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BOOK REVIEW: Footprints of the Outsider

Many readers will easily relate with the realism in Julius Ocwinyo’s latest novel

Julius Ocwinyo is arguably among Uganda’s literary luminaries, thanks to his three major fictional works that include the much acclaimed ‘Fate of the Banished’ (1997) that featured quite prominently in Uganda’s literature syllabus at university level, ‘The Unfulfilled Dreams’ (2002), a work of fiction for young people, and now ‘Footprints of the Outsider’, first published in 2002 by Fountain Publishers. In Footprints of an Outsider, Ocwinyo takes us to Teboke, a village in Apac district in northern Uganda, which, it turns out, is the real life name of his ancestral village. Setting the novel in a place that is easily recognisable renders to the novel a certain air of realism that those familiar with the social fabric of a typical Ugandan village will scarcely believe this to be a work of fiction. The characters, characterisation, description, themes and ideas all point to familiar social embroidery typical of a Uganda of about forty years ago.

At the start of the novel, two Indians, Hippen and Ramchand arrive unexpectedly in Teboke and set up a cotton ginnery at the trading centre. This sets off a chain of events that include the birth of one Abudu Olwit, the central character in the novel. From the outset, the writer employs an extravagance of literary devices to unravel the plot with such rib-cracking humour, the use of folk song and most importantly, a heavy use of his vernacular Luo language in describing things, usually without feeling the compulsion to translate them into English. For instance, while the Indian ginnery proprietors employed northerners to do the manual labour, they opted for Ikangi for the job of accountant. Ikangi was a subject of much speculation and mystery. Unlike the locals, he was of a brown complexion and he had very beautiful daughters that usually caused local men to grow weak in their knees and drool with lust at the sight of them. But nobody could guess where Ikangi came from or which tribe he belonged to.

The writer uses personification of the cotton ginnery as a singing machine that sang rhythmically in Luo: “Yoo tung Ikangi tye kwere?” (Where is the road to Ikangi’s home?), and the others responded in counterpoint: “En ien! En ien! (It is here! It is here!). The ginnery workers concluded that if the white man’s machines felt it was important enough for everyone to know the way to Ikangi’s home, then Ikangi himself had to be a very important person indeed!

He also uses the same device to describe the old Morris and Bedford trucks that transported the cotton lint. “The engines would at first cough and convulse like a medium conjuring up the spirit of somebody long dead. Then they would gurgle and roar into seemingly unquenchable life. This would set the trucks shuddering from nose to tail, as if they were in the grip of a vengeful ancestral spirit”.

However, the most remarkable tool is the writer’s use of hyperbole in describing the Aran-Okun road where many men lost their lives. Hippos had the frightening inclination to bite people around the middle, neatly cleaving them into two. The horrible thing about it was that the victim of a hippo-bite never stopped talking, even in death. He would keep chanting: “If I had not outrun the hippo, I would be dead by now…” The only way to get the head of the victim to shut up was to tap it lightly with a spear shaft, only then it would promptly fall silent, dying properly at last!

Through all this, the `book takes the reader through the social, cultural and political twists, rivalry and malice among the Teboke folk, especially pitying Olwit against his powerful antagonist, Mike Adoli-Awal who is the incumbent area MP which results into a brutal fallout and an unexplained death. The book is available in local bookstores.

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editor@independent.co.ug

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