More than two millennia ago, Greek Philosopher Plato wrote in his book, Republic, “No poetry should be admitted save hymns to the gods and oration on famous men.”
Today, many people hold the same sentiment according to poet, author and Professor of Literature, Timothy Wangusa, who gave the key note speech at the Public Dialogue held at Fairway Hotel, Kampala on the 10th of September 2019 under the theme; Is Literature Useless? Understanding Opportunities and Challenges for African Writers. The event was organised by the African Writers Trust. About one hundred literature enthusiasts braved the rain to come and discuss this topic.
Prof .Wangusa gave an example of the late Luyimbazi Zake, Uganda’s first Minister of Education, who told him, “Uganda needs tractors not Shakespeare” and the late Eriya Kategeya who at the time of his death was Uganda’s First Deputy Prime Minister, said to him, “poetry is nothing.”
The panel was comprised of Victoria Kisarale, the former head teacher of Gayaza High School, Martha Munnu Omer, the Country Human Resource Manager of Century Bottling Company, Doreen Byengoma, the Head of Legal, Compliance & Corporate Affair at Hima Cement Ltd, Professor Okey Ndibe, a novelist and a professor of creative writing from the USA and Professor Timothy Wangusa. The dialogue was moderated by Journalist and Lawyer, Gawaya Tegulle.
The panel agreed that literature isn’t indeed useless; rather, it’s the basis on which the world was built.
“Words are the skeleton on which the world was built,” Victoria Kisarale said, when Gawaya Tegulle pointed out the earth and everything in it was built with spoken words from the almighty. She went on to say that Literature teaches analytical skills and that the world’s foremost university on technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA, made literature compulsory. She decried the fact that literature is an elective subject in Ugandan schools, mentioning that only five schools have opted to make literature compulsory at Ordinary level.
Martha Munnu Omer, as an employer, said corporate bodies hire what literature gives a person, the oratory skills, the ability to analyze and think on one’s feet and the ability to express oneself and Doreen Byengoma agreed.
Doreen Byengoma referred to literature as a wonderful and magical place that a person can escape to. And this magical place is built by words.
Professor Okey Ndibe reiterated the sentiment but said technology, maths and science should not be adversarial with the arts, literature in particular, but rather, these components could work hand in hand to create a fully formed citizen.
“Without literature, we might as well be animals. A man can have all the tractors he needs and grow all the food he can eat, but without words, he is just an animal.”
Prof. Wangusa agreed saying, “language is man’s most important invention more than the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel.”
Prof. Okey said that literature builds the moral fabric of a human, Prof. Wangusa agreed saying, “when you’ve read and put yourself in the shoes of the characters, you’re able to discern between good and evil in the real world.”
A sentiment that was echoed across was the lack of substantial readership on the African continent and the way the sciences and the arts have been made adversaries.
The audience that gathered was comprised of literature enthusiasts including journalists, poets and writers and they all agreed that literature was not useless. Although, Dennis Assimwe, a writer, spoke about the quality of literature being produced in the country, saying that Ugandans are not producing quality literature and this in turn makes it hard for readers to buy the locally produced books.
The call to action, which was suggested by Martha Munnu Omer, was to put the Ugandan government on pressure to see that a fully formed citizen emerged from the education that should include literature.
So, is literature useless? The answer was no!