LGBT Pride celebrations: Toronto, Canada – June 30th, 2013

DSCF0002ZP_Volunteers for Africans in Partnership Against AIDS

DSCF0017DSCF0024ZP_Lovely Ladies!

ZP_LGBT Pride Toronto_June 30th 2013_Rainbow SmileZP_Rainbow Smile

DSCF0032 - CopyDSCF0030DSCF0038DSCF0046ZP_Sexy Brazilian visitor to Toronto

DSCF0047DSCF0048DSCF0051ZP_Brothers workin’ it – one heterosexual, the other gay

Got muscle – got spirit! Christopher Senyonjo to Vanessa Brown – Justin Fashanu to Jason Collins: role models for Black LGBT strivers

ZP_Ugandan Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. born 1932_In 2002 he was stripped of his bishopric by the Archbishop of The Church of Uganda (Anglican) for his LGBT rights sympathies.  He continues to be vocal in support of the increasing clamour for human rights in Uganda, knowing that discrimination against gays is neither in Jesus' teachings nor is it "an African way".ZP_Ugandan Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, born 1932_In 2002 he was stripped of his bishopric by the Archbishop of The Church of Uganda (Anglican) for his LGBT rights sympathies.  This heterosexual Man of the Lord continues to be vocal in support of the increasing clamour for human rights in Uganda, knowing that discrimination against gays is “neither in Jesus’ teachings nor is it an African way”.

AllenZP_One of the first “All-Embracing” American churches was Bishop Carl Bean’s The Unity Fellowship of Christ, back in 1982.  Bean believed that “God is Love — and Love is for EVERYBODY.”
In this photograph Oliver Clyde Allen preaches at The Vision Church in Atlanta, Georgia.  Founded in 2005 by Bishop Allen and his partner — now husband — Rashad Burgess (wearing striped tie), The Vision Church is described as being part of a “new progressive Pentecostal movement” and one of Vision’s core beliefs is “that the gospel of Jesus Christ cuts across all barriers that fragment and divide us. We are called to love, affirm, and welcome all people regardless of race, gender, affectional orientation, class, or life situation. We are to be known for our love, compassion, reconciliation, and liberation for all who are oppressed. We emphasize the “whosoever” in John 3:16.”

GoodlifeZP_Poster for the January 2012 opening of The Good Life Church in Columbus, Ohio.  An initiative of Pastor Michael W. Heard (left), the Church is an “affirming” one, and the preacher is often assisted in his ministry by boyfriend Aaron Leigh, the Church’s ‘First Gentleman’.

bbc_ccbZP_Congregants of Rivers at Rehoboth Church in Harlem, New York City_The Reverend Vanessa M. Brown, a lesbian born and raised in Harlem, states: “We want people to know that they are loved, there’s a safe space for them in the House of God where they can truly worship the Lord and be their authentic selves.”  Many Black gays and lesbians feel welcomed at Rehoboth.

ZP_NBA basketball player Jason Collins on the cover of Sports Illustrated Magazine in May 2013.  In April, Collins "came out".  He is the first active player in North-American professional sports to do so - and in one of the most homophobic sports - basketball.  Only hockey is more homophobic - but one day.....ZP_NBA basketball player Jason Collins on the cover of Sports Illustrated Magazine in May 2013.  In April, Collins “came out”.  He is the first active player in North-American professional sports to do so.  Basketball is one of the most homophobic sports – hockey may be worse – and it’s the fans as much as anyone else.  Yet reactions have been generally positive – helped enormously by high-profile heterosexual players such as Kobe Bryant giving Collins their public support.  Homophobia is becoming less and less “cool”.

The brave pioneer was Justin Fashanu in soccer (he “came out” while playing professionally).  There’s been John Amaechi in basketball (after his retirement), Wade Davis in football,  Orlando Cruz in boxing – the list of “out” athletes – who are role models for youth, of course – will continue to grow.

ZP_Justin FashanuZP_Justin Fashanu, the first “out” Black athlete.  May he rest in peace…

ZP_John AmaechiZP_John Amaechi, now a motivational speaker and broadcast commentator

ZP_Wade DavisZP_Wade Davis_Davis’ “An Open Letter to Young Gay Athletes” was featured at on June 14th 2012.  It is well worth reading…

ZP_Orlando CruzZP_Orlando Cruz:  “I wanted to take out the thorn inside me and have peace.”

Essex Hemphill: “We keep treasure any king would count as dear”: Poems of lust, poems of tenderness

ZP_portrait by Rotimi Fani Kayode_Dennis Carney and Essex Hemphill in Brixton, London, 1988.  Hemphill is holding Carney and kissing the back of his neck.ZP_portrait by Rotimi Fani-Kayode_Dennis Carney and Essex Hemphill in Brixton, London, 1988.  Hemphill is holding Carney and kissing the back of his neck.


Essex Hemphill (1957-1995)

From: Ceremonies (1992)

Rights and Permissions”


Sometimes I hold

my warm seed

up to my mouth

very close

to my parched lips

and whisper

“I’m sorry,”

before I turn my head

over the toilet

and listen to the seed

splash into the water.


I rinse what remains

down the drain,

dry my hands –

they return

to their tasks

as if nothing

out of place

has occurred.


I go on being,

wearing my shirts

and trousers,

voting, praying,

paying rent,

pissing in public,

cussing cabs,

fussing with utilities.


What I learn

as age advances,

relentless pillager,

is that we shrink

inside our shirts

and trousers,

or we spread

beyond the seams.

The hair we cherished



Sometimes I hold

my warm seed

up to my mouth

and kiss it.

.     .     .

Object Lessons”


If I am comfortable

on the pedestal

you are looking at,

if I am indolent and content

to lay here on my stomach,

my determinations

indulged and glistening

in baby oil and sweat,

if I want to be here, a pet,

to be touched, a toy,

if I choose

to be liked in this way,

if I desire to be object,

to be sexualized

in this object way,

by one or two at a time,

for a night or a thousand days,

for money or power,

for the awesome orgasms

to be had, to be coveted,

or for my own selfish wantonness,

for the feeling of being

pleasure, being touched.

The pedestal was here,

so I climbed up.

I located myself.

I appropriated this context.

It was my fantasy,

my desire to do so

and lie here

on my stomach.

Why are you looking?

What do you wanna

do about it?

.     .     .

Invitations All Around”


If he is your lover,

never mind.

Perhaps, if we ask,

he will join us.

.     .     .

From: Earth Life (1985)


Black Beans”


Times are lean,

Pretty Baby,

the beans are burnt

to the bottom

of the battered pot.

Let’s make fierce love

on the overstuffed

hand-me-down sofa.

We can burn it up, too.

Our hungers

will evaporate like – money.

I smell your lust,

not the pot burnt black

with tonight’s meager meal.

So we can’t buy flowers for our table.

Our kisses are petals,

our tongues caress the bloom.

