The author’s encounters with Americans range from the fascinating to the shocking and raise compelling questions about freedom, equality and alienation.
- Page Length:
- 250 – 500 Pages
- Book Status:
- Completed Manuscript
American Encounters is a memoir by a Ugandan creative writer, journalist and editor who, for five weeks in September and October 1981, was among some fifty African public officials and professionals that undertook a study tour of the United States of America on a programme meant to improve the skills of middle-cadre officials perceived to have potential as future African leaders. As the only writer-cum-journalist in the group, the author was facilitated to travel alone most of the journey that took him from Long Island to Westport, New Haven, Seattle, Winston Salem, Washington DC and, finally, New York.
Along the way and in each of these cities, he met and talked to mostly American writers, theatre professionals, newspaper editors and academicians; attended rehearsals and performances by some groups; and also addressed a community audience. American Encounters recounts the author’s memorable experiences on the journey that are replete with ominous clashes of culture and ideology and feature riveting classical Africa-meets-America type of episodes that pose fundamental questions on issues such as human freedom, social deprivation and the rights of minority groups. Against this background, the author finds that, everywhere he goes, he is required to explain what went wrong that Uganda could be ruled by a dictator like Idi Amin for close to a decade (1971 – 79). Paradoxically, his country was for all that time hitting international news headlines for the wrong reasons.
Highlights in American Encounters include one on the very first night of their stay for orientation at a holiday inn at Long Island when the adventurous author is involved in a verbal altercation with two white gentlemen (who do not seem to like his presence) as he takes a drink. One of the men tells the author point-blank that he does not care whether he has been invited to America by the State Department: “Who the hell is the State Department? George Bush (then US vice president) is my personal friend.” At Yale University, New Haven, he quickly abandons notes for a community group lecture because while he thought he was going to address a mixed community meeting, he finds the audience is predominantly white. At Seattle, Washington State, he is appalled that the city residents break into celebration that the US government has ordered for the production of the MX Missile which can destroy humanity at the switch of a button. For the Seattle people, what is important is that the Boeing plant that will make some of the missile components will guarantee them 1,200 jobs. Still in Seattle, he is forced to wait and watch in fear of possible arrest at a house of a professional actor who requests they go together to his house to pick “cash for an extra drink”, only for the actor to end up in a drug-puffing orgy with the cab driver that took them. While travelling from Greensboro to Winston Salem, North Carolina, he gets another shock when the limousine chauffer asks him discretely whether he has “the weed”. And an otherwise low-key stay in Winston Salem is sharply galvanized by television images of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat being assassinated at a military parade in his country. For his very close ties with the United States, the assassination is ominous. In Washington DC, the author comes face-to-face with the frightening reality of black youths with groggy but penetrating eyes roaming the streets in the evenings. This reinforces similar scenes he saw in a poor neighborhood of Westport. And when he thought he had mastered how to get along in America, he is left looking like a zombie when, returning to his hotel after having dinner at a Lexington Avenue restaurant, three street girls surround him, caress him into a love-like stupor, pick his pockets clean, and disappear as fast as they came under the full glare of Manhattan lights.
As the plane returning the “future African leaders” back to Africa takes off from the John Fitzgerald Kennedy International Airport in New York, the author starts to wake up from his version of the “American dream” and gears himself to plunge back into the rough-and-tumble of African society and politics and the complexities of sitting on the edge of a boiling cauldron as contending forces struggle for pieces of the “fruits of independence”.
Interview with Mukotani Rugyendo
You have worked as a journalist and technical writer. How has writing a memoir been different?
I found writing a memoir different from journalistic or technical writing in two major respects. First, for the memoir, I had to rely entirely on memorizing the incidents, events and trends, many of which were faint in my memory. I had not made any notes during the tour and I did not refer to any factual document. This meant that while the outline of the tour was factual, the details of the events as they unfolded and played out relied more on memorized images and impressions of what I remembered to have happened and how I felt or reacted to all the situations, which did not necessarily have to reproduce fact or historical truth. In journalistic or technical writing, there would be an almost mandatory requirement to get the incident and historical facts correct. In writing the memoir, however, I relied more on the thematic importance of what was happening and portrayed situations that would help the reader to get into the emotional and intellectual motivations of the characters portrayed, my attitude towards them and theirs towards me so as to bring the relevance of focusing on the lofty themes and ideals into sharper relief.
Second, and indeed related to the first aspect, was that for the memoir, I had to employ more of the creative techniques of imagination, narration, description, dialogue construction, etc, to create realistic and credible situations and characters and ensure I did not unduly falsify what was known to be historically true. The artistic strength of the memoir lies in how far I have succeeded in making the narrative readable and interesting and, at the same time, enriching the reader’s appreciation of the importance of the thematic concerns the characters and author grapple with. This recourse to creativity is very much akin to memoir writing and not journalistic or technical writing.
2. Where would you like to travel to that you haven’t yet visited?
I would value visiting India next. This is because I have not had the chance to travel to any of the eastern countries before. I would prefer India to any of the others because of its extreme diversities. It is intriguing how sections of the society have quickly adapted to advances and trends in modern technological and cultural development and made impressive leaps forward – whether in information technology, manufacturing, cinema industry, etc, that project the image of the society among the developed peers. At the same time, India is caught in a complex of extremities whereby the gap between the haves and have-nots has become so wide that its successes may be compromised by its inability to create a more equitable society. There is on the whole a cryptic form of contradiction that is intellectually challenging and culturally enigmatic that it would be very interesting to interact with the people and portray their personal and social motivations and aspirations in this milieu.
Whose writing do you look to for inspiration?
At the age of 66, there is no single writer that inspires me. Even in my earlier development, I fought very hard to minimize the artistic influence of the established masters because I abhorred the temptation to copy or plagiarize. Over the last forty or so years I have admired and read repeatedly the works of authors like William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Robert Tressell, Lu Hsun, Bertolt Brecht, William Golding and Chinua Achebe, among others. At the same time, I do not believe that any single author can have all the answers or qualities. Each of the literary giants I have loved and admired made captivating contributions to notable areas of humanity’s cultural heritage. I have also mentioned elsewhere that prior to deciding to write the memoir, I got the insight that my encounters on the US tour could make a readable narrative from reading two books by Maya Angelou. In all, I always value literature with literary honesty, strongly memorable characterization, emotionally-charged situations and freely-flowing narrative.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself while traveling?
The most surprising thing I learnt was that on most occasions I had to force myself in bottle up some of the cultural and emotional extravagances and indulgences that I had always taken as part and parcel of my life as an African. I discovered that what I took for granted as acceptable behavior given my African background tended to be frowned upon by those from different cultural settings. This was compounded by the fact that my sensitivities as an African and consciousness of the history of the African Americans’ struggle for their rights made me far more sensitive to what I perceived as blatant but ingeniously veiled alienation of these rights. I also found that as an African, I had just assumed that I could march freely and walk anywhere without limitation in what I considered democratic America; yet I encountered many sensitive and very conscious African Americans who advised me to ‘take care’ at every turn. This created tension within me which in time dampened my initial excitement about what the much-hyped American dream really entailed. I learnt to approach every new situation with caution and circumspection.
Mukotani was born in Uganda in 1949. He attended Kihorezo School, Kigezi High School, Ntare School, graduating from the University of Dar es Salaam with a First in Literature and Theatre. He worked as a book, journal, newspaper & magazine editor in East Africa, a Foreign Service officer in Uganda’s diplomatic service and a civil society communications officer. He previously published a collection of plays, The Barbed Wire and Other Plays, and several poems, stories and reviews.