Q: I know that you’re both a poet and a teacher. Tell me a little bit about what started you along those paths, and how you got to where you are now?
A: I started writing poetry over twenty years ago. But then I stopped writing it after a couple of years because it made feel effeminate. To be sure, I felt that poetry wasn’t the best way to gain my ‘street cred’ in a locker room braggadocio session. That was in 1997. Fast forward to 2010, I joined Facebook. Every day, I would religiously post a joke or a socio-political opinion shaded by satire.
And Facebook friends of mine unanimously agreed that I had a poetic sense about my every post. We thus created a poetry event on Facebook and thereafter (it was a one-night event), a Facebook friend called Bev Ellison Watts started up a group in my honor called Phil’s poetry corner. I didn’t know what to do with it. But Bev encouraged me and made me feel that I could do it. It also helped that Bev was cool, funny and a bit of a tomboy, so I never felt effete about penning poetry thereafter. It became normal to post a poem or two a day. After a while, the group grew to about 1,700 members. Before that, I was doing volunteer work as a teacher in Kiguli Army Primary School. This is a school set up for the orphans and dependents of Uganda’s national army. They are all civilians, like me. Anyway, I originally taught social studies and English whenever I could tear away from my day job as an administrator in Luwero Industries Ltd, a Ministry of Defense company. But with Phil’s poetry corner, I decided to teach poetry to my class and post their poems in my FB group. Lisa McKinney saw these poems and offered to put them together into an anthology which came to be known as Songs of Kiguli. Lisa, like Bev, made me believe and I will always be grateful to them for that.
Q: How do you think the literary and educational scene in Africa differs from that in Europe or in North America?
A: I think the educational scene in North America and Europe is more practical. I am lucky that my father was an ambassador-at-large and so worked as a consul for Uganda in several countries. I have been exposed to all manner of teaching. For example, in one international school I went to there were several levels of Maths and English classes….from foundation to advanced levels. Slow coaches, likes myself, could find where we fit in and thrive. In Uganda, we are all taken to be on the same level and so if you fall behind you are considered dumb. This affects your confidence. And a person without confidence has nothing. Plus, there’s so much cramming in African schools. Students come off the assembly lines of learning as run-of-the-mill types purpose-built to conform. That said, I think the literary scenes are somewhat level-pegging. In Africa, West Africa and South Africa rule the literary roost. Uganda has more critics than writers. Although a number of people read here, they are overawed by foreign writers. Yet I always tell the skeptics here that we shall match the best…well, that is my poetic mission and destiny. I don’t care what the critics say.
Q: Who are some of the people who have influenced you in your career—authors, family members, personal heroes?
A: I love John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This is an innate love because I used to walk to libraries as a kid growing up in London and just gaze at pictures of him and Jackie for hours. They made me feel alive. And when I got older, I realized that my late father felt the same way about JFK. In fact, he used to say that he wanted us to be like the Kennedys: inspiring, bold and charismatic. I didn’t know we could inherit heroes but I think my love for JFK was in the jeans. More, obviously my late father Ben Matogo is my hero. I never saw anyone who read or debated like him. I used to read the dictionary so I could go up against him and beat him with the sheer breadth of my vocabulary. But I always came up short. His mental agility was awe-inspiring. I was like a young Michael Jordan and his elder brother; although MJ was a basketball flop in high school…he felt that if he could beat his brother he would one day beat theworld. This is strange to say but I also admire my brother Michael. He is our youngest but he’s definitely the most incisive thinker I have met. More, his confidence levels remind me of Eddie Murphy, another all-time hero. I can’t trace any particular influence on my life as far writing is concerned. But I would love my eloquence to ring through the ages like JFK’s and Abe Lincoln’s.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the Songs of Kiguli project with PDMI and how that got started (this is stuff I personally know some things about, but readers of the blog would probably rather hear it from you.