Who dares to tell us

we are poor and powerless?

We keep treasure

any king would count as dear.

Come on, Pretty Baby.

Our souls can’t be crushed

like cats crossing streets too soon.

Let the beans burn all night long.

Our chipped water glasses are filled

with wine from our loving.

And the burnt black beans –


.     .     .

Better Days”


In daytime hours,

guided by instincts

that never sleep,

the faintest signals

come to me

over vast spaces

of etiquette

and restraint.

Sometimes I give in

to the pressing

call of instince,

knowing the code of my kind

better than I know

the National Anthem

or “The Lord’s Prayer”.

I am so driven by my senses

to abandon restraint,

to seek pure pleasure

through every pore.

I want to smell the air

around me thickly scented

with a playboy’s freedom.

I want impractical relationships.

I want buddies and partners,

names I will forget by sunrise.

I only want to feel good.

I only want to freak sometimes.

There are no other considerations.

A false safety compels me

to think I will never need kindness,

so I don’t recognize

that need in someone else.


But it concerns me,

going off to sleep

and waking

throbbing with wants,

that I am being

consumed by want.

And I wonder

where stamina comes from

to search all night

until my footsteps ring

awake the sparrows,

and I go home, ghost walking,

driven indoors to rest

my hunter’s guise,

to love myself as fiercely

as I have in better days.

.     .     .

From: Conditions (1986)


Isn’t It Funny”


I don’t want to hear you beg.

I’m sick of beggars.

If you a man

take what you want from me

or what you can.

Even if you have me

like some woman across town

you think you love.


Look at me

standing here with my dick

as straight as yours.

What do you think this is?

The weathercock on a rooftop?


We sneak all over town

like two damn thieves,

whiskey on our breath,

no streetlights on the back roads,

just the stars above us

as ordinary as they should be.


We always have to work it out,

walk it through, talk it over,

drink and smoke our way into sodomy.

I could take you in my room

but you’re afraid the landlady

will recognize you.


I feel thankful I don’t love you.

I won’t have to suffer you later on.


But for now I say, Johnnie Walker,

have you had enough, Johnnie Walker?


Against the fogged car glass

do I look like your crosstown lover?

Do I look like Shirley?


When you reach to kiss her lips

they’re thick like mine.

Her hair is cut close, too,

like mine –

isn’t it?

.     .     .

Between Pathos and Seduction”

(For Larry)


Love potions

solve no mysteries,

provide no comment

on the unspoken.

Our lives tremble

between pathos and seduction.

Our inhibitions

force us to be equal.

We swallow hard

black love potions

from a golden glass.

New language beckons us.

Its dialect present.


Through my eyes

focused as pure, naked light,

fixed on you like magic,

clarity. I see risks.

Regrets? There will be none.

Let some wonder,

some worry, some accuse.

Let you and I know

the tenderness

only we can bear.

.     .     .

American Wedding”


In america,

I place my ring

on your cock

where it belongs.

No horsemen

bearing terror,

no soldiers of doom

will swoop in

and sweep us apart.

They’re too busy

looting the land

to watch us.

They don’t know

we need each other


They expect us to call in sick,

watch television all night,

die by our own hands.

They don’t know

we are becoming powerful.

Every time we kiss

we confirm the new world coming.


What the rose whispers

before blooming

I vow to you.

I give you my heart,

a safe house.

I give you promises other than

milk, honey, liberty.

I assume you will always

be a free man with a dream.

In america,

place your ring

on my cock

where it belongs.

Long may we live

to free this dream.

.     .     .

Essex Hemphill (1957 – 1995) was a poet and activist, as frank and raw – and as radical – as one can get.  Hemphill’s compañero (and hero) in activism was Joseph Fairchild Beam (1954 – 1988), writer, editor, Black-Gay civil-rights agitator for positive change.  In a 1984 essay Beam declared:  “The bottom line is this:  We are Black men who are proudly gay.  What we offer is our lives, our love, our visions.  We are rising to the love we all need.  We are coming home with our heads held up high.”

When Hemphill wrote “In america, place your ring on my cock where it belongs”  he was probably – though one cannot be sure – not talking about the symbolic ring of the traditional marriage rite as we all know it.   And yet…his fervent desire was for Black, Gay Americans to be meaningfully re-connected to their own communities, communities to which they felt a powerful yearning to belong – having never left them, deep down in their hearts.  We feature the following photographs because we feel that Hemphill – even though he called his black, gay world “this tribe of warriors and outlaws” – would get it.  To paraphrase the final line of his poem American WeddingLong may you live to free your dream.


ZP_Two women celebrate with friends and relatives after their outdoor marriage in Washington Square Park , New York City.ZP_Two women celebrate with friends and relatives after their outdoor marriage in Washington Square Park , New York City, 2011.

ZP_After 33 years together these two handsome septuagenarian New Yorkers married legally in 2011. Dignity and great pride are evident on their faces.ZP_After 33 years together these two handsome septuagenarian New Yorkers married legally in 2011. Dignity and great pride are evident on their faces.

ZP_2008 poster directed toward the fathers of young, black, gay men_Gay Men's Health Center, NYC_© photographer Ocean MorissetZP_2008 poster directed toward the fathers of young, black, gay men_Gay Men’s Health Center, NYC_© photographer Ocean Morisset_Essex Hemphill, were he alive today, would’ve been heartened by such an initiative, knowing full well that the blood, sweat and tears of many ordinary people – who are also activists who love their communities – made such progress possible.

.     .     .     .     .

T’ai Freedom Ford: “fourth: a blues”

T'ai Freedom Ford


T’ai Freedom Ford

“fourth: a blues”


…she taste like the colour blue…all beautifully bruised and melancholy on my tongue. like blue glinting golden…bee-stung and swollen in a field of cotton…like blue verging black until all memory’s forgotten…she taste like blues…like muddy waters…like daughters of the dust…like mississippi goddamn…like thrust and thirst…like heartbreak so new it tastes like trust at first…like a wound you must nurse with your own salty tears…she taste like blue…cause that’s the colour of her: fears/fierce…like an azure hue reminiscent of sky breaking wide open…blue like coloured girls who done tried dope when hope wasn’t enough…when that man wasn’t enough…when being tough wasn’t enough…blue like nina’s voice and storm clouds…she rains blue-black…arm, tattooed jack, and sometimes her loyalty is tragic…still she blue like magic…all stardust and confetti and taps of wands…and when the house of cards collapses she responds…with jesus on her breath…eyes watery with devotion…taste like blue: royal and periwinkle and aqua…blue like the fifth chakra vibrating her throat translucent…rocking with holyghost trying to shake loose sin…within her, blues run deep and honeysuckle sweet like grandmama’s hambone on a sunday morn…blue like early morning beckoning sinners toward their reckoning…blue like night sky sucking up light like a magic trick…tragic as guitar strings breaking like my heart…she taste blue like tragedy…all shakespearean and love unfulfilled…but that’s what she do…slips into characters like new skin…ingénue…sparkling blue on silver screens…beautifully blue…making art outta life…all spit-shined and bruised like the blues of the south…a new shade of truth…exploding its name in my mouth…she taste like…

.     .     .

