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Musinguzi Ray Robert

Today, like always, Kaboyo stripped to his underwear. He folded his clothes in a towel and placed the bundle on a stone a safe distance from the pool where splashing water would not wet them. He leapt into the water and after a few minutes came out for soaping. As he was putting soap in his hair, he thought he had distant rumble from the east. He tried to push that out of his mind. It seemed improbable that the sky would begin heralding rain in the middle of July. He closed his eyes and upturned his face, feeling the baking sun on his face as he soaped it. His eyes still shut, he stepped to the edge of the pool preparing to jump back into the river. But before he would do that, he cocked his head. Another rumble. This time it sounded nearer than the first. He wondered whether the rest had heard it. He shrugged and jumped. This time he went down until he touched the sand on the floor of the pool. After a few seconds, he shot up and broke the surface. And let out a howl of terror.

The sky and ground was a kaleidoscope of colours. Kaboyo was blinded as he leapt out of the water. He could not see the water, the vegetation or the stones. It was all a maddening scene of interchanging colours—red, blue, indigo, orange and green and some other hues he could not define. Deafening rumbles of the sky shook the earth and bloodcurdling howls of the wind filled his ears. He thought the earth was going to split up. Then the sky was briefly lit by forks of lightning, briefly dispelling the spectral shroud, revealing dark storm clouds, a moment before a heart-stopping thunderclap rant the air. Kaboyo fell facedown at the edge of the pool, screaming in panic. The continuing rumble of the sky filled his ears and turned his heart to stone. It sounded like some diabolic celestial monster was prowling the sky for prey. He squeezed his eyes shut thinking by doing that he would block out the terrifying scene from his mind. Suddenly the sky above opened and large raindrops hit his prone body, startling him back to his senses.

From “The Ivory Button”

Musinguzi Ray Robert’s first published story “Unexpected Dawn” appeared in Imagine Africa 500. But perhaps his more typical stories deal with local life and traditions. In his story “The Ivory Button’ a mysterious stranger gives a young boy an ivory medallion that makes him strong and fearless.

Musinguzi: “The incident at the river is something that happened to me.

“In Ugandan culture, a rainbow is something to be feared, shrouded in mystery and suspicion. People perceive the rainbow as something evil. If you see it at a watering point, it will have to come to drink, and if one happens to be there, it will most likely drink your blood.”

A vampire rainbow?

Musinguzi: “My school, Rwenzori High, was near Mubuku River and during my senior exams in 1997 I went down to the river to bathe with colleagues. As we were bathing, everything suddenly turned coloured, like a rainbow. We started running away and hid in the nearby eucalyptus trees, shivering in the rain. You didn’t see me that day.

“I was so scared, Geoff. We were naked because we were bathing so we couldn’t immediately go back to school. Later, when things had returned to normal, we ran back to the river to pick up our clothes and put them on. We started to talk about what we had experienced. We all agreed what we had just witnessed was a rainbow. We thought that we may die, that our blood may have been sucked, or the thing had brought bad luck. So we agreed not to talk about it, even to friends, lest bad luck befalls us. Ten years later I met some of my friends and talked about it and nothing has happened.”

Musinguzi lives near the Queen Elizabeth National Park, not far from Lake George. He runs the local taxi drivers’ association and has been able to set up a seven hundred-volume members’-only library. He writes fiction and poetry, teaches, lobbies for his union, and researches local history. His name, he told me, means “victory.”

Musinguzi: “I live in Kasese in Western Uganda on the border with the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo)—about 365 kilometres from here, so I came by bus, driving for six or seven hours. I boarded in the morning at 4:30. But it was not a problem; it was comfortable. There is one space on the bus where I can stretch my legs. That is the seat adjacent to the driver. I always look for it.

“No, it was worth the trip to come here and talk about writing, Geoff. Many of my stories are about the ancient Kitara empire from which my ancestors, the Batoro, are descended. The empire once covered what is now known as the Great Lakes region or part of the interlacustrine region.

