Kampala’s Spoken Words
Competitions can be classrooms. The Spoken Word Project in Uganda could be exactly that — a space to teach and learn. Designed by the Gothe Institut in Johannesburg, this transnational competition moved from South Africa, and Angola, before it set the stage in Kampala.
A Lesson in selection
Although the format was predetermined by the initiators in South Africa, the curation of the competition was chaired by Kampala resident Roshan Karmali. Founder of the event called Poetry in Session, Karmali solicited participation from an established group of poets who have been known to express their art into microphones across the capital. Submissions were sent in text form and approved, but the merit was not the only criteria. The ten participants had to posses a passport because if they won they would travel to the next destination, Nairobi. What is irksome about the selection process, and was reflected in the quality of the show, was that poets were not required to audition. Surely, a spoken word competition — that is arguably as much about performance delivery as textual content — would at least ask for a video recording.
Kampala’s poetry progression
Since 2010, poetry groups have been blossoming around the city of Kampala. This year, festivals like NuVo and Bayimba gave poets feature stage positions in recognition of the growing art. The group of ten that were selected for The Spoken Word Project came from a range of poetry collectives. Using the established format of slam, spoken word, or sometimes referred to as def poetry, the competitors seemed to stumble over cliches and even repeated each other’s stories. It was obvious that, although each poet held a unique rhythm and stage presence, the content only occasionally pumped the audience beyond their mobile phone messaging or sideline chatter. We were almost never captivated from the beginning to the end of their pieces. In addition, at least three performers forgot their lines, sometimes not even able to complete the poem.
Angolan winner Ermildo Saraiva Panzo’s personal poem painted vivid imagery of being on the front lines of battle. Civil war is a theme that resounds among most Ugandans, and so is the narrative of postcolonial power struggle. This theme set the brief for the participating poets in the second round; thus, war was an symbol to express their versions of postwar Ugandan nationalism.
Compared to Ermildo’s passion-filled character who finds freedom with the chant, “viva a liberdade”, Rashida Namulondo’s image of war involved “one thousand men between her legs”. It read like a sensational news story. In fact, the dramatic poem made little or no argument for nationalism. However, it was a lucid expression of the sort of feminism that bogged down the entire showcase.
As if the 1940s Negritude expression “Mother Africa” has not been overtly misused, Apio Winnie, in response to Ermeldo, went on to abuse the metaphor further. She set aside an entire stanza to paint a portrait of a masochistic “Mother Africa” who “slits her wrists” over and over again. While Mother Africa slitting her wrists was Apio’s attempt at radical feminism, it came off as rather offensive. One actually wonders if these young urban poets have any understanding of the dimensions of war that plagued the northern part of their nation.
Two gentlemen were clever to avoid the war theme by choosing music. Mark Gordon’s inventive improvisations produced a “fat baby laughing”. It showed the poet’s ability to find music in unpredictable moments; as opposed to every other baby in the competition that seemed caught in misfortune. Then, midway through his poem, Slim MC sang a lullaby in Kinyankole that erupted the audience in supportive cheers.
Getting a bit judgmental
With such a mixed crop of cultivated and raw talent, what were the judges specifically looking for? Pamela Acha said it was about: “the pictures their words paint in our minds.” Peter Kagayi, wanted stories that were relevant to Ugandan society. The third judge Beverly Nambozo writes on her the BN Poetry Award blog, “Oftentimes I forgot I was a judge and just wanted to dream away with the poets’ words.”
What is more important than the necessary points of praise or critique, is the question of how poetry in Uganda can mature from this competition. Perhaps the selection process could look at the performance of Angolan winner Ermeldo Ponzo to see that passion and presence can be felt in many languages. Therefore, to reject a local language artist based on a democratic idea of linguistic comprehension amongst the audience or judges is exclusionary.
The competitors could also be pushed to move beyond the revolutionary scripts already spoken by their contemporaries. There must be more to the human experience than ego-trips, parental misguidance, corrupted femininity, predictable love stories and Mother Africa. Safe and classic may have won this competition, but for Uganda to bring its best to international stages its poets need to learn from Spoken Word Project’s patron Kgafela oa Magogodi who encourages them to improve their art.
Note: This piece is a reflection from the Start Editorial Team and discussions with poets and listeners during the event.
Photography by Oscar Kibuuka http://www.kibuukaphotography.blogspot.com/