After being delighted with 'The footprints of the outsider', a masterpiece of the Ugandan Julius Ocwinyo, I felt I had to go to his homeland and probably the real character of the book, the Ugandan version of the Macondo/Aracataca of Gabriel García Márquez.
When I arrived at the only big road of Teboke with my backpack and his book in my hand, I was quickly surrounded by tens of surprised villagers. Not one of them had read the book (sic), but they were all amazed to see the photograph of their old friend on it, with a muzungu coming just to see their village and even more surprisingly: a map inside the book showing their village!
Immediately someone took a bicycle and rushed out to look for Julius' cousin, Joseph, a teacher in another village. We walked by some of the soil pathways and he showed me the family house, the women and children of his family cooking and playing on the ground, and the bamboo tree that appeared in one of his books. As we walked he confirmed to me that stories of violence due to political reasons had been common in the area: with Obote, with Amin, with Obote again... by soldiers, by rebels...
Julius was not in the country, but he kindly answered my questions by email. I was particularly interested in the magic, let's say it in the academic way, the 'magic realism' in his book. Was he inspired by Gabo?
'As I was writing the novel -he answered me- I came across Ben Okri's 'Famished Road' and realised that there were points of intersection between my approach and his. Ben Okri is a Nigerian-Briton who's very adept at using magic realism and the impression I got from reading his 'Famished Road' was that the approach was not something he adopted from outside his ethnic community but something inherent in the storytelling tradition of his own people and that derives, in turn, from their traditional belief system, their world view. Much of the same goes for me. Even though we don't have a term for it, magic realism is an integral part of our lore, a prop not just for story-telling but also for our beliefs. In Lango (my people's) traditions, the world of the living and that of the dead, who live alongside other - non-human - creatures are intertwined. The lived realities of the not-yet-dead, as opposed to the living-dead, are impacted by the moods and activities of the latter. That is why, in traditional Lango society, it was mandatory to drop a morsel of food or pour a libation of drink on the ground before one started eating or drinking. What was thus dropped or poured was intended to be consumed by the living-dead to keep them in a happy mood so that they did not harm the living. So, you can see that the boundary between the world of the living and the netherworld (the abode of the living-dead was - and still is by some people - believed to be literally underground) was rather tenuous. Of course when I eventually read García Márquez (in translation) I was delighted to discover that I was in very good company!
So it seems that some african writers have arrived to similar literary works as the Latin-American colleagues from their own traditions. I told him that I also like the way TIME is treated in the novel, going back and forward and mixing the story of the character Abudu with the history of the village; with all its summaries and repetitions contributing to the feeling of circular time, repeted cycle, specially with the continuous change of political power from one person to another but always with the peasants suffering the same attacks and poverty. He enlightened these aspects with his comments:
'The notion of time as a linear phenomenon came with western education. Before that, time was related to the seasons and human activity. It was conceived of in terms of periods for grass-burning, clearing the land, planting, weeding, harvesting, hunting, fishing and so on. Also certain events were important markers of time, such as a bumper harvest (prosperity) or the outbreak of a disease (calamity). And as life was communitarian, everybody within a particular community was affected by this ebb and flow of time. Each individual was simply an element within the greater scheme of community life that was determined by the seasons, which varied little. On the political level, there has, since we attained independence, been a widespread feeling that we've got a raw deal from our political leaders, most of whom are simply self-seeking crooks.'
And when I insisted in the use of rhythm and repetition also forcing the language he concluded
'Lango - my mother tongue - is tonal and has an in-built rhythm as a result. Also, most of the words are short, hence the strong cadence. As for repetition, it is a technique that is considered very important in story-telling since it allows not just the salient points but also the moral of a story to sink in properly.'
Julius was happy to hear the greetings from everybody in the village, specially his cousin who remembered how he helped him and others to success in their studies. So I also say goodbye from the beautiful huts of Teboke, with their best hopes for the future. How can it be otherwise in a place where is so difficult to distinguish between the reality that we can see and the magic floating over the land and the swamps where, as I pass by with a motorbike, some people and maybe some hippos -that can cut a man in two pieces- are happily swimming together...