Anselm Kizza Besigye
Anselm’s tinder bio reads “swipe right if ur a crazy liberal.” A year later I am meeting him at a bagel shop on a Sunday afternoon in February. We hug and excuse ourselves from his friend group, heading to a cafe I have in mind. I ask him about school and the project I’m interviewing him about. When we arrive at the coffee shop, a tiny two story building with dark walls and an awkwardly long French name, I order us green teas and we settle in upstairs. I hit record, fire off the first few questions, and then listen in awe as he glides through topic after topic. Anselm tells me an almost well rehearsed history of his parents’ political careers and all the places he’s lived. I am aware that two of the tables next to us remain hushed, the occupants are likely listening to him speak. Afterward I haphazardly photograph him as we mill down 5th Ave, asking him to sit on the stoop of a beautiful brownstone and stopping him on street corners to smile into my lens. We end up in the park at Union Square, climbing on the jungle gym and talking about elementary school. I snap some photos on a disposable camera as we walk and then we part ways. Here’s what we talked about that afternoon:
Alright, so can you tell me what your name is?
My name is Anselm Kizza Besigye.
How old are you?
I’m seventeen, my birthday’s in September.
Nice! And where are you based out of?
Ah okay so this is an interesting question. Well, both my parents are Ugandan. I was born in Uganda and I spent my first three years there. I moved to South Africa when I was three and a half - four? And then I moved to Ethiopia when I was five, then when I was seven I moved to New Jersey. I lived in New Jersey until I was thirteen and then I moved to England. Before Mom moved to England I went to boarding school in Connecticut. Choate Rosemary Hall is the name of the school, and at the end of this year I'm moving to Kenya, probably, or New York, I don’t know. But yeah, that’s sorta me.
That’s a lot of places! Why’d you move around so much?
Well so, my parents were both involved in Ugandan politics when I was younger. Uganda has had the same president for like thirty-something years. He’s very despotic and, um, he rigs elections. My parents were part of his party at the beginning of their political careers, but as the party became more corrupt and lost its touch with the people it was supposed to represent, both my parents left the party. They started their own party, which is the first opposition party in the country. My parents were both opposition politicians for maybe ten years or so? And then towards the end of that my dad decided to run for president.
During his first campaign there was a huge effort on the part of the government to stop him from campaigning, by like, constantly making up false charges that kept him in court or like arresting him, stuff like that. At a certain point, you know, they started to arrest and torture my family and my cousins and my step brother. So a lot of my family left to go to America and the UK. Both my parents were still really actively involved [in Ugandan politics] but things started to get very difficult for me as a three year old kid. At one point I was arrested, which is really funny and yeah, I was held overnight at a jail cell. My mom has told me that one time she was going to court, to fight some court case she was in at the time, and I was like “Oh, are you going to work?” and she was like “No no no, I’m going to court.” and I was like “Isn’t that where you work though?”
Everyone in Ugandan politics was like “This kid is having his childhood taken away by politics.” There was just a lot of noise about whether or not I’d be a normal kid, because of the stuff that was going on. My parents were like “What are we going to do?” My dad wouldn't give up his political career, so my mom gave up hers. And she took a year off of politics and started teaching in South Africa. Eventually at the end of that year she was like “Yeah there’s no way that things are going to get better.” She decided to leave politics once and for all. She taught at the University of Cape Town for two years, then got a job at the African Union in Ethiopia, working with women’s rights in their gender department. After two years of that she got a job working as the head of the United Nations’ development program’s gender team. She did that for seven years because she didn't want to move me in the middle of my childhood again. Once I got to high school she started looking for other jobs. She now works as the head of Oxfam International, which is an international NGO, and at that point she moved to England. So yeah, that’s sort of my movement.
That’s... a lot of movement. I’m someone who grew up basically living in the same place my entire life, and your story is unimaginable to me.
[Laughing] Yeah, that’s crazy, I can't relate.
I noticed that you mentioned everyone was worried that you’d not turn out normal. Do you think you turned out normal?
I guess sorta yes and no. I think people were worried that I wouldn’t have a normal childhood, but I think I did. My parents tried really hard to insulate me from politics as a kid.
Yeah I know, very poorly, they did an awful job.[Laughing] But I did all the normal things. I ran around and like played with birds and stepped on turtles and stuff like that. So I think I had a normal childhood. I think the most lasting impact of my childhood was just like, exposure to watching politics happen first hand and being able to understand that individuals can have a big change on the societies they live in. And that definitely made me a political person, but I don’t think I was extremely scarred by it.
I think that one thing that really shaped me was the fact that growing up there were all these adults who would try to tell me about my life. On either side of the political aisle there was this movement to sort of capture me in a narrative. My parents’ supporters would say “Look at this kid who’s been tortured by the government. It’s so unfortunate.” And my parents’ opposition would basically say “Look at this privileged kid who is living all over the world, everyone else in Uganda is suffering. Why isn't he here?” So there’s always been this movement to capture me in whatever light was convenient? And I think it made me someone who’s really focused on defining myself. It’s made me someone who cares about public speaking and writing, and just being able to say “This is the real me.” and to deny all these other people’s descriptions of what I should be like, or what I am like.
