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Okusinza mu Laganda #3: “This is Luganda, not Yoruba”

by Shanon Shah

Continuing the Waterloo Festival’s special series to commemorate the upcoming 30th anniversary celebrations of Okusinza mu Luganda, we present the second part of our interview with co-founder Dorothy Mukasa. The first part of our interview with Dorothy introduced the complex political circumstances in Uganda and the UK which formed the backdrop to the founding of Okusinza. In this part, Dorothy tells Shanon Shah, one of the Festival’s Programme Committee members, about the centrality of Luganda to Okusinza’s identity and the challenges faced by its younger generation.

Okusinza mu Luganda choir at St John's Waterloo

SS: What did Okusinza mean to you initially as one of the founders?

DM: When we started, I was very happy because I was very keen on Luganda as a language. I wanted my daughter to know the language, to read from it. She would say her prayers in Luganda, which I thought was absolutely wonderful. And there was a whole load of parents above me and below me who wanted their children to grow up listening to the language, at least, and recognising the language, being able to say, “This is Luganda and this is not Yoruba.” We didn’t want to raise children who didn’t know what language they were listening to, or who thought that it was just some African language.

As I said before, community members were dying in big numbers [mostly as casualties of the Ugandan Bush Wars and AIDS-related complications], so people had to hang on to things, you know? Hanging on to a regular service for a lot of people was a way of networking and not being so isolated. If they were feeling really low, they could come to that church one day a month. I remember a woman who said, “The first Sunday of the month is the only day I speak Luganda. All the other days I speak English because I have to work and do all sorts of other things. This is the one day I get to let my hair down.”

Of course there’s fewer and fewer of people like that, but when we started it was such a relief just to have a place where people could be themselves and talk about the people they’d lost in Uganda, the people they’d lost here, the funerals, how difficult it was to organise church services when you needed to. And all these wakes when people had died! It’s so difficult to hold a wake when you don’t know people, you know? Coming here made it possible for me to network with enough people so that if anything should happen, I would have people that could help me.

Okusinza was serving a lot of people in ways that were not just, “First Sunday of the month, let’s start with Hymn 26.” That was very nice, very good, but that was just the core – around that a lot of other things have happened. Communities have formed, people have become extremely confident in themselves and who they are. They’ve raised their children coming to that church. I don’t know, it’s just done something that wasn’t there when I arrived here.

Okusinza Choir (courtesy of Stephen Kafeero)

SS: Dorothy, that’s remarkable. I’ve always understood the importance of Luganda in the foundations of Okusinza and the impacts of the civil war, too, but I hadn’t twigged that the HIV and AIDS crisis played such a significant role, too. It was really a space for people to experience and express grief together, wasn’t it? And loneliness?

DM: Yes, and loss. The civil wars for me were a big, big thing that I can never, ever forget. But HIV came and it was such a different ball game altogether. You know, the war was in Uganda, you had to fly there by plane. HIV was around me all the time in London. You know, somebody would ring you and say, “I’m just going to hospital to see my friend, do you want to come with me?” You know, you don’t get offers like that! What you’re used to at that age is, “Shall we go out for a drink?” But the offers at the time, were like, “I’ve just got off work and I’m going to the hospital to see my sister – do you want to come with me?”

Yes. “Would you like to come with me?” And you would understand that if you’re going to hospital it means somebody’s in there, somebody’s not well, they may not come out, or they may get better. “Come with me to the hospital” was like, “Walk with me, this is hard, just come with me, please.” And sometimes you knew the people well and they were related to you, but sometimes you were not related to them at all. And you’d walk in there, and it would be the same story. Somebody’s not been taking their medication, or they’ve changed their medication and something’s happened, and they’re going downhill and it doesn’t look like they’ll make it to next week.

SS: Does the younger generation in the Okusinza congregation know all this history?

DM: Not really. But I am not sure how relevant it is for them. They arrive and this thing happens the first day of every month and they attend it.

Dorothy's father, Stephen Mukasa, friend Gladys Kavuma and daughter Kulaba Kyabanji

(courtesy of Dorothy Mukasa)

SS: Do you think they’re losing the language connection as well?

SS: Yeah. We had very clear objectives when we began, and the single most important one was to keep Luganda as a living and growing language. However, things don’t always turn out as intended. I mean, if you think about it, Okusinza has actually played its role as a network, a safety net for the people who’ve lived through this past thirty years. It’s been very good at holding them together, helping them make sense of what’s going on, whether here or in Uganda or America or whatever.

Our children may need something, but it is up to them to decide what it is they want. This is what we needed, and we developed it and it has been very, very supportive to us. We’ve had to work for it, but it’s been a very good initiative for us. And they’ve got to either decide that, yes, this is also what they want or, if they want something slightly different, they’ve got to articulate it and make it happen.

Kampala, Uganda

SS: For them, I’m supposing, they might not be facing the same issues but a lot of them probably have new and tough challenges as well. I’m thinking about young people who live in boroughs where there’s say, knife crime, or stop-and-search or just naked racism. There are still issues but these are now a bit different from what their parents faced. Is there space in Okusinza for this to be addressed?

DM: There’s lots of space but it’s up to people to come and take that space. They’ve got to decide that this is a home and that we can turn it into something we want. They’ve got issues relevant to them – for example, you find young people who are well qualified but unemployed. Perhaps it’s because the way the job market works can sometimes be very “it’s all about who you know” – and they haven’t got opportunities to network with other children of Ugandan parents. You get the networking amongst the Ghanaians and the Nigerians, but not much in the Ugandan community. It’s very hard for them to network once they’ve left our homes. And they suffer for that. How many of them are doctors? Do they know each other? How many of them are lawyers? Do they have a young lawyers or black lawyers association they belong to?

The truth is, it’s people coming together and working as one, that’s how you network and get somewhere. On your own, very nice, very commendable, but it’s very unlikely you’re going to get that far. It’s up to our children to understand what it is they’ve got and what they could very easily lose and not be able to replicate.

Courtesy of Dorothy Mukasa

Click here the final part of our interview with Dorothy Mukasa, in which she talks about her hopes for Okusinza.

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