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John Nazareth: return to Uganda, 20 years after the nightmare


JULY 1993. MEMORIES OF A REUNION WITH COUNTRY AND FRIENDS


By John Nazareth


15 July 1993: The day is here at last. I cannot believe I am going back to the land of my birth after 20 years. It was August 1973 when I left to do postgraduate study in London, having taken a leave-of-absence from the Ministry of Finance and Planning, never realizing that it would be so long before I'd be back. For my wife Cynthia, it has been even longer; she left in July 1972 on a holiday (she was just my girlfriend then) and was not allowed to return. We are anxiously looking forward to not only see familiar places, but to meet many friends whom we just did not expect to not see for so long. We bring along our son Paul (17) and daughter Rachel (13) to show them their Ugandan heritage.

Strangely, even though I could not come to Uganda all these years, Uganda came to me. Through a chance meeting (thanks to my brother Peter) with Claude Dusaide, who was doing his Ph D at York University, I came to know the whole Black Ugandan community in Toronto - around 100 families. (I consider myself a Ugandan, African [and Goan, Canadian, Indian], so how else to explain.) There were several St. Mary’s College (SMC) Kisubi Old-boys, my classmate Ben Ssenyonjo, Louis Kizito, Joe Tomusange - then High Commissioner to Canada; colleagues from Makerere: John-Draks Ssemakula (ex- Namilyango Toast), and Bakulu-Mpagi Wamala; Mrs John Kakonge and family, and many more. (Bakulu was a dear friend and I miss him terribly. Uganda lost a great, great son.)

17 July 1993: We land in Nairobi to spend a few days with Edgar and Tess Desa. Tess was Cynthia's old classmate in Gayaza High School (1967-68) and Edgar's brother Vince had studied with me in Makerere (Med School 1970). We visit Joe Tomusange (SMC SC 1966) who is now Uganda's High Commissioner in Kenya. (We know Joe from his days as High Commissioner to Canada.) Joe is a great High Commissioner - just what we need to make Uganda and Kenya friends again. He is dignified, yet humble - he makes time for everybody, big and small. My children have a great regard for him. While I am waiting to meet Joe, I look through his visitors' book to see if I know anyone. Lo and behold, there was Stephen Nabeta. Stephen and I were classmates in primary school 1958-60; we were both in the Scouts together at that time; I scribble down his telephone number.

21 July 1993: At the airport in Nairobi, finally waiting for my flight to Entebbe. Had a minor accident and while I am resolving the problem, a co-traveller inquires with Cynthia whether all is okay. I come back and discover that he is a former classmate of mine from St Mary's - Joseph Muchope (SC 1964). A few minutes later while we are talking, we are joined by Ezra Bunyenyezi, an old friend. Ezra is a goldmine, he has phone numbers of a whole host of friends I am looking for. I asked about Chris Ssendegeya Kibirige (SMC SC 1964), he says he knows a Prof Kibirige in Makerere Math Dept; can't be Chris. (But more later.) Yet another few minutes later and Chris Kassami walks by; Chris and I joined the Ministry of Finance and Planning around the same time. He looks like he is in his twenties, so young that it takes me some time to recognise him. (He is now the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry.) Hey, Uganda, can't you wait till I arrive, do you have to send out a welcoming party to Nairobi?

Finally arrive at Entebbe. Leave the plane and kiss the ground. Uganda, I am back.

Arthur De Mello, and old friend who wouldn't let anyone make him leave Uganda, is there to collect us. He is looking good.

We drive to Kampala. The scenery is great; Boy is it good to be back. Hmm, houses in the countryside aren't built of mud anymore, they are using mortar and bricks. Notice a lot of roadside vendors selling fruit on the way. Food is still plentiful; this place could be the breadbasket of Africa. Finally entering Kampala. The place has expanded - certainly more than 7 hills now. We settle in at Fairview Hotel, which is close to the Golf Course, and close to Arthur's place.

22 July 1993: We rent a car and drive around. The family keep reminding me to "keep left". We go to the Uganda Development Corporation (UDC) where Cynthia used to work. Cynthia meets the same old office receptionist who brings tears to her eyes. We inquire about Mrs Picho Ali, a dear friend; (she named her son John after me), but no news.

Visit Christ the King Church, and are amazed to find out how much people pray. Lunch-time rosary too!

Drop in to parliament to search for old friends; the session has just ended. While there, someone says - " Hey! I know you, you're from Kisubi." It's Omara-Atubo. It's good to see him. I brought greetings for him from Louis Kizito in Toronto. He says the next session will be next Tuesday, and I promise to be back to search for other friends. I realize that Omara is in a bit of trouble, having read a lot from Uganda newsletters at the High Commission in Canada, and pray for his deliverance; we need more Kisubi guys in Parliament.