“The first inhabitants of this region were the Batembuzi, which means “Pioneers.” There is little recorded history about these people. Popular belief is that they were demigods and lived at the height of Africa’s Bronze Age. They had rulers, the first being Ruhanga who ruled the heavens but his son Isaza one day wandered to the underworld, the earth, the world of the outcasts. He got lost. He found and fell in love with a princess, Nyamate daughter of the underworld king Nyamionga and sired children, one of which was Isimbwa. This lore has similarities with the Theban legend of King Oedipus. One day Isimbwa found his way back to heaven but Bukuku, a former gatekeeper of his grandfather, had usurped the throne. Bukuku had had only one child, a beautiful daughter called Nyinamwiru whom he imprisoned and cut off her breasts to make her ugly, for oracles had told him that one day his descendent would overthrow him. He feared she would mother a son who would kill him and become king. And you know what? His fears came to pass when Isimbwa chanced upon Nyinamwiru and rescued her. They married and had a son whom they named Ndahura but Bukuku learnt of this and ordered for his grandson to be found and killed. The baby was found and brought to Bukuku who threw it into the river. Legend has it that Ndahura’s umbilical cord got caught up on a tree branch and thus he got saved from drowning. Someone...yes, a porter if I remember properly, found him and kept him in a cave.

“Ndahura grew up and killed his grandfather and reclaimed his ancestors’ throne. Some believe Bakuku to be the last king of the Batembuzi but actually it was Isaza because Bukuku was a usurper.

“It is believed that the Batembuzi disappeared just like that. Is there anything they left behind by which they could be remembered? I think they did. I can remember the Amabeere ga Nyinamwiru, Nyanamwiru’s breasts and a footprint on a rock.

“I forgot to tell you that when the porter took the baby Ndahura to the cave, he had no milk to feed him but the gods that favoured the baby’s survival made the walls sprout numerous milk-dripping breasts to sustain him. I have been to Amabeere ga Nyinamwiru caves in Nyakasura, Kabarole district. Twice. They still drip milk...hahahahaha. Tell most people here that they are stalactites and they won’t believe it. Their belief is reinforced by the indentation on a rock near the caves that resembles a man’s footprint. It is believed to have been made by Ndahura’s foot.

“The Bachwezi dynasty replaced the Batembuzi and like their predecessors, they too were believed to possess god-like powers. Their reign spanned two centuries. They were the people who began civilisation in this region, construction of homesteads and built a palace at Bigo Bya Mugenyi, with a royal enclosure called Orurembo. They fought a modern kind of warfare. They were able smelters, and were able to forge spears and hoes from iron. The first king of the Bachwezi was Ndahura. He established a vast kingdom that stretched to Tanzania and as far as the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. It was not limited to Uganda. There were no borders then. This was called the Bunyoro-Kitara kingdom.

“This is where much of my stories are set. The beginning of the Bantu culture is there. I am from the Batoro culture and the language is Rutoro. There is a very thin line of difference with the language of Runyoro, so you often say Runyoro-Rutoro to allude to their homogeneousness. For example, the Bible is in Runyoro-Rutoro. Toro is now a kingdom on its own.

“In 1822, prince Kaboyo, son of king Kyebambe of Bunyoro Kitara at the time broke away and founded the Toro Kingdom...and the people are called Batoro. I grew up hearing these stories about the kingdoms, not from school, but from my parents who told me the stories.”

I ask if he is inspired by folklore or is trying to save it. He adamantly points a finger for emphasis.

Musinguzi: “Save it. For example there is something lost in a story that I am trying to discover. I was told when I was four years old that the wife of a king, Kinobi, had a son. The original story was lost. But I wrote a version called ‘The Royal Grindstone.’

“It is a story about the king of Karambiland. The theme is prophecy. The first king had handed down a prophecy that one of his descendants would rise up to conquer other kingdoms. This man would have to carry a grindstone to the top of a mountain without looking back. So successive generations try to do this until the reign of King Kalisa Karuhinda. He had five sons by Kiganzi, the favourite wife and he wanted one of those to win. But you see, it was not their destiny. His other son was disregarded because he was the son of the least favourite wife, Kinobi. His name was Maani and it is him who fulfilled the prophecy.

“I submitted this story to Black Letter Media in South Africa (publishers of Dilman Dila’s collection A Killing in the Sun). It was the only place I sent it. They got back to me and said that they only wanted stories with full telling. I think maybe they didn’t like the traditional style.”

Musinguzi won a Sooo Many Stories competition run by Nyana Kakoma. The call was for the best description of a character‐in this case the hero of a novel he had been writing for many years. The prize, a signed copy of Dilman Dila’s collection, A Killing in the Sun.

Musinguzi: “I entered a paragraph describing Yakub from my novel The Assembly. This is my second book project and I’m still writing it. It’s about seventy per cent complete. Yakub is also the protagonist in my short story ‘No Quiet Silence.’ Terrorists want to poison the waters of Lake Victoria. Basically they are Al Shabaab and they are using a hybrid form of the hyacinth waterweed, that will grow over Lake Victoria in hours and poison the ecosystem, so it is a science fiction story. In the novel, the hero is working with a—supposedly—government unit called Special Projects. He thinks he is working for the State, but Special Projects works for an organization called the Assembly that wants to control everything in East Africa.