T’ai Freedom Ford is an American “slam poet” who performs at spoken-word events.  Of performance she has playfully said:  “Most poets would say it’s about sharing their message or rallying a cause, but let’s be honest:  it’s about ego.  Signifyin’ and looking cute.”

.     .     .     .     .

Loving the Ladies: the poems of Pat Parker

ZP_Pat Parker in 1989_photograph © Robert GiardZP_Pat Parker in 1989_photograph © Robert Giard

Pat Parker



If it were possible

to place you in my brain

to let you roam around

in and out

my thought waves

you would never

have to ask

why do you love me?


This morning as you slept

I wanted to kiss you awake

say I love you till your brain

smiled and nodded yes

this woman does love me.


Each day the list grows

filled with the things that are you

things that make my heart jump

yet words would sound strange

become corny in utterance.


In the morning when I wake

I don’t look out my window

to see if the sun is shining.

I turn to you instead.

.     .     .

I have”


i have known

many women

and the you of you

puzzles me.


it is not beauty

i have known

beautiful women.


it is not brains

i have known

intelligent women.


it is not goodness

i have known

good women.


it is not selflessness

i have known

giving women.


yet you touch me

in new




i become sand

on a beach

washed anew with

each wave of you.


with each touch of you

i am fresh bread

warm and rising.


i become a newborn kitten

ready to be licked

and nuzzled into life.


you are my last love

and my first love

you make me a virgin

and I want to give myself to you.

.     .     .



It has been said that

sleep is a short death.

I watch you, still,

your breath moving –

soft summer breeze.

Your face is velvet

the tension of our love,


No, false death is not here

in our bed

just you – asleep

and me – wanting

to make love to you,

writing words instead.

.     .     .



you take these fingers

bid them soft

a velvet touch

to your loins


you take these arms

bid them pliant

a warm cocoon

to shield you


you take this shell

bid it full

a sensual cup

to lay with you


you take this voice

bid it sing

an uncaged bird

to warble your praise


you take me, love,

a sea skeleton

fill me with you

and I become

pregnant with love

give birth

to revolution.

.     .     .

For Willyce”




When i make love to you


i try


with each stroke of my tongue


to say


i love you


to tease


i love you


to hammer


i love you


to melt


i love you


and your sounds drift down


oh god!


oh jesus!


and i think


here it is, some dude’s


getting credit for what


a woman


has done




.     .     .

Pat Parker (1944-1989) was a Black-American lesbian and feminist.  She was born in Houston, Texas, and lived and worked (at a women’s health centre) in Oakland, California, from 1978 almost up until her death from breast cancer. Racism, misogyny, homophobia – Parker “kept it real” about such facts at numerous poetry readings throughout the 1970s.  She had had two marriages – and raised two children from them – but when her second marriage ended in divorce she journeyed down a different road, stating: “After my first relationship with a woman, I knew where I as going.”  Known for her “hard truths” in poems such as “Exodus”, “Brother”, “Questions” and “Womanslaughter”, Parker also had a whole other lesser-known side to her as a poet who made love poems – several of which we present here.  Some are tender and euphoric and one – “For Willyce” – has Parker’s characteristic ‘edge’.

.     .     .     .     .

Zwelethu Mthethwa, Zanele Muholi, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Samuel Fosso: African photographers who make you think

Zwelethu Mthethwa (born 1960, Durban, South Africa) photographed pre-adolescent and teenage boys in KwaZulu-Natal in 2010. The boys are adherents to the doctrines of a branch of the charismatic Shembe Nazareth Baptist Church.  Mthethwa named this photograph series “The Brave Ones”.  He has specialized in photo-essays of sometimes-marginalized people in South Africa’s “Townships”, including migrant workers, miners and sugarcane harvesters.

ZP_Zwelethu Mthethwa_from the series Brave Ones_2010_AZP_Zwelethu Mthethwa_from the series Brave Ones_2010_BZP_Zwelethu Mthethwa_from the series Brave Ones_2010_CZP_Zwelethu Mthethwa_from the series Brave Ones_2010_DZanele Muholi (born 1972, Umlazi, South Africa) is a lesbian photographer and “visual activist”.  Among numerous projects, she has documented the lives of South African lesbians, some of whom have suffered from persecution and  violence.

ZP_Nhlanhla Esther Mofokeng, Thokoza, Johannesburg_copyright Zanele Muholi_2010ZP_Nhlanhla Esther Mofokeng, Thokoza, Johannesburg_© Zanele Muholi_2010

ZP_photograph copyright Zanele Muholi_AZP_photograph copyright Zanele Muholi_BZP_Anelisa Mfo Nyanga, Cape Town_copyright Zanele Muholi_2010ZP_Anelisa Mfo Nyanga, Cape Town_© Zanele Muholi_2010

ZP_photograph copyright Zanele Muholi_CZP_Martin Machapa_photograph copyright Zanele MuholiZP_Martin Machapa_photograph © Zanele Muholi

ZP_Rotimi Fani-Kayode_Untitled, 1987ZP_Rotimi Fani-Kayode_Untitled, 1987_Rotimi Fani-Kayode was born in 1955 in Lagos, Nigeria, and he died of an AIDS-related heart attack in London, England, in 1989.  Of photography he said:  “It is the tool by which I feel most confident in expressing myself.  It is photography therefore — Black, African, homosexual photography — which I must use not just as an instrument but as a weapon if I am to resist attacks on my integrity and, indeed, my existence on my own terms.”

ZP_Rotimi Fani-Kayode_Nothing to Lose IX (Bodies of Experience)_1989ZP_Rotimi Fani-Kayode_Nothing to Lose IX (Bodies of Experience)_1989

ZP_Rotimi Fani-Kayode_Every Moment Counts II_1989ZP_Rotimi Fani-Kayode_Every Moment Counts II_1989

ZP_Rotimi Fani-Kayode_Tulip Boy_1989ZP_Rotimi Fani-Kayode_Tulip Boy_1989

ZP_Samuel Fosso_La femme américaine libérée des années 70_1997

ZP_La femme américaine libérée des années 70_© Samuel Fosso (as both photographer and model)_1997.  Samuel Fosso was born in 1962 in Kumba, Cameroon.  At the age of 12 he began to work as an assistant to a portrait photographer.  By the end of his teens he had his own studio where he frequently shot self-portraits, many of them fanciful or referencing famous figures in Black popular culture.

