Phenomenal teachers

Teachers…

They leave a huge impact on our lives yet many times, they are forgotten the moment we leave their classroom. From the earliest experiences of formal education, these ever-present influences illuminate our lives, changing the course of history without even firing a shot.

In grade school, Budo Junior School, there was a great man called Mr. Maseruka. From the moment I joined the school, I wanted so badly to get to his P.7 class to experience some of that awesomeness. The stories told about his classes were legendary.

Long before I could get the honor to call him my English teacher, I had heard about Don Quixote and Oedipus. Granted, the kids from Grade 7, probably because they could not reconcile the differences language and pronunciation, spread the word that the greatest knight of them all was called Don Kwizot!

But all of us, P3s and P7s alike were all familiar with the knight and “Give me time to unleash my mules” was well known and subject to editing to suit different situations.

And all this fun was brought us by Mr. Maseruka.

Mase, as we called him was unconventional. While the syllabus was clear, not that we cared about what was on the syllabus then, it seems he had been given free rein to teach as he felt like. So even when we did not expect to be asked questions about Greek mythology in our PLEs, we left Kabinja with these ideas broiling in our heads, courtesy of Mase.

I can remember singing “Lil Liza Jane” and about Dr. Forster, who went to Gloucester in a shower of rain. Singing songs written at the turn of the century in Victorian England in the P.7 classroom! Of course we were embarrassed. Kids in P3 and P4 were not singing rhymes anymore and here we were, a few months to the finals and we were singing.

I had already met Capt. Nemo and his Nautilus in the school library before I got to Mase’s class, but Jules Verne’s way of thinking took on an important new hue for me when I got to P7. Mase made fiction seem cool; it was okay to dream.

But we were learning deep values. Learning about life not defined by David Ongom, who was the UNEB secretary then. Many years later, sometimes, I still have visions of Mase when I am looking for a solution. Not as dramatic as Mufasa appearing in the sky…but you get the drift.

But it was not just Mase who shaped my outlook on life. Many other teachers are constantly in mind, not for the algebra or organizational theory or some such thing. It is because of the unconventional, the unique touch they had when they did the things teachers are not expected to do in a country like Uganda.

It was Christine Kasule who taught RE (Religious Education) and brought the image of the Apostle Paul to life with her Sunday School-like teaching (Peter in Joppa, Paul with Priscilla and Aquila, Paul with that serpent…or that story about Peter and the vision of unclean animals and God telling him to “kill and eat”). Christine Kasule loved to teach. And she loved to see the impact on our lives.

It was teachers like Paul Wadango later on in secondary school. An Agriculture teacher, I had little reason to get attached to him since I just couldn’t remember all those biological names (plus I got a 9 in Form 3 before I dropped Agric). But Wadango was unconventional; I was obsessed with Riviera, a European soap that was on twice a week. Now at a boarding school, one wouldn’t be expected to keep up with Gabriella and Sam and whatsherface. But Wadango let me and a few other kids watch at his home, even while knowing the show ended past midnight.

Of course Mase had, a few years before, let kids into his house to watch Roots, which aired Sundays. I guess there’s a link in there somewhere.

Phoebe Kata, Sam Ssebuliba (RIP), Ernest Kavulu, Stephen Mugumbya (RIP) and all those other heroes who came into my life and did their part without really knowing where it would lead.

Here’s to unconventional teachers.

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Faith hot potato

Sometimes I wonder what was really going through the minds of those Jewish men in the boat with Yeshua, during the storm as he slept. Apart from the limited quotations about them crying out to him to save them, did they maybe look over at him and then one to another, and ask, “Is this a drill?”

Humanity is often called to embrace faith; to walk out boldly and take what rightfully belongs to them. Many times though, the actual implications are not considered.

What does it take to close your eyes and jump off a cliff?

A few years ago, I got a call to write for a new society website in Kampala Uganda. It was called In Kampala (har har!). The site was offering good money and they seemed to be very professional. The run was good enough while it lasted, but I knew even then that this was going to be just a season. I had been here before.

When that call came, I had recently stopped writing for African Woman, another Kampala magazine. I had written for AW for years and I had made a tidy sum over the years. Every month, I would submit one or two or three pieces and they would bring in additional money for gas and milk for the babies and for salon for the Twin.

