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Scholars analyzing patriarchal sexual violence in African fiction have long argued that women writers use innovative narrative forms to show how marginalized subjects surmount the silence imposed on them in order to speak about their oppression (Graham 2003; Samuelson 2003). In recent years, writers such as Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Nakisanze Segawa, Monica Arac de Nyeko, Beatrice Lamwaka, and Anthea Paleo have used such innovative narrative practices to distil important insights about cultures of silence on homosexuality in Uganda. In doing so, they borrow from an extensive tradition in which writers use distinctive storylines to allow their protagonists to speak about taboo topics. This short article explores how such textual manipulations of silence, voice, and interiority allow women and other marginalised subjects to discursively enter into and comment on public discourses in recent Ugandan historical novels.

As an academic at a Ugandan university, I write out of a context in which debates over homosexuality have had a lightning-rod effect in public life. Recent fiction in which non-normative sexualities are presented as an inevitable part of historical Ugandan societies offer important pedagogical tools to broaden debates on sexual minorities in the literature classroom. This is particularly the case with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Kintu, 2017) and Nakisanze Segawa (The Triangle, 2016) who embed non-normative sexual practices and same-sex desire within their historical novels of the pre-colonial Buganda kingdom in a manner that makes them perceptible while also subordinating them to the force of historical developments. This is a very limited reading in which I focus on same-sex desire in Nakisanze Segawa's The Triangle in the first half of the novel. Nevertheless, it elucidates how African writers are responding to the contemporary culture wars over the public emergence of non-normative sexualities with innovative narrative strategies. Because some of such narratives approach same-sex sexuality covertly within a wide tapestry of sexual practices, they can be easily adopted into university curricula in locations where public debates on homosexuality have been particularly rancorous.

My reading is indebted to the work of Sylvia Tamale, who has argued that public discourse on homosexuality is heavily characterized by various forms of silence and historical disarticulation that need to be unveiled and scrutinized (2007). In her historical novel, The Triangle, Segawa modulates silence and voice to unveil and scrutinize the historical figure of the nineteenth-century Buganda King Kabaka Mwanga II of Buganda. While his reign was brief, he is now known for the fact that-he had about twenty-three court pages executed who, according to British and Catholic church sources, allegedly refused his sexual advances (see Hoad [2007] and Rao [2013]). (1) Namugongo, the execution spot, has for long become a site of pilgrimage and reverence for Ugandan Christians, but the advent of LGBTQ activism and the Ugandan government's oppressive measures have made Kabaka Mwanga into a contested cultural and political icon. Debates on Mwanga are structured by what Rahul Rao describes as a Ugandan denialism of same-sex sexuality even when homosexuals exist in the country (2013). Although contemporary discourses on homosexuality in Uganda demonize Mwanga by casting him as a pedophile, it is important to note that he was no more than a "child" himself having become king at seventeen years of age.

The Triangle is a pioneering novel for its reconstruction of Kabaka Mwanga's sexuality. The narrative form succeeds in recontextualizing contemporary debates on Mwanga and fostering an inquisitive sensitivity toward the historical past because it pushes readers to question the competing historical accounts of Mwanga's sexuality. Segawa revisits Mwanga's sexuality through the experience of one of Mwanga's wives and two court pages. In doing so, she follows previous authors who wrote about women who are silenced and excluded from the public sphere: she juxtaposes registers of silence, omission, and voice to render the respective oppressive forces legible as textual operations. Many African authors have used such operations. Even Chinua Achebe, who critics have argued did not consider women's voices in his early fiction, has been shown to employ interchanges of voice, silence, interruption to mediate women's experiences (Nnaemeka 1998; Osinubi 2017). Obioma Nnaemeka's work on "rebellious women" and "nego-feminism" provides useful terms for this novel. In seminal articles, she argues that women can rebel against constraints in multiple and complex ways and that they often advance feminist causes through slow negotiations with constraining forces. Since The Triangle deals extensively with a wife's difficult relationship with Mwanga's erotic desires, she is a rebellious woman/subject who must employ feminist strategies of negotiation (Nnaemeka 1995, 2004).

Segawa uses an unconventional marriage and palace sexual politics to generate a reflection on complex nuances of power across gender positions and social hierarchies in the historical past. As Taiwo Osinubi notes, African writers adapt and combine the marriage plot with incidents of African political crisis to elaborate the interconnections between the personal life of individuals and the external play of political power. Specifically, "marriage references [in the queered marriage plot] are indexes for wide-ranging conventions that determine social and legal status of individuals" (Osinubi 2018, 45). This reminds us of Osinubi's argument that the marriage plot is important in as far as it crystalizes the social and legal position of the characters in society (Osinubi 2015, 63). In light of these observations, we could argue that Segawa uses the marriage plot to perform a critical exploration of Mwanga's sexual desire and the mandatory silence about Mwanga's sexuality on his wife and male lovers within the domestic space of marriage.