ZP_Samuel Fosso_From the series Autoportraits des années 70_Selfportrait as Angela DavisZP_Samuel Fosso_From the series Autoportraits des années 70_Selfportrait as Angela Davis

ZP_Samuel Fosso_From the series Autoportraits des années 70_Selfportrait as himself 2ZP_Samuel Fosso_From the series Autoportraits des années 70_a teenaged selfportrait as himself 2

ZP_Samuel Fosso_From the series Autoportraits des années 70_Selfportrait as himself 1ZP_Samuel Fosso_From the series Autoportraits des années 70_a teenaged selfportrait as himself 1

From Lagos with Love: two gay poets

ZP_Pastor Macaulay leading a House of Rainbow gathering of conversation and loving prayer


Rowland Jide Macaulay (born 1966) is an openly gay Nigerian poet and pastor who – as of tomorrow (June 30th 2013) will also be an ordained preacher in The Church of England. He begins duties as a curate in London this July and says that his will be “an inclusive parish ministry – and I cannot wait!”

Macaulay’s involvement in church activity has deep roots. He was raised Pentecostal in Lagos, where his father, Professor Augustus Kunle Macaulay, is the principal of Nigeria’s United Bible University.

But the truth of his sexuality needed telling and Rowland reached a juncture in the spiritual road, founding House of Rainbow Fellowship which gives pastoral care to sexual minorities in Nigeria, and includes sister fellowships in Ghana, Lesotho and several other African states.

The Easter story holds great power for Macaulay; the following is a poem he wrote in 1999:


Rowland Jide Macaulay

In Just Three Days”

For a life time
He came that we may have life
He died that we may have life in abundance.

In Just Three Days
Better known than ever before
Crowned King of kings
Tired but never gave up
Alone, forsaken and frightened
The world is coming to a close
Doors closing, wall to wall thickening.

In Just Three Days
Prophecies have been fulfilled
Unto us a child is born…
Destroy the world and build the kingdom
Followers deny His existence
His betrayer will accompany the enemy.

In Just Three Days
The world had Him and lost Him
Chaos in the enemies’ camp
Death could not hold Him prisoner
In the grave, Jesus is Lord.

Bethany, the house of Simon the leper,
Alabaster box of precious oil
Ointment for my body
Gethsemane, place of my refuge
Watch and pray.

In Just Three Days
Destruction, Rebuilding
Chastisement, Loving, Caring
Killing, Survival
Mockery, Praises
Passover, Betrayal
The people, The high priest
Crucify him, crown of thorns
Hail him, Strip him, bury him.

In Just Three Days
He is risen
Come and see the place where the Lord lay
His arrival in the clouds of heaven.

In Just Three Days
He was dead and buried
My resurrection, my hope, my dream
Hopelessness, helplessness turned around
In Just Three Days
In Just Three Days.

.     .     .   

Nigerian Abayomi Animashaun, now living in the U.S.A., completed a university degree in mathematics and chemistry but then took that precise quantum leap into the ever-expanding universe that is Poetry. He teaches at The University of Wisconsin (Oshkosh).

The following poem is from his 2008 collection, The Giving of Pears.


Abayomi Animashaun

In bed with Cavafy”


After pleasing each other,
We laid in bed a long time…

Curtains drawn,
Bolt fastened,

We’d been cautious,

Had made a show for others—

We ordered meat and wine
From the local restaurant.

And, like other guys, we talked loud
About politics into the night,

But whispered about young men
We’d bent in the dark.

At midnight, when from the bars drunks
Staggered onto the streets,

We shook hands the way they did,
Laughed their prolonged laughs,

And warned each other to steer clear
From loose girls and diseases—

All the while knowing
He’ll circle round as planned,

Sit in the unused shack behind my house
Till my neighbours’ candles are blown out.

And, after his soft knock,

I’ll slowly release the latch

As I did last night.

.     .     .

Editor’s note: “In bed with Cavafy” captures the mood, nuance, and subtle tone of the poetic voice of Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), the homosexual Greek poet who was a native of Alexandria, Egypt. Animashaun updates this Cavafy-an “voice”, making it heard in his description of two bisexual lovers in Lagos who are caught up in strategies of social hypocrisy and secret honesty in a place where sexual open-ness means great personal risk.


Special Thanks to Duane Taylor (York University, Toronto) for his editorial assistance!

.     .     .     .     .

Frank Mugisha: “People say I am their inspiration – but they are an inspiration to me – so I can never talk about leaving the country.”

ZP_Frank Mugisha_First Uganda Pride March_August 2012_ Next time we begin the march from the police station...ZP_Frank Mugisha at the First Uganda Pride March on August 4th, 2012_The March took place on the shores of Victoria Lake, outside of Entebbe, away from Uganda’s bustling capital, Kampala. Mugisha, as Captain Pride in a rainbow-sashed sailor suit, told journalist Alexis Okeowo:  “I just wish I had a switch to turn on that would make everyone who’s gay say they are gay. Then everyone who is homophobic can realize their brothers, their sisters, and their aunts are gay.” He told another reporter:  “Next time we begin the march from the police station [in Kampala]…”

.     .     .

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s 5th Symposium on HIV, Law and Human Rights was held in Toronto on June 13th and 14th, 2013.  One of the events was  “A conversation with Frank Mugisha” which took place at the Toronto Reference Library, attended by about 300 people.  The CBC’s Ron Charles interviewed Mr. Mugisha in front of the audience, members of whom asked questions at the end.

The diminutive 30-year old Mugisha was calm and reasonable throughout, coming across as a man who has had to do some hard thinking and to strategize with love. He spoke about new voices for LGBT rights in Uganda – mainly, but not only – in Kampala;  about threats to the emerging community:  American author and anti-Gay activist Scott Lively and his pivotal “The Homosexual Agenda” slide-show and lecture in 2009;  Ugandan M.P. David Bahati and his stalled Anti-Homosexual parliamentary bill;  and angry anti-Gay protests in the streets after Ugandan tabloid newspaper “Rolling Stone” published names and addresses of Kampala “Homos”, stating:  “Hang them!”.   Mugisha spoke also of David Kato, one of the founders of Ugandan human-rights organization S.M.U.G. (Sexual Minorities Uganda), murdered in 2011 because of his outspoken-ness, and who also campaigned for children’s and women’s rights;  and of former Ugandan Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, an Anglican clergyman who is still a vocal defender of LGBT rights.

He said he is looking forward to the 2nd Uganda Pride March – to be held during the summer of 2013 – and he confirmed his own religious faith;  he is still a Christian, still a Catholic.  Asked by Ron Charles what keeps him in Uganda – where he requires a chaperone wherever he goes and must carefully plan his movements – when he could find asylum in other nations, Mugisha said: “People say I am their inspiration – but they are an inspiration to me – so I can never talk about leaving the country. Why do I keep smiling? I try to keep a positive attitude after all the bad stories I’ve heard and I want to put a human face on our work. ‘Those people’ – what some Ugandans call homosexuals – are they devils, selling their bodies, molesting children? – well, I try to reach these Ugandans who do not know us, I try to reach them one on one.”

