glitters is not gold, but I only smiled. The same smile I smiled when Barbara’s daughter asked if I was a ghost because her mother said I was Nigerian. The young girl had seen too many ghosts in Nollywood movies; she believed all Nigerians had to be ghosts, some special kind. We are a special kind of humans, true, for that is my only explanation for how we keep going despite all that Nigeria does to us. My only explanation of the kindness of Nigerians despite the cruelty we experience daily.
We left the bank without Ugandan shillings and headed to a money changer next street. I changed fifty dollars and immediately became a “thousandnaire” in Ugandan shillings. As we paid at Shoprite, it all made sense. Almost everything was in thousands. And this would take some getting used to throughout my trip: like three, instead of four, people per seat on a bus, the sun and breeze kissing me, one on either side of my cheeks, constant power supply and the pepperlessness of their foods.
A bigger delight was to find that small yellow sacks – rather than nylons – were used to pack goods at Shoprite. My mind raced to the millions of yellow nylons used by Shoprite across Nigeria. I wondered where they come from and where they go to after use, how they will end up in gutters, and how they will block the sewage, and how some will end up in the ocean, and how our government turns the other eye, and the frightful future that we buy with our own money today.
As we returned to the hotel, I looked for refuse – a stray nylon, paper, anything – but could not find. I summoned my nose to pick something nasty but it came back to me clean. As we waited to cross the roads, the bodabodas had their helmets on, even as they competed with other vehicles. Everywhere I turned as a Nigerian in Kampala, Uganda seemed to look me straight in the eye, laugh loudly in my face saying: see yourself?
‘Wait till you get to their villages before you conclude,’ my friend in Nigeria said when I gushed about Uganda.
‘Well, I only have Kampala now,’ I said.
That night as I laid in bed and thought of the day’s events, I shook my head and said to Nigeria: see yourself, you, this big-for-nothing country, you had to bring me to Uganda, to shame yourself again. Then, I topped it with a long hiss.
The next day started with me at the restaurant. Paintings staring down at me from the wall: one of an old man that reminded me of late Nigerian writer, Adebayo Faleti, and three young girls with adorned heads playing peekaboo. On the screen, there were talks of local elections and of a man named Bobi Wine. That name would dominate the conversation throughout my stay in Uganda, his face splashed on newspapers, a riot that left leaves and bullets on the road.
We went early in the morning to join the bus that would take us to Makerere University. We got missing – walking round and round like Israelites in the wilderness – before we found the hotel, our meeting point with other participants. While roundabouting, I found ‘Kwenu’ as in ‘Igbo Kwenu’–a call for solidarity among Igbo people – was the name of a thatch roofed restaurant in Uganda. I would later learn that it is a Kiswahili word that means: ‘your home/abode/place’.
‘This Plot is Not For Sale’ – it was weird seeing that sign on an undeveloped plot of land on Bukoto Street. It took me to Nigeria, to the plot of land opposite my father’s house, sold to three different people, court and juju battles, laid untouched for years, finally divided between two as one died in the furnace of the fights. For this sign in Uganda, I imagined stories, of troubles, of fights, of court rulings, of no victor but many vanquished–in the past, present or future – of this plot.
That first bus trip to Makerere – the venue of our workshop – would be the beginning of many. It was also the beginning of many conversations with colleagues from different parts of the continent that became friends. Some of them starting with me trying to wrack my head to remember names that I’d been told earlier, trying to tie names to faces and faces to countries. Kitata from Kenya whose name means ‘problem’. Serah from Kenya, freshly minted PhD, was such a delight to engage on issues around academia in Africa. Zimbabwean, bespectacled Tinashe and well-measured talks about Zimbabwe, erasure and the significant role of centring that literature plays. Those bus trips were also history lessons from our unofficial Ugandan Professor Bwesigye who drew from his wells of knowledge of the country of his birth.