Pop in to see Mulago Hospital. Proceed to the Cancer Research Institute, which I had heard was headed by Dr Edward Katongole-Mbide (SMC HC 1966), an old classmate; would I be lucky and find him there? I am in luck, he is in. Even greater luck, my son is doing all the Video recording and captures Edward and me embracing to make up for 20 years. It is great to see him, and he is in good shape. It is good to know that not all the good people fled the country. We record a message for Dr Bernard Fernandes, Edward's colleague from Makerere who is now Associate Professor at the University of Toronto and a Clinical Pathologist at Mount Sinai Hospital.

We drive around Kampala, show the kids where their mother used to have a flat when she was working for the UDC, and where I used to court her. Kampala is beautiful in spite of the evidence of the war, and the hard times. The roads are in great shape (better than Nairobi's) and the city is pretty clean.

In the evening we meet Arthur's family for dinner.

23 July 1993 (Friday): Start off early and drive towards Entebbe. But first, a stop at St Mary's College Kisubi. The place looks in great shape. The children cannot believe that they are finally seeing the place that I had related so many stories about. My wife had been here on school dances, but not too often as she says the Gayaza Headmistress preferred Budo; she used to hide Kisubi's invitations. (Incidentally she recalled that while at Gayaza, she met Bakulu Wamala who was at Budo at the time. Small world.) I showed them the classroom where, during night study in 1962 Ssendegeya (not Kibirige) had held a frog to a window, scaring Kkolokolo (S 2B) who thought it was a snake and proceeded to run out screaming, dragging first his whole class, and then the whole school, some jumping through windows slashing themselves. (We had talked about this often.)

While waiting to meet the Headmaster, we walk into the next room, and there are our old Class pictures. The family sees me, their uncle Cyril Fernandes (SC 1964; he married my sister), Muchope - who we had just met, and others. Finally we meet Br Tinkasimire. I find out later that he is briefing his staff as his father has just died and he has to leave. We have a long chat about many topics. I am amazed to see so many women teachers. Before leaving we roam around, and as I peek in the Biology Lab, there is Sebastian Nsubuga! Sebastian (the Lab Assistant) who started working there in 1947! He is pleased to see us and shows the children around; they are impressed with his work. Walked through the school Church where I had served as Sacristan together with Tony Carvalho and Gaston Ndyajunwoha.

On to Entebbe. This is really home. I had lived here longer than anywhere else (although Toronto is catching up). We see all our Goan friends' houses and take videos and pictures to show those in Toronto. We see the house where my two brothers, sister and I were born. I cannot control my excitement, and it rubs off onto my family. Entebbe is beautiful, but most of the roads are in bad shape; some of Uganda's agonies can be seen in these roads, twisted, tortured, pot-holed. (But the people have survived with surprisingly good spirits. The characteristic friendliness I knew was still there. For a country that has suffered so much, one does not see a hint of meanness in the spirit, or the evidence in their psyche of the violence that had become endemic. They seem to have come to a good balance between the old culture and the modern world. Perhaps we have all suffered so much that we are determined to make the best of things from now on.) The Botanical Gardens must have been rehabilitated recently - it looks just wonderful.

Then on to Bugonga Parish. On the way we passed Mugwanya Road School, where I had spent three years. I'll never forget those days. What about the time Kadu Kironde was captaining our cricket side against the European School and he declared after we had scored 30 runs (because he was out). Hey Kadu, I know you are out there and I hear good things about you, but we did do some crazy things then, and you were quite a rascal (I wish I could tell your children of our escapades).

(Talking about children, when I first met John Kakonge's daughters, one (Victoria?) asked me what politics was like in the 1960s. I found myself explaining things about her father to her! I realized then that I could well be more Ugandan than she was as she had spent most of her years outside the country because of the troubles. But, I digress.)

Ah Bugonga (officially known as Sacred Heart Church). The church looks good; they are renovating the inside, but it is substantially the same. To think how many years I served Mass at altar server here. We meet the Parish Priest and inquire about Fr Kyeyune, who had been our Parish Priest in 1972 (we lost touch with him in 1989). Luckily the priest is Fr Kyeyune's nephew and so we find out that he is in Rubaga. We present some priest vestments that we had got from our Parish in Mississauga.

From there to Lake Victoria Hotel where we have lunch; it is in better shape than when I left in 1973. Here I buy a book "Uganda Since Independence" by Phares Mutibwa - a great book, that taught me a number of things I was too young to know about then. (On my return to Toronto I happened to mentioned Mutibwa to my brother Peter Nazareth, who is Professor of English at the University of Iowa, he said "Hey! He used to be my classmate in Makerere; I always wondered where he got to.")

