The voice has left the building

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Moses “Radio” Nakintije Ssekibogo                                 Pix: howwe.biz

On a cool Kampala evening about 2007, a silky voice broke through the night at Blue Africa, situated at Crested Towers. For the uninitiated, this was a voice enough to stop all movement. Some glasses were stuck midair on their way to waiting lips. Some sentences were cut short, thoughts forgotten.

It was a voice to shake to the foundation things material and immaterial. The song was Jennifer. The artist, who skillfully held his audience captive like a honeysuckle would a swarm of bees: Mowzey Radio.

Later on, the world learnt that by the time he sang his Jeniffer at Blue Africa, Mowzey had already been mesmerizing many earlier audiences. His family had heard that voice many times before; his mother had unwittingly crafted that voice by ordering him to sing for guests following the cues of greats like Kabuye Ssembogga and Fred Ssebatta. She saw what the world would experience many years later when her baby boy became the force that drove the act Radio and Weasle.

Moses “Radio” Ssekibogo, who died February 1, 2018 will be sorely missed. He was 33.

Musicians who spoke of him clearly expressed a respect not thrown around for just anyone. Those who knew him say he was stubborn, a pain. Obstinate, obnoxious even. But he was a gifted singer.

Uganda will probably not easily let Mowzey fade away. In a country where death is not shy, the demise of one person, however big they are on the social scene, usually means a few days of mourning until the next celebrity or politician is murdered. Life is this cheap in our country. Little wonder then that since Mowzey was hit in Entebbe, there have been many “entrepreneurs” looking to cash in.

The voice of a generation, the late singer discovered his strength early and capitalized on it. Ugandan musicians, usually beset by poor production and other obstacles compared with peers from other countries, fall back on the strength of their voices. We have seen it over and over again.

Herman Basudde, Wilson Bugembe, Pius “Pallaso” Mayanja, Ssebatta, Irene Ntale, Cinderella Sanyu, Elly Wamala, Julie Mutesasira…and many others. All these have unique vocal strengths. And that is just the contemporary musicians on our YouTube and SoundCloud. If not for their vocal strengths, given all the problems that come with breaking out on the music scene, they would probably have had very different careers.

There was something special about Mowzey’s storytelling. His music will easily play on the car stereo if a driver wants to go on auto pilot to think. It is music that works well in a busy environment as one works at stacking shelves or doing the graveyard shift on a lonely night. I know. I have played his music on a playlist that includes Wamala and Tony Senkebejje. Thoughtful music.

He is gone now and we will probably be on the lookout for somebody who will capture our imagination as he did. We will probably be putting a lot of unfair pressure on Douglas “Weasel” Mayanja to produce something in the mould of the days when his partner was alive.

He is gone but that voice will not be forgotten. We will continue to play that voice as we toil, as we triumph, as we mourn, as we celebrate. It is the voice that will keep on playing in our head urging us to, “Dance. Dance the way you danced the other day at Julie’s wedding…”

 

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Somebody save me

Sitting in the waiting area at Mazda Vacaville and staring at the coffee machine with zero interest. The coffee is almost always bad, probably somebody’s idea of a strategy to save on costs, and I am not a fan of coffee anymore.

The TV straight in front of me was playing reruns of Seinfeld. I don’t pretend to understand American TV anymore. For a while, I endured the embarrassment of having to admit to myself that all the interest I thought I had was natural, organic. I know better now.

The strangeness I felt while in Africa, about American culture, yes that creeping realization that you’re not in a familiar place anymore, it blows over when you have lived in the belly of the beast for a few months.

Suddenly all TV, news, music and the conversations (yes those conversations where people feel they must force this politeness yet they all know its a farce), it all starts to reinforce the growing call inside the head that this is a culture calling out for help. Even if it does not know it, it is calling for help. America needs to be rescued.

No surprises then about the ever-present interest in superhero movies. Franchises that started half a century ago are still going strong.

America always goes to the movies to watch the same recycled story. An existential threat presents, the people cry out and on cue, a superhero shows up and saves the world.

America never asks the rest of the world if it needs to be saved, no. They just assume its a given. So some Xhosa mother in Soweto has Captain America to thank for decades of being saved from monsters with super strength – even when she couldn’t care less about some spandex-wearing pretender prancing around.

