Ugandan writers celebrate Bukenya’s 80th birthday with a bash, author welcomes new life chapter

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Ugandan writers celebrate Bukenya’s 80th birthday with a bash, author welcomes new life chapter
A Conversation with Mwalimu Austin Bukenya at FEMRITE, Kamwokya. Author Nassur Tab'an El-Tablaz moderating

By Jimmy Acellam Odoki

Today, art lovers gather at Makerere University to celebrate the life and work of two literary giants, professors Austin Bukenya and Arthur Gakwandi. The two have been at the heart of the art scene in East Africa for more than forty years.

However, on Monday, there was a smaller gathering at the FEMRITE offices to belatedly celebrate the 80th birthday of Austin Bukenya will turn 81 on February 10.

Bukenya, the author of novels like The People’s Bachelor and plays like The Bride, which remain staples in the literature canon in the region, was in personal attendance.

The event attracted Hilda J. Twongyeirwe, director of the Uganda Women Writers Association (FEMRITE), Nakanwangi Zenah aka Zenah the Poet, Martina Nagasha, Nassur Tab’an El-Tablaz, and many literature lovers.

The writer who has been a teacher for decades at Kenyatta University and Makerere University basked in the joy of watching former students and mentees shower him with praise for his influence on their work and life. Bukenya started teaching in Kenya in the late 1970s after he was forced to flee into exile.

His troubles with the Ugandan government started in 1977 after his participation in the play, Oluyimba lwa Wankoko staged at the Festac’77 Festival of the Arts in Lagos, Nigeria. The Amin government perceived the play as critical. He spent 20 years in exile in Kenya and taught Literature and English at Kenyatta University.

The celebration of Bukenya’s birthday at FEMRITE’s Kamwokya offices seemed quite fitting as it is not as well known that he played an important role in founding what remains the East African region’s only women literature-focused organisation.

When Mwalimu (teacher) Bukenya came from exile and returned to teach at Makerere University, he shared an office with Mary Karooro 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 Karooro Okurut, Bukenya 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”, recalled current FEMRITE direct Hilda Twongyeirwe who was then a second-year student.

Speaking to the gathered audience, Bukenya revealed that he was inspired to write because “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.”

Bukenya, who is fluent in Swahili, French, Latin, Luganda and widely travelled, attributes his health to 3Ts: Teaching, theatre and playing tennis which keep him fit.

He has written in all these languages but is especially proud of his Swahili writing. This is because he believes that, “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.”

Although in his 80s now, Bukenya says he is far from leaving the field of literature.

This was emphasised by Nassur Tab’an El-Tablaz who noted that, “Indeed Mwalimu is an old teacher who hasn’t retired. He has just recreated the classroom or school in new spaces. Old teachers see the world and people around them differently which allows them to continue teaching.”

His comments followed performances of a selection of poems read by; Nakanwangi Zenah aka Zenah the Poet, “I Met a thief”, Martina Nagasha, a student of Literature at Makerere University’s “The Dancer’s Challenge” and Martha Uwera from the School of Law, Makerere University’s, “W-W-Woman.”

Bukenya was born on February 10, 1944, in Masaka where his father worked with the Police. He was baptised at the Kitovu Cathedral in Masaka and named Augustine Bukenya. He attended Kisubi seminary intending to become a priest. However, 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 Anglicanised to Austin because of a strong British influence at the university.

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