Uganda at 56: Writing Independence (1934 – 1978)

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Happy belated 56th independence anniversary, Ugandans!

This independence week at Writivism, we are celebrating by publishing a four-part series that features 56 of Uganda’s writers, active between the 1934 to 2018 period. This list has been inspired by Darkowaa’s GH at 60 | Our Writers & Their Books at African Book Addict and Bakwa Magazine’s 100 Days of Cameroonian Literature.

A Note on Process 

Our four parts in the series are separated by the year in which a writer “emerged” on the scene through what one would say was their first recognizable work that announced their presence as a writer. The years that separate the parts therefore do not necessarily connote to the ages of the writers nor the entire spans of their writing careers. Some published their first prominent works in the 1960s and are still publishing today, for example. We have also considered the various forms of writing, including drama, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, among others. That said, 56 is a small number, given the years we are covering, and so many of your favourite writers are missing. In fact, one can compile a list of 56 Ugandan writers and more for every form. We have also considered Ugandan diasporic writers in compiling the list. Realizing that the language in which writers produce their work remains a big talking point at events and in other literary conversations, we have also paid attention to writers whose work comes in Ugandan languages, alongside English.

In compiling this list during independence week, we are highlighting the world-building of Uganda’s writers, looking at the way this aspect of their work functions in the context of the nation trying to construct itself. As we attempt to move from independence to decolonization, it is the radical imaginations of these writers which have framed, defined and sought solutions to Uganda’s growing pains. We are alive to the fact that Uganda has not moved through its various states of being peacefully. It is thrashing, fighting and occasionally flailing in its attempts to reconcile itself as a colonial construct in a (supposedly) post-colonial age.

Early research for the list was done by Jacob Katumusiime, and Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa (R.I.P), who published a rip-off from that research in February 2017, here. I have worked with Esther Mirembe and Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire in the final compilation that appears in the series. That said, as is customary, I take responsibility as the lead on the project and author of the list.

Part 1: 1934 – 1978

In Part I of the series, we present a selection of some of the country’s most renowned writers who published their first recognizable work from the 1930s until the 1970s. Most of the writers on this list are gendered as men. As such, it is by no means exhaustive. We aim to show in this 4-part series that history is a product of narratives and national memories are constructed both by the stories we tell and the ones that have been lost or deliberately hidden. This list provides an overview of the concerns of the writers whose voices were valued or forceful enough to garner attention – and this is due as much to their various forms of privilege as it is to their talent. There were, of course, many more stories that were devised, reworked and shared orally by women, people of other marginalized genders and people whose various forms of social marginalization precluded them from being memorialized in the canon. We are endeavoring – and we encourage others – to learn about and raise awareness of these stories by reaching out to elders of these demographics and recording their poetry, their songs, their narratives. The current canon only tells part of the story.


apolo kagwa

Apolo Kagwa: The Customs of the Baganda (1934)
Documented in mostly political chronicles, Apollo Kagwa held the position of Prime Minister in Buganda. Several books are written in his name, especially about Buganda. The books include “Bassekabaka ba Buganda” which is a general history of the kingdom and “Empisa z’Abaganda” that treatises the laws and customs of the kingdom. The books have been translated into English as “The Kings of Buganda” and “The Customs of the Baganda”. He also wrote a collection of folklore called “Engero z’Abaganda”.

okot pbitek
Okot P’Bitek: “Lak Tar” (1953)
Internationally recognized for his 1966 sensational poetry collection, “Song of Lawino” – originally written in the Acholi language as “Wer per Lawino”, Okot p’Bitek may be referred to as the grandfather of Ugandan literature. He opened a new chapter in African literature through his song school. His first publication was a novel, “Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wi Lobo” written in Luo in 1953 and later translated posthumously as “White Teeth“. His other works are “Song of Ocol” (1966), “Song of Prisoner” (1970) and “Song of Malaya” (1971). The multi-talented writer also write academic monographs such as “African religions in western scholarship” (1970) and collected his essays in “Africa’s Cultural Revolution” (1975) and posthumously in “Artist, the ruler: essays on art, culture and values” (1986) and published several collections of folklore in “The Horn of My Love” (1974) and “Hare and Hornbill” (1978).

