BUKENYA: A hymn to woman and to my emotional wanderings


By Austin Bukenya
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Your responses to my Yala story, revealed to me a question that I left glaringly begging. What did I say in my “keynote” speech there? I will tell you in the near future. By way of excusing my silence last week, I may cite the economies of editorial space and, even more importantly, the insignificance into which my thought and words seemed to fade in the presence of the legendary greatness that I encountered in Yala.

Today, however, I thought I should share with you an emotion that I have been meaning to come up with since “Women’s Day” last year. I called it “A Hymn to Woman”, and I actually started writing it then, but somehow I got distracted and I laid it aside until, lo and behold, International Women’s Day was upon us again this year. In any case, even the Yala adventure was originally triggered by a woman.

So, this time I am not going to sit on the rap until the next IWD. In any case, as those of us who care insist, women’s day is not a one-day affair. Every day is women’s day and it should be duly celebrated for the joy and happiness of us all.

I could not, for example, resist a yell of joyful surprise when I heard, earlier this week, that a whole Bunge could be rendered null and void if it did not meet the minimum requirements of female representation. Take note, you macho candidates, voters and hecklers. Big Sister and her brothers are watching you.

Anyway, for the hymn to woman, I thought I would come up with a smart original composition about women. It would solidify and extol the beauty, the brilliance, the strength and the determination of my mothers, my sisters, my daughters, my colleagues and my lovers. But alas, when it came to the act, this addled brain of mine would not perform! I remained limp and impotent before the goddess.

So, I thought that by way of compensation, I would rummage about among my scribblings over the decades and share with you what I might have said about women and my expectations of them. We will not talk about the “thief” today, although a friend reminded me recently that I promised to take you on a hunt for her one of these days. I have many promises to keep before I sleep, as Robert Frost would put it.

I just wondered if there are a few recurrent motifs in my ruminations about women since my early twenties. I keep reminding you, and myself, that once you have written something, your right to comment on it is drastically reduced. Let it speak for itself. So, much as I would like to suggest that I have never thought of women “as goods to win, possess and boast about”, but as infinitely fascinating reflections of myself, of which I can never have enough, I will let you, dear reader, decide what you make of the following few selections from my semi-versified musings dating from the mid-1960s. 

Here is what I wrote from the balcony of my room in London University Hall in Dar es Salaam in 1966. “I wish I could get a woman to love as I love the sea. For I love the sea, cruel and changeable as it may be. If I chanced to meet a woman so firmly soft, so tender and deep, and yet defiant even unto the skies, then I would ever love and watch with faithful eyes.”

I loved the sea, as I gazed at it out at Oyster Bay, over the tops of the cashew trees and the glittering sands. I still love it, whether at Mombasa, Malindi, Zanzibar or Ukunda. But did I find the woman of my desires and dreams? I cannot say, but I know that I still admire in women that challenge of the intriguing combination of tenderness, depth and “defiance”.

A little later, in My Bitter Heart, a sonnet published in the Makerere Beat, I came up with some lines which I would like you, as an ideal reader, to interpret for me. “You woman sought to fill my soul but never my arms,” I wrote, “You prophetess reading misery in my palms, I have left all fears of pain behind, to clasp your soul for which I’ve always pined, to end the restless search for joys I never will find.”

That may be way out there, or neither here nor there. But in more recent times, in my explicitly feminist practice, I have been particularly attracted to women of marked articulateness and decisive action, determined to change the world, even if it means standing it on its head. Thus, in my piece, W-Woman, dedicated to my FEMRITE sisters, I extoll my sister of “steely nerve”, determined to “ascend the craggy hill, assert your power, pain and pointed pact, to be, to do, to grow, be free and impact.”

To the one and only Green Belt heroine, I made a promise. “I think I’ll plant a tiny little tree. I know she’ll smile a dimpled smile for me, wherever now she floats, eternal, free, in glorious green and emerald glee.” Did you know it is her birthday today? Francis Imbuga reminds us of it in his dedication of Green Cross of Kafira, where he calls it All Fools Day!

But when all is said and done, the woman’s fascination for me is simply magic. That is why in some of my latest versifications, in Kiswahili, I call the thunderbolt of love “urogi” (charms). “Ikiwa umeniroga (if you have bewitched me),” I helplessly call out, “then increase the dose of the charms. Thoroughly stir up the magic potion till I get inebriated on it like a potent drink.” Anyway, now that some rains have come my side of the lake, I will strive to keep my promise about the tiny little tree. I am supposed to plant 100 of them this year, but I have so far managed only one.

Prof Bukenya is one of the leading scholars of English and Literature in East Africa. [email protected]

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