Like many writers experiencing hidden unemployment, I spent years working for a national newspaper that did not pay enough for my family and I to be financially comfortable. Heck, many writers at these papers keep their jobs just for the address. Little wonder that there’s no real zeal to do transformative journalism; those who are in it for the love of journalism are weighed down by the rest of us idealists who are trapped in a time warp.

So AW and In Kampala and a host of others brought in more than what I was earning at the end of the month at my day job. Moonlighting was the truth!

But this is about faith. When one has been at some station many times in the course of their lives, what seemed to be miracles in the early days, becomes normal. Except that I knew it was not ordinary, see. I knew that this life I was living was different.

I have been writing since Grade school. I filled up those 32-page Visa and Kasuku books and gave them to my classmates to read in Kabinja. I edited the school newspaper in high school and I started writing for national newspapers before I left high School. One would say, then, that I probably had a lot of experience writing so I became an expert.

Wrong!

I have met other Ugandan writers who are better at this craft and they figured out way earlier how to make their skill make money for them. I only moved forward because I kept stepping on the stones ahead of me. In many cases there was no choice but to keep on moving. So I moved.

The East African Entertainer, AW, In Kampala (site long dead), Music Uganda, Edirisa, Artmattersand others. I think I even did a piece for Zenji before it collapsed.

Something has always told me there’s going to be another gig. Always. That’s faith. When one gig dries up, I am always almost certain another’s around the corner. Somebody’s going to come up and ask for a writer. And among all the awesome writers there are, I am going to be given that gig. For a season.

And I am going to enjoy that ride as long as it lasts.

 

 

 

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Anniversaries and stuff

So yesterday, June 23, my family and I should have been celebrating, if that were our kind of thing. We should have marked two years since we arrived on the boat… We did not. Life has a way of getting in the way, you know.

On this day two years ago, a family of four people walking and hauling luggage, and a fifth inside her mama’s womb, made it through customs and stared with disbelief at America. We were lucky by many counts; we had a network of friends who had been waiting for us. People we’d never met but who wanted our transplantation to be smooth. And they went out of their way to make this happen.

How time flies!

But, like already mentioned, life got in the way. America, this great idea, has turned our lives up side down and right side back up again and changed us in a million ways. In this time, I have remained plugged into my Ugandan life, the only life I knew for 35 years and the only way I knew how: social media. Thank you, Tim Berners-Lee.

But along the way, I realized that change cannot be escaped. Even though I want to remain in my cool zone and talk only to the people I have talked to for ever, that’s not really going to happen. Two years later, I have learnt that I have been co-opted, colonized, adopted by this new land.

The change is inescapable; the rest of the family fell into a pattern, carried along by the river of monotony and I had to shape up. I started noticing the changes not long ago. Small things like the urge to unfriend some people whose rants started to grate. Things like going days without checking out Facebook…

I have quit social media before as an experiment to disprove positions I was reading a few years back that one can never quit social media once they get in. I did. I returned on my volition. I realized these platforms can be useful in other ways than just spreading rumors and spilling bile.

What have you done lately?

After a series of many fortunate and not so fortunate events, I realized I need to come to terms with this double life. Of course, I could just kill off one of them, the old one, and concentrate on building a new one. That’s not going to happen. So what would a Ninja do? Start a parallel blog, that’s what. This one stays as the one that looks on life and comments when the urge (and the mojo) require it. The other one basically explains Surprising America.

 

