Q&A: Law is a form of literature – Busingye Kabumba

Busingye Kabumba

Busingye Kabumba

AiW Author: Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire

Dr. Busingye Kabumba teaches Human Rights and International Law at Makerere and other universities. Educated at the University of Pretoria, Harvard, Oxford and Makerere, Busingye is also a partner at Development Law Associates, a legal consulting firm in Kampala. He is famous for, among other reasons, having published a poetry collection at nineteen years of age. He is reputed as the only Ugandan teenager to win a book prize for a full poetry collection! The National Book Trust (NABOTU) Poetry Award of 2002 went to Busingye for his Whispers of My Soul. He has also become a sought-after commentator for the media, television, newspapers etc. He has been quoted in newspapers, local and foreign talking about constitutional, human rights and literary matters.

On one morning, as 2015 rolled into our lives, I meet Busingye for this conversation, I find him in his office in the Ntinda suburb of Kampala city. I intend to ask him questions that can easily turn to the personal and so it helps that he is very receptive and allows me to quickly get comfortable. When we start the conversation, he asks if we are rolling. We are.

Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire for Africa in Words: Let’s start with the personal questions, why did you study law and not literature at university?

Busingye Kabumba: Well, I liked, I love literature actually but if you asked many people at the time, the sense was that if you were excelling in the arts, you studied law. Around that time the question of mass communication was coming up, it was at the height of the journalism bubble, that it was also an important option apart from law. Rarely did you do Literature as a deliberate choice. I know that was for our time and I know before that, in the 60s and 70s some people did it deliberately. I think for instance there is a gentleman called Richard Ntiru in my father’s time, who was doing very well and chose deliberately to go and study the arts or literature, languages, etc. By our time, there were so many factors. What you studied if you had performed well was law. Actually, even strictly speaking if you were to go behind, even people we were with at O Level who did well, were expected to study medicine or engineering. So apparently the arts were for those who were weaker, who could not handle the rigour of math, so my choice to do the arts was through a struggle with the administration. To be allowed to say well, I have passed, I have distinctions in the sciences but I want to offer the arts. So that was the thinking at the time. This gives you the sense of the time, that even law itself was something like an inferior class if you like.

But, did you expect, because you published a collection of poetry in your vacation, did you expect any literary content in the law program?

No. So, the choice I made, given what seemed to be the wisdom at the time, was that the reality of the market if you like, was to say fine, if it’s expected that if you do well, you will do law, then I will do law and then I will pursue independently my interest in literature or the arts broadly.

And how did that go, at that point?

Okay. So, I didn’t expect to find literature in law. I didn’t expect to find literary content in law. I saw them as two distinct disciplines: if you want to do literature, you go to the faculty of arts, so I knew that I was opting out of formal literature but on the basis that I will have the opportunity to pursue it privately. Independently, later on. Now, strictly speaking, at the law school, the course is simply too demanding to allow for an exploration of activities outside. I did pursue literary activities, should I say broadly writing. In my Vacation 2000 to 2001, I worked with a mentor on my writing and went through the Crossing Borders (British Council programme). In 2001, when I was already at law school, I won an essay competition administered by the US Embassy, I won third place with an essay on the African American experience and the following year (2002) won first place


Langston Hughes in 1936

with an essay about Langston Hughes’ poem I am the Darker Brother. I remember Prof. Bakibinga came to class and asked who this Busingye Kabumba guy was, who has won an essay competition and beaten the professor’s brother who had also entered an essay in the competition. There was informal support for literary endeavors at the faculty of law. There was no antagonism for literary activity. I stopped engaging in literary work in third to fourth year. But in reading judgments, similarities between literature and law were exposed. Lord Denning’s style for example, and the imagery in some Ugandan judgments. There is this sugar-candy and mountain image in the Susan Kigula and others case, and Justice Tabaro has before in judgments referred to Ubuntu. There is definitely a lot of literature and culture in law. Law as cultural expression. I find that law is a form of literature, although a narrow branch, there is something to be said for legalese and verbose opaque language as literature. When you read the American Declaration of Independence, there is a way the poetic meets the political and the legal and the preamble to the Ugandan constitution can be said to be poetry.

Did the question of the relationship between law and literature come up at Oxford and Harvard where you pursued your postgraduate legal education?

