A Poet Among Warriors

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The posters of an upcoming poetry event caught my eye for several reasons. They were made by HIPUganda’s Canon Griffin of and for Daniel Omara. And I had gotten to know Daniel Omara himself as the editor of annual school magazine ‘The Eagle’. He initiated the remakes of selected photographs showing snippets of the past of his school; St. Mary’s College Kisubi. But I thought I should have a further conversation with him, the man behind and on the posters, because of the way he blends representations of past and present culture, which reminded me of numerous photographs of warriors in the collections we digitised and have come across. Below you find examples of those images, and some insightful answers to my questions from the poet himself. 

HIPU: Dear Daniel, or should I say Omara, 

I would like to devote a blog post to the poster of your upcoming poetry (Luoetry) event because it reminds me of the numerous photographs of warriors I saw over the past couple of years. Could you tell me what informed your choice of costume? 

DO: The half traditional-half contemporary fashion was a thought I wanted to have photographed… and thank God that thought is now a poster. For the times I’ve stood on stage to perform poetry, I’ve either used the contemporary fashionable clothes like designer suits or casual wear. This is simply because it’s what I see in the videos of spoken word created by renowned poets from outside Africa like Prentice Powell, Rudy Francisco, Michael Lee, The Fiveology etc… and before my audience, that indeed appeared cool. 

It wasn’t just their stage dressing that I related to. I even went to the extent of stereotyping their metric system, their intonation, their rhythm in performance. Little did i know that I was constantly making indirect efforts to alienate concepts, issues and principles that are characteristic of my people’s culture. The few times that I got on stage to perform a poem appreciating an aspect of African culture, the best I could do was wear a Kanzu. The other aspects of the performance would largely remain characteristic of the contemporary poetry. 

Now, understanding that whatever I was doing did not hold any originality to it, I decided on the following:

1. I understood and would take into account the admiration that audiences had for the performances that we poets make.

2. I also understood that the same audiences found performances with cultural and traditional settings a little repelling. This is of course more significant within people who have grown up with little appreciation of their native cultures and traditions. 

3. Knowing that both the contemporary approach and cultural approach to performance poetry had their advantages that, when harnessed, shall promise a unique future for Uganda’s literary heritage, I thought it best to have a merger/mix of the two. I acknowledged that applying some contemporary poetic devices in performances aimed at exploring my people’s cultural heritage will go a long way in promoting these marginalised aspects of origin.

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Above: among the earliest photographs made in what is now northern Uganda, Acholi warriors by Richard Buchta, January 1879

HIPU: Who do you consider to be ‘your’ people, and why would your audiences find performances with cultural and traditional settings a little repelling? 

DO: My people are the Acholi; whom historians assert to be products of intermarriages between the Luo and the Madi. My people are Luo in language and custom. They are closely related to the Alur of West Nile, the Japadhola of Eastern Uganda and the Jaluo of Kenya. The Acholi now inhabit the districts of Gulu, Kitgum, Pader and Nwoya in Northern Uganda. Some also live in Southern Sudan.

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Above: among the earliest photographs made in what is now northern Uganda, Acholi warrior by Richard Buchta, January 1879

DO: It is undeniable that society and it’s day-to-day practices have unimaginable influence over the likes, dislikes and general perception of the members within in. Unfortunately, since the turn into the 21st Century, every human community seems to have inclined to secularism; only differing in intensity and their willingness to accept that fact.Every form of expression (verbal, musical, dressing etc) in society now largely aims to value or devalue the human aspect of body at the expense of the mind or the soul. Language is increasingly becoming foul, dressing more indecent and long-term intellectual property investments less practised; all becoming more acceptable by the day as normality. This is what I refer to as an increasing secularism, rather than ‘the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions.

Uganda, where I have grown up, has had its noticeable dose of this dynamic shift from unquestioned appreciation of culture/tradition to an almost religious appreciation of secularism. In the place of baggy but gentle tailored thick cotton trousers and equally sizeable shirts we now have skinny pants and tight fitting shirts as trending fashion. In place of long skirts and graceful plain dresses, flimsy skimpy body hugging clothes are now the upheld trend among the ladies.