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36, 37, 38…

golden corral at 38
Today, I turned 38 years. That there is a profound statement; a landmark even. The rest of my life begun today. I have not felt this way about a birthday before.
Lately, I have been beset by thoughts of mortality. My mortality. It is normal, somebody will say, given that I just recently lost a parent. I thought about that today; almost 40 years ago, my father was slightly more than 40 when he had me. He died at a point in time  when I would nearly be his age at that time. Like a 40-year cycle of sorts.
Maybe it normal to think these thoughts. Morbid thoughts even but that does not take away from the fact I have not felt this little, this insignificant in the wider scheme of things. Like I could just curl up and wither away and the world would not care one single bit; there’s been billions of people before me who’ve reached this milestone and they’ve been forgotten.
So there I was at the Golden Corral with my family, the most important people in my life, celebrating the day. It had started with the usual morning ‘surprise.’ The girls were lined up in front of me as I sat on the brown sofa letting the bustle of a new day rise to the acceptable level as I waited for everyone else to get ready.
I had to act surprised. So they sang Happy Birthday.
I could not tell them it is pointless. I could not start saying I feel nothing at all. I have been reminded of my advance in years every year at this time since I was a baby and it’s grown old. I was not feeling particularly excited about being 38. I have spent the last few months inexplicably believing I am making 39, not 38. When at an office meeting recently, the boss asked how old I am, I blurted out, “38.”
So in two years time, I will be 40. Four-Oh. The big one. Everything else will cease to be important, or at least that’s what those who’ve reached the milestone have said of it. I think I have been looking forward to 40 more than to today’s occasion. 
My wife remarked today that the Golden Corral is like that famous restaurant in the middle of Kampala where people go and have their fill with sumptuous buffets. Scratch that; it is probably mainly known by Banyankole in Kampala since all the times I have been there, everyone around me was speaking Runyakitara and so were the waiters and the boss. It is known as Baguma’s.
I am very far from Baguma’s today. I sat in that almost deserted Golden Corral with family but my mind was far away. I have been thinking about my mortality, but I have also dwelt on what I have learned so far in life.
Old people remember things; that’s why they are best placed to run organizations. I might well be headed in that direction as of late I am remembering small items from the past.
I remembered what it felt like to hold my first child in my arms today. I remembered the many walks I helped my wife take to help dilate her at that quiet hospital in Kololo. I remembered sitting in a taxi and biting on my knuckles, heading back to Entebbe to pick the wife two years later when the second baby was coming. I drove back towards the city, stopping at Doctor’s Place in Seguku, where baby number two was delivered.
Today, those two little girls sang Happy Birthday to me. These two girls that I watched as they came into the world and held in my arms before anyone else did.
I have learned that it is pointless to try to turn fate. One just looks ahead and jumps to the next best opportunity. You do not turn fate.
I had a heated debate with a roommate many years ago at Busoga College Mwiri about fate and our will after reading Oedipus and how he tried to run away from his fate, the oracle was clear; he would murder his father and marry his mother. My friend insisted we were stronger than fate and we did not have to be like the mythological Oedipus, that what he did was inexcusable and that he deserved to lose his eyes.
I argued for the other side.
So much water has passed under this bridge. Time has taught me that my friend was right; we can change our destinies. I heard and saw so many oracles in the past that seemed to point to a completely different future. Nothing pointed me to where I am.
For 38 years, my life has been about stepping stones. This belief, this knowledge is the rudder that guides this ship. I step on one stone in the stream and just as I start to slide, I see another in the failing light. I have jumped from stone to stone, some of them very slippery and others firm enough for me to stand tall and look ahead.
When you have been jumping from stone to stone in the stream of life for 38 years, you become something of a pro. You also discard any notions about oracles. I submit, Oedipus was a sick pervert. He had the power to step onto the next stone. He did not have to stay on just the one where he felt safe.

 

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#Topowa

Uganda is inching closer to the February 18 election, there’s more than just a heightened interest among Ugandans. There’s fear. Conspiracies are running wild and the recent pictures tweeted by NTV Kenya of “election materials” have not made things better.

The said “materials” were what appeared to be new armored vehicles with ‘Uganda Police’ proudly painted on the sides.

It is not clear if this is the most important election ever as has been said by a number of talking heads. What’s certain is that this is urgent; here and now. Friends I have been chatting with seem to be genuinely worried. There have been talks of people leaving the country or, for those with less means, escaping to the countryside to hide in hovels.

The fear was brought to the fore when a collective wail rose up on the social networks after news broke that the government will not be printing new passports for at least two weeks. Of course this was immediately liked to the election even though there’s no evidence of any connection. And there was talk about Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, a progressive who brought swift changes to the passport office before dying on an official trip.

Gen-Aronda

Gen. Nyakairima (RIP). Respectfully taken from watchdog.co.ug

For Ugandans abroad, the whole thing is just confusing. Many have been in the exact position urban dwellers are in right now. Normally referred to with a broad brush as “those elites,” people in cities are being bombarded with criticisms about their laziness. For years, every aspect of the broken system of Uganda has been tied to the oft-brought-up issue of elites not voting.

