By Sydney Mugerwa
I have a confession to make. Reading A Poetic Duet was frankly an arduous task for me, but not for the reasons you might think. This poetry delight bundled into a book is the work of two household names in Uganda’s literosphere. Jane Okot p’Bitek Langoya and Sophie Bamwoyeraki are daughters of the soil, steeped so deep into Uganda’s history that to extricate one from the other is sure to draw blood. Jane Okot p’Bitek Langoya continues her father’s legacy, half a century since Song of Lawino hit the bookstores, still writing in the song tradition form he pioneered. As for Sophie Bamwoyeraki, if at all the English language textbooks I read are indeed those she co-authored, all I can say is, thank you for my childhood.
Why do I say I struggled to read A Poetic Duet? I am glad you asked. All I did was read the poetry collection as it should. My mind wandered between stanzas, my eyes fluttered open and shut with each line I drilled into my brain. I pondered on the message between the lines and then pondered how time had flown by, wondering at what point sleep had come calling, or if I had slept at all and through it all, what I read became more profound the more I thought about it. They say a person is only capable of 5 minutes of concentration at a time, after all. If anybody claims they read this poetry collection without any mental resistance, I will henceforth doubt they possess a soul that truly appreciates beauty.
African languages are rigid unwieldy creatures when translated to English. We lose the soup of the humour; the gravity of the message gets lost in translation and in decrypting the words back to our native tongues, we dispense quite a bit of effort. A Poetic Duet attempts to remain true to it’s roots. The free-verse and lyrical poems mirror society as it is shining back our unconscious behaviour for self scrutiny. Jane Okot p’Bitek and Sophie Bamwoyeraki employ powerful imagery reminiscent of Chinua Achebe in his prime.
The first poem that strikes me for the beauty of its structure is Cancerous Growths. Bamwoyeraki tackles the often beaten drum of corruption rampant in our society with such finesse. She says:
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.
Officer TMK stole a glance at his colleagues.
Like a schoolboy learning to cross a street
Looked Left. Right. Then Left again. The way was clear.
He took a peek. Re-arranged the cows in order.
With a chief taster’s smile, he nodded in satisfaction
I guffawed at the image of bribes as cows neatly lined, and chuckled, thinking back to a few months ago when I taught my nephew to cross the road the same way I was taught, telling him to look left, look right. Bitek Langoya captures the true African way of polite indirect criticism through humour.
She mocks the tradition of self-appropriation of public funds in ‘Too Clean’ Is Bad for Business. We have all been in this frame of mind, or attempted to, pressured by family and our peers.
She is too clean.
That is bad for business.
This is a Government organisation
Run by the people, for the people
The money belongs to the Government
And therefore to the people.
And we are the people.
Who does she think she is?
Refusing us access to our money?
How does she expect us
To complete our construction at home
And build our businesses?
A constant theme throughout the collection is the audit of contemporary Ugandan and African society. The politics, economy, institutions and society itself is laid bare under a spotlight. Bamwoyeraki and p’Bitek Langoya dissect its flaws with a detached omnipotent air.
Where at the start, one is hard-pressed to identify the writing style of one poet from the other, it is only in the middle of the book onward that these two literary behemoths finally reveal their true nature. Bamwoyeraki’s style has more of a structured ‘Western’ leaning. Her poetry is lyrical and sticks to a meter as we can see in ‘Friends’
There are friends who chat and prate
Chat and prate louder than weaverbirds.
Others will pipe and sing
Pipe and sing better than nightingales
But strain as you may,
You will hear echoes from an empty water well.
There are friends who plan and write
Plan and write better than the Egyptians.
Others will compose watertight verses
Watertight verses worthy to gain the Queen’s praises
I found ‘Adrift’ another of her poems to be just delightful. It warmed my heart and made me crave for millet, or kwon kaal as my mom calls it. I am mildly jealous she wrote this poem before I did. I will leave this here.
If you were a cooking spoon
And I, millet in a pot,
Supple, fresh, hot,
Like acacia gum I’d stick on you.
Cosy, claiming every inch.
If you were a chronicle
A must-read, crispy and all white,
And I, a bookmark
Like a mighty wind I’d slab all access.
A settlement, claiming every inch.
When you read I Love You by p’Bitek Langoya, you start to realise how much of an influence her father had on her writing style. Her colourful, sarcastic, blunt words ripe with shock-value are the hallmark of what is considered unfettered African writing.
Do you love me,
Or just parts of my body?
Which part of me do you love?
My shapely legs, which you stare at
With your drooling tongue hung out
Like a hungry dog that has just sighted meat
My shapely body which your hands
Shamelessly itch to grope Like a he-goat on heat?
My sexy eyes which seem to melt your knees
Whenever it meets your lustful ones?
Or my ample bosom…
You lecherous creature!
While the poetry collection by p’Bitek Langoya and Bamwoyeraki is quite voluminous, each poem illuminates a topic for which it was created, nudging the reader to take a walk into their mind and review their life as an outsider. That two strong women authored this work allows us a glimpse at the female mind and all that they go through in a male-dominated world.
To say I enjoyed reading A Poetic duet is an understatement. I savored the words, chewed them slowly and was rewarded by a warm fuzzy feeling in my stomach. This is a volume I will definitely read again, because in all honesty, I have simply scratched the surface at this juncture.
The last extract I will leave you with is Man of God by p’Bitek Langoya, and only because a certain church opened its doors a few meters from where I live and I have been nursing headaches ever since. If at all pastor of said church indulges in a bit of poetic reading, and he happens to chance by this review, my message to him would be, ‘Enjoy!’
The fiery Pastor lifts high his Bible
In praise of the living God
Sprinkles of saliva showers his congregation
As he enthusiastically leads in worship
Pacing the length and breadth of the makeshift stage.
The way he shouts at God from time to time
One would be forgiven for imagining
That God is deaf.
He preaches hellfire and damnation
‘Happy are the poor,’ he shouts
‘For they shall find riches in heaven!’
And the congregation gives its all in anticipation
A Poetic Duet is published by Fountain Publishers.
This book review was originally published at She Made Me Do It, as part of the #Writivism2016 Festival Book Features. Sydney Mugerwa is one of the select official book bloggers. He will review a number of books that will be launched, featured and available for sale at the festival. Look out for the badge below on your favourite book blogs. And come to the festival to buy the books and get them signed.