This article was written by Apophia Agiresaasi, a reporter for the Uganda News Desk.
Editor's Note: This is the next post in our "Empathy from the Field" series, produced by Ashoka Fellow Cristi Hegranes' organization, Global Press Journal. In this series, we aim to show the impact that empathy can have not only in the classroom, but in the real world as well.
KAMPALA, UGANDA – Award-winning Ugandan poet Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva is dedicated to preserving and advancing Africa’s tradition of oral expression. In addition to writing her own poems, she established the BN Poetry Award to encourage African poets to emerge and flourish.
In an interview with Global Press Journal, Nambozo talks about how poetry empowers readers to transcend suffering, to deepen their capacity to love and to spark social change.
Apophia Agiresaasi: I understand you became interested in poetry early in life. Was there a poet in your family, community or in Uganda who inspired you to start writing poems?
Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva: I was actually a child when I became interested in poetry, or, to be more specific, interested in the musicality of words and the rhythmic ability of prose. There is no poet in my family, but my father was very artistic, being a diplomat who was very well-traveled, and he translated his explorations into the home, which influenced me. My mother and siblings also have creative gifts in various fields.
The schools I attended supported writing and reciting during assembly, in class and even in the dormitories. I often composed raps or poems for my dormitory or class and weaved them into dance routines.
Coincidentally, my husband too is an artist, and so are our children.
AA: Among the poems you have written, which one do you like the most and why?
BN: One of my favorite poems is “At The Graveyard,” first published in my chapbook collection, “Unjumping,” and also in The New Black Magazine. It is about my father’s passing and how his immediate family was affected by his death and started to act so lovingly towards his memories in the hope that he would be able to cherish and take part in their ritual of loss and love.
I read it because memory is what we have when people we love die, and we can re-create these memories to make the loss more bearable and to strengthen ourselves to live large and to love large while we are alive. The poem has taught me that love knows no bounds and the heart is disobedient to rules because, in my own life, I have loved and continue to love in the true belief that light trumps darkness.
AA: Your poetry speaks about a range of issues, from sexual harassment to motherhood. Do you see your poetry as a way of promoting social change?
BN: For me, that is the epitome of writing. If my poetry can inspire, sow a seed, change a thought, and point an idea towards social change, then I will say that I have lived and have left a legacy to my children. Poetry is sacred, and I still believe that it is the highest form of literary art. I highly respect all other forms of literature ‒ prose, short stories, plays and novels ‒ but poetry is loudest in its stillness and silence. Poetry takes us to our primal world and our highest intellectual form through its creation and understanding and impact. I desire my poetry to create discourse that will elevate female prisoners from the bedrooms of their woes, from the homes of their estrangement where their creative expressions have been strangled by traditions that disallow them to speak boldly before their grandfathers and uncles. I want my poetry to teach women to dance until their belly buttons form into lips of praise.
AA: Do you write your poetry for a particular audience?
BN: I usually have a handful of people in mind, but after I have performed it or it has been published, I come to the daunting realization that my audiences are as visible as my nose and as obscure as a revolution. They are the invisible power that makes me write. The more I write, the more I don’t know my audience. It is usually when I am not writing that I am conscious of an audience that I imagine is belittling my creative work.
AA: You have mentioned previously that Uganda’s culture is founded on oral expression and that poetry is a way of preserving morals, history and values. Why do you think poetry is a powerful form of oral expression to preserve culture in Uganda?
BN: The reason that poetry is a powerful form of oral expression in preserving culture in Uganda is because our lifestyles are created through the things we observe and the manner in which we speak. As we tell stories, share news and gossip, we are creating a Uganda that we live in, that we have lived in, and that we desire to see. Stories and songs are expressive ways of sharing our deepest knowledge and truths based on morals, celebrations of thanksgiving, mourning [the] death of a loved one and making announcements. It is these oral gifts that bring communities together, and we should never lose that.
We should never stop speaking of what we are because if we do, the mouth grabbers will steal our speeches and turn them into their own. I believe that oral forms, if they are strengthened, should blend and become hybrids. Let our words drift into other lands so that they can learn and love us, and let our words mingle with people from far away so that they can blend with theirs and become richer.
AA: You have said that poetry is essential to bind Ugandans together. Do you write poems in local languages to preserve the culture and promote unity among Ugandans?
BN: I write quite a lot of poetry in Luganda, which is my mother’s language. My father was a Mugisu. And traditionally, I come from Sironko in eastern Uganda. I desire to become a perfect wordsmith in Lumasaba as well. In addition, I am learning to speak Runyankore and Kiswahili to make my poetry richer than it is through the fusion of local languages, whose abilities supersede certain phrases in the English language.
AA: How has poetry defined your life?
BN: The truth is, poetry has been a lifesaver for me. Yes. I have gone through ripples and storms through my interactions with people, and it is only poetry that has brought me calmness as I wallow and weep. Poetry absorbs the tears and turns my self-pity into sweetness. While people take alcohol to rid themselves of misery, I write or read.
The Bible is very poetic, especially the story of Hannah, who was mocked by her co-wife after failure to give birth, but when she did, hers was a child of promise. Her song of thanksgiving is one of my favorite spiritual poems.
We have all been in situations where we are treated so unfairly even though we have loved so dearly. And then the promise we have been waiting for comes its way. We are so filled with gratitude that we can’t even gloat but just rejoice.
AA: You started the BN Poetry Award to promote the genre in Uganda. What has been your most rewarding experience since you started the award?
BN: Being part of a growing revolution. Watching people like Lillian Aujo flourish into award-winning poets. Witnessing strong revolutionary voices like Sophie Alal and Sanyu Kisaka. Being part of a young poet’s dream like Susan Piwang and Rashida Namulondo.
I have also been extremely blessed to find firm friends in the poetry fraternity: well-wishers, literary organizations and international writers who want to be a part of BN. It’s incredible.
AA: What can other poets do to encourage other people to read and write poetry?
BN: We can invite them to our readings; organize reading clubs of poetry; conduct poetry workshops and poetry camps to instill a disciplined and persevering spirit of a poet who reads a lot; and supply them with all types of creative literature.
AA: Where do you see the Ugandan female poet 10 years from now?
BN: That is a lofty task. I hope that my vision is too limited for that. I hope that no one is able to see the Ugandan female poet in 10 years because they will be in a universe that has not yet been created. In 10 years, I am sure when you conduct a similar interview, you will agree.