violet barungi
Violet Barungi: “Kefa Kazana” (1964)
She is a Ugandan writer and editor. She has edited several publications published by FEMRITE (Uganda Association of Women Writers). Her published books include the novel “Cassandra”. She has worked as a Book Production Officer at the East African Literature Bureau (1972- 77), Senior Book Production Officer at Uganda Literature Bureau (1978-94) and an editor at FEMRITE (1997 to date). She won the British Council New Playwriting Award for Africa and The Middle East in 1997 for “Over My Dead Body”.  “Kefa Kezana”, was her first published short story, included in David Cook’s “Origin East Africa“, a prominent anthology of short stories from the early 1960s.

robert serumaga

Robert Serumaga: “A Play” (1967)
Inspired by Irish Theater and Theatre of the Absurd, Robert Serumaga founded the National Theatre Company in Uganda and published plays for the theatre. They include “A Play” (1967), “The Elephants” (1970), “Majangwa” (1971), “Renga Moi” (1972) and “Amayirikiti”, produced in 1974 before he joined the liberation movement that ousted Idi Amin Dada in 1979. Serumaga had earlier on published a novel, “Return to the Shadows” in 1969. His mysterious passing in the early 1980s robbed Uganda of a gem.

okello oculi

Okello Oculi: “Prostitute” (1968)
Okello Oculi is a Nigeria based Ugandan academic, novelist and poet. His culturally conscious poetry has been anthologized in several publications. Oculi’s publications include “Prostitute” (1968), “Orphan” (1968), “Kanti Riti” (1974), “Malak: An African Political Poem” (1976), “Kookolem” (1978), “Song of the Sun in Us” (Poets of Africa; 2000). He has written nonfiction books that include, “Discourses on Africa Affairs: Directions and Destinies for the 20th Century” (2000), “Political Economy of Malnutrition” (1987), “Nigerian Alternatives” (1987), “Health Problems in Rural and Urban Africa” (1981). Oculi is one of the poets whose work applied the elements of Okot p’Bitek’s song school.


Taban Lo Liyong: “Fixions and other stories” (1969)

Although he has pronounced himself as South Sudanese, Taban lo Liyong’s works are considered Ugandan. Famous for his cutting literary and academic criticism, Liyong is the first African to have graduated from the University of Iowa Writers’ workshop. His acclaimed essays and poetry collections include “On the Abolition of the English Department” (1968) co-authored with Ngugi Wa Thiongo and Henry Owuor- Anyumba, “The Last Word” (1969) the first book of literary criticism in English published by an African publisher, “The Uniformed Man” (1971), “Popular Culture of East Africa: Oral Literature” (1972) “Another Last Word” (1990), “Culture is Rutan” (1991), “Frantz Fanon’s Uneven Ribs”, and more. He has over twenty published books both in the English language and East African languages. Other poetry collections he has published include, “Another Dead Nigger” (1972), “Words That Melt a Mountain” (1996) “Carrying Knowledge Up a Palm Tree” (1998), “Homage to Oyame” (1997), “The Cows of Shambat” (1992), “Meditations of Taban Lo Liyong” (1978) and “Corpse Lovers and Corpse Haters” (2005) and plays such as “Showhat and Sowhat” (2007), and a short story collection, “Fixions and other stories” (1969). He was the distinguished Keynote Speaker at the 2018 Writivism Festival.

henry barlow

Henry Barlow: “Building the Nation” (1970)
Renowned for his poem, “Building the Nation”, which doubles as the name to his poetry collection published in 2000, Henry Barlow is part of the first generation of Uganda writers. Though he published a full length poetry collection later on in life, Barlow’s poetry was already in circulation by 1970. A 1989 publication titled “Of Feathers and Dead Leaves” included fourteen of Barlow’s poems. And his poetry appears in several anthologies, journals and textbooks. He worked in Uganda’s civil service soon after independence.

Richard Ntiru: “Tensions” (1971)
Richard Ntiru has been anthologized in many literary and academic books despite having published only one poetry collection, “Tensions” (1971). He however has written plays for radio and several short stories. His poems “Modena”, “The Pauper”, “To the Living” and “Virgine Madre” appear in the anthology, “Poems from East Africa”. Others like “If it is True” and “The Miniskirt” are included in The “Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry”.