Finally, Mugisha suggested to Charles that Progressive Christian voices need to speak up, and sensitive international diplomacy should be applied on such a “delicate” issue as homosexuality in Uganda;  that media shock tactics will harm those most vulnerable plus inflame the majority.  He said that if money comes to Uganda to do good – then “follow the money” and make sure that human-rights issues in Uganda are being addressed as a group, because it’s not just about homosexuality.  Mugisha reminded the audience that the South African government has spoken out against the anti-Gay movement in Uganda, and that Cameroon, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia are more homophobic – voices are silenced – than Uganda which is by and large known for the warm-heartedness of its people.  Charles finished by asking the obvious question:  what does the future hold for LGBT rights in Uganda?  Mugisha spoke methodically, thoughtfully, as he had for the entire hour and a half:  “I don’t think there will be acceptance – in my lifetime.  But tolerance, yes.  Perhaps even anti-hate-crimes legislation.”


ZP_Teacher and LGBT activist David Kato (1964 - 2011), the first publicly gay man in UgandaZP_Teacher and LGBT activist David Kato (1964 – 2011), the first publicly gay man in Uganda

ZP_Juliet Victor Mukasa, a founder, with David Kato, of SMUG_Sexual Minorities UgandaZP_Juliet Victor Mukasa, a founder, with David Kato, of S.M.U.G. (Sexual Minorities Uganda)


The following is an interview with Frank Mugisha by journalist Elizabeth Palmberg from March 2013.  We thank Soujourners website (“Faith in Action for Social Justice”) for provision of this text:

1. What’s your response to the letter U.S. religious leaders signed last year, which condemned the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” before Uganda’s Parliament because it “would forcefully push lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people further into the margins”?

Uganda is a very Christian country. About 85 percent of our population is Christian—Anglican, Catholic, and Pentecostal. So for religious leaders to speak out against the Ugandan legislation, that is very important for me and for my colleagues in Uganda, because it speaks not only to the politicians and legislators, but also to the minds of the ordinary citizens.

It is very important to have respected religious leaders involved, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, because these are leaders who have spoken out on other human rights issues such as apartheid, women’s rights, and slavery. And for us, for the voice of LGBT rights, to join with these other issues, clearly indicates that our movement is fighting for human rights.

2. Before Parliament adjourned without passing the “kill the gays” bill, an official had suggested it would pass as a “Christmas gift.” As a Catholic yourself, what’s your response to that image?


What I’ve always said is that instead of promoting hatred, we should promote love. And clearly, this law has so much discrimination, the language is full of hatred; this is not appropriate for Jesus’ birthday, because he said love your God and love your neighbour as you love yourself—those are the greatest commandments.

3. As an African, how do you see all this?

The bill itself violates our own culture as Africans, because Africans are people who are united to each other, but this bill clearly divides. For example, it includes a clause that says that every person should report any “known homosexual” to authorities, and failure to do that becomes criminal—it calls for a witch hunt that was never seen in African culture. The bill also criminalizes the “promotion of homosexuality,” which would criminalize any kind of dialogue or talk about homosexuality in my country.

4. Would it require clergy to turn in gay members of their flocks?

Yes, priests taking confession and any religious leader—whether giving health support, psychosocial counseling, or anything—are required to go and report to the authorities. So this totally violates Christian teaching, including the Catholic faith.

5. Does the bill threaten efforts to fight HIV?

Even if the death penalty is removed, the legislation itself will drive LGBT people underground—already now, without the bill passing, there’s fear. People are afraid to go to health workers and say that they’re in same-sex relations, so this will happen underground, with no information, and that will greatly increase the spread of HIV/AIDS.

6. What message do you have for Christians in the U.S.A.?

It is important for people to know that there has been a lot of influence from American fundamentalist Christians in promoting this hatred in Uganda; some of them have been very vocal. We think that Christians in the U.S.A. should hold these preachers accountable.

.     .     .     .     .

ZP_Two 27-year-old Zulu men, Thoba Sithole and Tshepo Modisane, married in the town of KwaDukuza in April 2013_South Africa legalized same-sex marriage in 2006.ZP_Two 27-year-old Zulu men, Thoba Sithole and Tshepo Modisane, married in the town of KwaDukuza in April 2013.  South Africa legalized same-sex marriage in 2006.

.     .     .     .     .

Mildred K. Barya compares Beverley Nambozo’s “At the graveyard” with Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”


ZP Guest Editor Mildred K. Barya:

What Beverley Nambozo (Uganda) and Sylvia Plath (USA) have in common

My first poet is Beverley Nambozo, and the poem I’m focusing on is “At the graveyard.”

Beverley Nambozo

At the graveyard”


At the graveyard I sit on my father’s lap.
Where we can talk.
Of what could have been but was not.
Here he has many friends,
Even his mother-in-law brings him flowers.

Now I understand why he has to write.
It keeps him alive.

We saved him by killing him.
Because now he writes.
He recited a poem for me
And my mother discovered my frozen tears
on my father’s stone.

.     .     .

What I like most is the balance between light and dark that comes from this poem. There’s a sense of grief and regret mixed with joy and comfort. The sadness comes from what could have been but was not, and the liberating feeling in ‘sitting on his lap so they can talk.’ I find that magical and refreshing. The father continues to be a father in this regard. He is not completely gone, and he is loved—the idea that even his mother-in-law brings him flowers. How punchy, precise and economical! In the old African culture, mothersin-law are complicated beings whose relationships with their sonsin-law are often devoid of affection or open expression.

Beverley also does that cool thing of referencing Sylvia Plath without sounding banal. In Plath’s “Daddy” poem, her 2nd stanza begins in the direct, individual voice: Daddy, I have had to kill you. Beverley says in the collective, beginning of 3rd stanza: We saved him by killing him. I find this connection sweet and pleasant, especially when I realize that Beverley’s title could have been Daddy, but she lets the subject matter resolve that.

In Plath’s poem, we find the reason she’s had to “kill her Daddy.” She tried resurrecting him first: 4th line of the 3rd stanza: I used to pray to recover you. When that failed, she tried joining him. 12th stanza: At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you/I thought even the bones would do. For a long time she couldn’t accept the loss. So deep and long was her grieving. Bit my pretty red heart in two/I was ten when they buried you.

Beverley “saves her Daddy” by acknowledging that he’s alive – even in death. He now writes, and whenever she needs to talk with him she only has to visit, and hear him recite her a poem. It’s also her Daddy’s way of staying alive, so the goal is mutual and the action liberating for both daughter and father.

I like how these two poems deal with the loss of a father and grieve in a close but contrasting manner. So related they are, but with a twist in perspective. In order to heal and move on, the two poets find peace through poetry. One lets go through visions of the most dark form and then, severing the bond, so to speak, the other by imagining Daddy in the most friendly images: friends, flowers, and then reunion.

