On Thursday, 20th August, 2015, literary and cultural scholars from across the globe converged at Makerere University for the 2nd Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies Conference. The three-day event attracted participants from the East African region, Southern Africa, West Africa, Europe and North America. Organised under the theme: “Textualities of Space: Connection, Intricacies and Intimacies”, the 2nd Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies Conference was aimed at enhancing literary exchanges and dialogue in the Eastern African region as well as celebrating artistic productions.
Structured in various parallel sessions, participants discussed a wide range of issues including East Africa in the Global Arena; Transculturalism, Transnationalism and Regionalism; Theorising Popular Imaginaries; Language and Ideology; Cultural Identities; Gender Identities and Masculinities; Poetics of Violence; Mixed Race Relations; Childhood Narratives; Print Culture and Digitisation as well as Diasporic and Migrant Narratives. Each day of the conference opened with a keynote address by eminent literary and cultural scholars; Prof. Peninah Mhando Mlama from the University of Dar es Salaam, Prof. Meg Samuelson from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and Mwalimu Austin Bukenya from the Department of Literature Makerere University.
In her presentation titled, “Creative Production and the Quest for Self-Determination: A Contested Legitimacy”, Prof. Mlama noted that throughout history, creative production has been closely linked to people’s quest for economic, social and cultural self-determination.
“A mental trip to our communities will prove this and flood our brains with imageries of vibrant creative productions which are a part of events ranging from the birth of a child to youth rites of passage, weddings, funerals, worship, harvest, war, sports, war political discourse or indeed, even the act of putting a baby to be sleep,” she explained.
She further said legitimacy of creative production is measured on the scale of acceptability, functionality and relevance to the society or sections of the society from which it emerges. “We have witnessed, for example, how in the struggle for gender equality, feminists literary and artistic criticism has rejected art and literature that perpetuates patriarchy and the manifestation of gender based domination and oppression. The 2013 publication titled “Women Writing Africa” is a good reference for writers and critics in this category”.
Prof. Samuelson informed participants that East Africa had produced important writers such as Abdul Jan Mohammed who wrote the book Manichean Aesthetics which was central to the understanding of the colonial and post-colonial situation.
In his keynote address, Prof. Bukenya called for keen attention to the text and cautioned against tendencies that disregard the centrality of the text. “Do not walk carelessly on the text,” he said.
Addressing participants, the Guest of Honour, Dr Charles Olweny, acknowledged the relevance of the conference theme to Africa’s literature and culture. He said African writing is fully connected to the norms and practices of people and clearly illustrates the importance of literature to human culture and language. “Culture provides human beings with the identity, links us with our past and all these have been well known after being presented in a literary format. Literature is the heart of humanities and it is literature that culture melts. A story is not a story until it is told. The same to the song, it will never be a song until it is sang,” he said.
He was however concerned about the rapid technological advancements and its negative impact on African literature and culture. “Advancement in technology has altered human knowledge, information, practices, and taboos. The same is true of digital technology; which has altered the distribution of text and this might lead to the erosion of literature,” he said. Dr Olweny is currently Chair, Board of Trustees, Virtual University of Uganda. He is also former Vice Chancellor of Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.
In his remarks, Makerere University Vice Chancellor, Prof. John Ddumba-Ssentamu, said the conference represented the passion and determination of the Humanities and Social Sciences academics and scholars from across the region and beyond to create a platform for reflecting on socio-cultural and political issues, which are significant to understanding the region’s historical and contemporary realities.