The slide down the precipice is ongoing. There are sockets on the way down by which the sliders could stop the slide, but most of them are branded ‘Made in China,’ and the sliders are not about to admit they want to be saved by a foreign power.

The coffee machine at Mazda is a symbol of the fruitless search for answers.

And that TV up above, was suddenly switched off by an older gentleman who sauntered in, looked around and noticed everybody was looking at their gadgets. He must have figured nobody would notice if the TV was off. So it is now blank.

Maybe there is hope after all.

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On this day in 1934…

On this day, Jan 17, 1934, my father was born. He was a twin; my aunt Rosalie died in the early 1990s.

I came across this nugget about the time, date and place going through my father’s diaries and old writings. He was a hoarder who kept mainly reading materials.

His father before him was also a fastidious recorder, who put down everything he observed. Today people document every detail of their lives on social media, but this has a long history it seems. It was in one of my grandfather’s writings, also among the different pieces of paper among the things my dad kept, that I chanced upon a browning piece of paper on which the dates of all the children born to my grandparents were listed.

I never really knew the exact date my father was born on partly because he never thought in terms of making a big deal out of just another day. Over the years, he gave conflicting dates, I gave up trying to pin his birth-date down. It was pointless.

Birthdays and other important dates, important to my father, that is, are sprinkled all over his writings. Dates and even exact times events took place in his life are documented.

He must have started believing he was the only one who would read his writings, because as times went on, his diaries seemingly progressively started reading like code books. Like he was always under the impression since this is his work, he should do it on his own rules.

Or maybe he was working on creating his own language.

Anyway, it’s an adventure. I am on it.

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Ghosts of the internet

At the end of December 2016, I quit Facebook. It wasn’t hard, as I had quit before. I knew deep down that this time I was not coming back. Six months later, I deleted my Instagram and Twitter accounts.

The decisions were somewhat sudden, but the road to that point should have given anyone an idea of what was going to happen. Prior to December 2016, I had become attached to social media. I was on Facebook constantly with friends and family in Uganda, and also on Twitter, following all sorts of accounts.

Being far away from Uganda, and yet being involved at the heart level with what was happening there regarding the political climate, I had to be on Facebook. Kizza Besigye was running against Yoweri Museveni for the fourth time and over in the USA, I was getting ready to live the history, witnessing the advent of the first female president, who shared many of the values espoused by the first Black president of the country. At least she seemed to believe in those values and she said she did.

By the time the election in Uganda went to the wire in February of that year, I was already disillusioned; after witnessing many bitter feuds online between those who supported Besigye and those who believed in Museveni, and also having had to read about what I viewed as impunity, which was then being passed off as “just politics,” I was at the end of my wits.

Many people I respected revealed themselves to be firmly in the corner of Museveni’s ideology. I could not understand how they could see pensioners trekking to Kampala to collect their meager monthly pay, and many times being turned back because of the unpredictable nature of Uganda’s public service, then ignore all that and support a continuation of the system.

I know one prolific doctor who is a fierce defender of human rights. She was defending Museveni, throwing everything she had at those who attacked him, and I was puzzled.

Election day came and Besigye lost. Cynics asked what we expected; that Museveni would actually allow the process to run smoothly?

I expected that things would straighten out eventually. That we would forgive and forget and move on. That we would heed the calls of those who are at the forefront of the campaign to sell Uganda to the rest of the world to keep the negativity off the front pages and just try to attract tourism to Uganda.

But how do you do that; how do you look in the teary eyes of an old man, sitting at the reception area of the newspaper you work for as he waits for anyone to write his story about the many times he has traveled from Abim to collect his pension, only to be turned back, and go ahead to say, “This government is fine. We should give them our support”?

Maybe I should have fought the patriotic feelings rising in me when I saw the different videos that showed most of the country wanted to change course. Of course we have seen the same images again recently in the run-up to the imposition of the life presidency upon Ugandans.

Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump was the last straw. It showed that no matter what the people want, as long as those who hold the purse strings of the world want something, they will get it.

