Ugandan writer Moses Isegawa looks rather sedate in photographs on the internet. But in his novels or email correspondence with the Mail & Guardian, he writes as though he is a sewer-rat’s deranged libido come to life.
Isegawa, who takes part in the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban next week, received critical acclaim for his debut novel, Abyssinian Chronicles, in 2000. He followed it up with the thriller Snakepit (2005), set during the unravelling of a dictatorship, closely resembling Idi Amin’s.
Lauded for its intimate and visceral capturing of post-colonial Uganda, the wreckage of Amin’s rule and the return of Milton Obote, Abyssinian Chronicles follows the personal journey of its narrator, Mugezi, from wiping his siblings’ bums in rural Uganda through Kampala to days spent whoring in Amsterdam.
Funny and fetid, the novel drew comparisons with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (for its contextual similarities) and Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Year’s of Solitude (for its opening sentences, expansiveness and sense of magical realism).
Now 45, Isegawa spent 10 years in a seminary and another four teaching before moving to Amsterdam in 1990 to fulfil his ambition of becoming a writer. He returned to Uganda in 2006.
Niren Tolsi: Abyssinian Chronicles appears to revel in the rancid and the scatological. Please explain your penchant for this particular type of literary imagery within the context of the sociopolitical situation of Uganda and also Africa.
Moses Isegawa: The rancid and the scatological are the only wonderful things to write about. They make us dream of perfumed gardens and places where all is well. Europe with its legislation and babying of people from birth to death is, alas, not interesting at all because everything is flat like expired farts. The confusion and corruption in Uganda and Africa in general is good; it helps stimulate creativity. One day they will end and the world will be the poorer; like the New Testament is poorer than the Old because there is no violence and all Jesus talks about is love instead of carrying out creative destruction.
Writers often talk of how exile and dislocation from the space they are writing about aids their work. How did your living in Holland affect Abyssinian Chronicles and Snakepit?
It helped me to take a good look at Uganda and a good look at Europe and come to my own conclusions. Then [I] carried out large-scale creative destruction. Those who’ve read the books have loved the stench. They will be disappointed when they read my more refined works.
Since returning to Uganda in 2006, what is feeding your work? What are you working on?
Old age. In Uganda I am a grand old man and youths help me to cross the road. In supermarkets they let me go ahead of them. They pity me because they believe I have just a few years left to live. They want me to live them in peace. I am older than 95% of people in Uganda. Of course I am worried about my prostate. Black men suffer from weak prostates. [I] am worried about my heart. [I] am worried about impotence. All those things fuel my work now. After all, nobody else can worry about them for you, can they? People with fully functioning bodies will find my latest work repulsive. I don’t blame them. They will appreciate it when I am gone. That doesn’t worry me at all. Genius is rarely appreciated in its day.
Do you view contemporary Ugandan sociopolitical issues, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an extension of the scene set by Idi Amin previously? How have the 1990s and this decade informed your work, if at all?
I believe the leaders of the LRA are living in the wrong century. I believe they are Roman in constitution. They want to enjoy torture and human suffering and the only way they can do that today is by living the way they do. They suffer for their pleasures and I believe that is the reason they can have a good night’s rest while millions curse them. This period interests me. I want to understand it. It is the reason why I came out of retirement and tried to write about it. Alas, not so brilliantly.
Has Uganda’s relative success in combating HIV/Aids informed your work in any way?
Aids is just a cash cow for some people to milk. Hey, a man has to become a dollar millionaire somehow. If it is by using that cash cow, power to them. Since I am not part of that worldwide scam it doesn’t interest me.
The semi-fictional essay Two Chimpanzees criticises international organisations’ vaccination programmes in Africa for destroying people’s immune systems and alleges that the spread of HIV/Aids in Africa was a deliberate project by the US government. It had critics wondering if the political would consume you. Did the political consume you towards the end of your time in Holland? If so why?
Politics is not for me. Writers pretending to get involved in it are just suffering writer’s block and the moment they kick it they drop it like a sack of used bandages. My prostate was acting up during my last years in Holland. I was also terribly constipated — just like Chairman Mao for much of his life — and the only thing I could do about it was to say a lot of stupid things. Now that I am better I keep my big mouth shut about politics. It is much more complicated than most people want to admit.
Where do you live now, and what consumes you in Uganda?
I spend a lot of time in Uganda for the sake of my prostate. [The] moment I go to Europe it acts up again. I see myself spending the rest of my years in tropical countries where whores are cheap and sexual perversion is tolerated as long as one is not into deflowering toddlers. I am more pedestrian in my perversions and I will be tolerated for the rest of my days.
Time of the Writer
The Time of the Writer Festival runs at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from March 9 to 14. The lineup includes South Africans Marlene van Niekerk, Mandla Langa, Zachariah Rapola, Deon Meyer, Mike Nicol, Margie Orford, Jonathan Shapiro and Max du Preez; Mozambique’s Mia Couto; Fatou Diome from Senegal; and Zimbabwean Valerie Tagwira.
The complete programme is at www.cca.ukzn.ac.za or call 031 260 2506.