In addition to this wave of fashion, it is unfortunate that very little effort is made by parents and grandparents, those with clear memories of what our cultures/traditions dictated and the sanity/morality that came with our olden ways, to share their knowledge. This is worsened by the fact that most members of our audiences have lived in established towns and cities like Kampala or Entebbe; far away from the people who would have administered the necessary caution and guidance. Consequently, a poet appearing on stage clad in leopard skin, ankle bells, turkey feathers, coloured beads and all that comes with cultural wears will not only be repelling to this ill-groomed audience, but also suffer the burden to make his poem palatable for it. On the other hand, the poet downing a well pressed Armani three piece suit will automatically be accorded his welcoming applause for “keeping up with the century” even before doing justice to the poem at hand.

Below: photograph from an album probably made in the 1930s by British people living in Uganda. From the collection of the Uganda Society in Kampala.

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Above: photograph from Dr. Albert Cook’s ‘Uganda Memories’. The copy the reproduction was made from is in the collection of the Uganda Society

HIPU: Where did you get the examples for the traditional costume?

DO: I chose the three piece suit as a picture that many of my friends (children of the dotcom era) would relate to and connect with in admiration. And I chose the traditional outfit of a typical Acholi warrior and the spear too, as an effort to invoke thoughts about the cultural heritage of the Luo. I have a friend who is part of a renowned troupe and she had pretty much all the costumes you’d need from any tribe in Uganda. Be it dance costumes or other wears.

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Above: album page with warriors, from an album in the collection of the Brothers of Christian instruction in Kisubi

HIPU: Why did you choose the costume of the warrior in particular? Are there other costumes you could have picked? Two that come to my mind as potential candidates would be leading figures in society, chiefs for instance? Or maybe medicine men?

DO: The choice of the traditional warrior’s costume is in line with the story and the setting of the Luoetry show. Otherwise, the other cultural wear for chiefs and the like were also accessible. The Luoetry Show is the story of a Luo warrior who has deep understanding of his origin and heritage. He uses this fortress of confidence and foundation of his manhood to find love by way of dance, song and words. Upon finding love, the warrior is propelled to a point of responsibility that gives him the voice to speak about the political, cultural, societal and economic realities of his greater society Uganda. So the Luo warrior’s costume was chosen to portray the character in picture.

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Above: lantern slide from the collection of Visual Studies Workshop, in Rochester, USA

HIPU: It strikes me, an outsider to traditions in Uganda, as slightly odd that for the traditional costume you turn to a cultural troupe, that, I would think, also serves an audience on ‘the idea of the traditional costume’, rather than on what that costume actually was or may have been… 

DO: Turning to a traditional troupe for a Luo warrior’s costume doesn’t really communicate any inconsistency. This is because most traditional dances in themselves have a character/characters who communicate by way of dance and song. Reliably all tribes in Uganda have a dance performed for/by warriors in times of war and otherwise. So it’s actually the normality that you will find a lot more characterised costumes with troupes around Uganda other than just ordinary dancers.

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Above: two slides from Eng. Wambwa’s collection. 1960s. Click on pictures to enlarge

HIPU: Do you have a poem that relates to the costume(s) and to the idea of Luoetry?

DO: I don’t have a poem on the concept of Luoetry… The concept has only been captured in interviews really. But I have a poem called Layata Lukoya written in both Luo and English praising a particular species of sweet potato. That could do as an example of a Luoem.

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LAYATA LUKOYA 

When the rains shy away 

When dog kulu comes alive from the whistling of obibii 

When lapiru spins across the compound, around the granary and vanishes into the distance,

It’s a sign that layata lukoya wa dong ocek woko.

We rush ka ceto ipoto to harvest mounds of happiness, 

Tubers swollen like boastful clouds after downpour, 

Curves spelling praises of mother earth 

Protrude above mounds like babies tired of breast milk. 

We uproot layata lukoya, 

The milky white sap drips from its placenta, 

Onto the tongue it beats colostrums in taste 

And sticks onto the tongue like a betrothal.

Layata lukoya boils with a jealous steam, 

Fusing and musing iwi agulu, Swearing oath to keep its aroma secret. 

When served, iromo gweyo layata lukoya ki pik dek out of forgetfulness. 

Layata lukoya is a promising taste of ancestral blessings.

Full English Version

LAYATA LUKOYA 

When the rains shy away 

When the lake-shore comes alive from the whistling of crickets 

When the windstorm spins across the compound, around the granary and vanishes into the distance,

It’s a sign that our layata lukoya is ripe already.

