Every writer that has endured the exactions of that craft, knows that the most difficult thing in telling any story—is how to end it.
Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa was one such teller of stories—a gleaming ray in the literary sky of our young country who shone brightly, albeit too briefly.
‘Joel is gone.’
The cold text of the sentence, like a grim mist of grey sorrow, rose from the dimness of my phone’s screen and wrapped itself around my pulseless heart for one long eternity.
‘How? Why? When? … Impossible! Impossible!’
The turbulent storm of disbelief and denial that followed this shocker flowed from an earnest, aye, even a desperate wish for the news to be anything, but true.
I dashed frenziedly to Joel’s social media platforms to dispel the falsity; hoping Ntwatwa’s renowned and almost religious online presence would put a firm lid on the miasma of the bad rumor.
Sadly, the tragic tale turned out to be fact.
Ntwatwa’s Twitter and Facebook accounts were awash with a barrage of mourning—and the endless stream of comments roved from distraught condolence to shocked consternation.
With the exception of those closest to him—his immediate family and bosom companions who were aware of his illness’ severity, and the grueling battles he’d fought in this regard—very few of us who knew Joel ‘at a distance’ had been prepared for his untimely passing. And fewer still were ready to accept it.
One online commenter—likely reeling with pained disbelief—went as far as to say that this time God had been patently unfair—either in deed, or by omission.
Why rob a mother of two sons merely within weeks of each other?
Why deprive the nation of a priceless gift, too soon, and too suddenly?
For that is what Ntwatwa was to the fledgling literary community in this country, a gift. A perceptive and generous soul who gave and taught as much as he was prepared to learn and grow.
Our paths—Ntwatwa’s and mine—first crossed some five or so years ago, so it would be dishonest of me to claim to have known him intimately. I didn’t. Though I can say without hesitance, that the brief but deeply enriching interfaces we had over the years made me wish our friendship had been a lot closer.
At that time, I’d just recently discovered, through the aegis of another gracious friend, a coterie of very young but very proud poets in Kampala—who were then only still plotting what a couple of years later would become an arguably successful coup on the country’s literary conscience.
These young word-aficionados and connoisseurs of letters, whose grandiose name I later learnt was The Lantern Meet of Poets, met bi-monthly at various stations within the National Theatre compound to debate and discuss the nation’s literature and politics; and try to make guesses at where the two concepts confluenced—and boy, did they make some guesses!
My earliest memories of Joel, who was a permanent fixture at these Lantern Meets (meetings), are those of an almost ethereal and detached sapience. Bespectacled and retiring, Ntwatwa always gave one the impression that his mind was constantly occupied by lofty and elevated thought.
One could be forgiven for thinking him snobbish—but that illusion only lasted for as long as he kept his silence. Once you heard Joel speak, then the diametric opposite became true.
The first peculiarity I noticed about Joel and his poet friends was their habit of insisting that we seat arrayed in a circle during these Meets—possibly to enforce some streak of socialist egalitarianism that ran through their collective philosophy; but more specifically—and this I gathered from their own words—to tap into the meta-force of ancient Africa’s cyclic organizing principle which they maintained recurred in her architecture, art and other social formations.
And yet even in this poetry circle that sought to achieve a unifying if not uniformizing effect upon its converts, each individual in the group still stood out like an iconoclastic thumb.
Many were prominent for the loud, bold way they said things—but a handful reposed in quiet dignity, interposing a gentle word every now and then; which word had the unfailing effect of swinging conversation almost instantly in the direction of the fresh perspective they’d offered.
Ntwatwa was the unquestioned ‘kingpin’ of this second camp—a cautious prince in this legion of silent geniuses. He had a characteristic subtlety to him—a way of putting things so casually and forcelessly that even the most complex or controversial of debates was made reachable to any mind, infant or otherwise.
As a young poet, I was very eager to learn the finer aspects of the trade, and while many of Joel’s peers were willing to help, it is only he and a few others who—perhaps because their reticence made them less intimidating—were best able to reach down and yank those of us tottering fledglings up.
I’ll never forget the first time I ever heard the word erstwhile used anywhere. It was in a poem Ntwatwa had written, and I recall being so enchanted by this almost magical allure of the word and the mind that had authored it. If I’d been told Ntwatwa was the world’s foremost Poet at the time, I don’t believe I’d ever have questioned the fact, or even ever wanted to.
But it all our years of friendship, one memory stands highlighted against the foreground of its kin.
I remember vividly, even fondly—two or so years back—when Ntwatwa and I discovered ourselves in adjacent seats inside the lambent interior of the National Theatre’s main auditorium, counting down the hours left to the night’s first performance in what would be the Lantern Meet’s recital swansong.
I can’t quite recall who started the conversation—I suppose it must’ve been me, given Joel’s famous introversion and penchant for the pensive. But we soon begun discussing all manner of subjects—politics, literature, the hard-hitting economy, the woes of being a writer, the burdens of life … love … falling in and out of it, being wounded by it …
Eventually, we talked about God.
