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Vulnerability is Strength: Eight Questions with Mugabi Byenkya

Who are you?

Mugabi Smile.jpg

I am the identities given to me, the ones I have chosen, the ones I have rejected and the ones I have grown into. I am Mugabi Augustine Ateenyi Olatokumbo Mba Byenkya. I am incredibly proud of the fact that every single one of my names is from the African continent and that they do a surprisingly apt job of reflecting my artistry/humanity.

Mugabi is Luganda for ‘The Giver’, predispositioning me to generosity.

Augustine is the Libyan saint and sinner known for his vulnerability and for being as I like to say, the second most famous man to release his confessions after Usher.

Ateenyi is Runyoro for ‘resourceful, cunning and wily’ also the name of a mythical sea serpent.

Olatokumbo is Yoruba for ‘wealth and happiness from a foreign land’ reflective of my birth on foreign soil and perpetual status as a foreigner in different lands.

Mba is Igbo for ‘Death defies admonition’ foreshadowing the intricacies of my intimate relationship with death.

Byenkya is Runyoro for ‘God/Goddess/Ancestors are with us’ and leaning on others strength is the ontly way I get through the day sometimes.

How would you describe your artistic journey?

My artistic journey was born out of curiosity and curiosity continues to sustain it. I remember being a child and wanting to play with my siblings but they were all busy, curled up on the couch reading. Dumbfounded at how reading could be better than playing, I begged my mother to teach me how to read and nothing was the same. I fell in love with storytelling, worldbuilding and listening/absorbing in all forms.

My main challenges in my artistic journey have been: being pushed towards a more ‘practical’ career in the sciences, a lack of knowledge of methods to financially sustain an artistic practice and ill health. My spectacular family (blood and chosen) have and continue to nourish and sustain my artistic practice and for this privilege and blessing, I will forever be grateful <3

What role does healing have in your art?

My artistic practice has been diametrically opposed to my healing for a while. I suffer from multiple disabilities which manifest through chronic fatigue, chronic pain and seizures, amongst other manifestations. Too much or too little exertion makes my disabilities worse and for a long time something as little as 15 minutes of writing would induce a 3 hour long excruciating seizure, migraine, pain flare combo that made me heavily suicidal. I often wondered if creating art was worth the toll it put me through and I honestly don’t think it was. However, art is simultaneously incredibly healing for me, both receiving and creating art. I had to modify the way I view artistic practice and shift from a productivity mindset to one of abundance and acknowledgement of my disabilities and what they tell me, no matter how depressing the news may be. I owe a lot of the modification of my healing practice to my dear friend Naphtalie, who I’m forever grateful to. <3    

How do art, activism, and wellness intersect and intertwine for you?

My art, activism and wellness are intertwined through the new body that I wake up in every day. Every day and several moments within the same day, my limitations and abilities change with little rhyme or reason. This is infuriating to manage but leads to me always thinking through personal modifications/accommodations I can use for accessibility which is important! After all, it is not my marginalizations that truly limit me, more so trying to thrive within a marginalized body in a world not designed for me.

How do you care for yourself and your people?

I try my best to care for myself and my people in the ways that they want/need. Tenderly, lovingly with vulnerability, trust and validation. I want me and my people to be seen, heard and felt. To be celebrated, held consensually in heartspace/whichever space everyone agrees upon all within healthy boundaries. {try being the key word}.

What art of color are you excited about lately?

Fatimah Asghar! Her debut book of poems ‘If They Come For Us’ just came out and I’m VERY excited to buy/read it!! I’m a huge fan of her writing having stumbled across her via an internship. The ‘coming out’ scene in the web-series she co-created/wrote ‘Brown Girls’ was SO spot on to the qtpoc experience and the first time I’d seen that done in the largely whitewashed queer film world. She’s an incredibly powerful, nuanced storyteller whose work I revisit time & time again. It would be an honour to work with her as she seems to be two steps ahead of me in highlighting everything I want to in my work, before I do. Can’t wait to see what she creates next!

@turnjurrel !! The scenes he paints of people of colour doing the most mundane activities with so much tenderness deserve AWL the love and recognition. Can’t wait till I can afford one of his paintings for my space!

My homie Jacque of @adornedbychi has a graphic novel coming out following the adventures of magical black girls steeped in Igbo mythology that I’m SUPER excited to delve into as I respect and am always inspired by her writing.

And my internet cuz Aisha of @fathairjewelry just put out a new line of jewellery for locs and non-locd folk like myself that I just bought a choker off of and can’t wait to rock!

What are you looking forward to?

The 3rd leg of my book tour! I’ve been touring in support of my debut novel Dear Philomena, for the past year and thus far have done 42 shows across 25 cities in North America/East Africa! I have another 20 shows lined up across 15 cities and some potential West Africa dates that I’m super excited for! It’s been a struggle touring while disabled, with plenty cancelled shows due to seizures and recovery days spent laid up in bed partially paralyzed but it’s worth it for: the amazing people I have met, stories shared and memories made! Also, a massive blessing and privilege that I couldn’t do without my amazing family (both chosen and blood) support systems <3   

What affirmations do you have for creatives of color?

Vulnerability is strength

It’s ok not to be ok

Recovery is not linear

Take ownership of the hurt you’ve inflicted on others

Hit me up if you ever wanna chat!

bonus message #fortheculture:

I’m touring through North America/East Africa for the remainder of the year and would love for y’all to come to my shows if the cities sync or hit me up to hang.

more about the artist:

Mugabi Byenkya is a writer, poet and occasional rapper. He was born in Nigeria, to Ugandan parents and is currently based between Kampala and Toronto.

Mugabi was longlisted for the Babishai Niwe Poetry Award in 2015. His essays, articles and poetry have been featured on The Good Men Project, African Writer, Arts and Africa and The Kalahari Review, amongst numerous other publications. He has been interviewed on Voice of America - VOANTV Uganda91.3 CAPITAL FM and Brittle Paper, amongst numerous other media outlets.

Mugabi's writing is used to teach international high school English reading comprehension. His debut novel, ‘Dear Philomena,’ was published in 2017 and he recently concluded a 30 city North America/East Africa tour in support of this. He is currently on a second tour aptly titled, "Is That A World Tour or Your Girls Tour?" which will take him across an additional 25 cities. In 2018, Mugabi was named one of 56 writers who has contributed to his native Uganda’s literary heritage since independence by Writivism. 

An advocate for the intersection of arts, chronic illness, social justice, and literacy, Mugabi leads workshops in effective writing, poetry, performance, vulnerability, mental and chronic illness for youth and adults.

Mugabi wants to be Jaden Smith when he grows up. 

You can buy Mugabi’s book here! You can follow Mugabi via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, their blog, and their website. All purchases go toward funding the tour and making sure they eat so it would be much appreciated!