Lusoga reflections on the solace that songs can bring

This afternoon (Tuesday 9th May 2017) we concluded the interviews that we were conducting to explore how processes of overcoming difficulties in Uganda are captured in some of the languages spoken in the country. Happily, Dr Cornelius Gulere (the Lusoga language expert based at Makerere University) responded to my request for a meeting. He is involved in the Intellectualization of African Language Initiative (IALI: http://ialiuganda.org), which has the strap line: ‘To efficiently transform our local languages into languages of science to be used for scientific discourse’. As part of this initiative, Dr Gulere has recently been invited to participate in meetings which aim to promote ‘Science Centred Mother Tongue Development’.

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Rosco and Dr Gulere at Makerere University

The interview occurred under the shade of a tree a short distance from Makerere University Guest House. The interview questions were put to Dr Gulere in English. He responded in Lusoga before taking the time to translate a summary of the information that he had shared in English. In response to a question about the stories that people share in the Lusoga language about overcoming difficulties, Dr Gulere emphasized the important role that proverbs and riddles play in the Lusoga language. He also reflected on the tragic loss of his father at a comparatively young age, and the songs that provided comfort to him at that time. He stated that religious verses and hymns make an important contribution to the language that is shared between Basoga people at challenging times. Examples of Lusoga language phrases that cite God’s central role in overcoming difficulties include ‘Katonda aidha kukukuuma’ (God will keep you) and ‘Atyo bwasazeewo’ (That’s how God has decided). Dr Gulere observed that there is growing pressure to overcome particular life challenges within circumscribed periods of time. Whereas, in years gone by, bereavements would have traditionally been marked by 40 days of mourning, the churches are now less keen to endorse this – emphasizing instead that God will tend to the dead person’s soul rather than the behavior of those who remain alive.

Dr Gulere indicated that when he gets upset he sings a doxology (i.e. a brief hymn) to himself for comfort and solace. He observed that expressions used by the Basoga tend to be short, one-word utterances. He opined that rather than get preoccupied about the nature of the difficulties, the Basoga have a tendency to employ these utterances in conjunction with sympathetic non-verbal gestures, before shifting the locus of the communication to factors apparently extraneous to the distressing event e.g. focusing on aspects of the ecology – the trees, the birds, the animals.

In terms of insights about Basoga cultural beliefs, we learned how seeing a woman upon leaving the house has traditionally been regarded as a bad omen. Dr Gulere however shared that he now adopts an attitude of welcoming this potential omen as an opportunity to confront and overcome any challenges that might come his way. Dr Gulere commented that the closest Lusoga word for ‘resilience’ (Okukukaalukana) was difficult to translate directly into English – the word used was described as ‘deep, persistence, endurance, struggling, coming back, overcoming’. After sharing one of his own fantastic poems, he also directed us towards the music of singer/song-writer Racheal Magoola and the Afrigo Band. He stated that their song ‘Obangaina’ provides an example of Basoga language renderings of overcoming difficulties. A video of the song can be viewed by clicking the link below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOqEBm7oCPs

At the end of the interview, Dr Gulere and I got into conversation about the Makerere University campus. He mentioned how the hill on which Makerere University is situated used to be a heavily forested area that was populated with numerous impala (i.e. a medium sized form of antelope) and monkeys. Historically Kampala was known as the city of 7 hills. When the British first arrived they called the area on which Kampala now stands as the ‘Hills of the Kampala’. This corresponds to the Luganda phrase ‘Akasozi ke’Empala’: “Kasozi” meaning “hill”, “ke” meaning “of”, and “empala” the plural of “impala”. In Luganda, the words “ka’mpala” mean “that is of the impala” (European settlers added the ‘i’ to ‘mpala’ because they struggled to pronounce the nosal ‘mp’ – the word ‘mpala’ means to run fast and wild). Over time one word “Kampala” was adopted as the name for the city.

Kampala ranks number one across the globe as the capital city that reports the highest number of lightning strikes. True to form, this evening a storm blow into Kampala, the winds picked up, and the deluge commenced. It was an awe-inspiring moment to bear witness to the force of the rain and the drama of the thunder and lightning that accompanied it.

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An impala – key to the naming of Kampala

Cliodhna’s reflections:

This afternoon we met with Dr. Cornelius Gulere whose first language is Lusoga. We sat outside with the surrounding trees shading us from the afternoon sun. Similar to the themes of other interviews, Christianity and the influence of the church was an oft mentioned topic. Like Mr. Abiti Nelson, he described the function of traditional grieving songs in comforting the bereaved, and how the church encourages people to sing Christian hymns instead. Moreover the traditional means of grieving, whereby people would sleep over in the home of the deceased for 40 days, concluding with a communal feast has been replaced by the traditions of the church. Dr. Gulere described how this move away from tradition can mean that people may be left without a sense of comfort and company. However the syncretism of traditional practices and the newer influence of the church was evident in his claim that many go to church, not necessarily to pray but to perform more traditional rituals.

Dr. Gulere discussed the problem of childlessness, and how women experiencing this might perform a ritual of drinking the water that an older woman has poured and has flowed towards them. He also described rituals of naming babies, which were also a prominent point of discussion in the Baganda student group. For example if a birth comes soon after the death of a relative, the first choice of name is that of the deceased. In this way they remain present in some form which brings comfort to those who have lost someone.

The importance of song in everyday life was evident throughout our conversation with Dr. Gulere. He began to sing a number of times including one song that his mother used to sing to him as a child. However he said that she is now more interested in singing religious songs. He said that he loves to sing in the church choir even after a hectic week as it is a source of comfort for him. He described losing his father and the power of singing songs in that time and how when a person sings, tears can flow and you can feel ‘lower down’, a term he used a number of times to describe being calmed down. While he was grieving the loss of his father he would sing a particular hymn over and over again until the tears no longer came. Dr. Gulere also shared a poem with us that he had written in Lusoga.

Again I was struck by the willingness of the people we met to open up and share stories, songs, and even personal poems with us. The setting and content of this interview was a wonderful way to conclude our work in Kampala and I feel compelled to return and explore this diverse country more in the future.

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Moments of contemplation at the shore of Lake Victoria as the trip to Uganda draws to an end

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