Your process of self definition seems really different from that of a lot of young people. What do you think you could offer to people who are trying to define themselves. What do you think your experience has taught you?
My parents were really good about always empowering me with words and telling me to use my words. And so I think the one thing I’d tell people is that words are our biggest allies, and defining yourself is really a process of finding the vocabulary to say what you want to say about yourself. Being young I would internalize a lot of vocabulary, partially because I was insecure about being a foreigner and having an accent and not understanding English that well, but also partly because I just thought that it was really important to know words. When I write now, I think my biggest hardship is not using words that are very obscure and sort of anachronistic. Learning to debate, joining my school’s debate club, stuff like that, those were all focused at empowering me to be like “This is who I am, and I know exactly how to say it.” To a certain degree I think it’s sort of like an exercise in being reductionist. Part of defining yourself is defining who you’re not. It’s sort of a crap shoot in a sense, you never want to define yourself to such a degree that you can’t be fluid. I think that sometimes I do have a tendency to say that I’m more simple than I am or less multifaceted than I am, for the sake of clarity and for the sake of being able to say this is who I am, and not accept nuance and shades of grey. Anyways, I would say that my process of self definition has definitely been surrounded by finding the right vocabulary and finding the ways to tell people exactly what I want to say about myself. I think language is the best way to do that.
So, you did a project with poetry and language, can you tell me a little about that?
Yeah! So basically last summer I did a program called The Telluride Association Summer Programs, which is a six week free seminar. I applied and got in, so I went to one at Cornell. It was taught by these two fantastic Cornell professors and it was about public poetry in the digital world. We were talking about how poetry relates to society and how poets have influenced societies that they’re in.
One of the first readings was this John D. Niles essay about Beowulf . It was basically about what oral poetry is and how it influences societies as a whole. He gave six properties of oral poetry. Some of them were more simple like, to gather people, put people in a physical space, because it’s a performance art rather than something you read by yourself, and that has a socially cohesive function. He described how oral poetry can have a profound impact on how people identify and the kinds of conceptions people create about their society and who’s in it and who’s not.
Later I read another book called Decolonising the Mind by Ngúgí wa Thiong'o, who’s one of my favorite authors of all time. It was about the movement to restructure the English curriculum in Kenyan universities in the 1970’s after the liberation of Kenya from colonization. The pre-existing curriculums had been almost entirely works from dead white people. He was saying that while those are part of the British canon, there’s a really profoundly negative effect of only reading that as a Kenyan child. It causes you to lose a sense of touch with the poetry and the culture of your own people, and you start to only be able to conceptualize literature from a white perspective. He was advocating that the curriculums should be restructured around Kenyan oral poetry, first because there's a long history of Kenyan oral poetry, it’s one of their staples and they have a very rich tradition, but also because he thought that it's a really accessible medium. You don't need to be literate to create an oral poem. He thought that that would give people the power to listen to everybody's narrative in a country that was still mostly illiterate. So he described the movement to change the curriculum as a movement to decolonize people’s minds and liberate the Kenyans who had been suffering.
I read a whole bunch of things from postcolonial writers and it made me think about the society we live in today, particularly in England. In England the society is so... segregated. Like, it’s incredible. It’s also really really racist but nobody talks about it. Race is like America’s original sin, but the UK abolished slavery and there was never a civil war about it, so people just don’t talk about it. There weren’t that many slaves in the UK, most black people in the country are immigrants from West Africa or the Caribbean. Most of them moved in the 1930’s -1950’s so there’s only a recent story of black Britain. Most black British people are second or third generation and still really connected to their cultures, but still very very oppressed. In terms of the national psyche, in the media and everywhere, black people are just not represented and not considered part of what it means to be British. Recently there was this movement to restrict immigration and restrict refugees being brought into the country, because of this concept of losing Britishness. Which is like coded language for losing whiteness, right? So I started thinking about how oral poetry could be a way to challenge that dynamic.
Beowulf made two separate cultures more unified and changed the way people defined who was part of their society. It was also a way for people who were Anglo-Saxons to identify with something that was British and start to reconfigure their sense of identity and belonging. I thought that was something that could be profoundly impactful for black Britain but also Britain as a whole. British people really need to have a reimagining of their identity, to disavow this white nationalist conception and even all these backwards conceptions about who is British. So I started thinking about all these things and I was like “I want to start an anthology of British oral poetry, particularly because there is so much good British oral poetry.
I thought that it was a way to empower black British people and validate their art, because really the only mainstream success of british oral poetry was Def Jam and that was it. And like, Def Jam’s done! It’s an art form that is so underrepresented and so undervalued in this country. That’s where my project The Diasporic Oral Poetry Anthology came from.