See Sylvia’s end stanza:

There’s a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

And Beverley’s 4th line of her first stanza: “Here he has many friends”.

The two poems/poets belong to different traditions—African versus American—but are much alike in their approach. Writing is their saving grace. Their differences are also interesting; what and how they write based on their feelings and experiences.

One of the joys of reading poetry is when you come across one poem/poet that reminds you of another. It’s like hearing the echo that merges time, people, and places, connecting across centuries and generations.

.     .     .

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

Daddy” (1962)


You do not do, you do not do

Any more, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot

For thirty years, poor and white,

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.


Daddy, I have had to kill you.

You died before I had time——

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,

Ghastly statue with one gray toe

Big as a Frisco seal


And a head in the freakish Atlantic

Where it pours bean green over blue

In the waters off beautiful Nauset.

I used to pray to recover you.

Ach, du.


In the German tongue, in the Polish town

Scraped flat by the roller

Of wars, wars, wars.

But the name of the town is common.

My Polack friend


Says there are a dozen or two.

So I never could tell where you

Put your foot, your root,

I never could talk to you.

The tongue stuck in my jaw.


It stuck in a barb wire snare.

Ich, ich, ich, ich,

I could hardly speak.

I thought every German was you.

And the language obscene


An engine, an engine

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew.


The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna

Are not very pure or true.

With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck

And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack

I may be a bit of a Jew.


I have always been scared of you,

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.

And your neat mustache

And your Aryan eye, bright blue.

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——


Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through.

Every woman adores a Fascist,

The boot in the face, the brute

Brute heart of a brute like you.


You stand at the blackboard, daddy,

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot

But no less a devil for that, no not

Any less the black man who


Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

I thought even the bones would do.


But they pulled me out of the sack,

And they stuck me together with glue.

And then I knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look


And a love of the rack and the screw.

And I said I do, I do.

So daddy, I’m finally through.

The black telephone’s off at the root,

The voices just can’t worm through.


If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——

The vampire who said he was you

And drank my blood for a year,

Seven years, if you want to know.

Daddy, you can lie back now.


There’s a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

.     .     .

Mildred K. Barya is a Ugandan author of three poetry collections: Give Me Room to Move My Feet, The Price of Memory after the Tsunami, and Men Love Chocolates But They Don’t Say. She has also published short stories in various anthologies and taught creative writing at Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. She is a board member of African Writers Trust, and she blogs at:


Beverley Nambozo‘s At the graveyard”: from her poetry collection, Unjumping, published by Erbacce-press, U.K., 2010


Sylvia Plath‘s “Daddy”: from Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems, © 1965 / 1981, The Estate of Sylvia Plath

.     .     .     .     .

“That poem which lay in my heart like a secret”: Juliane Okot Bitek reflects upon Okot p’Bitek’s “Return the Bridewealth” and the role of the poet

Our warmest thanks to Juliane Okot Bitek for the following Guest Editor post at Zócalo Poets:


Okot p’Bitek (1931 – 1982)

Return the Bridewealth (1971)




I go to my father

He is sitting in the shade at the foot of the simsim granary,

His eyes are fixed on the three graves of his grandchildren

He is silent.

Father, I say to him,

Father, gather the bridewealth so that I may marry the

Girl of my bosom!

My old father rests his bony chin in the broken cups of his

withered hands,

His long black fingernails vainly digging into the tough

dry skin of his cheeks

He keeps staring at the graves of his grandchildren,

Some labikka weeds and obiya grasses are growing on the mounds.

My old father does not answer me, only two large clotting

tears crawl down his wrinkled cheeks,

And a faint smile alights on his lips, causing them to

quiver and part slightly.

He reaches out for his walking staff, oily with age and

smooth like the long teeth of an old elephant.

One hand on his broken hip, he heaves himself up on

three stilts,

His every joint crackling and the bones breaking.

Hm! he sighs and staggers towards the graves of his


And with the bone-dry staff he strikes the mounds: One!

Two! Three!

He bends to pluck the labikka weeds and obiya grasses,

But he cannot reach the ground, his stone-stiff back cracks

like dry firewood.

Hm! he sighs again, he turns around and walks past me.

He does not speak to me.

There are more clotting tears on his glassy eyes,

The faint smile on his broken lips has grown bigger.




My old mother is returning from the well,

The water-pot sits on her grey wet head.

One hand fondles the belly of the water pot, the other

strangles the walking staff.

She pauses briefly by the graves of her grandchildren and

studies the labikka weeds and the obiya grasses waving

Like feathers atop the mounds.

Hm! she sighs

She walks past me;

She does not greet me.

Her face is wet, perhaps with sweat, perhaps with water

from the water-pot,

Perhaps some tears mingle with the water and the sweat.

The thing on her face is not a smile,

Her lips are tightly locked.

She stops before the door of the hut,

She throws down the wet walking staff, klenky, klenky!

A little girl in a green frock runs to her assistance;

Slowly, slowly, steadily she kneels down;

Together slowly, slowly, gently they lift the water-pot and

put it down.

My old mother says, Thank you!

Some water splashes onto the earth, and wets the little

girl’s school books.

She bursts into tears, and rolls on the earth, soiling her

beautiful green frock.

A little boys giggles.

He says, All women are the same, aren’t they?

Another little boy consoles his sister.




I go to the Town,

I see a man and a woman,

He wears heavy boots, his buttocks are like sacks of cotton,

His chest resembles the simsim granary,

His head is hidden under a broad-brimmed hat.

In one hand he holds a loaded machine-gun, his fingers at

the trigger,

His other hand coils round the waist of the woman, like a

starving python.

They part after a noisy kiss.

Hm! he sighs.

Hm! she sighs.

He marches past me, stamping the earth in anger, like an

elephant with a bullet in his bony head.

He does not look at me,

He does not touch me; only the butt of his weapon

touches my knee lightly,

He walks away, the sacks of cotton on his behind rising and

falling alternately

Like a bull hippo returning to the river after grazing in

the fresh grasses.

Hm! I sigh.

I go to the woman,

She does not look up to me,

She writes things in the sand.

She says, How are my children?

I say, Three are dead, and some labikka weeds and obiya

grasses grow on their graves.

She is silent.

I say, your daughter is now in Primary Six, and your little

boys ask after you!

The woman says, My mother is dead.

I am silent.

The agoga bird flies overhead,

He cries his sorrowful message:

She is dead! She is dead!

The guinea-fowl croaks in the tree near by:

Sorrow is part of me,

Sorrow is part of me. How can I escape

The baldness of my head?

She is silent.

Hm! I sigh.

She says, I want to see my children.

I tell the woman I cannot trace her father.

I say to her I want back the bridewealth that my father

paid when we wedded some years ago,

When she was full of charm, a sweet innocent

little hospital ward-maid.

She is silent.

