The Power of Words

The Power of Words

By Nick Twinamatsiko

When I was a child, maybe five or six, some phrases plunged me into utter perplexity whenever I heard them. For instance, adults used the expression, 'okuteera amabare', which directly translates to 'the knocking of stones' to describe the making of music. When their discourse turned to the war that was then raging in the country, they said Museveni was 'fighting for the drum' (narwaanira engoma). I remember thinking deeply about the stones in the compound and the pebbles at the well side, wondering how the mere act of knocking them together could result in the beautiful music I often heard blaring out of the radio. I remember wondering whether a drum – it was a familiar object, for I was a regular at the village church – could be so important that, for its sake, Museveni engaged in a fight that entailed the ominous throbs of gunfire that sporadically reached our village. But the adults threw these phrases about in a matter-of-fact fashion, as though it was the most natural thing in the world that knocking stones together could result in music, or that dispute over a drum could translate into a fierce exchange of gunfire. I became absolutely baffled. And because my father was rather severe, and signs of slow wits could fetch a spank, I didn't voice my questions. I kept curiously glancing at stones and drums, and figuring that there must be something about life that was beyond the reach of my little head.

At about the same time, I sensed something intriguing in the sound of the name Museveni; it was curiously different from the ones I was accustomed to. I had just joined school, and the link between the word 'seven', which our teacher had just introduced, and the name of the rebel leader wasn't lost on me. Whether it was due to this connection with my beloved lessons, or the sheer novelty of the name, I somehow took to the rebel leader. The legend was that he occasionally turned himself into a cat, and as I reveal in (my first novel) Jesse's Jewel, 'whenever I ran into a suspicious cat, I felt more inclined to scream, “Go for it, go for the drum” than to flee in terror.' If rebelling with the heart is an act of treason, I was the youngest Kadogo in the mid-80s: a little conspirator who never touched a weapon or said anything political, but in whose every pulse was acute longing for the day of 'liberation'. I wanted the government to fall, and it was all because of a name: a name whose holder, I judged, in my childlike way, had to be different!

I will not say anything about whether or not the president has lived up to the promise his name gave my childhood. This article isn't about politics, it's about words. Had I been born a century earlier than I was actually born, the phrase about fighting for a drum would have been more accessible, for in those days, rival princes in my area actually fought over a drum: the royal drum, Bagyendanwa. Without accessing and striking Bagyendanwa, one couldn't become a legitimate king. Although colonialism had fundamentally changed politics, the association of power with a drum had remained in the language.

The lesson that lay beneath my childhood perplexity is that you can know the history of a people by considering their language. Even at the individual level, you can listen to someone and get a clue about the setting of his childhood, the schools he attended, the sort of books he has read, the television programmes he has watched, etc. Oscar Wilde said a man's face is his autobiography. Maybe. But I will also propose that a man's language is his autobiography! In words, history (collective or personal) is contained!

It's because the adults didn't give me the historical background to the figure of speech that I was plunged into perplexity. And something similar still happens. I have sometimes found myself talking to people, but neither able to fully grasp their meaning nor able to make them fully grasp mine, although the words in our dialogue have, on the surface, been mutually comprehensible. Because they use the words as per the slang or colloquialism of the social groups they have been in, which groups I haven't been in, I pick a slightly different meaning from the one they intend. The fact that I knew drums – that I had seen them at church – didn't mean that I understood what the adults were going on about. It's the same with the individual words in your slang!

As for the name Museveni, it was the first word that gave me a sense of the beauty of language. Later when I read poets like Shakespeare, I wasn't always able to say what exactly it was I loved about the lines they had composed. In the same way, I couldn't, as a child, say what I liked about the name Museveni, but I definitely loved the name. Needless to say, it's a byproduct of colonialism, a hybrid of the African and the European. In my novel, the first poem that Jesse writes rhymes around the name. That part is inventive. But, in so much as I aspire to twist a European language into an African shape, it's not farfetched to say that it was in the sound of Museveni's name that I first heard the call to a literary peregrination.

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