Peter Kagayi – a “city boy of Kampala” – is a Ugandan poet and teacher. Driven by the passion for literature and poetry, he teaches those subjects in Kampala’s secondary schools while performing his one poetry regularly on stage. He has recently participated in the German Africologne Festival, where he showcased his performance “The Audience Must Say Amen” together with Roger Williams Mpaata, Diego Donald Mwesigwa, Lilian Maxmillian Nabaggala, Mark Ejuku and Hatimu Mudhasi.
We have asked him three questions regarding his motivations for poetry, the advantages of this form of communicating with people and possible consequences of the implied political messages.
- What is your motivation behind your writings, what message do you want to deliver to your audience?
It is difficult to summarize the motivation behind my work but I give it a try. I believe every poem has its own life. Every poem has its own moment. Regarding my poetry, I want to treat every poem as a different moment in life.
Does every poem deliver a different message then?
Perhaps, it could even be the same message, same idea, but it comes from a different place. I wrote here [on GZK rooftop]. While writing this poem, I was imagining committing suicide here. I was thinking of jumping of the roof. Not that I wanted to do it but I was wondering what I would want to say if I was going to jump off. What would be my last words? In the end, it’s a poem about life in Kampala. You could find that I have just written another poem about Kampala, but it was written in a different place. Regarding my general motivation for poetry, first and foremost, I believe that my understanding of who a poet is, is rooted in my culture. That is important because it determines what kind of poet I should be. It is like the ideological grounding. Where I come from, we believe that poets are teachers to their communities. Poets are lawyers to their communities. Poets are spokespersons for their communities. I believe that poets are entertainers, poets are prophets. This is how I understand my role. I don’t allow those roles to determine how I write me poetry or how I perceive what I want to write about. What I allow myself to be submissive to is the fact that I as a poet in Uganda, in Kampala, I am not alone. My talent is to speak, to write commonalities and gather them in messages. I have a duty towards the people. When I am writing my poetry, I have those principles at the back of my mind and I am not afraid. When I am writing, my hand does not hesitate to say what I see or feel. It is not about what I want but about what I feel and know. I have a responsibility towards society but society should not use that against me to tell me what I should say or not. Neither should I. I just feel. If in this particular moment, I feel that my country is a badly taken selfie, I am not telling society to define itself that way, but to appreciate the fact that a poet is saying that. For me it is not about what I want to say. Sometimes what I say is what I don’t want to say. When I feel angry, when I feel sad, when I feel bitter, when I feel happy that is what matters. Communicating these feelings is my motivation.
- In Germany, poetry as a medium, as a form of art, is rare. Here in Uganda, poetry performances have a particular energy, people react to poems. Do you think there is a special advantage of poetry as a medium to transfer what you feel? What is the power of poetry?
The power of poetry is that it gets the language of the people and condenses it into ideas and images. It is done with a rhythmic pattern and as a result those words are not just words, they become aspects of life. We here in Africa have oral cultures, oral traditions. Writing as a form of documentation is rather new. In fact, some of the aspects of our culture are yet to be documented. We are taught that the opposite of literacy is illiteracy. That is not true because the opposite of literacy is “oracy”. This means that our oral traditions have to be revisited. They used to be the way of passing on information. For that to be done, we had to make sure that memorization was made easier. For memorization to be made easier, words had to be crafted in a certain way. You need rhyme, rhythm, melody and dramatic emphasis. Storytelling was not just “I am telling you a story”, it also carried along certain characteristics of dramatic performance. We have learned that in order to teach about your history or family we are not writing about it, we speak about it. To make you remember what I speak about, I have to say it in a way that is memorable. This is where the power of poetry comes in. It gives the poet the tools to make language an institution of memory. The things that are written and spoken become easy to memorize. So when you are summarizing how society looks like, how our lives look like, the imprint of a person’s memory does the same thing a book can do. For me, that is the power of poetry. I can recite, rather than read a book. I can write a poem about my history and recite it and in the process of reciting it, I can memorize it and then when someone else listens to it, they can pick it up. I believe that if you have selected the right words, the right rhythms and metaphors, they spark other people to speak. I believe in the power of poetry, to get people to react. It has happened before, there are poets who have spoken, who have written and have got masses to change how they feel and think. One of my favorite poets is a guy known as the “Mad Mullah” of Somalia who during colonial times gave the British General a hard time by writing poems about how he would kill the Brit and eat his eyes. This poetry was meant to instill fear within the enemy. I like that because poetry was used in a functional way, transposing the culture of poetry into the culture of warfare.
Poetry in Uganda has been used to create awareness about certain issues like corruption and disillusionment of post-colonial politics. Some of the poets were arrested, some were killed and some went to exile because of their poems. The power of poetry is the power to communicate clearly. The message is there for everyone.
- You clearly express political positions in your poetry. Do you sometimes fear that you will get censored or will experience any other consequence because of your work?
I guess I am naive. I am not afraid. It is something that we [the poets] talk about, I am aware that saying things in a certain way will offend certain people. If I keep silent though, they have won. Until they kill me I should speak and recite, because I believe that silence is the other dictator that we have, that is what they have managed to do. They have managed to make people not speak their mind. This is why we have to keep on speaking, speaking, speaking. So if they shut you down, the others keep on speaking, speaking, speaking. When the voices become many, they will listen because we are not ignorable anymore. My mother gets scared every time I perform. I recognize this fear but it is not strong enough to keep me silent and I don’t allow it to interfere with my creative spirit.
- You have recently performed the musical and poetry performance “The Audience must say Amen” at the Africologne Festival in Germany.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Germany during your time in Cologne?
From a Ugandan perspective, I found most fascinating about Germany that it is a society of law and order. Just look at how people have parked their cars here in Bukoto Street, you would never see cars being parked like this in Germany and I really like that. Secondly, I experienced Germans as being extremely friendly and interested in cultural exchange. My best night in Germany was the night after our Africologne show, we went to a bar and there were local artists from Cologne and they were playing guitars, singing and drumming. They were so nice, they allowed us to perform our poetry and we got many handclaps. There was this powerful energy when we met fellow artists in Germany which made the time a lot of fun.
This interview was conducted by Nadja Frercksen in July 2017.