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Ruganda: The passing of a literary giant
Publish Date: Dec 18, 2007
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By Stephen Ssenkaaba

ON December 9 one of Uganda’s most acclaimed playwrights passed away. John Ruganda lost a protracted battle to cancer of the throat at Hope ward, Kampala International Hospital (IHK).

Ruganda, who until last year lectured at the University of North in South Africa, was diagnosed with this cancer in July last year. He retired from his job in January this year and returned home in February.

“He has since been undergoing chemotherapy at Mulago Hospital and IHK,” says Ruhuma Ruganda, one of his sons.

Ruganda is one of Uganda’s creative artists to succumb to the cruel arm of death in the last couple of years. But this man was more than just an artist.

A published author, his influence transcended the confines of his writing prowess. Since the early 1970s, he has been an integral part of East African Theatre, not only as a playwright, but also as a stage director, actor and teacher of drama and theatre arts at various institutions of learning.

He was one of the founding members of the Makerere Free Travelling Theatre and was elected its chief organiser in 1966. In 1971, he helped set up the Makonde Group, an amateur theatre company that performed plays in local languages all over Uganda.

As a lecturer at the Literature Department of the University of Nairobi in 1973, he teamed up with staff and students to launch the Nairobi University Free Travelling Theatre Company. The group went on to stage plays in English and Kiswahili at various venues in Kenya. His work has won critical acclaim and has been part of the literature curricula at secondary school and university levels in Uganda and Kenya. The Burdens (1972) and The Floods (1980) have been used regularly as required texts in the ordinary and advanced levels and even university syllabi of Literature in English courses in both countries.

His other works include: Black Mamba (1972), Covenant With Death (1973), Music Without Tears (1982), and Echoes of Silence (1986). In much of his work, Ruganda came across as the voice of the voiceless. His plays satirised the oppressive and greedy tendencies of the political regimes against the common man.

Retaining a fine line between humour and hard-hitting sarcasm, he scoffed at corruption, selfishness and manipulation of the powers that be.

“Ruganda dramatises the African man’s plight and struggle for survival in a hostile social, economic, and political environment in which he is reduced to a passive observer by a small class of cutthroat businessmen and political opportunists, says a keen observer.

“His work, largely inspired by his critical observation of the activities of corrupt government agents in Uganda soon after independence, exposes aspects of political oppression and subtly hints at possible ways of alleviating them. But beyond the image of the social critic lay a simple man, a mentor and loving father.

“He was one of the fathers of Uganda’s literature as well as a supporter and mentor of many in this field,” says Hilda Twongyerweirwe, the coordinator of Uganda Women Writers Association (FEMRITE).

Ruhuma recalls Ruganda as an exemplary father who taught his children the values of hard work. “He taught us to aspire for the best, to read a lot and pursue our dreams. He taught us to always reach out to the underprivileged members of society. He, sometimes, included us in his plays,” he says.

Prof Arthur Gakwandi, a long time friend of the deceased, described him as an industrious and focused man. “He never wavered from his chosen career. Her remained diligent to his vision,” he told mourners during a funeral service at Makerere University St. Augustine’s chapel yesterday. Gakwandi said despite the frustrations and political persecution he faced, Ruganda has produced more books than any Ugandan writer.

Ruganda was born on May 30, 1941 in Fort Portal. He attended Saint Leo’s College in Fort Portal before joining Makerere University, where he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in English.

Ruganda graduated in 1967. He joined the Oxford University Press of Eastern Africa, where he worked as editorial and sales representative in Uganda between 1968 and 1972.

From 1972 to 1973, he held a Creative Writing Senior Fellowship in the Department of Literature at Makerere University, a prestigious award offered to authors to enable them complete ongoing creative projects.

Before Ruganda, the fellowship had been held by V.S. Naipaul, Robert Serumaga and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

In 1973, Ruganda fled the political turbulence of the day settling in Kenya, where he eventually joined the Literature Department of the University of Nairobi after working briefly for the Oxford University Press.

He worked in the Literature department until 1982. During his career at the University of Nairobi, he closely worked with well-known authors like David Rubadiri, Taban lo Liyong, Okot p’Bitek and Joe de Graft.

He also had contact with Chris Wanjala, David Mulwa, Kivutha Kibwana, and Francis Imbuga. In 1983, Ruganda left Kenya for Canada, where he enrolled for a Master of Arts programme at the University of New Brunswick, majoring in English.

In 1989, he obtained his doctorate from the same university. He left Canada for South Africa, where he lived until last year.

He is survived by eight children. One of his most recent public appearances was at the FEMRITE week of activities on July 27 this year. While there Ruganda reportedly joked that: “I have come to the end of my journey. I have come home for good…”Ruganda may have come to the end of his earthly journey and while he might have gone home, his legacy stays on, perhaps forever.

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