Poetry and creative writing help us see beyond the surface and reimagine the world around us.
By Susan Nalugwa Kiguli, Makerere University, Uganda
The repeatedly heard position is that humanities disciplines, when placed in the context of higher education and research in Africa, find themselves in a precarious position where they cannot be assured of security or even survival. In Uganda in particular, anecdotes from our head of state disparaging the humanities are common knowledge and parents recount them with relish to discourage their children from considering studies of literature, history, language, philosophy, or fine art.
I was, in the recent past, at a parents’ meeting at one of what is known in Uganda as a ‘traditional school’ – by which we mean established, often missionary-founded schools with central government funding. The meeting sought to help parents guide their children in the choice of ten subjects to study for their O-Level exams, with the ultimate aim of choosing subjects that would guide their careers. The guest speaker was a university lecturer from the field of business and management sciences. This was his third time as a speaker at such an event in that school, so I expected to hear insights on a whole range of subjects. But I was shocked to observe that, although he was very well informed about science subjects and his own field, he knew next to nothing about work in the arts and humanities. He proceeded to unabashedly say that if one studied languages, history, literature and the like at O-Level, one would likely be steered into studying education at university and would probably end up teaching. Knowing the image of the occupation of teaching in Uganda, the message was blunt: stay clear or else…
I have known for a long time that the maligning of the humanities starts at the early levels of schooling, but this was the first time I’ve been forced to swallow such a large dose of it. I know, too, that these attitudes persist through university and beyond, often vehemently supported by policymakers who, in many instances, have studied humanities courses themselves. This consistent trend of self-hatred is most worrying because it batters one’s own person. I’m reminded of the poet John Donne’s expression ‘self murder’ in his poem, The Flea: ‘Though use make you apt to kill me / Let not to that, self-murder added be’.
The vulnerable sibling
I believe that even those of us teaching and studying humanities around the world suffer from excessive bouts of self-doubt and criticism as far as our disciplines are concerned. Most of the time, we do not work actively to provide information about our subjects – partly because we do not have the resources that the sciences enjoy. So many times, well-meaning people and scholars work with obsolete information and are unaware of significant developments in areas other than their own, even when they proceed to make decisions affecting those specific disciplines. Sometimes, even when crucial new areas are discussed – such as recent discussions on the area of medical humanities – many relevant voices are not part of these conversations.
From my own observations in Uganda, I see that humanities scholars easily accept their treatment as the vulnerable sibling. In Uganda, particularly from 1986 when we had a major change in government, the National Resistance Movement government begun touting support for the sciences and implemented, for example, the paying of academics in the sciences higher than their colleagues in the humanities. The government then decided that students studying the sciences and education should benefit more from the government-sponsored schemes at public universities.
In the early 1990s, my own university became a case study of this new shift away from the humanities, when the university rolled out programmes aimed directly at catering for the market. During this period, the humanities-based departments came up with new programmes aimed at revitalising their disciplines. Most were courses inclined towards the sciences, social sciences, and vocational training.
The situation at this time was ignited by the implementation of privately sponsored and evening student schemes, which in my view influenced what was offered on the humanities menu. Administrators and academic staff seemed focused on promoting courses for which students would be prepared to pay.
I was then starting out as a teaching assistant in literature and I remember the enthusiasm with which we all embraced these programmes. For example, I later became coordinator of the Bachelor of Secretarial Studies degree – which was not in my area of expertise – housed in what was then the Institute of Languages. As well as secretarial studies, other courses were soon introduced to the Institute, such as social anthropology and communication skills. These courses were useful, but they took attention away from the Institute’s original core subjects such as applied linguistics. To different degrees, the same trend happened in all humanities departments.
The reforms at Makerere were the subject of much heated debate – including the much contested (and much hailed in the same measure) book Scholars in the Marketplace: The Dilemmas of Neo-Liberal Reform at Makerere University by the author and academic Mahmood Mamdani. Mamdani proposed that the reforms were based on the premise that higher education is more of a private than a public good. While these moves towards marketisation earned money for the university, he argued, they also facilitated the further marginalisation of humanities subjects by prioritising consumer choice at the expense of a culture of well supported research and debate. Mamdani proposed that the core humanities departments in particular opened up to interdisciplinarity, but often did not lay strategies to sustain the already established subjects.
The courage to explore the world
Decades later, I am proud that Makerere today is a space where my fervour for culture, literature, creative writing, and my lifelong passion for poetry, can be respected. In fact, when the university marked its centenary last year, I wrote a poem to celebrate.
My research at Makerere focuses on areas such as oral and written African poetry and popular song. One particular research project I work on is helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to engage creatively with the humanities – particularly literature, language, fine art, music, and dance. The project has been running since 2015 and has been a clear window into what the humanities can do for individuals and communities.
My work with these 12-18 year-olds has focused particularly on poetry – writing it, reading it, and performing it, and I have been overwhelmed by the change in attitude of these young poets after only a few weeks of intensive workshops. One of them – a 16-year-old from a deeply disturbed background – came up to me and said that he believed that poetry could help him improve lives in his community. I asked him how he thought poetry could do that and he put on his lopsided smile and asked: ‘Don’t you see that poetry gives people the ability to work in teams, to think creatively and critically together?’ Through working together on arts and humanities-based projects, the young people in our workshops were building teamwork skills and were beginning to think, together, of ways to transform their community.
So, how can we explain this transformation in attitude? I believe that, through poetry, music, dance and fine arts, these young people were becoming more self-aware. They had begun the journey of asking questions about themselves, their friends, their neighbours, and their communities. This ability to self-question and search for answers is a skill that we regard as basic in literary studies, but it is a profound tool for making people see beyond their own circumstances to begin to think in terms of relationships and how those relationships affect their being and existence.
Literature – particularly the art of creative composition and imaginative writing – equips people with the courage to explore the world by beginning where they are. Using their imaginations gives them the ability to take risks and to be adventurous and I think this is crucial for those of us who come from less privileged environments. Many of the young people we have worked with tell us how taking part in creative workshops has made them alert to the fact that they could rise above their constraining circumstances and do well not only for themselves but also for their communities.
‘Towards what end? For whose good?’
My years of experience in teaching and researching in the area of literary studies, particularly poetry, has demonstrated to me that this subject cultivates in learners the skills of logical thinking, judgment, discernment, careful observation, and the ability to see beneath the surface of things. To quote Mamdani: ‘The more powerful the instruments and weapons we invent, the more we are in need of the humanities and social sciences and people who can ask the big questions. For instance, what’s the purpose of the thing that we have invented? Towards what end? For whose good?’
Arts and humanities subjects in general equip people with the ability to analyse situations, manage complicated conversations, and solve conflicts. I have seen students transform into more cooperative, attentive and resilient people because, in order to excel in subjects such as literature, they have to learn empathy, patience and independent thought. How else would one read, enjoy, and make sense of novels such as Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Half of a Yellow Sun, or Kintu?
The humanities disciplines are much needed in world progress because they help us stop and think. They equip us with the ability to analyse notions, focus arguments, organise ideas, and see patterns in events. In essence, the humanities teach us the value of being humane or what African humanities scholars popularly term ubuntu: being part of a greater whole.
Dr Susan Nalugwa Kiguli is a poet and Associate Professor in the Department of Literature at Makerere University, Uganda. She studied for her PhD at the University of Leeds, UK, with the support of a Commonwealth Scholarship. Watch Susan reading her poem ‘I love home (Uganda) on YouTube.
Image by Don Davis, courtesy of the artist.
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