Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire delivers a powerful piece on the intersection of class and narrative. Hear him and chew on every sentence:
Today I am coming out of my class closet. Although I have of late found myself more agitated than I have ever been about classism, classist exploitation and class prejudice, the ‘higher’ on the postcolonial class ladder I climb if we use those logics, and the more repulsive all this bourgeoisie lifestyle becomes to me, because I actually do not have a complete software for it, given my upbringing: I have actually never belonged to the working class, let that sink in, (has it?), the more enraged I become and the more urgent the need to destroy classism.
That I, who most times will use a class lens to understand people or articulate my concerns about things, do not have a working class background, sometimes is pointed out by a few who know know me, not those who think they know me, but actually refuse or have no software to know me, as a contradiction. It is not contradiction, but let us first continue. Madre was never a ‘blue-collar’ worker. Her job as a primary school teacher makes her a lower middle class person. A so called ‘white-collar’ worker. A ‘professional’ than the so called ‘unskilled’ labourer.
Madre’s position in the middle class is firm, actually. Her father, my grandpa, was also a primary school teacher and all that. You can see for yourselves where I am going with this. Padre on his part, has done the whole class mobility thing, but always, always stopping somewhere at the lower middle class. His class journey is zig zag. There were times in his life when he was a blue collar worker, in Idi Amin’s time, working as a waiter in some dingy eateries in Kampala, I was born when he was a trader and local politician, he is one of those adult educators, there are few sensitisation projects that have happened in the village in which he has not been included as an educator. One day, I will write his story and how at some point, he identified as a peasant. He deserves a book. I am sorry for outing my people, my family and all that, with this coming out.
I am coming out of my middle class closet, however low it is within the bourgeoisie scheme of things because when I got access to this photo, shared here, I did not feel instinctively moved to share. In fact I felt a certain way about it. There is a reason. Similar photos I have shared before, I have done without thinking twice because they were true to my experience. I grew up in a rural area and most of these photos are true to the life we lived.
I once wore those pair of shorts with a hole somewhere and some boy would escape sometimes and get some fresh air. I was always keen to lick the mingling stick to cleanliness whenever Madre made posho or karo. I was such a lover of sugar cane. Although I could afford wearing shoes, slippers etc throughout, I was always barefoot because shoes were for church on Sunday, and for those not very regular trips to town, or to the grandma’s place. Even richer kids on the village did not wear shoes daily anyway. We all went barefoot. There was something about the class dynamics on the village that did not focus on the differences, there was less prejudice. Or it is because by any standard, on the village, I fell on the privileged side, so it may be me using my privilege to understate the suffering of those on the other side.
Fetching firewood is not my experience, this is why I hesitated to share this photo. My earliest memory of me appearing in a tree plantation to fetch firewood, I lost a body part. Literally. Another long story. Madre could afford cooking on a charcoal stove. She earned a monthly salary, you see? I am sharing this photo nevertheless, because when I saw it on Pa Ikhide’s timeline, it reminded me of my class privilege. The image of a child fetching firewood was familiar. My agemates did fetch firewood. It was their reality. Some missed classes to do that. The experience is not mine, though. When I fetched firewood, it was not because I had to, it was a leisure thing. Like, when I grazed goats, it was not because I had to, it was a leisure thing.
Fam, that is me standing in my truth, however ugly and inconvenient. That is who I am. I am not a lower class person. I do not come from peasantry. Peasantry is familiar, I lived around it, but I was never a peasant. I do not come from the working class either. Padre knows that life. Fam: this is why Amilcal Cabral’s idea of class suicide is central to the gospel of any social revolution I want to be involved in. These class privileges must be shed if I am to be a conscious human being. If I am to live a life true to the equality I keep talking about on here.
I do not know how I feel about sharing this photo, even. What are the ethics of sharing a photo that is not true to your experience? It may be familiar, but it is not true. Isn’t this some sort of fetishisation? I told myself I would share this as my coming out of my class closet thing. Otherwise, I would not have shared it. It would have been class appropriation. Yes, I think there is such a thing as appropriation of narratives even at the class level. People talk of cultural appropriation only in terms of race, gender, sexuality and other identity markers, but I think there is one based on class. Which is the only part of poverty porn literary criticism that I agree with. The label of poverty porn for me, does not apply to people’s work, in cases where it is based on personal experience, whether autobiographical or just inspired by.
I agree that some stories are poverty porn, when they are narratives by middle class people, deliberately written to mine poverty (not their experience) for career success. Actually, the root of poverty porn is in the criticism of Western NGOs, the Oxfam types, who come to so called poorer parts of the world, get stories, in text and images, tear-inducing tales, for the purposes of raising money from middle class white people, to the NGOs. This analysis is true of some writers who write about social issues. But it is not true to those who are not appropriating other people’s, those not in their class’ experiences.
Pa Ikhide is right to rail at most of us African middle class writers for our continued mining of the poverty archive. But sometimes, like in 2011 when he applied the lens to Hitting Budapest and Butterfly Dreams, I disagreed with him, because well, those stories were not a case of writers writing about others’ experiences solely for the benefit of their careers. I have not always known enough of the contexts and writing processes of all stories labelled poverty porn to make a judgment of my own. And of course people will be like, this is ‘anthropologisation’ of people’s art, and all that, and of course I will just say to them, the same thing Ikhide says, please read Achebe’s various essays to understand what is at stake. You must know why the description ‘deodorised dogshit’ makes sense. No, you can’t opt out of reading them. Since you are part of this conversation on the politics of art, and its criticism, you surely must read all perspectives.
So, now that I have come out of my class closet, friends, kindly hold me accountable, publicly, privately, in writing, verbally, in person, virtually and any other means you have access to, to this pledge to commit class suicide. We must be human. The more we enforce classism, classist exploitation and prejudice, the more we dehumanise ourselves and those without the class privileges we have hoarded for ourselves. No, you can’t be a humanist on this one. The only humanist option here is socialist. There is nothing humanist about capitalism and class elitism. To commit class suicide is to reclaim our humanity.
– Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire
May 5, 2017