At the time, I recall I’d just began nursing what would later grow to become serious doubts on the subject—and I didn’t hesitate to share these with Joel.
He listened quietly—only interrupting occasionally to clarify a point he thought he’d misheard, or ask a brief question. When I finished—he was silent for a while, gazing into space; or at the musty and peeling woodwork of the theatre ceiling—I can’t have been certain which.
I remember him heaving a deep and slow sigh, before smiling rather enigmatically. He referred to my doubts as the ‘big questions’ of life, and then surprisingly—he encouraged me to keep seeking answers.
To say the least—I was humbled. Here was a young man I knew to be a devout disciple of the Christian Christ, and a proud member of the country’s unapologetically vocal Pentecostal movement. Yet no effort emerged on his part to contradict me, or argue, or piously quote scripture, or turn his attention away in self-righteous contempt.
What he wanted from me really, was honesty. He said, ‘Manzi, try and be true to your soul and your heart. If your beliefs give you peace and purpose, and keep you strong on dark days, then stand by them—whatever they may be.’
In the end, this—I am convinced—is what drove Ntwatwa’s life and his every endeavor in it; a firm pursuit of whatever truth there was to be found, and an obstinate faith in the honesty of things.
I only came to know the specifics of Joel’s medical struggles after his passing—something that makes me admire him even more, now that I think back on how little of his inner turmoil he let show.
Never once did I see him betray weakness, or any uncertainty borne out of a dread of what the morrow held. I don’t think I could have endured so heavy a lode for so long, or been as strong as he proved to be. I don’t for a second believe I could have lived as fully or as fearlessly as he did—knowing that every day, every breath—could well have been my last.
It is a testament to the fortitude of the son, brother and friend Ntwatwa was. Perhaps adversity makes us stronger—or is it only the strong who are able to bear adversity in this world?
Benjamin bore his cross with affection—for people and ideas—and the gentlest of temperaments. His burden was heavy and his shoulders laden, but his soul remained light and loving.
All who knew him agree that Ntwatwa was a prolific and dedicated writer, a young man committed to the artform in ways few young people ever can offer their best to anything—but perhaps more than any other, the one time we ever felt truly proud of our Ugandanness was the day Joel penned a brilliant response in defense of our nation’s greatest literary export, Okot p’Bitek.
Tee Ngugi, son to the great Ngugi (wa Thiong’o) had some days earlier written a caustic essay in which he berated the simplistic reductionism of our country’s most famous work of art—Song of Lawino—and the tragic hero, Okot, who left it in bequest to our bleeding and blistered land.
Ntwatwa, unleashing that incisive brilliance which he’d thus-far succeeded in concealing from the wider world, did Okot and Uganda’s immortal art-piece justice in his bold and poignant response to Ngugi. Both pieces are available below:
Ngugi’s original essay: [How Song of Lawino crippled Africa’s art].
Joel’s essay in response: [Ntwatwa’s remarkable defence of Uganda’s Song of Lawino].
What makes the tragedy of Ntwatwa’s death doubly painful is that he’d lost his elder brother only a few weeks before. One cannot even begin to imagine how heart-wrenching a time this therefore must be for the family, especially for their mother.
Ntwatwa’s sad and undeserved passing has doubtless left an unfillable pit in our hearts, but if his life taught us anything—it is to live with unflagging faith in the finest of life’s things—in friendship, in silent moments spent beside those we hold dear, in the power of art and thought, in the somber acceptance of death’s certainty.
Wherever Ntwatwa is gone, we too follow—and much sooner than we’d hope or prefer. Yet go we shall.
But while we still abide in this impermanent vale of teary sorrow, let us make mock of the things that would make mock of us—infirmity, depression, and the paralyzing unbelief in our own ability to live forever—if not in body, then in memory.
Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa told his story bravely and beautifully, but what he probably forgot—aye, what we all oft forget—is that one’s story is also everyone’s story.
Yours is mine, and his is hers. Ours, is theirs.
Only yesterday, my own paternal grandfather went to join Ntwatwa and his brother—and the many other dear departed of ours—in the realm of the everlasting. So for me, this has been a somewhat sobering time—a time to reflect on the transience of existence, on the shortness of joy and ambition; and on the indiscriminate coldness of death, who purloins young and old alike, full and empty, alike.
The stories of those who have been taken, and are now gone from us, are not finished—but only waiting to be continued.
Let us pick up Ntwatwa’s down-lain quill, and continue the telling.
His dedication to bearing the heavy mantle that is Uganda’s sputtering literary flambeau will doubtless light the way for generations to come, and continue brightening our own hearts and minds in this one.
This world will miss you, Joel—with unfathomable, unquenchable sadness—but we can never forget.
18th February, 2018.
Joel’s passing happened on the 11th of February; and a more detailed and intimate narration of Ntwatwa’s final moments is given by his friend and colleague Alex Twino, from Turn The Page Africa where, among countless other spaces, Joel pursued his literary passion for many years: http://ttpafrica.com/obituary-joel-benjamin-ntwatwa/