There was a focus on the black letter type of Law at Oxford. Roman law is strongly connected to tradition. But after leaving Oxford, I discovered the university’s focus on socio-legal studies, even if it was still on the margins than at the centre of the university’s legal studies. Harvard was more open to legal flexibility. There is a strong critical tradition at Harvard and allowed inquiries from the economics, historical and sociological perspectives. Extra-legal factors were important in the study of the law. I remember International law classes with Prof. David Kennedy introducing us to Third World Approaches to International Law and there was also a class in Japanese Film and the Law.

Does this multidisciplinary approach to the Law at Harvard also apply to the JD (undergraduate) program?

No. The path at that level is cut out. It is mechanical (vocational).

Let us talk about your future. Do we see Busingye the poet overshadowing the lawyer?

There is need for separation. A certain course of study is important. There is need for deference to those who have dedicated themselves to the craft and art of writing. For example Susan Kiguli, Timothy Wangusa and others. This is the same expectation on those who are experts at law.

What about the case for inter-disciplinarity?

I may write an autobiography, but that won’t make me a writer. Before established writers, I must be humble because they deserve the respect for their work that I would not deserve. There is indeed a lot of literature in legal scholarly work. There is a lot of imagery in the titles of Prof. Oloka Onyango’s articles for example.

Should we thus teach Literature to law students, to know how to also craft titles and articles that use literary devices?

Every good lawyer already knows good language. Maybe we should ask what subjects are good for the lawyer. This is probably a role that the pre-entry exam should play. I saw questions about Justin Bieber in some of the questions in a past pre-entry exam paper. The exam should test one’s grounding in literature.

Connected to that, I want us to look at three people: Okot P’Bitek, Prof. Sylvia Tamale and Dani Nabudere.

Actually, I was reading something by him yesterday, and was talking to someone who is reading a lot by him …

So, all of them get an undergraduate law training, but then we know P’Bitek now for his work in philosophy, religion, and creative writing. Nabudere goes into political economy bla bla and now Tamale’s work goes into a lot of sociology bla bla, and yet they have an undergraduate legal training, and then P’Bitek actually runs away from law entirely, and Nabudere as well, and now Tamale still into the law, but crossing over into other fields in many ways,, do you think the law by sticking to this specialization business is losing out on people who would improve …

No. And I think the examples you have mentioned actually serve to make the point that actually, for better or for worse, law is broad enough to add a sort of value. Law is actually a social science, for instance in the university of Botswana, it’s a department in the faculty of social science (even at Makerere, that’s where it started). Yes, that is where it started with Ali Mazrui as dean so I don’t necessarily see … to make my earlier point, I do not see why that may continue to be the case. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the arts in Uganda in the sense of inadequate market response, so there is a sustainability problem as to whether you want and can live on writing and that may discourage people from going into it as a profession, or may mean that those who are in it fully as a profession may not be able to have the platform and the voice to advance their agenda. There may be a powerful argument for making the choice that I made in 2000 to say, in a sense, law is a vocation in its manual sense, you get an agreement, do it, and get paid so if you do that in the morning, that means your rent is paid for, that will then mean that from midday onwards you can write without existential needs and concerns. So I think that may inform why Prof. Tamale, the Nabuderes didn’t continue that approach. They might continue to say well, you have this base, on which you can live and then you can express yourself through writing.

How about aspects of literature specific to law like crime fiction because even the people we are talking about are not writing crime fiction, the Grisham type of work, wouldn’t teaching literature to law students be important to those who would consider that, because that requires you to know what plot is …

But you see, Grisham to my mind, to my knowledge did not go through that training and I might be wrong, but, so that would be an example, again against … okay, Okot P’Bitek did further training, I did remember reading something of his whereby he came back to Makerere and they were confused as to which department to place him. But in my view still, in my view, I do not think there is an argument against, I don’t think it would be a question of teaching, it would be a question of, maybe that is why Harvard has that module in terms of Film offered to law students, have a Japanese film for instance on the question of treatment of certain crimes in court. So it could be more of a seminar to which people can come attend and discuss over a period say of a semester every week, a weekly seminar with readings provided. So I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with literature intruding into the law experience, but I would see it as ultimately problematic to try to say, let’s do a semester where people come to say (write), yes I see a certain ambiguity …

So, you support teaching literature per se, literary criticism where students find legal themes in literary works, but not creative writing …