My eyes were opened. I realized I had spent an enormous amount of time online, and for what? I looked back at all the time I have spent on the internet, since 1994 when I got online with my first email address, sucking up large amounts of information. Click bait was not a derogatory phrase for me. As long as it was information, I would read. It did not matter that I was not using this information in earth shaking ways.

True, I got myself jobs in the media, partly because of this information, but I later asked myself so many times how that information had helped me or those around me.

It was all for nothing.

Since I’ve been off social media, I have managed to de-clutter in major ways. I sleep when I need to; keep my appointments and, most important of all for me, I have no stress caused by worrying about the state of the country, yet I know that millions of people have worried about it for decades but that has not helped matters at all.

My two sisters are PhDs. I have been asking them of recent how the knowledge they’ve accumulated is helping them. One of them says it’s all hot air. She lives in a country that values blue-collar work more than academic excellence. An experienced farmer without an alphabet behind their name could scoop a top job before those who’ve spent years in the classroom. In fact, it is better to write resumes touting experience in the field, rather than academic accolades.

This is what I feel. After years of reading hundreds of pieces online, I have lost faith in news (having worked for newspapers, this is not an uncommon phenomenon in the newsroom. Many journalists at my paper in Uganda didn’t read, either because they had no time or because they knew the best parts of the stories were frequently those that didn’t make the page. Long before a certain Septuagenarian made the term Fake News a trend, journos knew they were selling fake news to their readers) or the power of information storage.

Sudden decisions can be good decisions. I know I do not regret getting off social media. I know the best way to use the internet for now is to come up with a system of filing. Only when I need to get specific information, should I get on there, because knowing my weakness, I must get off fast before I go down one of the thousands of rabbit holes that are always gaping, waiting.

 

 

 

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The Crypt

Living in a maze, one does not know what is real and what’s an illusion. The roads, windswept and trodden hundreds of times in the hot African sun; many hot African suns, are not clearly defined even at high noon. It is the dust swirling around the weary traveller, but it is also the ghosts of opposition.

The opposition is always present: lurking in the shadows even when the words out of the mouths of the usual allies are positive, inviting. Opposition is what defines some journeys making the slog that much more unpleasant.

Red. There’s a red mist hanging over the world. The bull that looks through these lenses sees red even when the actual color on any given code may be green.

Red. Because in this brave new world, the robot overlords are already comfortable in their lofty places.

There was a time when all our overlords where green. But those are old days. The old masters are on a dung heap, their green paint is peeling off and they are soon to fade from living memory.

So here we are. Seeing red. Blocked at every level, knowing there’s no way to even dream of turning the code to green again.

Red. There’s no escape. The old bridges are ashes now. What’s more, bridges are not made the old way anymore. We stand on this beach and try to look to sea. For any sign we’ll be rescued. We do not want to be marooned another minute.

But then we know also, deep in our consciences, the red robots are with us for ever.

 

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Random meetings

I work at different locations, and cities, in a week. My job requires me to drive to different stores often far from my home.

I visit Fremont, CA twice a week.

Now I love to travel. It gives me some badly needed alone time. That’s when I think best. Scratch that; there’s nothing new there.

Driving, like doing the dishes and folding laundry allows the conscious mind to disengage just enough so the right brain can take over. And that’s where all the creativity lurks. In dreams, visions and kick-ass awesomeness.

The drive to Fremont from my home is a good 80 miles, so even when I am doing more than the 65mph limit (and California drivers are likely to be over in any given morning), I am comfortable because that’s when I really think.

Lately though, I am wondering if this stop is worth it. The gas re-embursement is to die for, I admit. The shady characters hanging around the store where I do my merchandising is not.

I am old enough to look with disdain at 25 year olds with sagging pants and frown. Ok, even 30 year olds.

It’s like every Friday morning when I pull up at the place, there are as many as 30 young men and a few young women who, by the way, always look ill-fitting in the posse.

There’s the one with the tired look. She’s very light and probably not fully African-American, but also not Caucasian. In a past life, she used to be beautiful.

She is always there, standing with the boys and taking swig after swig out of her Modelo as if to match the pace of the guys standing around.

This morning, I saw another girl, younger than the first. She was of small build and she was sucking on a cig like her life was directly drawn from the stick.