Then the down side, I go to visit my father's gravesite at the old Catholic Cemetery off the airport road near the old Printing Department. The place is so overrun with vegetation that it is impossible to see the cemetery. I go on sheer memory and brave snakes to look; my family cannot follow me. Then after twenty minutes I find a few graves, including Helen De Mello’s, and Trevor D’Souza’s dad’s. So this is the correct site. But my father's was in such bad shape that I could not find the exact one. Ah well, I guess most people were so busy struggling to stay alive in the hard years that caring for the dead had to take a low priority. I will do something when I get back to Toronto.

24 July 1993 (Sat): I now realize that it was a mistake going to Entebbe yesterday. I should have tried to contact people first. Now I will have to wait two days for Monday. Carry on touring places. On to Jinja, where my wife was raised.

My wife actually lived in Lukumbi, 10 miles before Jinja, as her father was the manager of a coffee plantation. We drive towards her old house off the main road. The murram road is in terrible, terrible shape, meant for 4-wheel drives, and here I am with my little car. In some spots everyone has to get out so that I can drive. Only God helps me manage. Suddenly, someone greets us; he is the current assistant manager. He knew that if a car was coming in, it could only be from the Fernandes’ who once lived there. He gives my wife a tour. But most of the coffee plantation is gone, cut down to grow maize (to survive the tough times). Cynthia's house is not there anymore; its bricks were taken away to build other things; times were tough. The assistant manager urges Cynthia to come back and help rebuild the place. How can we? Uganda keeps tugging at our hearts.

In Jinja, the Falls looks beautiful, we see Cynthia's old school, scenery etc.. The town is clean and seems to have been untouched by the war. We stop at Cynthia's sister's former house. As we are watching, a man walks up and asks us whether it was our house, and we explain. He then says "Why doesn't your sister come and reclaim it?" We say, "Why don't you tell her, we will video tape you." "But why don't you tell her", he replies. "It's your country", says Cynthia. "But it is your country too", he ends. And this from a stranger. Is it any wonder that we love this country so much? Our children are absorbing all this.

25 July 1993 (Sun): Attend Mass at Christ the King Church. The place is overflowing into the parking lot. The singing is beautiful. On to Rubaga Cathedral. The Cathedral is more beautiful than ever. All the services are over, but there is a lone organist playing pop songs in the Cathedral. (The songs are not too extravagant for a church and sound good.) Trying to find Fr Kyeyune. When we are about to give up, he walks out. A big embrace. We talk about old days. He takes us to the shrine of the late Cardinal Nsubuga, who we had befriended in Toronto when he came there several years ago.

Later: we are videotaping Kampala from near the top of Kololo Hill. We cannot get to the top because the army has taken it over. As we are taping a soldier saunters over. (We then remember Joe Tomusange's warning: "John, take care when you are taking pictures".) He says: "Why don't you come with me to the top of our house; the view is better." We politely decline, he insists. The view is better. Boy, has the army changed.

26 July 1993 (Mon): Visit Makerere University. Show the children all the halls, and the Math Department, where I studied, New Hall (now Nkrumah) where I lived, the Box (Mary Stuart Hall).. . Go to the English Department to give them a few copies of my brother Peter's novel: "The General Is Up". Meet Prof Arthur Gakwanda, who informs me that they are teaching both of Peter's novels (the other being "In a Brown Mantle"). He insists that I make a formal presentation of the book. (Peter is widely known as a Ugandan writer.) My son Paul takes a picture of the presentation.

I then go to see Prof Joe Carasco (Biochemistry), who was my colleague in Makerere (Mitchell Hall 1971). With his big bushy beard, he is a well-known figure around town. Everyone knows him as "The Professor". Joe is a Namilyango OB, also of the Namilyango-toast days. While having lunch with Joe I mention Kibirige; he knows him and will take me there. While walking I notice someone familiar, a SMC O-B, "This is Kibirige" he says. It turns out that he is Chris's brother and Chris is in Nairobi working for UNESCO. Eureka!

Later: We visit Gayaza High School. Cynthia is disappointed that none of her old teachers are around, but a teacher who was a young student when Cynthia was there takes us around. We see a student on the list named Nabeta. Cynthia remembers that Christina Nabeta (Stephen's sister) was Headgirl when she was there. Small world.

Back in Kampala: I drop in to see an old schoolmate Edward Ssekandi[1] (SMC HSC 1963?), who is practicing law. From him I find out exactly where J.B. Walusimbi[2] (my SMC classmate) has his Engineering practice, and go to see him too. (I had heard about his whereabouts from a common classmate, Anthony Carvalho, who is in Guinea working on a USAID engineering project.) I came to find friends, but I can't believe I found so many of them. 

Word is beginning to get round that I am in town, but I will be leaving in a few days! I get the impression that if we were to stay one more week there would be wild parties.