I’d support a platform where discussions around, it won’t be creative writing because that is limiting it to writing, and yet there is also a point of, now … so, again when you say criticism, that leads to literary appreciation yet it’s a whole experience, of a deliberate knowledge of what one is doing, and yet when you make it deliberate then it may take away from part of its authenticity, so it maybe a question of a seminar where say a person like James Ogoola recites a poem, about the rape of the temple of justice and it is discussed and show what he was doing there, because even now, that imagery of the black mamba incident presents the use of the allegory of the image of a temple and how that is very powerful and is being used by non-lawyers and lawyers. It has captured a certain public, it penetrated a lot of layers and cut through and allowed many people to see … so, I would see it as something beyond law, beyond literature and a seminar then would just allow an appreciation of that, and that’s all. It’d be, to put it another way, literature for law, if you like. Literature as advancing the project of law. An alternative then, you could have another course, then it could be something in the literature department, law as literature to serve the students there. Say if someone is looking for literature in Uganda, in the Taban Lo Liyong claim that Uganda is a literary desert, if you say that where is the literature in Uganda, and you go to the bookstore, that maybe limiting, you may also want to go to the casebooks and find that literature, and teach it as law as literature. So there could be parallel processes, there could be a sense where they could come together, for me that is when it would make sense.


Sylvia Tamale

Now, going back to Prof. Tamale, her African Sexualities reader includes a lot of poetry, memoir …

When Hens Begin To Crow, you could also say it’s a powerful image …

You know I was talking to someone about East African titles, they usually have strong images, The Big Brother, you know, they are not usually straight forward legal stuff, but now going to Gender and the Law, the reader has a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a poem by Juliane Okot Bitek, there are many literary texts within the reader, do you see this moving towards other course-units, let’s say Labour …

Or even in Constitutional Law … it could be, it’s a powerful example of what can be but then it goes to I think, the existential, and I think we have to deal with it, the idea of what poverty does to the arts, and for instance Tamale’s book has been appreciated more outside Uganda. It’s bigger there, in South Africa for instance I attended a talk where she spoke to a strong audience, and I do not think that would happen here in Uganda …

Most probably it would be banned if it attracted that attention …

In a sense, the consumption, the appetite for that has taken place outside, I think that also speaks, to the challenge, there is no running away from that, the discussion must happen in terms of, those who do it will have to live with the knowledge that the consumption will be, the appreciation will not be primarily in the law, because a student will ask, how does this help me pass the exam, or will say this is Uganda Shillings 50,000/=, I can’t buy it, I can’t afford it, or will want to photocopy it, and then photocopy those parts which they need …

What about the, okay, so we have the classic law student who wants to pursue the bar course and be a lawyer, what about the other law student who is at the Law school in search of knowledge, he is not interested in legal practice …

The one percent you mean?

Yes, he’s not interested in law as a vocation, the potential Tamale, the potential Nabudere, the potential P’Bitek …

The one percent, because I want to be clear that the percent you are talking about is only one percent …

Yes. Do they get a raw deal then …, from this very mechanical legal education, where is their place at the university? 

Yes and No. But see, that student will appreciate that the university, and actually it is more a No than Yes. That a university gives you just space to do your independent inquiry. So if one is in the one percent, they won’t be limited by the university … for instance I spent a lot of time in, and I found Somerset Homer, and I found his work in the university library at Makerere, I wasn’t limited by that and found other books in the Africana section. The one percent who is interested in knowledge will find it. At Makerere, he will create those spaces, will find them on the internet so no. And so it can actually create a society at Makerere for Literature in Law, they will and they can. And you will find out that, again from my experience, what I mentioned in terms of Prof. Bakibinga, I do not think they will find resistance when they create the space.

Thank you Busingye for your time.

A pleasure.


This is the second in a series of interviews by Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire with Ugandan writers concerning law and literature in Uganda. The first interview was with Sophie Alal. Look out for more in this series on Africa in Words over the coming months.


Bwesigye bwa MwesigireBwesigye Bwa Mwesigire until recently was teaching Law and Human Rights at various Ugandan universities. In the same period, he was Programs Director at Writivism, a pan African initiative of the Centre for African Cultural Excellence, that promotes and connects African Literature to reality.



Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A

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4 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Friday's Thoughts and commented:
    The second interview/conversation in a series exploring Ugandan Perspectives on Law and Literature has been published today at Africa In Words. The first interview was with Sophie Alal and published a few weeks ago. Today’s is with Dr. Busingye Kabumba. More will follow over the coming months.


  2. Q&A: Justice is merely a feeling – Peter Kagayi

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