She seemed to be here against her better judgement. She opened the door to the black truck parked in the air section, sat in the back seat then got out again, went over to a white garden table, grabbed a large bottle with what looked like piss in it, pressed it to her lips and chugged.

The boys are more comfortable. After the last elections, marijuana was freed. It is not unusual to see saggy pants weighed down by bags of the stuff, with other bags in both hands of the wearer. It is open season on being high.

This morning was a little different than others. Usually, I arrive and to while away the minutes as I wait for my truck to deliver the merch, I observe the world around me and basically just sink into day dreams.

I went into the store and got a hot cup of coffee and sat back in my little Mazda and immediately felt a difference in the air. I looked up and there were two guys, one with a bad Mohawk and the other, a Caucasian male, sporting deeds in that fashion that makes you want to plead to Jah to explain that you don’t have fi dred to be rastahhh.

Anyway, the way they were staring at me made me uneasy.

Whatever they were saying, since I couldn’t hear it my windows rolled-up, I didn’t want it to be something that would propel them to take a step in my direction.

Now I am all for reasoned conversations and I am a firm believer in Isaiah 1:18, but these dudes were not looking reasonable. What’s worse, I had been seeing them smoke up globule after globe in their multi-colored bongs.

One of them came forward.

Many times, when I speak to natives here, the first rude question they’ll ask is,”Where are you from?”

Now I usually turn it into an opportunity and wax lyrical about Uganda, thanks UTB, send my check tomorrow. It’s easy when you’re not thinking you’re a subject of mistaken identity.

He was asking me something. I rolled down my window. “Can I help you?” I asked him not unlike an undercover cop.

“My boy and I was arguing, what year is your wheels, bro?”

Sigh of relief.

If you’re talking about a brother’s car, have the decency to smile.

 

 

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A long history of violence

At the long table with most members of his family, The Man thought how remarkable it was that history had persistently pushed its way into all their lives and caused sharp unavoidable turns. The many gray heads at different positions around the family table were punctuated with heads with a multitude of colors and texture.

It was a family day just like many the gathering had enjoyed before. The loud voices skipped easily over the sounds of forks and other cutlery as the famed cooking of Great Nana was consumed: beans, chicken, potatoes, rice, pork, beefsteak, peanut gravy, yam, corn…the long table adjacent to the dinner place where they all sat was as heavy laden as the place where the different generations ate, laughed and spoke, seemingly all at once.

Uncle Z, a well-travelled, stately gentleman, who also had the characteristic pushy nature of Ugandans who have travelled the world, who have gone back home and realised things are not what they should be like, but when they’ve raised their voices, have been met with blank stares. Uncle Z had been there. He had run for the parliamentary seat of his county and lost to a seemingly backward equally-pompous political type who had been in the game for far longer.

“What do you make of this strange push for closed borders, this fever burning up the world?” he asked no one in particular. Most people around the table had an idea where this was likely to go: he asked because he expected nobody would offer an opinion and he would gladly supply his. As always.

It was a Sunday afternoon and the meal was mostly sitting in the distended bellies of young and elderly in the big airy room. Uncle Z started to speak, but he was cut off by his father, Gramps Olughase. “It is the violence,” the old man, closing in on his 96th birthday, said simply.

Now everybody turned reverently in his direction. Though the room had people from many corners of the world, many who had joined the family through marriage, the respect for Olughase went beyond cultures and borders.

Olughase had lived an eventful life. He rarely spoke about it, but those who sought to know more about his life did not have to dig too deep to know the man. He was the embodiment of the history of his country. Beyond that, he had not let history just happen to him; he had been involved and he had in his way changed the course of its flow.

“How do you mean, Gramps?” one young girl with almost yellow skin asked.

“The violent nature of humans. That’s what is happening. The fever is breaking, but first the world will twist and turn violently,” the old man spoke as though he was trying to recite bad poetry. It was not clear if he was just being dramatic with his dystopian judgement, or if it was all down to a senior moment.

A voice from the living room, where a few people had retired to recline, having been floored by the food, rang out.

“Ask me about violence. I have seen it.”

It was Raj. Originally from India, he and Monica, The Man’s sister, had met while at college. After 10 years of marriage, which were mostly spent travelling the world working for the United Nations, both had decided to settle in Uganda.

