Kagayi burned his law books to pursue his passion for poetry
Peter Kagayi is a Ugandan poet, lawyer and teacher. He was born in Jinja and is the author of a collection of poems, The title this morning and other poems. He was the English speaking coordinator of Writivism and president of The Lantern Meet of Poets. Quick Talk met him at the National Theater.
Good evening to you!
Good evening to you too!
Tell me about Peter Kagayi.
Ahaâ¦ briefly, Kagayi Ngobi is a theater poet, playwright, author, director of Kitara Nation [a poetry company] and i love poetry.
Yet you are also a lawyer.
Oh yes, I’m a lawyer too; this is what I studied at Makerere University but it is not what I practice. I practice poetry. However, although I do not practice in courts or parliament, I practice law in my poetry. If you read my work, I comment more on the legal system so I feel like the lawyer in me is not dead at all but just took on a different role.
Why poetry? It doesn’t pay off as much as the law.
[Passionately gesturing:] I chose poetry because it was fun; I actively started sharing my poetry in public in third grade at Makerere. I went there for my poetry show at the National Theater and loved the way the words moved people.
You could have juggled law and poetry …
I realized that if I continued to do both, I wouldn’t give poetry enough time, so I gave up my career. I loved poetry and believed in what it would do for my company. I joined the Lantern Meet of Poets and surprisingly met people who loved poetry like me, but none were literature students. The group was full of engineers, lawyers and food scientists.
How have your choices affected your relationships?
It happened at a time when everyone at home didn’t want to look at me anymore except my dad. But now I’m happy that my family members come to watch my shows and even read about me in newspapers and other platforms and they are happy for me.
Peter, you are quite confused; you study law, you drop it for poetry, but you end up teaching?
I started teaching when I finished law school at Makerere University and was waiting to join the Law Development Center. I taught stage literature because I believed in its power.
I went to six community schools and was rejected because I was not a professional teacher. My father [David Alimwengeza] I thought I was kidding because I got an internship at one of the biggest law firms not only in Uganda but in Africa here in Kampala. But it wasn’t what I wanted; all I wanted was to teach poetry and literature. My father realized that I was serious about this; so he introduced me to one of his old friends who was the principal of the Nabisunsa girls’ school.
So, do you have a job like this?
No, the director invited me into her office for an oral interview. She asked me why I liked literature and poetry. I explained to him the benefits of literature and promised that I would take the students to the National Theater for the recitation. The lady just looked at me like that [imitates the head teacherâs pleased look] and she told me I was hired.
You must be very good! Are you still teaching?
No, I stopped teaching because I really wanted to focus on poetry and also devote more time to my personal talent.
So there will be no Master Peter Kagayi?
The passion for poetry was too much. I burned all my law books except those on intellectual property and popular development. I waited for some of my students that I had spotted with the same passion as me. When they were 18, we started the Kitara Nation.
What is the Kitara Nation?
It was named after Buyoro-Kitara and Kitara means sword. The reason we call ourselves Kitara Nation is because we believe Uganda is not the appropriate name for this country due to its colonial pronunciation. Kitara connects us all as Ugandans, because it is our origin.
You played with your mother [Ruth Namusobya]; how did you get her to support your project?
I was inspired by my greatest poet, Okot P’Bitek, who published his mother’s poems.
How did you realize she was talented?
[Smiles] I started to pay attention to the way my mother insulted me; how she made everyone laugh and a moment came when she insulted me and I just laughed. It was so dramatic. But the poetics [language] she made me realize that she was a poet. Later, I told him to write his own poem and perform it in one of my shows. She said I should pay her and I agreed. She decided to write to Lusoga.
I told her she would never be better than me at English. She started to write and stood out.
You give instructions to a woman who gave birth to you!
It’s normal. At this time, she is not my mother but rather my student and she knows it too. She actually calls me her mentor, something I don’t take lightly. I also pay her as well as I pay the other interpreters. So in this space she gets rid of the mother-son relationship.
Some of your poems have been censored by the government.
[Laughs loud] Yes, they were censored by the government body last year. The poems made some people at the National Theater uncomfortable and they called me and my team to tell us how they wanted to keep their jobs and that such poems should not be performed in the theater.
There was a show last year called Arrest The Poet and it was about Makerere University students who come to recite poems and then get arrested and killed. We were going to recite these specific poems. During rehearsals, the management heard us and worried. We were told to close the show on the day of the performance which was not accepted and the show therefore continued. But it is quite true that my poems are in fact censored.
Which were censored?
There’s Give me yellow blood, Oh God fart uganda, I used to scream my poems and Mr. Poet Protest.
Hahahaâ¦ Oh Uganda God what ?! You are mean. Are you sometimes threatened?
Everyday. Sometimes strangers come up to me after the show and tell me I’m going to get killed or arrested, or ask me, âWhy are you so political? “Don’t you have other things to write?” “Did the police hear you?” My friends also express genuine fear. [Hmmm, that would be Byron Kawadwa all over again, God forbid!]
Where do you get all these ideas from?
Everywhere; the environmentâ¦ I even wrote a poem once called Nothing and it was about nothing. I do political, social and romantic poetry, depending on how I wake up.
Speaking of romantic poems, are you datingâ¦ married?
[He shyly buries his head in his arms on the table in a long silence, then looks at Quick Talk:] What should I say? Tell me.
The answer, if you are married.
No I’m not married. Still. I have no children. Still. Although I plan for them. [Inhales deeply, then silence.] Do you record the silence or …?
OK. I see someone.
Doesn’t your job affect your relationships?
Well yes. However, I have been fortunate that the lady I am dating now understands me and my work.
How? ‘Or’ What?
There is when I really need the space, like when I’m going to perform. I don’t like talking to anyone. I am not ignoring you but I am busy. Some people get it, some don’t, and some think I’m overdoing it, but I’m a writer; So how can you say I’m doing too much?
Where did you meet her?
This one, I want to keep it for us.
Some people fall in love with their clients, students …
Uh. But love comes in many forms.
Have you been there, done that?
Yes, I was a victim.
So, was she in your audience?
Eyo tuveeyo, Doreen. [Let it go, Doreen.]
I imagine poets are romantic. Do you buy flowers?
I believe in love. [Dramatically:] So so much, but I also believe in honest expression. I will surely buy the flowers if you want, but I also know that is a mistake. I would really try to do my best to make you happy. I would write a book of poetry about you and then we would read it together. We went out to the movies, we went shopping together. I love to read so we also write to each other; amazing lines and tests.
Who is your ideal woman?
A woman who really, really loves to read, [with] a sense of humor, bold and conversational. You can even go to a bookstore.
Oh my. So, are you a metrosexual, gadget or athlete?
Sport, every day; however, it’s not that I don’t care about my appearance.
Talk about look; why the Afro?
I always wanted to grow my hair even in school and my mom kept telling me that I had shoddy hair. Unfortunately, I went to schools where my hair was always cut. However, when I got to college I started growing my hair but people started telling me that avocados don’t grow Afro; so, I always had to cut it. But by the time I finished being a lawyer, I decided to do something that I had always wanted to do.
How many pairs of shoes do you own?
[Laughs] I have nine of them, although there are official shoes that I wear to make a deal. I prefer push-ins [Quick Talk finds him in push-ins].
I grew up in a family that didn’t have much; therefore, I treasure what little I have, especially shoes. I remember my first pair of shoes was my father’s; so I hardly throw any shoes because each pair has a story to tell.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without?