I tell the woman I will marry the girl of my bosom,

I tell her the orphans she left behind will be mothered, and

the labikka weeds and obiya grasses

that grow on the graves of her children

will be weeded,

And the ground around the mounds will be kept tidy.

Hm! she sighs.

She is silent.

I am silent.

The woman reaches out for her handbag.

It is not the one I gave her as a gift last Christmas.

She opens it

She takes out a new purse

She takes out a cheque.

She looks up to me, our eyes meet again after many


There are two deep valleys on her cheeks that were not

there before,

There is some water in the valleys.

The skin on her neck is rotting away,

They say the doctor has cut her open and

removed the bag of her eggs

So that she may remain a young woman forever.

I am silent

A broad witch-smile darkens her wet face,

She screams,

Here, take it! Go and marry your bloody woman!

I unfold the cheque.

It reads:

Shillings One thousand four hundred only!


.     .     .

Juliane Okot Bitek

A Poet May Lie Down Beside You


She might even let you run your palm over her hip

Round and round and round

So you remember what it’s like to lie down beside a woman

A poet may lie down beside you and listen to you sigh

Turn around, turn around

She may even take in your stories of days gone by

Turn around, turn around

Spit roasting like pigs

It’s been bloody weeks

It’s been long, stone years

Since you lay down beside a woman, anyone

A poet may lie down beside you

Let you bring the covers over her shoulders and

Lift the hair off her face

She will take you back to the lean months, lean years, two

Or has it been three?

She will take you all the way back to a time without kisses

Without touch

Forever since anyone touched you

A poet will take you back

And return with the clingy scent of yesterday

For several moments

Before this, before this

A poet might even let you kiss her

She might open up ovens and ovens of pent up heat inside you

A poet will let you think

That this is what it means

To lie down beside a woman

Rolling, rolling, drowning, searching

A poet may lie down beside you

And sing, or not sing, speak, or not speak

This is your time

A poet will not let a moment like this go wasted

So she lies down beside you and lets you touch her

So you know what it’s like

To lie down beside a woman.

.     .     .

I first encountered “Return the Bridewealth” in Poems from East Africa, a 1971 anthology edited by David Rubadiri and David Cook. It was a text that we used at Gayaza High School in Kampala, Uganda. It was a text from which our teachers found creative ways of engaging us with poetry. One teacher had us write a short story that incorporated the title of Jared Angira’s “No Coffin, No Grave” as the last words. Another teacher had us think about ways that we could have ‘built the nation,’ a lesson on citizenship based on Henry Barlow’s “Building the Nation”. And the fact that Barlow’s daughter was on the teaching faculty was not lost on us, even though she wasn’t the literature teacher for that class. I prayed that we would not study “Return the Bridewealth” or “They Sowed and Watered” – both poems were in the same anthology – and both had been written by my father Okot p’Bitek.

I used to imagine that the teacher might put the burden on me to explain what the poet’s intention was as they did in the old days, as if anyone would know. I couldn’t have known what his intentions were in writing poetry and yet I was aware, even then, that my father’s poetry read like the truth. But I wasn’t mature enough to discern whether he wrote factually about everything. I was embarrassed to think that it might have dissolved into a class discussion in which my father would’ve had to beg his father and an ex-wife for money to get married. Perhaps the teachers knew not to assign those poems for our class, but that poem that read like a story (“Return the Bridewealth”) stayed with me over the years. I read my father’s other works and, after grad school, I was finally confident enough to discuss my father as a poet, an essayist, a novelist and a philosopher. But I never talked about that poem which lay in my heart like a secret, even though it remains a public document.

“Return the Bridewealth” reads true. It reads true because the poet, my dad, had an eye and an ear for the environment around a story. It wasn’t just the plot with main characters whose lives spanned time before and after the poem begins and ends. We hear the old woman’s stick: klenky, klenky! We see the old man’s fingers digging into his bony cheeks; we understand the insistence of weeds and the infuriation of the old couple who cannot maintain the graves of their grandchildren. This couple, who has endured the divorce of their son and his wife, are struggling to take care of their grandchildren, both dead and alive. And their son has the gall to return and ask for financial support to remarry.

It is a modern story, immediate and accessible. The poetry is in the language, the lines and the delivery of what might have been a short story by another writer and perhaps a novel by another’s hand. My dad boiled this story down to its bare bones and it still resists the notion that it could be a poem that celebrates its use of language and calls for attention to its lyricism.

For a man who founded the song school of poetry, Okot p’Bitek’s “Return the Bridewealth” is not a song, even though it is punctuated by the refrained sighs of all the main characters: Hm! the mother sighs; Hmm! The father sighs; Hm! the woman sighs. Hm!, the soldier sighs; Hm! I, the narrator sighs. The sigh may be a long and breathy sigh but as any Ugandan knows, hm is short and decisive. It means everything and sometimes it means nothing. But the boy giggles and the girl cries. The boy also says within earshot of his father: All women are the same, aren’t they? before he turns to console his sister.

Each conversation in “Return the Bridewealth” allows the reader to be a voyeur of the most intimate conversations. A grown man asks his elderly father for money. A boy shares a moment with his father, deriding all women and girls. A man confronts his ex-wife in an exercise that is fraught with pain and shame – neither parent is taking care of the kids and the money that will change hands is probably from the woman’s current lover in order that the man may marry his current lover – an extremely uncomfortable situation for which the title of the poem is wholly inadequate.

Okello Oculi, another poet from the same anthology, and a contemporary of Okot p’Bitek, includes this poem as one of many works that espouse shame as a trope for post colonial narratives on the fallout from having been colonized by foreigners. Sure, but we also see that there has to be shame from the behaviour of the children’s parents because we know those parents; we are those parents. We screw up, and sometimes, as parents, we don’t get our priorities right.

The poem is broken up into representations of the past, present and future. In the first section, the first person narrator introduces his father, an old man in the twilight of his life, a man whose bony fingers seem to be in the business of hastening his own death by clawing at his face. We’re brought into a home in which there are three buried children who lie in unkempt graves. It is a sorry homestead with a lovesick son who has returned for financial support from his father. His father doesn’t answer the request for money but a smile plays about the old man’s face, perhaps in hope for better circumstances still to come. The second section is a portrayal of the current state of affairs. The grandmother is still involved in the heavy domestic work, even at her advanced age, but her granddaughter is sensitive enough to go and help offload the precious cargo of water. The grade six girl’s and her grandmother’s struggle is symbolized by the water spilling onto the girl’s school textbook. The old woman does not acknowledge her son’s presence. She does not greet him and she doesn’t smile as her husband does. Her anger is evident from the way she “strangles” her walking stick and the “thing on her face” that is not a smile, but she reserves her thanks for her granddaughter who helps her with the heavy water pot on her head. The current state of affairs doesn’t belie the reality of the graves in the homestead from which the weeds are an affront; things are not as they should be.