A: It all started with Lisa, the kids and I…like I said earlier. I used to post their poetry and Lisa(Nessa Arcamenel is her pseudonym) thought it should be published. I found that unbelievable at the time. Because I never in a thousand years would have thought that the rural kids of Kiguli would have been led out of the literary wilderness by a fellow such as myself. I am not your garden variety hero; I am something of a flop. But Lisa got our first book published, then a second one came with a CD done by Qwela and the kids reciting poetry as a companion piece to that. The third anthology was just as good as the others…only a little better: Same league, different level. This project has given hope to the kids that they can rise above their origins. This year, we hope to have Songs of Kiguli published in collaboration with Robinswood Middle School of Florida, USA. Robinswood has been sharing poetry with our kids for about three years. This pen pal and poetry without borders effort was launched by Katherine Rascoe and Cindy (Marie) Camp. These two ladies are phenomenal, both are superlative educators and Katherine is a poet on top of that. They not only love their children but this love has spilled over into a love for Kiguli! Robinswood kids write a form of poetry called Haiku while our kids write in free verse…an intoxicating cocktail.
Q:What do you think is the greatest obstacle facing children growing up in Nakasongola and other regions of Africa today?
A:The greatest obstacle is a lack of self-belief. Some scholars have called this ‘Afro-Pessimism’, others have gone on to say that Africans are senile before youth. In Nakasongola, there is a tendency for kids to believe that their slice of life will choke them…so they nibble on the crumbs they think they deserve. This is reinforced by the harsh economic realities that stalk them by day and leave them dreamless by night. It is sad. The girl-children often end up impregnated by drunken fishermen who wave pennies their way. Again, they also get sick…HIV. It is hard not feel trapped in Nakasongola, the place is not a nursery bed for anything but weeds…but this is a mentality. It is the same mentality that adulterates adult thinking and this nightmare negativity is handed down to the kids. If the kids in Nakasongola can accept their places in the universe aren’t on the outside looking in…then they will flourish. Too many of them think that money will solve their situation, it won’t. A change of attitude will. And that’s what Songs of Kiguli is about. We write to leave a legacy that can turn around a legacy of African ills. And we write, “So when we live no more, we may live forever.”
Are there particular ways you encourage the children you teach to improve in their writing, or even to help overcome obstacles in their own lives?
A: Yes. I just tell them to believe in themselves. Technically, as a teacher, I am pretty average. Some would rate me lower. But as a motivator, I am relentless. The only thing that they can do to improve their lives and their writing (assuming that there is a correlation) is believe. Our Motto is, “To strive, To seek, To find and Not to yield.”
Again, because this lack of self-belief is self-betrayal, they must ignore the Afro-Pessimists…little people who can only minimize Africans as losers to justify their own littleness. There’s no flow to their blood-clotted arguments.
Q: Do you have one particular personal goal in mind at this stage in your career (as either an author, a teacher or both)?
A:Yes. As a teacher, I want to use Songs of Kiguli to develop Kiguli Army Primary School. We want to fundraise to revitalize the school’s infrastructure, create a scholarship fund for the kids, build a library, get a school bus, boost enrolment and improve the kids’ diets. More, I want Songs of Kiguli to be a pilot project that will spread to all such deprived schools across Uganda to help them mow down the cannibal flowers of the African nightmare. It is important for me that Songs of Kiguli leaves a lasting legacy, that way I can inspire the world as all my heroes have inspired me. But most of all…leave the world better than I found it. As an author, I shall strive to become a legendary poet. Like Pele, Bruce Lee, Muhammed Ali, Elvis, Eddie Murphy, JFK, Ben Matogo and Lincoln. You might wonder why I didn’t mention your putative poets like Elizabeth Bishop, WH Auden, Ann Sexton, Ginsberg, Whitman or TS Eliot. Well, that’s because I think that everything beautiful is poetry and that’s all I want to do: create beauty, so the world falls in love with itself anew.
Q: What advice do you have for beginning writers?
They must read then write….Write, write and don’t ever stop writing unless they are taking a break to read, shower or use the toilet. If your nine to five is hectic, wake up at 3:00am and write until 7:00am. You must find your voice and let it roar!
Here’s the promo video for the 2015 edition of Songs of Kiguli. The video is the property of Philip Matogo, and I use it here by his permission, on his behalf and for the Kiguli kids. Please watch.
Take a look at this great promo video for the 2015 edition of Songs of Kiguli, and learn how you can help change the lives of others–and have yours changed as well.