When read with a focus on the marriage plot and its erotic schemes, The Triangle is principally about Nagawa, the second wife of Kabaka Mwanga, the pages Sekitto and Kalinda, and their reactions to Mwanga's sexuality. Segawa uses alternating focalizations, omniscient narration, and stream of consciousness to allow her protagonists to comment on and/or interrogate Mwanga's sexual orientation and its demands. It is thus valid to argue that the text is about Nagawa and how she contends with and/or understands her husband's sexual practice. This is perhaps why the love triangle motif recurs in the text. There are two love triangles that showcase Mwanga's sexuality. The first love triangle features Mwanga, Kalinda, and Nagawa, whereas the second features Mwanga, Sekitto, and Nagawa. While Kalinda and Sekitto are Mwanga's voluntary and involuntary male lovers respectively, Nagawa is his heterosexual wife.

Nagawa's struggles with the court pages for erotic attention express the pressures her husband's non-conventional sexuality places on her as a woman who may never criticize the king. There is no doubt that Nagawa waits anxiously for Mwanga to have sex with her in order to conceive and produce an heir. The anxiety of the loveless marriage along with the relative absence of a sexual life and children that will secure her position appears throughout the novel. A case in point is Nagawa's statement that "she wanted the Kabaka to come to her home alone [without] that page Kalinda, who would, like a dog, wait for his master outside her house while Mwanga made quick thrusts inside her, and then put on his clothes and walk out" (Segawa 2016, 16). Such outpourings underline the emotional turmoil that Mwanga's sexuality provokes in Nagawa. First is the sense of anticipation because she is looking forward to sharing her bed with her husband. Next comes her bafflement because she fears Mwanga might be accompanied by one of his pages. Third is the anger and disappointment caused by the hurried and unsatisfactory love-making, signalled by the phrase "quick thrusts," because of the page waiting outside her house. While on the surface, these may sound like the naive thoughts of a young bride pinning about the absence of her husband from her bed, a close scrutiny suggests that she is doubtful, angry, and puzzled by Mwanga's sexual orientation.

While it is not strange that a young bride of her time would anxiously desire the company of her husband, it is very unusual that she has to compete with the pages--Kalinda and Sekitto--for her husband's attention. The frustration causes Nagawa to redirect her hostility at the pages. It is unsurprising that she describes Kalinda as a dog: the descriptor betrays her jealousy towards Mwanga's favourite page. Similarly, Nagawa's hostility towards Sekitto when the latter comes to deliver the King's message that he will not be visiting Nagawa's chambers underscores her precarious position. Nagawa's anger is understandable given her realization that she is married to a man who prefers boys to her. She muses that "the insult came when she found Sekitto at her doorway; the fair skinned and youngest royal page, whose beauty frightened" her (Segawa 2016, 26). The ferocity towards Sekitto is explained by the fact that Nagawa feels inadequate in comparison to him.

Sekitto's beauty and desirability, one could argue, infuriate Nagawa. Yet, the author uses her anger to manage the disclosures of queer sexual pleasure. For example, Kalinda reports that "at the entrance, he almost collided with Sekitto who was rushing out of Muzibu. Sekitto seemed frightened, as though he'd been bitten by a snake" (Segawa 2016, 43). On the following page, Kalinda also describes Mwanga's face as "relaxed [...] glittered with an inner amusement, a satisfaction so rare Kalinda marvelled where it came from [...] the Kabaka was excited with pleasure. But what had caused the thrill" (44). At another point Kalinda eavesdrops on "a mixture of sounds, of loud moans, soft cries, and dry laughter [...]. Before he could figure it all out, he heard a familiar groan. It was the sound made by Mwanga when he climaxed" (50-51). The passages implicitly disclose Mwanga's non-normative sites of pleasure. It is not only Sekitto's presence in Mwanga's private quarters at night, but his fright that suggests the sexual nature of his liaison with Mwanga. There is no doubt that the diction and opaqueness of the revelation mimic the limited abilities of a woman to openly question the non-conforming sexuality of her husband at a Buganda court. The circumspect textuality of these passages becomes clear when Kalinda's observations confirm Nagawa's suspicions and anxieties. His use of euphemistic verbs and adjectives imbued with innuendo such as "frightened," "excited," "thrill," "relaxed," "pleasure" eloquently unveil the fact that Mwanga derives his sexual pleasure in ways that his wife--and perhaps his court--do not expect but must contend with.