April 12, 2007

Raj was newly arrived in Kampala. He was all about exploring the country, see the parks and meet the people before taking up a position with the World Bank office in Kampala.

He was in a Pajero being driven by Musa, the family’s chauffeur of 20 years. Being a Thursday, it was important for this trip to go as planned. Raj had to meet the prime minister to conclude negotiations for a planned major agricultural project. Thursday was when the week ended for government types.

It was the boda bodas whizzing past erratically that alerted Raj there was something in the air. Too erratically.

Boda drivers all over Africa have their own law. You do not cross into the road as a pedestrian without permission from them. It doesn’t matter if the road signs say ,’No Motorcycle Taxis,’ or if the traffic flow should be in one direction, bodas will break all rules.

But on this Thursday, Raj who had been in Uganda for only a four months knew enough about the chaotic bikers to notice when the madness had been kicked up many notches. Even in his air-conditioned sanctuary of a rich man’s vehicle, the pungent fear colored the atmosphere.

Then at Clock Tower, Musa came to a stop at an all-too-common scene in Kampala: an accident. From what he could see, Raj thought the unfortunate Asian-looking man in a dark shirt and cream colored slacks had knocked another man. A journalist from the paraphernalia strewn near him.

A mob was forming fast. There had been demonstration that the journalist, later to be identified as one who worked for Radio One, was covering. Many locals were angry that the government was planning to hand over a portion of Mabira Forest to a sugar baron. The frustration was over what activists said was the government’s intransigence about having a discussion with the nation on the deal.

Soon, the Asian-looking man was yanked off his motorcycle and hurled to the ground. His pleas were drowned out by the louder voices, incoherent with a hundred screams, mouths turned into ugly gashes exposing teeth fanged and ready to bite. The thirst for answers was quickly morphing into a thirst for something darker: blood.

Raj did not know who threw the first stone. In these cases it is not easy to know. Musa, always quick thinking, knew who would be the next target in the next few seconds. It was almost a certainty that the Asian-looking, now on the ground slowly disappearing under a cloud of dust, man was going to die.

Somehow, Musa turned that Pajero around and gunning the engine (and sending the message clearly that if anyone stood in the way, they would surely die), he raced back to Tank Hill, Muyenga, where sanity ruled.

When the dust settled, the world was looking at Uganda in that all-too-farmiliar light: another mad episode in an african basket case country. There were many casualties of the madness that day, but the lasting image was one circulated widely of the Asian-looking man, dead, with another man pulling on his finger trying to remove a gold ring.

Raj’s reverie was interrupted by the voice of Uncle Cayeman. The older members of the extended family knew the origins of his unusual name.

His name was Kayibanda. He had the unfortunate distinction of having lived through two genocides and then the ensuring the Xenophobia in Uganda.

“It is true. It is a madness that many people do not understand,” he said in a measured thoughtful tone. He had a British accent, cultivated over 20 years. “I have lived long enough to know that when ugliness tears rears its head, at that moment when the head is still a small insignificant thing, it must be stomped on. Viciously.”

He went on to tell the story he had told to countless audiences around the world. The itinerant professor had found a home in Britain, changed his name perhaps in the unconscious belief that this would help him put distance between him and his unhappy past.

He was now a British citizen. He had earned his pips in academics and he had grabbed at his new life with zest.

He had married a Bradford girl and settled to a quiet life, only to be drawn back to Uganda, and ultimately to Rwanda by way of marriage. Yvonne, his daughter had married Jimmy the second son of Uncle Z.

Because Yvonne and Jimmy had no qualms about returning to the old country, countries in their case, Kayibanda had no option but to make that difficult journey back to where it all started. He realized he could not escape from his history.

April 6, 1994

On that Wednesday night, Kayibanda, slightly over 35, was working late at the ministry of information in Kigali when his phone rang.

He reached for it as he continued sorting the documents he was preparing for a meeting the next day with the directors of media houses. For months, he had been trying to convince his boss that a better handling of the rhetoric on national radio was needed.

His analysis that the increased references to ethnicity, especially demonising of Tutsis, on radio was eventually going to lead to chaos had finally been accepted amid increasing calls for a final solution, openly advocated by radio presenters. His boss had told him to put together a work plan to direct media houses on how to control the narrative.

