Gilbert Atukunda is a teacher of English Language and Literature at the Aga Khan High School, Kampala, where he has also been serving as the Head of the Languages Department since 2017. He has worked with students and teachers to build a spoken word poetry tradition, which empowers students to express themselves with confidence, whilst also collaborating with other students to create poetry that educates and entertains the world. As a spoken word poetry artist, Gilbert takes pleasure in organising and hosting the school’s annual Poetry Café competition, a highly celebrated event that draws students from various schools around Uganda to share their spoken word poetry and compete for various awards.
Gilbert has completed a Master of Educational Leadership and Management from the Aga Khan University’s Institute for Educational Development, East Africa and a Master of Arts in Literature and Film from Kyambogo University.
How long have you been teaching spoken word poetry and how does this training help your students grow and develop positively?
I have been teaching poetry to students from ages nine to 17-years-old since 2014. Being a teacher and a poet is part and parcel of my teaching practice. As spoken word poetry is my passion, I wanted to share it with the students and they started to embrace it as an artistic form because they saw that it is much more than writing it on paper, reading about it and taking an exam on it. We encourage our students to be authentic and write what they’re passionate about. In my opinion, poetry has given the students a voice to be who they are.
How does spoken word poetry help create a better, more inclusive learning environment?
Spoken word poetry opens a platform for the students to really talk about something they’re passionate about, and to me that is something they really cherish. We also make it a collaborative process in which we see our students grow so much. We have what we call “poetry clinics” every Thursday where students do peer reviews of their poetry pieces. Sometimes you find a student who is so good at writing, but they tell you they don’t think they can perform on stage. Then you find another student who feels that they are not so good at writing, but when they hit that stage and perform, they are just fire. We pair these students up with each other so they can work together and learn from one another, with the two of them performing a piece together in the end.
When we’re in our poetry clinic sessions, we have around 50 poets sharing their passions and interests and I can see their confidence levels go up. In the classroom, some of these students rarely talk, but when they are in the poetry clinics you see them come to life. To me, spoken word poetry has given them a sense of belonging. It also provides students with the chance to work with many people not just those that are a part of our school, but other schools around Uganda. That attachment all the students have towards poetry, the opportunity they receive to freely discuss their passions, and the peer review and collaborative sessions brings everyone together and a part of a bigger picture, which I think gives the students that sense of social belonging they deserve within a school.
As the chief organiser of the annual Poetry Café competition at the Aga Khan High School, Kampala, what did you wish to achieve through this event? What are some signs that this initiative is making a difference, despite COVID-19 lockdowns?
Our main objective of the annual Poetry Café competition is to have students share their voices without fear and with confidence. We also want the students to be well educated on the topic they are reciting and respectful of others. As we missed the annual competition in 2020 due to school closures, we didn’t want the same thing to happen again this year. We decided to organise our annual Poetry Café competition online in July. To our surprise, the event turned out to be such a successful event that students are still talking about it till this day on different social media platforms. To top it off, so many students from other schools signed up to be a part of the event that we had to close the application early. Overall, the event brought joy to all students, and we were able to hit pause on their normal routine of classroom learning and studying.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in spoken word poetry but are unsure on how to begin and get into it?
To be a successful spoken word poet you need to be well informed about the world around you because that’s where you can get content from. You should learn how to connect with people and learn from them. Every person around you can give you a different learning experience, and as a poet you need to get all the experiences to write poetry that touches peoples’ lives. To students who are interested in venturing into spoken word poetry, I would say to learn as much as you can from everyone. The myriad poets out there and the fact that we live in a digital age, those poets are easily accessible on the Internet, YouTube or anywhere, just learn from them and find your own voice that speaks for you because that is very important in poetry.