The Snake Farmers
Yusuf Serunkuma, a 2014–2015 Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Proposal Development Fellow, researches Somali identity as it is constituted through poetry at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, located in Kampala, Uganda. In addition to conducting innovative academic scholarship, Serunkuma moonlights as a successful playwright, his work written in his native Uganda and staged most recently in Kenya. His latest published work, The Snake Farmers, was reviewed in the Standard Digital. The Snake Farmers is set in the fictional country of Sahara, where a small village is overrun by a “snake epidemic,” which threatens the lives of both members of the community and livestock. International attention finds the small village at the center of a sizeable relief-aid campaign. Unfortunately for the village elders, once the snakes have been driven out of the community, all financial support leaves with them. They are left with a difficult decision: Do they continue releasing snakes into the village so they can maintain their newly comfortable lifestyles? Through parody, Serunkuma asks trenchant questions about development aid, the role of local and international politics, and the place of power in these matters.
We spoke with Serunkuma about his writing practice, his influences, and the balance between academic and creative work.
Could you talk about writing plays in addition to conducting PhD work? I’m intrigued by this interdisciplinary practice, using the humanities to address issues I’m sure you see in your academic work.
Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o inspires me a lot. Although he is not talked about as a satirist, he has had occasion to laugh at the world. He is a literary politician, if you like. During my undergraduate studies, I almost memorized, word-for-word, his “A Mercedes Funeral,” which is an amazing short story about the absurdity of electioneering in Kenya, but quite representative of much of the continent. Fiction then becomes an important way of thinking about, laughing at, and reimagining society.
Sometimes it is difficult to laugh at the world we live in, with the injury, the pain, the absurdity, and what Antonio Gramsci called “the postcolonial incredible.” However, we are always learning to laugh to keep our hopes alive. Drama helps us do this. It often generates laughter, and laughter has one very lovely component: being infectious. So my plays invite people to laugh with others, but in the process laugh at themselves.
Incidentally, creative writing—drama in this case—has not been part of my graduate work. But I must agree that graduate study continues to polish the way I look at the world. For example, one of the big debates in the study of Africa is the place of foreign aid. If you read Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid against Samir Amin’s article “Underdevelopment and Dependency in Africa” [published in the Journal of Modern African Studies], you see a bit of a debate on the question of responsibility. Who is responsible for underdevelopment in Africa? Is it the continent’s colonial legacy—and by extension, capitalist production—or the Africans themselves? This is perhaps one of the major and oldest questions on the topic. I do not recall exactly how I was inspired to write The Snake Farmers, but I think it was a frustration with the war in northern Uganda. I think the war, as a problem, was home farmed, sadly, by those expected to stop it.
How are you using satire to address the dilemma of NGO presence in Africa, and what made you choose this form rather than a more dramatic one?
First, I do not set out to address NGOs as a problem. This is how Dr. Jennifer Muchiri of the University of Nairobi chose to read the play [in her review for the Standard Digital], although her reading of the play was very interesting. I’m quite general in my play, laughing at those who have been entrusted with certain modes of power and have chosen to use it for their selfish ends. There are many problem farmers on the continent masquerading as peacemakers, development actors, or human rights advocates, etcetera. I intended to look at their internal selves—the things they deal in under the cover of darkness. I’m generally interested in laughing at power; laughing at its daytime or media self-portrayal by unveiling its nighttime exploits.
The Snake Farmers is not necessarily about NGOs—although I really liked Dr. Muchiri’s NGO reading of the play. And I think there will be more exciting angles in future. But if I may mislead my readers—a very big literary crime I’m committing here—I think the play is about power and its misuse. In this, I tend to think that I’m questioning, like Frederick Cooper’s Colonialism in Question, the moral responsibility of Africa’s so-called leaders. More directly, however, one could say it is about the absurdity that foreign aid is, especially in its current shape; aid has been as devastating as the slave trade or colonialism.
On form, I did not choose a form; say, satire over a more dramatic play. When I have had occasion to write creatively, it bores me if I do not find my writing funny or at least strange. Our National Curriculum Development Centre suggested that I'm a bawdy humorist! I love to read my sentences with a grin.
You’ve published a play now—are there showings of it? What is your relationship to writing a play and the process of having the play preformed?
I should say it is somewhat difficult getting a play staged in Kampala, especially by a writer who is not a full-time performer. This is more logistical than political, although it has been political a few times. And I think I have not been very aggressive taking my play to the theater groups. I have received some good feedback from those in the industry, but I have been a bit busy to follow up. However, this play received some stage presence outside Uganda. When the first draft of the manuscript was ready—which I thought was final then—my friend Dr. Kathryn Barrett-Gaines adapted and used it as a set book for her class African History after 1800 at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Her class staged and taped the performance. It was slotted time to air on the university’s YouTube channel, Discover UMES. However, it wasn’t shown.
What do you think the role of political writing is on the continent, versus scholarship, in investigating political situations?
Political creative writing in Africa has a long history. In fact, many anticolonial struggles had political creative writers who awakened the masses (what you would call homegrown intellectuals). Much of Ngugi’s writing is political—especially the play Mother, Sing for Me, which was banned from showing in Nairobi and nearly got the author arrested. The great Somali anticolonial hero Sayyid Maxamed Cabdille Xasan was a poet. He effectively used poetry to mobilize political support. I really think we need both ways of appreciating the world. Art forms such as drama, the novel, and poetry help us generate a common consciousness; they cobble a worldview. Scholarly inquiry, say through graduate work, helps us think about, reflect, or question the ways in which this consciousness is cultivated, manipulated, and exercised. Artistic expression has often played this role, too. However, I believe art’s approach is more humble and subtle than scholarly work, while being equally if not more powerful. There’s an essay by the Ugandan poet Okot p’ Bitek, “Artist the Ruler,” that is a must-read on this question. I tend to think there is a problem in looking at these two forms as dichotomies. They are complementary.
In Conversation with Natalie Reinhart