The rotary dial telephone on his desk rang and when he picked it, a voice on the other end of the line whispered that he should get out of the office now. He did not know who it was. Briefly, the voice said President Habyarimana was dead and that all Tutsis were going to be killed.

As crazy as the message sounded, Kayibanda did not wait around. He had heard enough hate spewed over the airwaves.

He grabbed his tiny radio, a Sound Solo, and left the building. He did not have many family members as his mother had died two years previously. His father had died in 1959 when Kayibanda was only two months old.

President Habyarimana had been rumored on the verge of signing a peace deal with rebels fighting his government. The rebels, mostly Tutsis, were believed to have been supported by the army of Uganda next door.

Kayibanda had taken to moving with his passport at all times. He called a diplomat friend at the Gregoire Kayibanda International Airport, later to be renamed Kigali International Airport. There were road blocks but there was also chaos. The soldiers seemed in disarray. Kayibanda connected it all to the reports on his Sound Solo in the passenger seat: the BBC was reporting that President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundi counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira had been killed in a plane crash as they were about to land at the very airport Kayibanda was driving to. He needed to think fast. It could mean only one thing. A dark cloud had descended on Kigali, but he had to find his way out.

Pierre, his U.N. peace force commander friend, seemed to have been expecting him when arrived at his office after a circuitous route to avoid any roadblocks. He already had three other people, who later revealed they were also Tutsi. Pierre got the group onto a military flight to Nairobi.

It was not clear to Kayibanda if the 100 days of slaughter in 1994 were worse than the senselessness of 1959 through 1961. That prior nightmare took Kayibanda’s father and made the family, that had been proud of their heritage and connections to Rwanda’s Umwami to a life of servitude in Uganda where the majority Baganda employed the newcomers as herdsmen to take care of their animals and to tend the shambas.

The years leading into the Museveni era in Uganda were increasingly years of the Tutsis regrouping quietly in their dirty shamba boy clothes, disarming smiles and a burning heat in their breasts imploring them to head back home. Many Rwandans changed their names to sound Ugandan, often because of the disdain many Ugandans looked down on them with. The refugees held up the economy of Buganda, producing matooke and milk and making the central Ugandan tribe even more fiancially strong, but all this was taken for granted. Not many Baganda thought the end would come and the Balaalo would one day get up and go, taking all their industry with them.

Kayibanda remembered all this.

Now

The Man cleared his throat. He was third generation and he did not often speak up in the presence of all the old bazeei. But the passion was running free now.

“I do not know what to call my experience then,” he began. “It seems this cancer, what you have called the madness, this fever that has boiled under our skins for so long and which breaks out every so often, it is hidden in our very beings. We do not know how to get to it and extract it for good.”

“How do you mean,” Olughase asked.

“I am talking about the madness that grips a crowd that was peacefully demonstrating against this injustice or that. The moment when secondary school students with genuine complaints against a headmaster lead the whole school, with the student council bosses up front, but then at some point, somebody throws a rock into the glass of the dining hall. Nobody can explain it when the dust settles and the wounds are stitched and the parents are called to take their wayward sons back home, away from Busoga College Mwiri.”

The Man described the madness that is talked about by philosophers on bar stools with enough liquor in their system to get away with saying out loud what they want to do with people “who come from the west” when Museveni finally leaves the scene. The same madness that caused terror when the Kabaka was blocked from visiting Kayunga in September 2009. The madness was in Ugandans turning on other Ugandans and demanding that they sing the Buganda anthem, failure of which would result in any kind of violence.

But The Man had also witnessed the madness in seemingly innocuous gestures. like when in school, students would say to him, “Oh, but you are different. Not like other Basoga.” Or when a relative of his girlfriend, thinking he did not understand his language, described The Man as Omukooko. These are the seeds that, in The Man’s opinion, germinate into full fledged violence. It was a cry for air to breath.

The violence had followed members of this family wherever they went. Maybe it was because it was part of their DNA; however much they washed off the grime and tried to separate themselves from the Great Unwashed of Nakivubo, there was no escape.

 

 

 

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