In the third section, the narrator confronts his ex-wife who has just met up with her lover, a soldier whose well-fed form is represented by the way he fills out the bottom of his pants (“his buttocks are like sacks of cotton”). The woman wants to know about her children, but in the classic tension-filled relationship of exes, the man won’t give her the information she needs. Power plays and replays itself. The woman reveals that her mother is dead. No empathy from her ex. I can’t find your father to get my money back, the man says in response. And the woman, infuriated, writes a cheque which she retrieves from a handbag that the man realizes is not the one he bought for her last Christmas. She’s moved on. This is the present reality for many of us. We know about memory and the power of “stuff”. And this is the future because we witness a man accepting financial support from his ex-wife in order to marry the woman he’s in love with. Power reveals itself in a cash transaction.

Beyond the direct effects of colonialism which colour the poem, the culture of the Acholi people from which my father drew much inspiration, is in flux. Bridewealth, which was the purview of the man’s family, is now dependent on whoever has the money to pay for it – in this case, the man’s ex-wife and, presumably, her lover. The narrator unfolds the cheque to make sure of the amount – One Thousand Four Hundred only. In this modern cash economy, money can and does replace the former symbol of wealth – cattle. Much of the cattle of Acholi was lost in the war that lasted over two decades (1986-2007) and there are barely any Acholi cows with which to show prosperity. The narrator, emasculated by his ex-wife’s cheque, is the modern man, and there’s no shame – or is there? Who or what makes an Acholi man or woman marriageable?

My father’s only novel, a slim book titled White Teeth (first published in 1963 in the Acholi language as Lak Tar) is about a young man from an impoverished family who makes the journey to the capital, Kampala, to see if he can earn the money to pay the bride price for Cecilia Laliya, the woman he loves. Set in colonial times, just before Independence, the main character, Okeca Ladwong, is alienated by the skyscrapers, tarmac roads, traffic, a multi-ethnic society and the fast, fast pace of urban life. But he is buoyed by his love for Cecilia, and so he perseveres until he makes enough money to return to his hometown, Gulu. Okot p’Bitek, who argued against the willful discarding of Acholi culture for a modern and souless life, wouldn’t and couldn’t let Okeca return to Gulu and marry Cecilia with his newly-earned cash. That’s not the way it was done traditionally.

In Song of Lawino, it’s clear that Lawino, the spurned wife of a modern man, Ocol, can see the danger of rejecting one’s culture wholesale. Do not uproot the pumpkin, she keeps saying. Do not uproot the pumpkin. There’s no need to reject the wisdom of Acholi culture for modern ways. In “Return the Bridewealth,” the old man sighs, as does the old woman, the narrator, his ex-wife and her lover. All the adults know and express that something is terribly wrong. Hm! as they still say in Uganda. Hm!

Return the Bridewealth” is certainly set in a time of flux for the narrator, his parents, children and ex-wife. Published in 1971, it was a time of instability in Uganda as well. 1971 was the year that Idi Amin overthrew the government of the man who had exiled my father – Apolo Milton Obote. Being the man that he was, Idi Amin did not want my father in the country either, so Okot p’Bitek remained in exile and brought us up in neighbouring Kenya, where I was born. Before Idi Amin was overthrown by organized exiles and with the support of the Tanzanian government in 1979, my father told of visiting Obote in Arusha, Tanzania, where the former president lived, and how they’d had a toast together to the life of an exile. My family returned from exile in 1980. Uganda experienced a series coup d’etats and a general election in 1980 that was heavily contested and led to the creation of a guerrilla movement that sought to overthrow the government of Milton Obote. That government was known as Obote II, given the fact that it was the second time in Obote’s career that he claimed presidency of the country.

In 1982, during the second term of my first year of high school, my father died. It was a surreal time. Dad had driven me to the bus stop at the beginning of that term where I’d caught the bus to Gayaza. I recall nothing about the drive there, not even if we talked, or what we might have talked about. I remember that he said bye very brightly and waved for a long time as he drove away. Maybe I remember a bright goodbye and a long wave because I need to.

I am a graduate student working on a PhD in interdisciplinary studies at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada, but I’ve dabbled in creative writing for much of my life. My Bachelor’s Degree was in Fine Art with a focus on Creative Writing, so the question of the role of the poet isn’t incidental to me. I’ve thought about it. When my father wrote his Horn of My Love, a collection of Acholi songs, he declared in that book that poets were loved and feared in Acholi society. In Vancouver, love and fear are not what I associate with poets and poetry. There are small and passionate groups of poets, generally divided into the textual kind and the spoken-word kind, but they exist in a parallel universe for most of the general population. Sometimes, a local poet breaks through the barrier and everybody can see themselves in a poet’s work. Shane Koyzcan, a Vancouver poet, was one of the featured presenters at the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics which was held in Vancouver. Recently, Koyzcan presented a poem on bullying, “To This Day”, at the TED talks, to much critical and popular acclaim. Like Okot p’Bitek, Koyczan’s poetry sounds like life. Nine million viewers have viewed “To This Day on YouTube, generating thousands of responses from people who could relate to the poem. What is it about poems and poets and poetry?

I write poems, sometimes. I had my first poem published when I was a girl; I wrote it in response to the factions that were struggling for power in Uganda after the liberation war in April 1979 that saw the overthrow of Idi Amin. One afternoon, my father took me to The NationNewspaper offices in Nairobi and I was interviewed and photographed. That Sunday, my poem was published in the children’s section of that national newspaper.

In 1998, my Words in Black Cinnamon was published by Delina Press. In that book, I wrote about spurned love, dislocation and home, but nothing about what it means to be a poet. I considered poetry as one of the arts, one of the practices that human beings use to connect and reflect, but I never saw myself “connected” until Ali Farzat, the Syrian cartoonist, was tortured for his work. I wrote “A Poem for Ali Farzat after several weeks of having heard about the torture of Farzat. I realized that I cannot afford the luxury of writing as an independent artist, making beauty for beauty’s sake. Art has a political function. It can drive change. It can make people think about what’s important to them. And for those of us who seek to work in solidarity with others, it can strengthen our resolve for change in the face of so much power against those that dare to present a dissenting voice. Today, it’s the protests in Turkey, the war in Syria, the dissenting young man who’s holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong while thousands of bones lie unburied in northern Uganda and South Sudan. How else can we deal with all this and more if we don’t immerse ourselves in art in order to understand the way we are?

The most direct poem I’ve ever written about the role of a poet comes from the very private experience of a “narrator poet” who sees her work as that of providing solace. The poet speaks of what she must do to alleviate the loneliness of a person she knows. The poet is a woman, a friend and lover. The poem remains a space in which fiction and fact trade spaces, feeling right and intimate, or distantly rational and strange. Recently, I wore a wide smile when I got a cheque for a small scholarship from my university. It was enough to pay some bills, do groceries and buy some school supplies. It read:  One Thousand Four Hundred and Seventy Eight Dollars and Seventy One cents.

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