Pio Zirimu: “Black Aesthetics” (1971)
Before his untimely death, Pio Zirimu fought the battle to bring about a concentration on African Literature at Makerere University. His greatest contribution to African studies was in collaborating with his student then, Austin Bukenya to coin the word “orature” from “oral literature” and co-authoring a number of essays with Andrew Gurr such as “An Approach to Black Aesthetics” (1973) and “Oracy as a Tool of Development” (1973).

autin byenkya

Austin Bukenya: “The People’s Bachelor” (1972)
Widely known as Mwalimu, Austin Bukenya is a Ugandan academic, poet, novelist, actor and playwright renowned for the play, “The Bride”. Other Bukenya plays are “The Secret”, and “The Mermaid of Msambweni”. He has written several academic papers, poems and is the author of the novel, “The People’s Bachelor” (1972). He has won several national and international awards. And his other works include, “A Hole in the Sky” and several academic essays. Bukenya has also written and edited several educational books.

peter nazareth

Peter Nazareth: “In a Brown Mantle” (1972)
Peter Nazareth is an academic, critic and writer whose works have appeared in several anthologies. His publications include “In the Trickster Tradition: The Novels of Andrew Salkey, Francis Ebejer, and Ishmael Reed” (1994); “Edwin Thumboo: Creating a Nation Through Poetry” (2008); and the long essay “Elvis as Anthology” in Vernon Chadwick, ed., “In Search of Elvis: Music, Race, Art, Religion”. He edited “Critical Essays on Ngugi wa Thiong’o” (2000) and “Pivoting on the Point of Return: Modern Goan Literature” (2010). His first novel, “In a Brown Mantle”, has been taught at various universities. He teaches at the Univeristy of Iowa.



John Nagenda: “Mukasa” (1973)

A former cricketer for the Ugandan national team, Nagenda has held positions at the Oxford University Press, the Human Rights Commission and State House as a Senior Presidential Advisor, as well as being a freelance media and PR consultant. As a student, he edited Makerere University’s “Penpoint” magazine. He went on to publish “Mukasa” (1973) and “The Seasons of Thomas Tebo” (1986). He is an honorary member of the National Institute of Journalists of Uganda.


timothy wangusa

Timothy Wangusa: “Salutations” (1977)
As well as being the Founding President of PEN Uganda Centre, Timothy Wangusa is the author of the novel “Upon this Mountain” and a poetry collection “Africa’s New Brood”. His other poetry collections include “Salutations” (1965-1975), “A Pattern of Dust: Selected Poems” (1965-1990), “Anthem for Africa” (1995). He has written another novel “Betwixt Mountain and Wilderness” which is a sequel to his first novel. Wangusa has featured in several poetry anthologies and his work has been featured on Badilisha: the Pan-African Poetry Platform.

arthur gakwandi

Arthur Gakwandi: “The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa” (1977)
Renowned for the novel “Kosiya Kifefe”, Arthur Gakwandi is an academic and critic who has published several articles and short stories. His novel was the fifth Ugandan book to feature on the National Secondary Schools Syllabus since Independence. He taught at Makerere University and served as a diplomat from 1998. His book, “The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa” (1977), a ground-breaking monograph in African literary criticism.

Henry Kyemba

Henry Kyemba: “A State of Blood” (1977)
Henry Kyemba, like most of his contemporaries, used his literary prowess to criticize the Idi Amin regime. Forced into exile, Kyemba published “The State of Blood: The Inside Story of Idi Amin” which shaped the global image of Idi Amin. Kyemba had been a minister in Amin’s government. This short book has become a bedrock for Idi Amin-related literature given the timing of its publication.

rose mbowa

Rose Mbowa: “Awake and Sleeping” (1978)
Rose Mbowa (18 January 1943 to 11 February 1999) was a Ugandan writer, actress, academic and feminist. She was also a professor of Theatre Arts and Drama at Makerere University, the oldest and largest public university in Uganda. Mbowa’s play “Mother Uganda and her Children” was first performed internationally. A play “Kiwajja“, was staged in Uganda in 2005 by Bakayimbira Dramactors, in celebration of Rose Mbowa’s contribution to Ugandan theatre. According to the Guardian, Mbowa smuggled her own play, “Awake and Sleeping”, “inspired by the death in detention of her cousin – out of the back of the her house at Makerere as Amin’s troops came in the front.” The Guardian obituary labelled Mbowa, “Mother Uganda”, a reference to her play.

Part 2 of the “Uganda at 56: Writing Independence” series will be published tomorrow. 

By Sheila Bamugemereire