Maybe it is true many people with soft hands and fair complexions to protect from the scorching sun, who would not want to go out in the election queues, have not done their civic duty and therefore have left the decision over who should govern in the hands of the peasants. Maybe not.

The criticism is harsher for Ugandans in the Diaspora. Many times the accusation will come up that such people are not being truthful; that they are saying what they are saying about the government because they will not be directly had an impact on when the shit hits the fan. That they are living the dream in an advanced society where the government will not hesitate to shoot its own people.

This usually pushes Uganda’s Diaspora away. But there are those who stubbornly stay the course.

Living away from home and watching up-close how societies can benefit from a system that works, they start having illusions of grandeur. They start thinking, imagining what it could be like if things actually worked back home.

Living away from home makes one think more seriously about their country.

The heightened interest right now is being fanned by the social media in Uganda but some of it is being pushed by the Diaspora. This should not be a bad thing entirely. Most of the fear is being manufactured by those who hold power because history has shown that many of them think Machiavelli-style. Ugandans should bust the myths.

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Driving for Africa

 

I live in southwestern Kansas. This is rural America where it would be expected that a Black man would stick out like a sore thumb. You know, like those caricatures you read about in the news about Black families being hounded out of predominantly White neighborhoods.

That is not my situation though.

Garden City, KS is a real melting pot, to use a tired cliche. The meat packing industry is the ultimate leveler, it seems, at least for this part of the country. Of course, immigrants’ value is mainly appreciated in states where their labor drives the economy. Take San Francisco and its fruit farms…

Garden City has its fair number of immigrants. The last 50 years have seen a steady stream of people from foreign countries all coming to work in either the wheat fields or the meat packing plants. Garden City is Cow Town. The feedlots that surround it are legendary. A cloud of dust is observed by the driver approaching on any given day. The dust is raised by the hooves of a thousand cattle.

So, the latest group of foreigners who are being shipped to Garden City in droves are people from Somalia. You know the drill; the failed state has its fair number of refugees and the United States government, always the capitalist, knows this is a cheap source of labor. Every year a big number of Somalis arrive in the US and some of them find their way to the meat plants of Garden City.

Which brings us to their driving.

Americans are very good drivers. At least those in Kansas anyway. The big distances between A and B necessitate that almost everyone drives. There is no well-developed transport system seeing as the city only has less than 30, 000 people. Drivers start as early as 14 years old. By the time a person is in their 30s, they’ve racked up more than 15 years of driving. Everyday. Beat that.

So the drivers here are unconsciously good at it. They wait the unspoken five seconds when the lights turn green; they always park in the middle of their slots; they regulate their distances between the cars ahead of them…In short, the system works like clockwork (forgive the cliches).

Now when you take a Somali who’s grown up in a lawless wasteland where there are no rules and transplant him in Kansas, it makes for some colorful language. Facebook pages are decorated with residents bemoaning “these fucking Somalis!”

And its not racism. I have witnessed the skill of the said Somali drivers first hand. One year ago when I was freshly off the boat, I parked at the local Walmart and prepared to get out of the vehicle with my family. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw this hurtling mass of … Jeep. The monster came to a halting stop just next to me. The two young men, who I immediately identified as Somali due to their curls and their high cheekbones, did not miss a beat; they just slammed their doors and headed into the store. This was before I even knew about the complaints of the locals.

To many locals, any Black person is from Somalia. There are many around here who’ve never set foot out of the county for all their lives. The cultural shock is real for them. They are of the variety that refers to Africa as a country. (These days, I do not bother to explain that I come from Uganda when that familiar question comes up: Where are you originally from? I just say Africa).

As an African driver on these roads, it took me a short time to recognize the responsibility that had been laid on my shoulders. If everyone else on the road takes me for Somali and by extension, a hazard waiting to happen, it is my duty to show them that not all Africans drive that way. In fact, I need to show them that to the contrary, I am a better driver than some of them even when they’ve been driving for years.

Jpeg

Unforgiving cold road

It gets worse when there are many moving parts. When it snows and the roads are slick, no one should be judged according to the amount of melanin in their skin, but do my neighbors even pause to think of that? No Jose.

