‘Writing allowed me to honour the connections between life and death’—Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa talks to Tiah Beautement about her memoir, Flame and Song
Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa
Tiah Beautement chats to Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa about her poetry and prose memoir, Flame and Song, which traverses Uganda, Addis Ababa, and Cape Town.
Today I sang
the song I had come
And my fire burns again.
—‘Lighting the Ashes’
TM Beautement for The JRB: In the Introduction to Flame and Song you write how the history books focus on headline events and ‘omit the voices of the people who lived through it’. Tell us more about why you felt moved to tell your story?
Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa: There are a couple of reasons. The first was the fact that I was at an age when both my parents were aging, or passing on, and I had for many reasons not been able to capture their stories in their own words. I felt the need to reflect on my story—especially since I was becoming an elder in my family, yet I was living so far away from home. I felt the need to connect again with my sense of self. As I wrote I realised that many African countries were turning fifty, too. The narrative of Africa that concerns only war, poverty, HIV, military interventions, pain and suffering is not my narrative of Africa, and is not the complete picture for most Africans. It is only part of the story, and the rest is silent. As I reflected I began to see my story against the backdrop of the political, and I wanted to share it in that way.
I picked them up
the broken notes
and sang them
crooning in a low voice.
—‘In Limbo …’
The JRB: The poems folded into the narrative of Flame and Song seem to sway to their own rhythm and dance. How much does music feed into your written work?
Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa: It was not a conscious thing when I was writing Flame and Song—some stories wanted to be told as poems and others chose prose. But as I reflect on the process I begin to trace the connections between music and my writing … every language has its own rhythms and intonations, which affect meaning and mood. It is like music. When I write, I often stop and read out loud what I have written to see if it sounds right. Growing up listening to folktales that had songs interspersed in them was also a strong influence. To this day they are my favourite kind of stories. I think that’s what the poetry does in the book—it acts like a song in a folktale.
Having said this, I always write in silence—music would be a distraction.
I opened my mouth,
no words came so
I ran away […]
The JRB: On your website, you mention that you used to struggle to call yourself an artist, but now do.
Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa: This has been an interesting journey. As a child I called myself a musician and singer. But I grew up in a generation where we were encouraged to ‘get a proper job, and then do your art’. And that is what I did after school. I became a teacher, a consultant, a facilitator, and did my art on the side, or in private. I did not give myself the permission to be an artist—I did not trust the artist within. But as I grew older the pull to be creative grew stronger and stronger.
There was a call deep within me to be creative again—to sing, to write, to breathe through my art. I started to understand that my creative work gave me life, kept me sane, gave me hope. It was at the core of who I am. So I began to build up a tribe of kindred spirits, who could nurture me, give me feedback, encourage me. Because, while a lot happens individually, the creative process is a communal process. It happens best when I am rooted in community—in a community where one can be vulnerable, and be strong. Displacement severs that sense of community. It puts you in a kind of limbo of belonging everywhere and nowhere. Reclaiming who I am, re-storying myself, redefining community for myself, enabled me to begin to call myself an artist again. I am not yet there—I am a work in progress.
‘What tribe are you?’
asked the girl in a blazer.
I cocked my head to the side,
My brow creasing
as I looked at her
‘I am Ugandan,’
as if that was a tribe
—‘I am new’
The JRB: Your words give the sense that ‘home’ often isn’t a place but the people whom you love and who love you.
Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa: Home is about people and it is about place. There is something visceral in my sense of home when I land in Uganda. Even when those moments have been rife with fear. My body knows the place. But even more than that, it is people who create that sense of belonging. People who share my story, who look at me, and their eyes say, ‘I see you. You are one of us.’ People whose shoulders are broad enough to hold my tears, to let me fall, fail, fly. People who remind me who I am.
Home is that place where you do not have to explain yourself. Where you are given the benefit of the doubt. Where you are sometimes deeply hurt and angered. And still loved. Where you fail, and stand up again because something in you knows that you begin not to belong when you give up, not when you fail. Home is where your stories intertwine. And this is crafted every day through the relationships you nurture.
There on a sofa
with a pipe in her nose
doll on her lap. […]
It’s the Christmas tree.’
The JRB: Flame and Song makes it clear that Fay and Chris, your siblings with cerebral palsy, were ‘the heart of our household’. Yet at that time in Uganda many areas considered disabilities as taboo. Do you think South Africa and Uganda are still pushing aside people with disabilities?
Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa: I do think that things are a little better than they used to be, but there is still a long way to go. I think most people interact with people with disabilities as if they are ‘less than’, as if all that they are is their disability. When you live and interact with people with disabilities you begin to see that they are just like everyone else.