Makerere is that university that I read of in essays on African literary history. It was the seat of East African literature the way University of Ibadan was the seat of literature in Nigeria. It also reminded me of Ibadan: big trees that swayed left and right as you entered and slowly moving feet that seemed not to be in a hurry. Makerere also had the huge stork birds – wise old professors with so much to teach – that are an important element of its logo.
The sessions held at the Senate Building. The opening talk by Bwesigye raised more questions than provided answers: who are the gatekeepers of African literature? Are there gates? Why are there gates? For me, this was visualising African literature through Western concepts. How about a communal system, then we will be asking: who owns each hut? Who are the floor sweepers? What roles does each member of the community play? Similar conversations, different paradigms.
The workshops were intense. They would lead to some inner soul searching: what is this academic writing thing really about? How can I be creative even with my academic writing? How can I do academic writing that transcends just literary texts? What about writing around cultural production and things happening in the ‘real’ world? I am still asking myself these questions. I am still navigating these murky waters. Long after Uganda, I still see the faces, I still hear the voices: find your own voice, situate your voice in bigger ongoing conversations, add something new.
One of the beauties of the AMLA Workshop was merging the academics and literary activists together. It was remarkable to learn of the thankless work being done by many young Africans across the continent to ensure that literature retains a breathing soul. The town had a handshake with the gown and held conversations. Recording such activities is significant, especially today, because the excuses of the past – that Africans did not have literature because they were not written, for instance – are no longer tenable.
Everywhere you step in Kampala is a place of (hi)story. After long hours of talks on academic writing, we ended at different places: the Buganda Palace – where ladies in trousers had to tie wrappers around themselves; the Kasubi Royal Tomb – with a special room that women cannot enter even to date; the huge Cathedral overlooking the city – with its stained glass that told stories of Ugandan Martyrs on their way to Namugongo. In these places, live ghosts from the past that will continue to hover over our heads in the present. They are also all testaments to the traditional ingenuity of Africans. In these buildings, precision merged with ingenuity.
I’d heard too many stories of Namugongo that fate turned my feet in its direction. I spent some days at Barbara’s. She attends Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine, Namugongo–built like a long hat, the same shape of some of the huts in the King’s Tomb – a pilgrimage site dedicated to 22 Catholic martyrs. Even the use of the word ‘shrine’ for a church goes a long way to celebrate African tradition in my eyes, for shrines have become demonised by the world religions – ask Nollywood practitioners about their portrayal of African shrines. I also found it interesting how the Catholic Church immortalised native Ugandans, making saints out of them. At different corners of its vast compound, there are small caves with pictures dedicated to different martyrs. Walking there felt as though I was surrounded by ghosts from time past. There, different spirits merged in communion as African feet now swayed to Catholic hymns.
At the Ugandan Martyrs Museum, there was nothing much to see as the site was under construction. At these places, I saw the importance of preserving history – no matter how gory – to Ugandans. I hear that Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu – pronounced Chintu – is steeped deep in many of these places. I am still looking for that book.
Time passed really quickly as though it had a plane to catch.
It was time for me to return to Nigeria. I’d seen Uganda for myself. To take a part of her with me, I searched out Kisubu tea – dried processed lemongrass tea – because it made a solid first impression on my tongue; it also reminded me of my mother’s early morning tea.
During the long ride to the airport, my mind travelled to the places I’d been to, to the people that I’d met (again), to the stories that we’d shared and, once again, I appreciated the value of travel. I appreciated how it had the power to show you how small and unkempt our father’s farmland is when we just peep across the fence. It showed me how much we can learn, as Africans, if we just speak more to one another.
I arrived at the airport, exchanged long warm hugs with Barbara. After the necessary checks, I walked into the belly of a plane, filled with thoughts of a place I met briefly yet felt as though we had known each other for so long and still had yawning gaps yearning to be filled.
Uganda, I shall return.
When? I do not know.
Temitayo Olofinlua is an award-winning creative writer and editor who calls herself a content busybody. Her first and second degrees are in Literature-in-English. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, studying Twitter.
Author’s photo by: Femi Amogunla