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Remembering the Future: Editing a window into Ugandan culture

Christopher Conte, the editor of the book "Remembering the Future”

Christopher Conte, the editor of the book “Remembering the Future” sits down with The Word and shares his perspective on curating this thought-provoking collection. Conte, an outsider to Ugandan culture, discusses his inspiration behind this project, the process of selecting authors and stories that capture the essence of Ugandan culture, and the challenges he faced in accurately portraying and contextualizing these personal narratives. The interview delves into the central themes explored in the book, including the tensions between tradition and modernity, the role of literature in preserving culture, and the unique qualities that make Ugandan culture so resilient and special.

What inspired you to take on this editing and introduction-writing project? What drew you to these specific stories and voices from Uganda?

From the first time I set foot in Uganda in 2008, I have been struck by its many contrasts. In the span of just a few generations, it has evolved from a collection of kingdoms and scattered population groups with their own languages and cultures, through almost seven decades as a British colony, and finally to its current status as an independent nation in a globalizing world. Yet features from all these eras still exist side by side. On top of that, Ugandans are gifted storytellers. As a journalist, I feel Uganda is like the Garden of Eden, blessed not only by perfect weather but by its rich stories. I was particularly drawn to stories that address Uganda’s complexity and diversity, and that seek to reconcile past and present in a way that could help preserve treasured memories and values.

How did you select which authors and stories to include in the collection? What specific perspectives or themes were you hoping to capture through their writings?

I was eager to track the process of culture change, so I first asked the writers to identify cultural tensions that are signs of change. Because many seemed nostalgic for precolonial days that they never personally experienced – a number said they felt cut off from their past by the interruption of colonial rule, while others were ambivalent about growing Western influence – I asked them to focus especially on traditional culture. We thus settled on a two-fold strategy: They would identify issues as they experienced them, but then would seek the views of elders who could perhaps illuminate traditional perspectives.

I also was keen on personalizing the issues we explored – looking at culture through the prism of people’s lives, so we put a lot of emphasis on illustrating issues in the writers’ own lives and finding interesting people to interview about them. I felt this dual approach created an opportunity to introduce readers not just to one writer, but to the writer’s sources as well.

I suggested some topics, but the writers generally came up with their own. Even when I proposed topics, they sometimes surprised me. At one point, I asked one writer to recommend someone who could explore what struck me and others as rampant tensions between men and women in light of women’s growing empowerment. He and a friend responded with not one but two separate stories: He focused on his own family, which was led over two generations by powerful matriarchs, one of them his grandmother. His friend, a professional woman, chose to probe the philosophy of her own family’s powerful patriarch, her grandfather. The delightful profiles by Wobusobozi Amooti Kangere and Linda Orando became the opening two chapters of the book.

What was the process like working with the Ugandan writers?

I’m tempted to reply with a running joke about “African time,” which is said to run much more slowly than Western clocks. It took us five years to complete the book, but the delays were because the authors – and their editor – spent a great deal of time sorting out complicated issues. I have never worked with a more meticulous and dedicated group of writers. It was a fabulous learning experience for us all.

You mention this book is a sequel to an earlier collection, Crossroads. How does Remembering the Future build on or differ from the first book?

“Crossroads,” which was published in 2015, grew out of a project I launched with a few women journalists at the New Vision newspaper in 2008. Each wrote a feature story describing tensions they felt between the dictates of traditional culture and their aspirations as modern, emancipated women. Later, more women joined the team. The result was “Crossroads.” “Remembering the Future” takes a deeper dive into Ugandan culture. Besides including men as well as women among its writers, it represents a much more deliberate effort to include the voices of one of the most respected groups in Ugandan society – elders.

What do you hope readers will take away from this collection, especially those unfamiliar with Ugandan culture and history?

I hope Ugandans who read the book will see a reflection of themselves, take pride in how they have honored their ancestors for their dignity and high moral purpose, and find ways to create a future that is true to the same values. I hope that foreigners come away from the book with empathy for other people and an appreciation that their search for self-realization is just as real, complicated and important as ours.

As an outsider to the culture, what challenges did you face in editing and contextualizing these very personal Ugandan stories? How did you handle sensitivities around portraying the culture accurately and respectfully?

I handled them first by having long conversations with the writers to ensure that I understood their views. Then, showed writers every change I wanted to make to their work and encouraged them to challenge any editing they find objectionable. Our contract provided that nothing could be published unless we agreed on everything.

As the editor, what was most rewarding for you about curating this group of writings? Were there any works that stood out to you or impacted you personally?

The editing experience was among the most rewarding personal experiences of my career. I came away with a strong attachment to each writer. Asking me to single out anyone is like asking a father to choose between his children. So, I’ll give highlights from each chapter:

