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One man’s reading list

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A literary critic recounts the best Ugandan books of 2012

Excluding schoolbooks, about 20 books are published in Uganda every year all genres combined; that is politics, histories, autobiographies and biographies, works of fiction such as novels and collections of short stories, and poetry. Here we present the best titles – published not only in Uganda, but also anywhere, by a Ugandan as the best books of the year 2012.

We looked for thematic pre-occupation, clarity, strength of argument; focus or narrative, colour in language, and style of presentation, and of course, relevance.

Many biographies were published in 2012 but these hard to judge because their strength and goodness depends on the position of the person/subject. We have none on our list.


Another is that often distorted genres of literary expression; poetry. Although it is a very sophisticated form, many emerging writers take this direction, and with a boom in self-publishing, many poetry collections are daily churned out – many of them, of course, mediocre. No poetry collection, therefore, made it to this list.

The Corrupt, the Quick and the Dead (Tumusiime Rushedge, 332 Pages – Fountain Publishers)

Arguably the best comprehensive work of fiction published this year, The Quick, The Corrupt and The Dead claims a special place in Uganda’s postcolonial writing. Tumusiime Rushedge, endeared to readers as the `Old Fox’ through his cheeky and ribald escapades that used to run in the Sunday Vision – his novel, published posthumously, offers reminisces of a man whose talent touched and cracked the country.

The Quick, the Corrupt and the Dead is a story of a wealthy, cunning and roguish fellow, Festo Sempa. He is as corrupt as he is generous; rich as he is scandalous, daring as he is dangerous. He has destroyed as many lives as he has saved; beaten as many women as he has slept with.

Sempa has invested in all sorts of businesses ranging from real estate, transport, and entertainment to Pentecostal evangelism. In other words, he has done all that the wealthy can.

As the old English adage goes, there is always a “but” in everything: Sempa has failed to sire an heir. This has not turned him into a serial womaniser, but has gotten him many enemies; business partners, police officers, women, and whores.

How does a story as complex as this, involving the use of poison, gunfire, bribes, faith, and sex to score varied ends, get resolved?  It is absorbing, gripping and narrated with the perfection of an old hand – the Old Fox.

Henry Barlow: A Romanticist Reading (Alice Jossy Kyobutungi, 192 Pages – Bishop Stuart University)

For many who have read Henry Barlow’s poetry, it is the poem, “Building the Nation” that is recalled most vividly – for its satirical treatment of the painful line between a senior officer and his junior – captured through a PS and his driver.

As much critical reception of Barlow’s poem has always done, it is the form and content that is appreciated – not the theoretical pulse. Reading his complete poetry collection, Building the Nation and other Poems, published in 2002, Alice Jossy Kyobutungi is telling us that in Henry Barlow, Uganda produced an own (or even better) version of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Lord Byron – and the several other poets of the Romantic tradition. It is a wonderful read not only bringing Barlow back to life, but also opening new nuances hitherto ignored in Barlow’s work.

One Little Guitar: The Words of Paul Job Kafeero (Editor, Kathryn Barrett-Gaines, 290 Pages, Fountain Publishers).

Across the world, chances of applauding genius delivered in languages not English or French are really slim. In Uganda, it is even worse considering that translation (especially from vernacular to English) is yet to find its beat.

There is no doubt that Paul Job Kafeero remains one of Uganda’s best kadongo kamu artistes – often applauded for blending education with entertainment. This legendary songbird that had mastered the sweetness of his vernacular, Luganda, and knew how to sculpt song out of it – gets immortalised in this book.

Inspired by love, and a sense of indebtedness to Uganda, Barrette-Gaines collected all songs composed and sang by Kafeero to make a book. The book renders in both English and Luganda all Kafeero’s songs and spices it with both private and public pictures.  As the editor notes, the English language is so limited it at times fails to capture the imagery and sweetness of Kafeero’s music.

A Cure Too Far: The Struggle to End HIV/AIDS (Peter Mugyenyi, 318 Pages – Fountain Publishers)

When Genocide by Denial got published in 2008, it was clear Dr Mugyenyi was not just a powerful author, but also a reliable resource on issues relating to HIV/AIDS. As a doctor, he had narrated the pain in looking on, so helplessly, as people died. The grimmest part was when big pharmaceutical companies arguing racially, to justify a profiteering motive, denied African anti-retroviral care. This is the story in his 2008 book.

A Cure Too Far is his second. The air is now clear: There is arguably enough information on HIV/AIDS, and it appears communities understand the social and biological manifestations of the disease. The improved access of anti-retroviral therapy has made illness less scary – and in the same stroke reduced the stigma that was associated with it.

The actions and implications to victims and sycophants, 20 years ago – scared/prompted by illness and stigma, are difficult to imagine: businesses collapsed, money was lost, families were broken, careers, marriages, love-affairs – all came to brutal ends. Theories involving death and violence – such as a cure in making love to a virgin – all rocked the dangerous world that AIDS had created. A Cure Too Far records these desperate efforts, the quirks, the opportunists, and the false hope – in the struggle to find a cure. It is the fine print of his first.

The Oxford Companion to the Economics of Africa Editors: Ernest Aryeetey, Shantayanan Devarajan, Ravi Kanbur, Louis Kasekende, 657 Pages, Oxford Univ. Press

Discussing the several economic challenges that Africa faces in the 21st century – in agriculture, foreign capital investment, globalisation, foreign aid, the land question, climate change, food security, infrastructure development and several others - this book addresses intellectual rigour to understanding the challenges. It also provides specific and broad suggestions on ways of moving forward.

Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (Mahmood Mamdani, 168 Pages, Harvard Univ. Press)

In Define and Rule, one of Uganda’s leading intellectuals, Mahmood Mamdani focuses on the turn in late nineteenth-century colonial statecraft when Britain abandoned the attempt to eradicate differences between conquerors and conquered and introduced a new idea of governance, as the definition and management of difference. Mahmood Mamdani explores how lines were drawn between settler and native as distinct political identities, and between natives according to tribe. Out of that colonial experience issued a modern language of pluralism and difference.

Mamdani takes the case of Sudan to demonstrate how colonial law established tribal identity as the basis for determining access to land and political power, and follows this law’s legacy to contemporary Darfur.

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