Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire writes: I first came to know Kyomuhendo Ateenyi from his literary, epistolary and blogging practice at Makerere University. His poetry and political commentary published on university notice boards and a variety of blog platforms provided the metaphor with which we expressed the feats, distresses and inclinations of our times. He was a member of the Lantern Meet of Poets and regularly attended their Sunday Meetings and contributed poetry for several recitals. His poetry affirms a certain African literary aesthetic, popular in the 1960s that comes flavoured with the African indigenous languages in which much of it is conceived. Ateenyi reminds one of the royal court poets of a bygone era. His love for Bunyoro heritage and Pan-African resistance to imperialism, especially the Southern African experience, shines through his work.
Besides his literary activities, Ateenyi was also a popular political activist during his university days. He chaired the university branch of the country’s biggest opposition party at some point. In his term of office as the branch chair, the party broke a three year students’ leadership drought and won the guild presidential elections. Under the pressure of increased political repression of opposition political activities, Ateenyi retired from partisan politics to concentrate on his legal studies and career. In 2012, he co-founded the Centre for African Cultural Excellence to promote the role contemporary arts and culture in changing society. In 2016, he became the Director of the Writivism Literary Initiative, a role that includes the curation of an annual festival in Kampala. This interview however, was conducted over email correspondence in January, 2015, before his role at Writivism.
Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire for Africa in Words: Where did you go to school?
Kyomuhendo Ateenyi: I went to Kihande Muslim and Shimoni Demonstration for Primary; Kawempe Muslim, Mbogo Mixed and Kibuli S. S for Secondary. For University, I was fortunate to have gone to and read law from Makerere University from August 2008 up to around May 2012. On the 24th of January, 2013 at its 63rd Congregation, I was conferred upon by the University an Honours Degree of Law (LL.B) (Hons.).
Where and when did you meet literature? How did your interest grow?
Well, literature, in its widest sense, has been part and parcel of my entire existence. You’ll realize that much, if not most, of the African genre of literature is oral, systematically handed down from generation to generation. Speaking specifically of the society from which I am removed, literature consisted in folktales, riddles, war and praise-songs about famous conquests and hunting expeditions etc. I savoured all these from a very tender age thanks to a very skilled story-teller relation of mine. That interest continued to grow as I got initiated into formal education. But it was during my junior secondary at Kawempe Muslim Secondary School that I met a lady by the name of Esther Nansikombi, our literature teacher, who was to fan the flames of my love for literature. At that stage, I began contributing poems and what-not to the school magazine. At A-Level, I offered Literature-in-English alongside History, Islamic Religious Education and Economics. I remember returning some of my best grades in that subject (Literature in English).
Why did you study law, and not literature at University?
I studied law and not literature at University for majorly three reasons. The first was that I performed considerably well at the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education Examinations. This naturally meant that I had to choose a course that was commensurate in weight to the points I had obtained, and naturally, it was Law.
Secondly, it was always said that whoever studied literature at University ended up as a teacher of that subject. That was the only prospect of employment. Yet teachers were and are some of the most poorly remunerated public servants. The situation was not even different for those that plied their trade in privately-founded schools. One of my parents is a teacher and the kind of effort they always exerted to see to see us through school and provide us with other necessities of life was glaringly there for me to see. I thought I should not go through what they were going through. And that was their opinion also when I discussed these matters with them. On the other hand lawyers were everywhere in the press for winning cases and with them earning millions and millions of money, even when to the ordinary eye, they had expended so little effort.
Thirdly, I thought then as I do now that law is an extension of literature. In pursuing the study of law and rhetoric, one is inadvertently pursuing the study of literature, though, this time round, on a more focused scale. What is literature but the creative use of varying styles and fine lines to effectively communicate ideas?
How did you sustain your interest in literature during university days?
At University, I teamed up with some friends who also had a keen interest in literature and joined some writing and poetry societies. Additionally, I started up The Ivory Trumpet, a fortnightly publication that documented my different thoughts on the different goings-on at the University. It was also at University that I contested for and was elected the 62nd Editor-in-Chief of The Makererean, the official Makerere University Students’ Guild Newspaper. My thesis was concerned on how Ugandan Copyright Law could be made more effective in preserving and protecting the folklore and traditional cultural expressions of the Banyoro-Batooro peoples of Western Uganda.
How is your poetry-writing going?
The rigorous study and practice of law has consumed me and inhibited my practice of poetry.
In what ways do you find literature relevant to a law student?
To me, literature is crucial to a law student for the following reasons. First, to learn the art of effective communication which is the hallmark of great lawyering. All great and successful lawyers throughout history have had a deep love affair with literature. As a law-student, you need to master an art of communication that appeals more to the ear and eye such as to give you an edge over your adversary. Law is all about appealing and persuading. And you can only appeal and persuade if you can effectively communicate which benefit literature inherently clothes you with.
Secondly, a good lawyer is one who reads extensively. It is through extensive reading that one staggers upon new ideas and concepts which are extremely handy for a lawyer. Stare Decisis or the doctrine of precedent for instance is a very important attribute of our law. Now, tell me, how is a law student going to keep abreast with developments in the profession, which it is very important for him, if he disregards literature?
What about the practising lawyer? Is literature in anyway relevant in your practice of the law?
Yes it is, definitely. Wonderfully crafted pleadings and beautiful speeches addressed to members of the bench are the envy of colleagues and confer upon you a certain kind of advantage. More often, it’s always how meticulously you present your case before court that carries the day. Clients, too, are into the habit of retaining lawyers in whose hands they feel most safe. They’ll thus naturally opt for a lawyer whom they think will effectively present and communicate their case.
Do you identify first as a lawyer or as a poet?
A poet exiled in the law. Surely, my first love is poetry and literature. Other things come next.
Do you, like Okot p’Bitek in the case of Song of Lawino conceive and write your poetry in Runyoro first, before translating to English?
Not all times. There have been instances where I’ve written in English directly, and they are the majority. There also have been instances where I have written in Runyoro and translated into English. But going forward, I intend on writing exclusively in my mother tongue. And I think I’ll do that.
Do you think that the integration of the study of local language literature in the law curriculum would change the substance of justice and the law or at least their perceptions?
Yes. So much so. As things stand, the law is prohibitively elitist. A granite and concrete wall has been erected around it so much so that it is only the elite that can penetrate it. Simple legal concepts are tucked away in complicated English lexicon. That way, the common man is naturally side-stepped in his endeavours at making meaning of it. Thus he must depend on the legal man. The option then lies with the latter to unfairly take undue advantage of the former, as is usually the case. There is urgent need for reform such as to make the law achieve what it in the first place was designed to achieve.
What do you think of the suggestion that legal practice should be conducted in indigenous African languages?
Based on the above, of course yes. But now the challenge will be on how to settle upon a language that is agreeable to and easily understood by majority of Ugandans. It raises a serious debate. Perhaps we could settle for Kiswahili and make its instruction mandatory in all our schools. But that will dependent on Government will. And, ultimately, as you may know, the people’s will!
Thank you for responding to my questions.
This is the fourth in a series of interviews by Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire with Ugandan writers concerning law and literature in Uganda. Previous interviews were with Sophie Alal, Busingye Kabumba and Peter Kagayi. 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.