Overall, the adverse effects of Mwanga's sexual desire on his subjects is further disclosed when a character, Reverend Clement MacDonald, suddenly asks another priest why the unbaptized Sekitto was among "Christians going to" be executed at Namugongo's death grounds (Segawa 2016, 158). Sekitto's decision to join the martyrs recalls Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's arguments in "Can the Subaltern Speak?" (1998). His resolve to die with Christians is an eloquent response to Mwanga's authoritarian desire. In a sense, Sekitto can only quit his position in the king's marriage plot through death. His death particularly underscores Osinubi's point that the novel's marriage plot and uses of domesticity crystallize the legal recognitions of political subjects (2015, 63-65).

While Sekitto's "suicide" suggests that he is conscripted into sexual performances he does not relish, readers cannot fail to discern the fact that Kalinda is in love with Mwanga. This fact is spotlighted in the palpable excitement in his words and actions when he walks to Mwanga's private quarters to celebrate his win at a wrestling match. The omniscient narrator notes that "his eyes lit up and his heart got filled with bliss as he walked towards Muziba the next evening" (Segawa 2016,50). It is perhaps because of that love that he feels betrayed when Mwanga leaves him for Sekitto. The effects of Kalinda's love for Mwanga is revealed in his conflicted actions on learning that Mwanga has replaced him with Sekitto. His thoughts and actions illustrate a frustrated lover who oscillates between bouts of jealousy and tenderness. For example, he joins the conspirators to depose King Mwanga as revenge for his betrayal, but later runs into exile with Mwanga either out of love or to atone for his betrayal. Kalinda's selfless love is underlined by the fact he goes out of his way to protect a man who had "treated [him] like some old wrinkled wife" (79).

In conclusion, Segawa's novel uses techniques that allow a woman who is without political power in the depicted patriarchal society a platform to question her husband's sexuality. The novel's exploration of same-sex sexuality through covert articulations succeeds by centring a confounded and angry wife who exposes the nonconformist sexuality of her husband. These techniques empower the powerless in patriarchal society to talk about taboo subjects or to contest official narratives about subjects such as same-sex desire. Here, we recall Kalinda's observation that "he looked at the royal guards standing a distance away, and wondered if they too knew about it, if they knew what went on inside the private house whenever Mwanga was alone with a page" (Segawa 206, 51). If the guards who are male and presumably have the patriarchal privilege to participate in public sphere discussion are silenced--perhaps on account of Mwanga's demigod status--one can imagine how difficult it would be for a woman and a wife to speak about, let alone question, the king's sexuality.

Kalinda's rhetorical question amplifies the functions of silence in the novel. Unlike the guards who are aware of Mwanga's sexuality but never say anything about what goes on in his private quarters, Segawa's characters--Nagawa, Kalinda, and Sekitto--who are in Mwanga's immediate orbit and are required to obey him, craft vocabularies through which they reveal dispositions to Mwanga's sexuality implicitly rather than explicitly. In sum, the author constructs a text with powerful resonances in contemporary Uganda: it offers a narrative, which, while full of contradictory relations to the figure of Mwanga, facilitates complex insights into what scholars such as Sylvia Tamale and Rahul Rao have described as the cultures of silence and denial about non-normative sexual pleasure. Although a palace coup and Mwanga's subsequent exile overrun the plot of queer erotic desire, the brief portrayal of non-normative sexual desires and practices in Mwanga's royal household represents a new vision that normalizes non-normative sexuality in Ugandan literature.


The research published in this article was funded under the Sida-Makerere V project 377 postdoc funding.

(1) Although there are numerous historical introductions to King Mwanga II of Buganda, I recommend work by Rahul Rao (2013) and Neville Hoad (2007) for an introduction to the debates specifically about the king's purported homosexuality. Please note that Mwanga was king of Buganda which was a kingdom in what is now Uganda. The people are called Baganda and their language is Luganda. The ancient kingdom of Buganda is part of the modern nation-state Uganda.


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EDGAR FRED NABUTANYI holds a PhD from the English Department, Stellenbosch University. He is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Literature, Makerere University. While his teaching interests are in Children's Literature, Critical Theory, Practical Criticism, and Media Studies, his research interests converge around issues of public discourses in the public sphere regarding how these channels--fiction and media--are subverted and assimilated by vulnerable and minority subjectivities for self-enunciation. He is also interested in how new media are disrupting literature in interesting ways--such as providing new avenues of consuming literature, but also subverting the literary canon. His recent publications include "The Paradox of Same-sex Representations: The Presence/absence of Gays in Ugandan Short Stories" in Imbizo: International Journal of Literary and Comparative Studies (2017) and "The City as a Metaphor of Safe Queer Experimentation in Ugandan Short Stories" forthcoming in African Literature Today.
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Author:Nabutanyi, Edgar Fred
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:6UGAN
Date:Sep 22, 2018

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