AiW Author: Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire
Peter Kagayi is a Ugandan poet and lawyer. Recently announced as Anglophone coordinator at Writivism, he has taught Literature in various secondary schools in Uganda and was President of the Lantern Meet of Poets until recently. He curates the regular Poetry Shrine performance at the National Theatre in Kampala and supports various groups of young poets who have completed their high school education. He was part of several staged poetry performances while involved with the Lantern Meet of Poets, and is one of the founders of the Uganda Literature Teachers Association. His debut collection of poetry is forthcoming. Kagayi studied Law for his undergraduate at Makerere University. This interview takes place on email in January 2015.
Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire for AiW: When did you pick interest in law?
Peter Kagayi: Come to think of it – I never really “picked” interest in Law. My parents always wanted a lawyer in the family so they pressed the issue into my budding self, until I was left convinced I was ‘destined to be a lawyer.’ Occasionally they were misled by what I held as ‘my ground’ against what I informed myself to be injustice (once I took my mother to police for not sparing the rod – I was seven, I think) but mostly it was merely the brush of interest in talk and debate. My first time flirting with the law was in reading English literature.
When did you pick interest in literature?
This is an interest I remember ‘I did not just pick.’ My mother had these love novels she used to read while in school, and one afternoon (two weeks after the TV had been put away), I accidentally found them under my bed! And going through the ranges; there were African Writers Series, Stories to Remember, Pacesetters, Black Moses series, and many novels written in Luganda. I consumed the contents in the box in less than three weeks and persistently sought for more. So I sneaked into my father’s private collection and that is where I found the good story of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird. Through his character I was to view the legal profession throughout my primary, secondary and first year and Law School as truly the noble profession.
Why did you study law, not literature at university?
Honestly I did not want to study Law; I wanted to pursue Literature or Creative Writing, but it was not available here, and my parents, teachers and friends would not have any of it if it wasn’t Law. But I took the course anyway. I baited them by applying for just one course on my university application forms, but somehow I made it still.
What were your expectations going to law school?
I desired to know and understand the systems upon which our societies were built, so I hoped there would be some sort of anthropological study of law centred on man and his surroundings. I expected lots of practical lessons in lecture halls, how to make arguments in court (Boston Legal style) how to treat clients, and also how to serve community for the greater good.
Of course I was foolish, and naïve.
Did you expect any literary content in the law curriculum?
Oh I expected, and anticipated, much literary content. I hoped there would be books on creative writing which explored man’s legal disposition, his surroundings, the difference between what is right and what is legal and the manner of thought that goes in criminology and penology. Not the John Grisham kind, but the Dostoevsky, Camus, Kafka, Shakespeare, Paton – that kind.
But then you started the Lantern Meet of Poets …
Let me clarify this. I did not start the Lantern Meet of Poets, neither was I one of those who started it, as some narratives out there have appeared to suggest. I joined a year later when in fact the poetry sittings had already moved from the Africa Hall of residence in Makerere University to the National Theatre.
Was it during your time at the Law school?
I joined the Lantern Meet while at Law school 2nd year, semester two.
Did your activities on the poetry scene in any way feed into the legal studies?
The activities did not feed much into the studies, but fed into my temperament. Poetry was mostly a catharsis for the frustrations I felt for being held within. The constraint I felt for self-expression, this strait jacket in the instructive nature of legal studies, the routine of class, library, discussion group, then hostel; all this marginalised my persona to suffocate under this physical bearing of dryness. It came to a point when I actually suffered bouts of psychosomatic relapses and only writing poetry could feed me light.
And you went on to attend the bar course at the Law Development Centre – why?
Yes I attended LDC, but not to the end. I honestly got tired of sitting for and answering exams, wearing ties (someone’s idea of smartness) but mostly the artificial pressure created. The argument is that, that is how legal practise is ‘supposed’ to be. But if your only tool is a hammer, you will see every problem as a nail.
As if it has to be.
Looking back, my dislike for parents’ romanticizing of the Legal profession is akin to ‘the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in the mirror,’ while now my dislike for its realism is ‘the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the mirror.’
You were teaching literature on the side then. What advice do you give to your students who love literature and are being encouraged to pursue law at university?
I encourage them to pursue it, but after breaking down for them what to expect. If they still feel they have understood what it would take them to offer the course, they get there. Now they even consult on a legal matter or two; in fact some have also joined the Lantern Meet.
Does the study of law help a writer in their craft?
I think it does. At LDC there were questions on Land Transactions and Criminal Procedure which really made good reading for anyone looking for a sketch for an engrossing plot.
The Law not only provides the layer of thought, but also enriches the diction. After all those cases, all those books and all those words written, it is not intimidating to think of how one can easily become a writer. There were also cases at undergraduate level which really were interesting to read. I remember Lon N. Fuller’s 4300 “Speluncean Explorers Case”, and some of Lord Denning’s judgments were a delight to behold. One could pick a thing or two.
Would you advise someone to study law, well knowing that their ambitions are not in legal practice but in literary practice?
I would not advise anyone to cook rice in a kettle.
In what ways do you think the law programme can be improved to cater for interests of students who do not want to end up in legal practice, say yourself who joined teaching and the arts after law school?
Attempting to improve it would merely be repairing a broken model. What we need is a revolution; a model to drive new ideas forward focusing on how to approach things within and without academia, feel liberated and humbled, not the inexorable rigour of reciting prescriptions.
I have taken a break from teaching literature. I resigned in at the end of 2014. (This break only lasted one year – Bwesigye)
Wow. You talk of a revolution. Spell out this revolution for me. What should it entail?
Let me spell out some bits.