“I sent the short story out last year. There was a call for submissions on the theme of water, but they didn’t pick it.

“I’m in my third year of writing The Assembly. It took eleven years to finish my first book. It’s not published. It’s called Darkening of the Sun and it’s about the years 2005 to 2012 and the Allied Democratic Forces rebel insurgence in the Rwenzori region. The violence later spilled out over the whole country, with bombs going off on Kampala’s streets. The rebel leader, Jamil Mukulu is now in prison. He was arrested last year. It’s a mainstream novel about historical events.”

So how did he become involved in Imagine Africa 500?

Musinguzi: “I read from the internet about the idea in Malawi. Someone wanted stories talking about Africa in five hundred years and there had been a conference about the same subject. At first I didn’t take it seriously and pushed it away. But then I wrote something to submit with two weeks to the deadline. I always write under pressure.

“I wanted to imagine Africa the same way the world views the USA, the super power. I suppose if African states come together, unite, they would be very powerful. But it’s not easy—something has to happen. Then I imagined that the white man’s obsession with exploration and conquest and bombs would one day be his downfall. So I imagined a nuclear holocaust in the Americas that would destroy the people and the environment. Africa was not involved and so survives. It had planned ahead for the war.

“These wars also poisoned the waters, made them radioactive. Africans had preserved a source of water, the only existing fresh water in the world, the river Hisa. A smaller river of the same name actually exists in one of the valleys of the Rwenzori in Ibanda village. It comes down from the mountains and joins the Mubuku River downstream.

“My high school was between two rivers. One is Hisa River which is much colder than the other, and I always wondered why. They both have the same source in the mountains. So I picked the name Hisa from these pure waters that are ice-cold year round.

“I didn’t get the opportunity to go to the (Africa 500) workshops. I just read the call for submission and sent it in. I didn’t meet Shadreck (Chikoti), only communicated with him via email. I learnt that Billy Kahora (the chief editor of the Kwani Trust) was the editor; I was so proud that Billy had selected my work and edited it. You see, this was the first time I was published in prose. I had published before in poetry, but for someone big like Billy Kahora to find my work worthwhile, it was something. He sent feedback. I just changed one word, the rest was OK, and he sent me the contract.

“It was at that point that I felt like what I was doing was worthwhile. I felt a sense of achievement. I was looking for someone to say, ‘your work is worth publishing.’ It was an inspiration. I began to tell friends about this and started opening up about being a writer. My friends were very excited about it.

“I want to get in touch with Mr. Kahora to see how much further I can take my work. For me this story is not finished, I think there is room for more, there is more, I have to tell more, the ending leaves room for more. If it were me reading, I would want to know what happens afterwards.

“My poetry was first published in 2013. Three of my poems were published in Nigeria in an anthology called Black Communion (available from Amazon). The book contained the work of one hundred African poets. The editor was the Nigerian poet Wale Owoade. He’s done some wonderful work.

“My poems have also appeared here in Uganda. ‘Two Mighty Hills’ appeared in BodaBoda Anthems, an anthology published by Baishai Niwe Poetry.”

Read a review on Soo Many Stories by none other than Jalada co-editor Richard Oduor Oduku.

“I also had my poem “Madiba” published in Lawino, a literary magazine edited by Dilman Dila.

“I grew up shy and soft-spoken. Although I always wanted to express myself, I found myself failing to do that by speech, so I felt I should put my thoughts down on paper. I myself wouldn’t tell stories when I was young, but I was a good listener; I would listen and absorb.

“I knew early in my life that these stories have to be told, be written. You see, not everyone has the chance to hear them by word of mouth and the oral culture is disappearing so someone has to get them down before they disappear.

“I wanted to write down the oral stories when I grew up. This is what set me off in writing. But I was also a reader. When I was a sophomore a friend told me that you have to have read two hundred novels for you to pass English at O level.

“In high school I would read anything. I did finish 200 books in two years. I remember some of them. (Laughs) Those that stick out. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart had a big impact on me. I could so easily identify with Okonkwo’s society. I also liked his book Arrow of God. I was also found of Elechi Amadi’s books Petals of Blood and The Concubine.