I think that there is more space for people with disabilities now—at least in South Africa where I live. In Cape Town I see things like buildings with ramps for wheelchairs; parking lots with spaces for people with disabilities; the library for the blind and so on. At my local supermarket one of the cashiers is deaf, and it takes people time to adjust to her, but they do. The hardest thing, I think, is working with disabilities that are not easy to see. Recently I was reading an article about a group that met with someone who is dyslexic, and for the first time they began to think about what it means to be twenty-something and not able to read, or to read well. How do we discuss things like that without shaming people? Or feeling sorry for them? That is the challenge.
‘The builder of the nation is dead.
But he was old,’
—‘The VIP room’
The JRB: The prose that tells the passing of your father is soft and loving, yet the poem folded into the story speaks of medical neglect, raising the question that he might have lived had the hospital had more staff, equipment and supplies. Has your heart found peace, or does anger linger?
Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa: I have made peace with my father’s death to some extent, but every time I hear of someone being medically mismanaged, or people raising funds to take their loved ones out of the country, I get angry. Today I saw a tweet quoting a Ugandan newspaper that said that in 2016 records from the health ministry indicated a total of USh10 billion [about R33 million] was spent on treatment abroad for 140 government officials. It breaks my heart, because Uganda had one of the best health systems in East and Central Africa in the nineteen-sixties, and into the seventies. There was a time, not too long ago, when Ugandan nurses went to work in the United Kingdom for the National Health Service to make money, because their training was that good. Not any more. The money that could be used to fix the health system goes to health systems in other countries. Those who can’t afford to send their loved ones to India, or South Africa, or whose family members are too old or too sick to travel, have to deal with the neglect and lethargy in the system. There is no political will to change things. And sometimes I think we accept the poor service, we excuse it, we adjust to it. And then it becomes very hard to change.
I leave once again
my soul soaked
in home waters
—‘Echoes of a journey: 2004′
The JRB: An article on Flame and Song was titled: ‘Henry Barlow’s daughter launches memoir’. Yet it is your mother, despite her tiny size, who becomes larger than life in your story.
Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa: My mother was a teacher of English and literature. Her focus was the oral literature of the Bamasaaba, and I remember going with her on a few of her field trips. Together with my father, she would tell us stories, folktales and sing songs.
My mother was a great teacher, but I struggled with letting her teach me. I just wanted her to be my mother. However, there are things you can’t resist. The first impact she had on my writing was when I was in P6 [primary grade 6], and she helped me with my writing. And then in P7 there was a play-writing competition. She helped me find a story, a Luganda folk tale. It was written in Luganda, so she read it to me, and we discussed it. Then I started writing the play, and she helped me edit it.
She also encouraged me to read all sorts of books. I remember as a child she bought me these two books of ‘tall tales’, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And she would take me to the library. When I was a teenager, we would share books, the most memorable ones being Cancer Ward (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) and The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough) …
The other thing I learnt from my mother, which I struggle to implement, was that she always had something creative that she did for herself. Her sewing when we were in Uganda, her book club and macramé classes when we were in Addis Ababa, her book club later on in Uganda. I think her creative work was an act of self-care that all women need. I am learning to honour that more and more. Taking time to do the things that are important to you enables you to take care of others better. It is not a ‘nice’ thing to do, it is an essential, life-affirming act.
There are things death cannot erase:
that smile, that look, that touch,
that moment …
Yes, things death cannot mend:
Wounds, bruised hearts, unspoken words
The JRB: You book addresses grieving when you are away from the country of your birth, unable to attend a funeral. Did writing help you through these times?
Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa: Yes—the writing was one of the things that helped—that and the sea, and trees, and singing, and having to take care of my children. I could fall apart with grief, but not completely, because I had children to take care of. They pulled me out of the loneliness. So I wrote, and I sang to the sea, and I mothered them. Writing has always enabled me to connect with feelings I need to process, or to say things I can’t say to anyone else. And there were times I could not write. I remember once sitting down to write in my journal and being unable to get in touch with the depth of my feelings. So I asked myself, ‘If what I was feeling was an image, what would it be?’
And then in 2016, as I wrote about the passing of my parents in Flame and Song, my editor asked about Fay and Chris, my siblings with cerebral palsy. I realised then that I had not really grieved them because their deaths coincided with the births of my first two children. And so I started grieving them all over again. April 2016 was tough because that was the month I wrote the chapter on loss, and it was also the month my mother died. I needed a lot of space between the writing to process the losses again. And the writing also gave me perspective, and allowed me to honour the connections between life and death. And, you know, the grieving never completely ends. However, I found that last year I did not dwell too much on the passing of my parents—I thought about them in different ways.