First, it is quite preposterous to think of a field of knowledge as an employment opportunity. Any system of education built on such a prospectus impoverishes the soul of society. The first impulse of the individual would be self-preservation above community contribution. It also comes with the magnanimous carrot (of luxury) dangled in front of some lustrous young minds “ardent for some desperate glory”. Of course the stick is held by the cruel hand of fate. Many students, to borrow an appropriate cliché, build castles in the air when they think of law as a profession, an image propagated by society itself. The pursuit for this glory turns many brilliant minds into harlots of fame and hawkers of personal success. The Faculty of Law I attended is the most popular shop in my country where dreams are pawned. I’m not dismissing employment opportunity which comes with legal knowledge, rather I am saying it should not be upheld as the hallmark –it’s just another form of life.
Secondly, as Sir Ken Robinson argues, academic ability has come to dominate our understanding of intelligence because universities design the education system in their own image. Our education system is merely a protracted process of restricting university entrance. The dire consequence of this is that there are those who do not cut the grade yet they are highly innovative, brilliant and creative people. As a result they do not think they are so, because the things they were really good at are not valued, or are actually stigmatised. But still even for those who make it, our education system only mines their minds “the way we mine the earth: for a particular commodity.”
Thirdly, a matter of grievous concern is how our legal system turns many children of our society into agents of late-colonialism. The hierarchy of laws in ‘our’ jurisprudence dismisses the very tenets of cultural justice only considerable after weighing it against foreign ideals. This is the hallmark of ‘civil society’ which in its studies, teaches the looking down upon of what it terms as ‘traditional.’ But we should not miss the euphemism: the bifurcation of our society between the ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ is seen here.
If you ask how about this revolution, it involves, teaching and letting students study law in indigenous languages, law in turn banning English as the official language of academia, and court; investing heavily in research programmes; having creative-writing workshops, community justice should be favoured above court justice; the study of broadcasting material of legal content; holding community discussions on law, justice and mercy – lecturers should include community cultural elders – a host things, my friend.
To take you back, why did you resign teaching and what would you call your biggest achievements while you taught?
It was time to move on. The purpose for my stay there had been achieved in many ways. Poetry as a form of expression became the most popular, students’ confidence and self-esteem were well boosted, levels of creativity in all forms flourished, the poets became stand-out leaders for almost every post in their way (most carried this spirit to university,) and poetry has become a popular genre as students in other school communities now emulate their Nabisunsa counterparts.
Is Kagayi now a full time poet? Where do we see you in the next three years?
Kagayi has always been writing poetry, and he hopes to continue doing so. As for ‘the return’, I will when providence requires I do so. I honestly do not know how the next three years will turn out. Now we concentrate on Lantern Meet duties.
Tell me about how the Lantern Meet was started. How you came to join. And the influence if any, of lawyers in the group on its outlook.
‘The Meet’ began when Guy Mambo got together few Old Boys (Ojakol Raymond, Asiimwe Colin) and friend Sophie Alal to start reading poetry and discussing philosophy. It was hosted by Alal in her university residence hall. The numbers grew bigger with time. The meets were later moved to the national theatre big hut. I was told of the meet by a friend and course-mate that encouraged me to go with her to the theatre but I did not show particular interest. It was after another friend invited me for a lantern meet show poetry show at the theatre ‘Tales by the Camp-fire’ that I saw what I believe was a group of happy people I wanted to be part of. I turned up for the next poetry meet.
Now, to talk of Kagayi, the writer, do tell, what is cooking? Are you working on a collection of short stories? A novel? An individual collection of poetry? Or do you prefer publishing your poetry in anthology form, as the lantern meet of poets than as an individual?
I plan to publish a collection of poems. I’m still thinking of the chronology. I also have a series of plays for theatre I hope to finish soon. My short stories are still unripe. I do not mind publishing with the lantern meet. Such a publication is not just a collection; it is a story of the many friendships and hopes we share. It is a re-affirmation and renewal of faith in each other as a writer. But a personal collection is still preferable in order to be understood as a writer with individuality.
What is your opinion of law as performance, law as theatre, law as Drama, law as poetry, indeed law as art? And the inverse. What do you think of PB Shelley’s postulation that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of society?
Law that permeates to all forms of art, culture and society – Transcendental Law, I would call it – is the stuff dreams are made of. It would be the very heart of vibrant expressions and a creative application in the hearts of the most creative and most innovative in our culture. If the purpose of law is to mediate good living – then making sure this happens in all spheres of expression would be a great. The recitation of instruction anyone can do, with little guidance anyone can do. Where the distinction should be is how we use the knowledge to create new possibilities of better the access to legal information and knowledge.
Shelley lived in a time where he and Wordsworth faced strong disdain for their choices in poetic style and diction from the other writers of the time. But both fancied themselves as writers for the common man. Both were keenly interested in the events happening in neighbouring France after the 1789 revolution. What Shelley’s poems captured was the spirit of the times. His works reflect a heart of a man who empathised with the spirit – call it zeitgeist – of his time. No matter what we do, or say, what matters most is how we make others feel. Justice is merely a feeling. Poets lay the palate upon how people feel about things in their lives; they make them acknowledge of their own emotions. Justice Ogoola’s poem ‘Rape of the Temple’ was testament enough of how we felt that time. Susan Kiguli’s ‘No, let’s not call this baby CHOGM’ is another. Moses Serubiri’s recent ‘Found: an error in the System’ has fast become another. Poets, indeed, are the unacknowledged legislators.
Thank you Kagayi.
This is the third 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 and the second was with Busingye Kabumba. Look out for more in this series on Africa in Words over the coming months.
Bwesigye 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.