 “Then I went into Western literature. I read John Grisham, Danielle Steel, and Sidney Sheldon. I read them for fun like Nollywood. Did I pick anything from them? No and yes (Laughs). Those books I just read for fun. At school we would critique Chinua Achebe and Ngugi.

“However, Thomas Hardy...let me begin with Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I liked Tess, its tragic heroine. I read it several times because it was on the A level syllabus. I read Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Those books tell more than a story, they tell a culture, and the personification in those books means that they are readily identifiable. The themes are not foreign; these things happen here, but we don’t openly talk about them, they are like taboo.

“I was born in Nyakasanga village, about 1.5 km from Kasese town, on the bank of river Nyamwamba. I work in town but sleep in Nyakasanga.

“I work as the Chairman of the taxi drivers—the Kasese Taxi Park Bwera Stage Drivers Group. Before that I used to work with Care International as a night guard.

“When I did my A levels, I went to a conventional school. It had clubs and one was the writers’ club. Since I was a reader, I felt I should try writing. The club produced a daily newspaper for students called The Campus Eye. I started writing for them, and was elected Chairman and Chief editor.

“Back home in the village, I established a readers club, with four members. Each member brought a book and we exchanged them. Everybody had to find new materials to share. When we got to about fifteen members, we would each pay a thousand shillings and order books from Aristoc in Kampala and then we would pay for someone to go to Kampala and collect the books for us. In four years, we had a collection of four hundred books. Monthly subscriptions also helped us to get funds.

“In the fifth year challenges started cropping up. People who were opportunists would take the books but not read them and did not bring them back. They were not readers but wanted to be seen as a member of a select club in the village. Some of them didn’t want to contribute to discussions or pay the dues. Some would come for dancing and socialising. We lost a lot of books. Also we drew members from the working class and they would get transferred to other jobs in other towns, or they would get sacked. The core group began break up. So I took the library home. It’s still there—seven hundred books. Few members come and read there. It is not open to the public. Maybe in the future.

“Really, it is sad that the government does not provide libraries, not even in Kasese. Last year I began an initiative called the Rwenzori Reads Initiative. The Rwenzori region is in five districts. The mountains span the whole region, so travel can be difficult. The initiative is to impact the reading culture in children.

“I started with my family and extended family, then neighbours. Every evening children come to my home for an hour and I read them stories. I read to them and then they read for themselves. Now we are trying to spread this imitative to other villages. I have four kids of my own. My last-born is just one week and one day old.

“I want people to know that Africa—and Uganda in particular—is not a literary desert. Literature is alive. Before there were no opportunities for publication, where we can showcase talent. But it’s fortunate that we no longer depend on European markets for our work to be published. There is Farafina, Kwani, Jalada, FEMRITE, Blacklettermedia and many others. So the opportunities are there now.

“Before, the writers lacked avenues of discussion and interaction, but all those things are coming here in workshops, social media, and conferences. Every other month it seems there is a writing workshop or a conference in Kampala. I have attended FEMRITE. FEMRITE are really wonderful. But I ask myself, why is there no male writers’ organisations? It is as if male writers don’t have the same challenges.

“I don’t see a difference between men and women. A man and a woman are equally advantaged or disadvantaged in the field of writing. I asked them to be looking at writings from male writers. When I went to their meeting I instantly liked the way they worked. They distribute received pieces of writings without authors’ names. Members read the stories, discuss them, and give feedback without knowing who the writers are. This instantly helps build confidence for the authors present. Back home I have never met another writer to discuss work with. So this was new and exciting.

“This is an exciting time for speculative fiction writers in Africa. The whole continent seems abuzz with the genre. It is good for African writing to recognise this kind of writing. We have writers like Nnedi Okorafor and Shadreck Chikoti who are holding the flag high. I read Dilman Dila’s collection A Killing in the Sun, which is a good book. I met him last year at the Uganda Museum during the Writivism festival and we talked about our short stories that were in Imagine Africa 500.

Before this interview finally appeared, I messaged Musinguzi to ask for an update.

Musinguzi: “What have I been up to? The publication of ‘Unexpected Dawn’ prompted me to write two more short stories in the same setting. In ‘There Will Be No Warning’ the UAS is threatened by a biological warfare. Another one is ‘Ageless Being’ where the survival of the UAS lies in the hands of a woman from another time.

“I got an email on 2nd November 2017 from C A. Ozovehe, editor of Digibook Africa. Geoff, my short story ‘No Quiet Silence’ is among the fifty long-listed stories for their magazine. I hope I will get shortlisted.”

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Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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