The Principal of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHUSS), Prof. Edward Kirumira, commended the Department of Literature, Makerere University and the Department of English at Stellenbosch University, South Africa for their efforts towards the success of the conference. “Today we celebrate the achievement of the Department of Literature and the Department of English, Stellenbosch University who have worked so hard and in concert to make Makerere University proud. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences basks in the glory of achieving yet another milestone in reviving the spirit of Humanities and Social Sciences in public debate,” he said. He urged academics to continue to actively engage in debates on matters of national importance. “The election time is upon us now. Let us contribute to the critically needed debate on national development issues with the candidness and constructive critique that they deserve for the wellbeing of our people,” he advised. Like other speakers, he expressed gratitude to the sponsors and Units within Makerere and Stellenbosch Universities for the generous technical, material and financial support rendered towards the conference preparations. These included Miles Morland Foundation, Rwenzori Bottling Company, Makerere Institute of Social Research, the Royal Norwegian Embassy, Fountain Publishers, the Inter-University Council of East Africa, the Office of the Vice Chancellor, Makerere University, Makerere University Hospital, the College of Education and External Studies, the Centre for Language and Communication Services and the Department of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University as well as the Department of English at Stellenbosch University.
CHUSS Deputy Principal, Prof. Abasi Kiyimba, said the conference demonstrated that Makerere University still had its head facing in the right direction. He further noted that the conference was a testimony that the Humanities and Social Sciences are relevant to national development. He applauded the Department of Literature for “enabling Makerere University to shine again”.
The Dean, School of Languages, Literature and Communication, Assoc. Prof. Aaron Mushengyezi, described Literature as a Department with a strong history and reputation of giving birth to other powerful Units at Makerere University. The Units include the Department of Journalism and Communication and the Department of Performing Arts and Film.
Dr Susan Kiguli, Head, Department of Literature, Makerere University thanked participants for their presence and commitment to the conference deliberations. She expressed utmost gratitude to the organizing committee, co-conveners (Department of English, Stellenbosch University), sponsors and the Office of the Vice Chancellor, Makerere University for committing time and resources towards the conference. “The support from various corners has been very strong and our Vice Chancellor has supported this conference as if he were a literary student. Our bosses in CHUSS have done all in their power to see that we can sit here together to have this conversation about what is happening in the literary and cultural scenes of this Eastern African region. I want to say again that the support received, beyond the sponsors listed everywhere and to those acknowledged in the conference book, is immense,” she said. Dr Kiguli specifically applauded Prof. Grace Musila, Dr. Tom Odhiambo and Mr. Parselelo Kantai for initiating the idea of the conference series of which this was second in line.
The conference also featured two sessions on creative writing specifically sponsored by Miles Morland Foundation.
Two books published by literary scholars were launched in the course of the Conference. Launched by Prof. Mlama, the book “Habariya English? What about Kiswahili? East Africa as a Literary and Linguistic Contact Zone” edited by Lutz Diegner from Humboldt University, Berlin and Frank Schulze-Engler, Goethe University Frankfurt, deals with the dynamics of current developments in Literature, language and culture in Kenya and Tanzania. It testifies to a spirited exchange of ideas between writers and academics and promotes transdisciplinary dialogue among several academic fields including Anglophone and Swahili studies as well as Literacy studies and linguistics.
Prof. Timothy Wangusa’s latest novel, “Betwixt Mountain and Wilderness”, was launched by Prof. Arthur Gakwandi. “Betwixt Mountain and Wilderness” is the story of an intensely sensitive, impressionable and introspective high school leaver, who goes on a fascinating adventure of discovery. It is progressively and simultaneously an adventure at cultural, intellectual, political and spiritual levels. Upon his final homecoming, to his utter amazement, the all-pervasive mountain of his excited childhood places new, least-expected demands on him, leading to dire consequences.
The conference was officially closed by the High Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago in Uganda, H.E. Patrick Edwards, who presented awards from the Department of Literature to Prof. Timothy Wangusa, Prof. Arthur Gakwandi and Mwalimu Austin Bukenya in recognition of their distinguished service towards the enrichment of the Humanities. He emphasised the link between Caribbean and East African literary history citing the visits of VS Naipaul to Makerere University where he produced his work, “A Bend in the River”.
The event was crowned with a dinner at Fairway Hotel during which Uganda Heritage Roots treated guests to various cultural performances.