We rush going to the garden to harvest mounds of happiness, Tubers swollen like boastful clouds after downpour, 

Curves spelling praises of mother earth 

Protrude above mounds like babies tired of breast milk. 

We uproot layata lukoya, The milky white sap drips from its placenta, Onto the tongue it beats colostrums in taste 

And sticks onto the tongue like a betrothal.

Layata lukoya boils with a jealous steam, 

Fusing and musing at the top of the clay pot, 

Swearing oath to keep its aroma secret. 

When served, you can pinch soup and scoop layata layata lukoya out of forgetfulness. 

Layata lukoya is a promising taste of ancestral blessings.

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Above: photograph by Musa Katuramu. Probably made in Ankole, but no conclusive further details known

HIPU: The blend of Luo and English particularly makes sense in relation to the poster that blends you wearing the two costumes. Referring to either one of the outfits as costumes, and not one a suit, the other a costume, actually has changed my thoughts about the poster. Neither the image of you in suit nor the one of you in warrior attire can be fully ‘read’ and understood. But the medium to some extent speaks for itself. Is that for you also the case in your poetry? The ‘appearance’ (when written) or ‘rhythm and sound’ (when performed) does something on its own, something that compliments their functionality as signs.

DO: Luoetry is the point of intersection when contemporary poetic devices meet with our indigenous literary heritage. The effect created by it is the solution to concerns from potential members of Luoetry audience who feel that a language barrier will be a hindrance to understanding and partaking of the show’s poetry. Luoetry minimizes tendencies to alienate poetry that should be speaking to our people and the day-to-day situations in our society.

When the typical luoem is performed, the rhythm and intonation of words both in Luo and in English will offer both the Luo-speaking and English-speaking audience an equal window of understanding. This simply means that none of the two basic sides of Luoetry should outweigh the other. The number of English words used in the luoem must satisfactorily communicate the issue in the poem and the same applies to the number of Luo words; with no intention to make these numbers the same. It is important to respect conventional poetic devices, but I consider it to be necessary to apply these devices only to enhance the literary blessings of our indigenous societies; our proverbs, riddles, legends, norms, taboos. In them lie great poetic stories to tell. Luoetry tells the stories of the Luo.

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Above: photograph by Canon Griffin, at the Uganda Museum

HIPU: Did making the photographs and the posters that Canon Griffin designed give you any new insights? Or were they ‘only’ the visualisation of your thought?

DO: Canon Griffin is a prolific thinker, and this trait did not spare my initial thoughts the necessary tuning and packaging. Canon is the one who coined in the necessity to create a second poster (‘Fun Poster’ according to him) as an appreciation of the individuality and completeness of the two sides that make up Luoetry. It is because of Canon’s insight that I’m going to be performing some poems purely in English and some poems purely in Luo.

Without contemporary poetry, our indigenous literary heritage can’t survive. Without our indigenous literary heritage, contemporary poetry can’t survive. Luoetry therefore is an effort to appreciate the mutual benefit of creating a medium of these two concepts.

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Above: Screenshot work in progress by Canon Griffin

The poet as warrior:

DO: The gap between appreciation of contemporary trends and recognition of Ugandan tribal cultures is really wide. The average teenager now would largely consider preservation of his native people’s ways is the responsibility of his cultural leaders and those near them and not his own. The LUOETRY poster is fortunately much more accessible by this average teenager than these cultural leaders in point. This average teenager too is much more likely to attend the Luoetry than his cultural leaders. With this analogy, the Luoetry poster as a projection of the Luoetry Show is a positive contribution aimed at invoking thoughts on the blessings of cultural heritage.

Find Daniel Omara’s Luoetry here on Facebook

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Maclive Caesar Obong(Don Czar)
Maclive Caesar Obong(Don Czar)
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Feb 19, 17 4:06 pm
#195
To me being a poet from Northern Uganda who also has a root or share a deep interest in the Acholi tradition, i am bold to bring this to light that what Daniel Omara will be or is doing is greater than what it seems to look like right now, thanks to Canon Griffin and the entire teem and with that, I would like to turn the title around and say something about a Warrior among Poets. I find that history has loosely been forgotten by the elders or should I say retransformed with the coming of Christianity? To me… Read more »
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