By Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Published October 10, 2012
The leader of a rebel group that has just captured political power arrives in the city in a rugged jeep dressed in neat military fatigues amid the ululations of ‘fundamental change!’ He promises to hand over power as soon as possible. But having tasted power, the former guerrilla army leader-cum-president is in no hurry to leave. He arrives for a presidential campaign in a polished automobile surrounded by war tanks and members of special anti-riot soldiers amid whispers of ‘No change, No change’ as citizens of the country who had previously looked up to him as a liberator tremble as he walks to the podium threatening to eat his opponents as if they were biscuits or samosas.
That is the summary of one of the 80 poems in Beneath the Smile poetry anthology by 25-year-old Paul Kasami of Uganda. It runs 114 pages and costs US$8 per copy.
The book tackles wide-ranging issues from gender imbalance, effects of war, environmental conservation, time management in Africa, love, incest, rape, marriage, and to leadership, politics and democracy.
The anthology is arranged in six chapters: poems of indifference, poems of existence, poems of nature, poems of humour, poems of mortality and poems of love.
In “Dear Revolutionary”, Kasami is baffled at Nelson Mandela’s world record of lhanding over the relay button to Thabo Mbeki after a short spell as President on a continent where leaders hardly ever retire and often die in office. He asks, “Did his (Nelson Mandela’s) words register? Or was it a child writing on water?”
‘Democracy visits America’ celebrates the first black President taking over the White House in USA re-echoing the words ‘I have a dream’ by Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. After thousands of years the ‘teachers of government of the people by the people for the people (aka democracy)’ had yielded to its calls and put Barack Hussein Obama, Jr, in the White House in 2008.
“Africa in the News” depicts the after effect of a rebel attack. A faceless child lies in a lake of blood, its toothless mother trying to bite into a tree trunk just to get the last sap and hang onto life as a colourless camera operator clicks away incessantly to capture the macabre scene for his modern world to see.
“At the Mercy of a Mouse Click” laments the US military’s dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki where the residents still suffer from the aftereffects.
A man called Mahmood bin Salif laments the trouble he has to endure at international airports because his beard resembles that of former al-Qaeda terror leader Osama bin Laden in “I am Mahmood Bin Salif”. He is irked by the guards who keep one eye open, when he hops onto a bus. “My name is Mahmood bin Salif/ Not Osama/ I don’t know how to fly a 747/ Into twin electric poles/ Let alone make a bottle bomb,” the poem goes.
“High School Memories” is a nostalgic piece of secondary school days when an all-boys school invited an all-girls school for a dance. It is usually restricted to students in the senior most classes while the junior boys just watch the action from the sidelines.
The following day the junior boys spread word that the head prefect danced with a horse (a jargon used by high school students to refer to a not-so-beautiful girl). Of course nearly all the participating senior students will have borrowed the clothes and shoes to look smart at the ‘social’ or ‘sosh.’
Born in Jinja in eastern Uganda in 1987, Kasami says his interest in literature started very early; that he penned his first poems at the age of 12. He describes the state of poetry in Uganda as ‘a malnourished child emerging from a cave.’
Speaking to ArtMatters.Info in Kampala, Kasami laments that it is only the younger people who are seeking to revive this genre of writing while their older counterparts continue to be fixated on the late Okot P Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol.
Kasami says he chose to publish his own anthology “because I never thought them worthwhile; I had heard stories that some books take years to get published.”
But self-publishing would imply that the work isn’t good enough, wouldn’t it?
Not really, he says. “Self-publishing is quicker. I wanted my readers to have access to my books as soon as possible. Many a time publishing houses take ages to publish flourishing or emerging writers; they prefer established writers like Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, forgetting that these also started out just like us.”
First exhibited in 2009 under the title Midnight Lullabies, Beneath The Smile was published in 2012 and launched on August 3, 2012 at the Uganda Germany Cultural Society in Kampala.
Kasami says he faced a mammoth challenge of finding the right people to critique, proof-read and review this work.
“It is one thing thinking you are a great writer without anybody else ever reviewing your works and letting you know that either what you have is relevant or just plain rhetorical,” he says. “The biggest challenge was definitely limited funds. For a poet, it is easy for you to sit down and write but at the end of the day there is the process of printing the book so that your readers get the written word. The funds to print, design and publicise the work were so elusive I thought of going to rob a church mouse.”
To overcome these challenges, Kasami suggests that young, unpublished or aspiring writers should consider raising funds to enable them put their work out there.