After my summer program I sat down and just wrote a template email that was like “Hi I’m Anselm, I go to Choate, I’m starting an oral poetry anthology that deals with people from the African and Caribbean diasporas in England and I really like your work.” In every email I would make sure to include something about their art work that I really enjoyed and I would just send all of these emails to everyone I could find. [I contacted] the national oral poets who had been really famous, Soundcloud rappers, people I saw on YouTube, I’d DM people on Twitter. Every single small connection I found was another way to find other people to email. By the end of maybe a week and a half - two weeks (which is not that long of a time to wait) these four amazing poets had responded to me and said “I’ll work with you.”
One of them was George the Poet, who’s becoming pretty famous. He’s really cool and he’s also Ugandan so we connect in that way. Another one was Sophia Thakur. She was really famous from a young age. In her freshman year of university she was doing all these gigs and touring all over the country because she just sort of became accidentally famous from writing a few poems in high school. One of them was this guy named Adebayo who goes by the name BIKO. I found him on Soundcloud and his music is just so lyrical and I really liked it. Another was Nick Makoha, he’s also Ugandan and he’s a refugee. He left Uganda when he was really young because of the Idi Amin regime. What I really like about his work is that he is trying to reconfigure, fill in the narrative of his childhood in Uganda that was totally lost to him. So he writes a lot about the Ugandan civil war and the 1970’s, even though he wasn’t, you know, really cognisant of it. He does all this research on that point in his life because it was a real fracture point for him. I can really relate to him because he’s also somebody who’s traveled all around the world. So yeah, all these really cool poets, and then I also met with the president of the Royal African Society. He literally wrote the book on Africa. Like, it’s called “Africa.” It’s this really thick book where I got a lot of my background information on British migration to the United States and the state of black Britain. It was sort of what I used to contextualize the piece as a whole. I interviewed him and I interviewed the four poets and I recorded their poetry. Yeah, so that was the project.
That’s awesome! That sounds like quite an outreach, but it sounds like you had a really great payoff too. And you have a website right? What is that?
The website is dopanthology.com and it has all the recordings and interviews and the things that I wrote. Yeah, it was a lot of work, but I got it together. It’s sort of a living breathing project, there’s still a lot of people who I want to email. I want to carry it on in college when I have more time.
What do you think is expected of young people in our culture currently?
I think young people are woefully disenfranchised and not really engaged. I expect young people to be pushing and advocating for change. When I think about being in college next year, in a Trump presidency, I remember all of the college students in the 1960’s who were relentless in advocating for justice at a really steep personal cost. They were really living it, living and breathing their message. I think that maybe it’s just because the environment that I’m in is so high pressure and nobody really has time to “be an activist.” Or like, not enough people do it. I think that young people now are not willing to pay the personal cost of activism and just are way too willing to accept all of these ideals. A lot of times it bothers me when people are like “Oh yeah, don’t call them Nazis, just call them the alt-right, just give ‘em a chance, listen to them.” Stuff like that I think really makes people less willing to fight the good fight I guess, and be more willing to be tolerant of what we should never be tolerant of.
Can you remember a time when you felt powerful? Or when do you feel powerful? (Either works)
Well, I wrote a column in my school’s newspaper. I’m sort of that guy who writes the controversial leftist pieces in the hundred year old school newspaper. I think it makes me feel powerful because it makes me feel like people take my words seriously and are forced to contend with my ideas, which are... hugely at odds with some of the things that people think. [I’ll explain] one of the most poignant times that that happened.
[At Choate] we don’t have cheerleaders but we have what’s called “the boar pen” which is a group of seniors who make noise at soccer games and you know, are like a pep squad. I don’t really understand what they do. But they were hosting a field hockey game and they announced that it was Hawaiian themed. I’m sitting here in school meeting thinking “That’s so appropriative, that’s not okay!” They were very reductionist about Hawaiian culture and saying “Wear swimwear and Hawaiian shirts and bring floaties.” I was like “Do you think the whole island of Hawaii is a Six Flags?!” I just thought it was so frustrating. So I wrote this article about the appropriation of Hawaiian culture and how it’s really disruptive. Obviously I’m not Hawaiian, but I can relate to that, so I started talking about how I feel when people like Kylie Jenner get dreadlocks and how it’s accessorizing something that’s much more significant to certain cultures. I included a bunch of quotations from perspectives of Hawaiian people who were like “I’m vehemently opposed to the kinds of things that you guys are doing.” And you know, I said some maybe inflammatory things, maybe I said like “Cultural appropriation enables imperialism.” People get scared of words like imperialism.
Later that day this guy, who lives in my dorm and plays sports, saw me in the dining hall. I was walking with my food and he calls my attention from across the dining hall. He just picks up my article and crumples it in his hands. I was shocked. What am I supposed to do? He wasn’t inviting me in for a conversation, he was just saying “Fuck you.” I guess it makes me feel powerful when people are reacting to what I have to say.
I’ve written about a lot of things and a lot of people disagree with me. I’d say most people disagree with me. I think that when I’m able to articulate how I feel and people read it and people take me seriously, that’s when I feel the most powerful. So you know, Friday when the news comes out it’s a good day for me. People get tired of me talking about wealth inequality at dinner tables but, for me it's really important that people are paying attention and engaging.
Amazing. That’s all I have for now. Thank you so much!