  1. Goria Ubuntu: Linda Orando’s portrait of a modern-day patriarch is vivid. The image of the old man and young woman wrapped in conversation as they stroll around the family land – wisdom meeting youth – is unforgettable.
  2. A Tale of Two Matriarchs: Wobusobozi Amooti Kangere’s account of two historical figures who shattered stereotypes of women as submissive is thoroughly researched and well told. But the details that most stick with me most are the writer’s description of a town coming awake in the shadow of a majestic mountain. I can see it, hear it, smell it, and feel it. It IS Uganda.
  3. A Bride’s Farewell Song: Edna Namara peers into the heart of a simple woman from hill country, one we urban sophisticates might dismiss, and shows through her the source and meaning of pride in a life well lived.
  4. The Once – and Future? – Clans of Uganda: Joachim Buwembo launches his exploration of the importance of clans in Ugandan history up to this day by describing Kasubi Tombs, where members of the royal family of the Buganda kingdom are buried. It is a powerful metaphor for a people’s enduring ideal.
  5. Mountain, Ostrich and Giraffe – A. K. Kaiza’s panoramic tour of Uganda’s long-suffering pastoralist people powerfully links a proud people to their history and landscape, and in the process paints a tragic picture of colonial and post-colonial Uganda. It is truly an epic account.
  6. And Money Made Men Mad – In this chapter, Joachim Buwembo describes the corrosive effect of money on a subsistence-based society with a dry satire that adds ironic poignancy to his tale.
  7. If It Takes a Village, What Happens When the Village Dies? – Carolina Ariba’s dissection of the decline of villages in the face of overpopulation and market economics combines analytical journalism and emotive description, elegantly framed by beautiful but bittersweet descriptions of children playing in eras 30 years apart.
  8. Of Healers, Quacks . . . and Confusion – Joseph Elunya Sr., brings a journalist’s keen understanding of his community to an exploration of how modern ways have undermined old institutions – in this case, a traditional system of health care – and bemoans the failure of modern government to fill the gap.
  9. Dance of Death – Regina Asinde’s searing description of a spiritual crisis that led her to abandon the religion of her tribe is a touching account of the depth of Ugandan spirituality and a suggestive explanation for why many Ugandans have abandoned their traditional religion for an imported one.
  10. Our Justice or Their Justice? – Aliker P’Ocitti explores why a traditional approach to justice, while profound, may not be suitable to the problems of a “modern” world where crime has become institutionalized and impersonal. His description of encountering his long-lost brother after being separated for years by war is a profoundly moving introduction to the sad story of one of war’s lost souls.
  11. The Words Died in My Mouth – Achelam Kinyera’s exegesis on the evolution of language is at times funny and at times sad, but it adds up to a fascinating account of cultural evolution.
  12. Radio Katwe, From Drums to the Internet – Joachim Buwembo explores how Ugandans adapted changing technologies in the service of freedom. I will never forget his description of the swashbuckling rebel TVO, who used the Internet to challenge the authorities – and won.
  13. Wakaliwood: Uganda’s Answer to Hollywood – Stephen Ssenkaaba’s deconstruction of the work of a popular filmmaker offers an amusing but enlightening depiction of a society that can enjoy – and even get a laugh from – its own myths.
  14. A Healing Tradition: Flavia Nassaka encapsulates the remarkable juxtaposition of disparate realities in a rapidly changing society by introducing readers to a modern psychiatrist who reconciles his understanding of people with that of his mother, who was a traditional healer.
  15. A Bright Gold Ray: Edna Namara’s touch reminiscences of being raised by her grandmother (because her parents wanted her to grow up in a traditional village rather than bustling Kampala) ends the book on a serene note, describing how one life ends but continues in the heart of her granddaughter. Edna didn’t realize it when she wrote it, but it was a perfect capstone to our project.

Several chapters touch on the rise of money, capitalism, and individualism in contrast to a more communal traditional culture. Do you think this is a universal tension all cultures face in modernity?

No, I do not think these have to be universal – at least in their current form. Money is a tool that facilitates the flow of goods and services in societies that have become increasingly complex due to population growth and technological change. But we don’t have to fetishize it, making it our ultimate goal and an instrument of power, division, social and environmental harm and corruption.

Capitalism is a set of rules for organizing economies, but many in the West have turned it into an ideology, a justification for excessive materialism, inequality, and social and environmental harm.

And individualism can be a foundation for human dignity and integrity but taken too far it can be a recipe for loneliness and narcissism.

Money, capitalism, and individualism all must be regulated to ensure that they promote rather than diminish human well-being. Figuring out how to do this is a constant struggle. I hope that Remembering the Future helps put fundamental values, not tools, at the centre of people’s thinking about the kind of society they want to have in the future. Obviously, I hope Ugandans find this message helpful, but I think people everywhere can benefit as well.

If you were to identify one or two central messages you hope readers will take away from this collection, what would they be?

I think I’d urge them to consider the words of Linda Orando’s grandfather and think about ways they can strive not just to benefit themselves but to make their society better.

Despite the challenges, there are also essays in the book that celebrate Ugandan culture and its resilience. What do you think makes Ugandan culture so unique and special?

To me, Uganda is defined by its diversity and its people’s openness, spirituality, dignity, humour, compassion, and high moral standards. These qualities are what make it resilient. We all could learn from them.

What do you think is the role of literature in preserving and transmitting culture?

Literature is an important part of any society’s culture. I can’t think of any other medium that packs so many facts and ideas, with so much nuance, in a package that you can carry in one hand, take with you as you move about, consider and reconsider, and enjoy in bed, in the shade of a tree on a warm afternoon, or even on a taxi (if you have strong powers of concentration).  Reading is like having a long conversation with somebody who has observed much and thought deeply about important issues. I often think about the people who live on the pages of “Remembering the Future.” I marvel that David Kaiza led me on an arduous journey that led to an interview with a traditional healer in Karamoja, Edna Namara let me listen to an old woman sing the song she sang many years ago in the hills of Rukiga on her wedding day, Stephen Ssenkaaba introduced me to Ugandan movies and explained the man who made them, Regina Asinde showed me how Jopadhola people dance away grief to the driving beat of a Fumbo drum in Tororo, Flavia Nasaka shared the boyhood experiences of a man who became one of Uganda’s leading healers of the psyche and . . .  I could go on and on. Books have given me so many friends who have enriched my life.

Now that the book is complete, do you think you might take on similar editing projects in the future focused on other cultures and their changes through generations?

That’s a tantalizing idea, but . . . we’ll see.

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