Poetry in Session: An intellectual revival in Kampala

Isha's Hidden Treasures in broad daylight

In the midst of the proliferation of entertainment joints extolling the virtues of “Baby take off your clothes’’ music, a remarkable revolution of poetry is taking place, in the Kampala suburb of Kira Road, at a gallery called Isha’s Hidden Treasures on Kenneth Dale Crescent.

Written by Achola Rosario


In what started last November as an innocuous event by Spoken Truth of Club Rouge’s former organizer, Roshan Karmali, has now turned into a much-anticipated meeting of minds. It started with an audience of around 15 people – including performers. Last Tuesday 24th May 2011, there were about 150 people. That is a 100% increase in patronage in the space of 6 months.

Tune in, tune out?

Ugandans are famous for their ability to storm a new hangout en-masse, giving the owner a false sense of security, before abandoning it like an unwanted child. But judging by the patrons (and performers) reaction to Masaani’s Poetry In Session, this might be a different story.

Poetry in Session primarily markets itself using Facebook and word of mouth from satisfied patron. At their last event, 77 people said they were attending on the wall. Friends, or people who had heard about the event from others and had been timing the end of the month in order to attend themselves brought the remaining 70+ people who attended the show. This was out of a targeted 450 people. But the venue and the atmosphere itself at the venue, is designed for an intimate gathering of not more than 150 people – that is perhaps one of the reasons it is popular with the performers and patrons.

As performers are a mix of seasoned professionals and first time performers coaxed onto the stage by supportive friends bragging about the talent hidden in the shy poet, intimacy makes for an atmosphere where everyone pays attention, without the usual intimidation that comes from a crowd.

The upswing of the spoken word

This format allows for those who never felt the power of poetry before to come into contact with the intimate thoughts of their fellow comrades in creativity – something that has been lacking in Uganda for a very long time.

Despite a long history of poetry in Uganda taking the form of a vehicle to transmit oral traditions, poetry for the last 3 decades has been virtually underground. It is only in the last decade that mainly women and the youth breathe new life into the spoken word:

  • Femrite pioneering a new crop of women winning literary awards such as Beatrice Lamwaka getting short-listed for the 2011 Caine Prize for African writing,
  • Deborah Asiimwe winning the BBC African Performance Playwriting Competition,
  • And Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish scooped the 2006 Commonwealth first book prize for Africa region.
  • The Bavubuka Foundation’s Spoken Truth,
  • The Bonfire Collective at the National Theatre and the Hip-Hop summit have galvanized the youth into poetic expression,
  • And for the 30-something corporates; the Lantern Meet of Poets provides an avenue for Shakespearean rhymes and intellectual revolutionary poetry.

And finally, the socially conscious musicians, fed up with an industry that does not embrace their genre but instead relegates them to the category of World Music, a category only just beginning to be explored by locals, are beginning to join the discourse of poetry performances.

Each of these groups performs side by side at Masaani’s Poetry in Session.

The performances

Ife Piankhi

Regular contributors to Poetry in Session include Ife Piankhi, a West-Indian poetess and musical activist naturalized in Uganda. Her haunting voice is reminiscent of the strong-willed Black American women who rebelled against slavery and singing the praises of revolution. It is strong yet soft, hard yet sympathetic. It sings of Tsunamis caused by reckless consumerism and an affinity with her late mother’s shoulders, so strong, that remind her of her own.

There is Jason Ntaro of Lantern Meet of Poets, whose last poem “She Cries” begins with the phrase:

“The birth of the Kalashnikov
did not give birth to war /
do not be fooled /
neither did the uprising of
protestors marching
change any verdicts for any trial”

It is a cynical poem that reminds people to forget nonsensical slogans from political mythmakers and instead find out their own history; the Ugandan reality. It calls us slaves to the ink-stained paper and calls with a rallying cry for the days when ‘everyone’ actually meant ‘Everyone’.

Jason Ntaro

Ntaro is a firm favorite at Poetry in Session, not only because his calm thespian voice makes it easy to follow the meaning of his words, but mainly because the prolific and versatile writer that he is will perform revolutionary poetry, ridiculous humorous poetry, and erotic poetry all in one session. Each one as descriptive as the rest.

There are musicians too, with Moses Serubiri, a young classical musician who once in a while brings out his polished violin, fastens the clasp, nuzzles it between his giant chest and equally giant paw, and proceeds to play the most delicate African classical pieces that make you contemplate revising traditional beliefs about African music.

And then there is Waterfalls, a sensitive guitarist, that easily accompanies performing artists on the night without rehearsing with them, and then pulls out his own brand of Floetry – flowing musical poetry that is lyrical in its accomplishment.

New voices

By 9pm many people start making a beeline for Roshan Karmali to register them on the list of performers, having been inspired by what they have seen and heard. And moved … no, compelled to let out the swell of expression in their chests. Some bring out poems that they initially felt were too revealing to be shared in public, only to feel privileged because they have touched so many people, they realize they are not alone in what they are feeling.

However, the night definitely needs assistance with technical equipment, such as the public address system, which usually fails and lets the performers down, as well as proper lighting so that the performers can see what they are reading. Good stage lighting of different colors could also help lend atmosphere to the performances, make it more like a cabaret act – which essentially, this is what is.

It would also be nice to have a finally competition with the contributors going head to head once a month (with some rehearsals) so as to continuously improve the quality of each performance.

Perhaps that is the key to the success of Poetry in Session: it allows for a catharsis in an age where to speak freely is increasingly becoming infringed upon. Not only because of increasing government restrictions on the freedom of speech, but also because in a society that is increasingly becoming overtly materialistic, people are looking to real intellectual entertainment to soothe the injuries of a cynical sex-saturated world.

Achola Rosario is a Ugandan art activist and writer living in Kampala.

1 thought on “Poetry in Session: An intellectual revival in Kampala

  1. Great stuff….cannot wait to immerse myself into this intellectual revival when I next visit home. Thank you for the coverage Achola and let us know how we can further support your good work of giving ugandan art visibility and a voice. I hope that many more young and upcoming Ugandan artists from all spheres will use this opportunity to share their creativity.

    Barbara , Tunis.

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