That is why I am now an unofficial ambassador. I drive consciously thinking of Africa.

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Son of a dead man

dad 1

It has been 58 days since my father died.

It has been the weirdest 58 days of my life. Having lost my mother more than 10 years ago, I thought I had handling grief down to an art. I thought when the inevitable death of my remaining parent happened, I would boss out that shit.

I was wrong.

Back in 2003, I had my friend to ramble my intelligible ramblings to. I spoke through the night and he listened patiently. I do not remember what I told him in that dark seldom-used room in Ibulanku, with the earth still fresh outside after we laid Anne Wandawa to rest.

My friend, who later went on to be my Best Man, gave me an anchoring that he might never really appreciate. I know I didn’t run off stark raving mad and part of it is because he helped stay the forces that were lurking underneath my skin.

We cannot be in the places we wish to be in at all times. When my Dad died, my Best Man was very far off and very different from the guy who sat in that musty room. He’s long been married and twice a father now. He and I are on two different continents separated by uncountable trillions of ocean water.

My Dad and I spoke on the phone the day before he died. He was in a jolly mood and he was in fact looking forward to attending a wedding. The next day, when I called his phone to follow up on the previous day’s conversation, an unfamiliar voice told me, coldly, that my dad was dead. I will never forget the way he said it.

I must now step up. At the funeral, I was appointed as his heir. In effect, all his affairs and plans were handed over to me. I am the continuity. I have been placed in this place and I know I am not qualified; not by a mile.

The world always moves on. The world has moved on. It is funny how what goes around comes around; back in a previous life working in the newspaper business, I always marveled at how the main topic of the day obliterates yesterday’s issues. A bomb blast in Lugogo is forgotten and the news is focused on some musician of no note.

So, the world seems to have moved on. There are some people newly come to Ibulanku who will never know there was an old man who lived there and died only a few weeks ago. There are people who will have forgotten about his passion for education and for the future of the young people in the village.

As the son of a dead man, I cannot move on.

This dead man gave me my life; I took the roads that I ended up taking because of him. I read widely and eventually I ended up becoming a writer because he encouraged me to read and to write. I remember him bringing books on different topics and encouraging me to discover the new worlds therein.

I remember him discussing different aspects of the life around us.

One day when I was maybe 4 or 5, we took an evening walk. We walked along Buganda Road towards Wandegeya. We lived on the NHCC flats and for a small boy, that was a long distance to walk. When we got to the playground where Buganda Road Primary School holds its sports activities, I remember him telling me to look up to see the flock of birds.

Then he explained why they moved in such formation. He told me the lead bird at the apex of the formation leads for only a few minutes then falls back to let another one lead. The lead bird gives the flock its direction and pace.

I don’t know why tiny anecdotes like this one stayed with me. I do not regret that they did.

My father endured a lot of misfortunes in his life but I learned one virtue from him from his experience; to never expect the world to give a damn. He handled pain and suffering like a boss. The ailment that finally brought him down caused a lot of pain. He was in excruciating pain at the end but he did not utter anything to those around him. He must have thought that if he has handled it on his own before, this too would pass.

I was not with him at the end, just as I was not with my mother at the end. I was however not too beaten up about that. Before I left the country, I spent an entire day with my father. We just did normal things the whole day. We talked about him growing up and what king of parents he had. He told me about his experience with loneliness.

As a child, he was sent to live away from home more than one for extended periods of time. It was not a punishment but it was necessary as his mother, my grandmother, was a widow who was not going to let the circumstances dictate how she brought up her children.

From a young age, he learned to be self-reliant. And that’s one lesson I want to pass on to my children.

In a way, I think we both knew this was probably good-bye. I was moving my young family out of the country to an uncertain future. There was no saying when I would get a chance to travel back. Yet there was a lot that he realized we had never said out loud.

I could not stop him; he was a river. He spoke about everything. He looked back as far as he could remember; 80 years back. His tale became urgent as the day wore on. After that, he knew I would be too busy with the last preps and he knew he was not going to “escort” me to the airport as many Ugandan families do when a member is leaving the country.

On that day, we said our silent Good-Byes.

We shall meet on the other side, Israel Wysua Mulawa.

 

 

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