27 July 1993 (Tues): Not a great day. I miss practically everybody. Go to the Bank of Uganda to see Obura; he isn't in. I said I would try and get back, but never get the chance. Go to see Celestine Opobo (who used to work with me in Min of Planning) at Foreign Affairs, no luck (turns out I went to the wrong ministry). Try to see Stephen Nabeta, his secretary says he is tied up in a meeting. Try to find James Kahoza (a colleague of my brother's), find out that he is now Auditor General, but have no luck finding his office.

Return to Parliament, didn't see Omara or anyone else I knew: Kawanga (SMC SC 1964), Dr Ojok-Mulozi (found out he is not an MP anymore). Almost got into trouble moving around trying to get a better view. The security officer smiled when I explained.

Cynthia is luckier. We are walking around the National Theatre when Cynthia bumps into an old classmate from Gayaza, Stella Kahem. Screams, embraces, long talks. She will come with friends tomorrow.

Our children are by now baffled. How is it we are so comfortable here with everyone, people are so happy to see us, and give us big embraces, and yet we were "kicked out". I explain, but don't really need to; their eyes see everything.

Go to the Martyrs' Shrine, Namugongo (see one of the doors donated by J.B. Walusimbi) and pray there. Buy several books on the martyrs to take back for friends. I remember many friends who had died, including Godfrey Kiggala (SMC SC 1964).

That evening I call I.K. Kabanda and go immediately to pay a short visit. IK used to be my Permanent Secretary in Finance & Planning 1971/2 and was very good to me. (His wife is a Gayaza OG and so gives Cynthia special attention.) I will never forget his graciousness during the 1972 Expulsion and the aftermath.

28 July 1993 (Wed): Arthur takes us fishing in Entebbe with his beautiful boat. The fishing is good - we catch four Nile Perch in a few hours. It is hard to believe you can catch Nile Perch in Lake Victoria now. The scenery is breathtaking, and the children realize why we called Uganda, our Paradise Lost. (It is good to see paradise reawakening.)

Back in Kampala we go to see Julie Okoth (nee Fernandes) who used to share a flat with Cynthia in 1971. It is good to see her. There find out the bad news that her brother Alex's wife had passed away a few years ago.

That evening we invite a few people to our hotel for a drink as Afrigo Band is playing. Cynthia's two classmates Stella and another are there. Tried to get Walusimbi since yesterday, but we keep crossing each other. Left a message for Ezra, no luck. Couldn't contact Katongole... The Professor, Arthur and wife Jean, Joe Fernandes make it. Listening to Afrigo was great; (we bought several of their tapes yesterday). Paul and Rachel can't believe their eyes when Afrigo did their traditional Muganda number with dance. (Watch those bottoms shake at the speed of light!)

29 July 1993 (Thur): Wake up early and head for the airport. We leave for Nairobi. It has been too short, but thanks to Jesus, we made it. Arrive in Nairobi and head for four days in Mombasa by train. Meet a number of Goan friends. Also meet Ashley Pinto (SMC 1962) who is doing well for himself. We meet after 31 years!

4 August 1993: Back in Nairobi with Edgar and Tess. Tried day and evening to get Chris Kibirige. Finally get him. Arrange to meet the next day. That evening we have a drink with Joe Tomusange; he is keen to see all the videos we had. We took 8 hours of them, but have time for about 2 hours.

5 August 1993: Finally, finally I meet Chris. Chris and I (besides being classmates in SMC) used to be good friends in 1972/73. I reflect: how we all scattered without exchanging addresses I will never understand. Perhaps we thought we would always have each other around. But on this trip I try to make up for it, and now, here is Chris. We can meet for only an hour or so as Chris is working and I am leaving for Toronto the same day, but this time we will keep in touch. He reminds me that I taught him how to drive in Kampala.

Later I go to see Prof Tony Rodrigues (SMC HSC 1963 - Prefect of Kakoza 1963 too), the one with the sweet voice and the accordion). He is Head of the Computer Department at the University of Nairobi. I find out that Chris and he know each professionally through UNESCO programs at the U of N. We remember old times.

9:00pm: We finally leave for the airport to head for another home: Toronto. We are sad, but we are also happy. We did everything we wanted to. I wish I had met more people (where is J.B. Kifa?), but we have made contact. God bless Uganda and all its people.

On the way back I wonder about our homes: Goa, Uganda, Toronto; we feel a sense of belonging in all. Goa: our father, Uganda: our mother, Toronto: our adopted parents. We go back with renewed vigour to help Uganda. Ben Ssenyonjo, his wife Dr Joyce Nsubuga, and I had founded an association: "Friends of Uganda", through which we had sent 12,000 education books to Uganda in 1991/92 with Joe Tomusange's help for transportation. We have to keep on.

If you are wondering what I did since leaving Uganda in 1973 (besides getting married and have two great children) I studied at the London School of Economics (Dip Stats), University of Toronto (M.Sc. Stats) and York University (MBA). I am now a Reliability Project Engineer with Litton Systems, an electronics company. If you have flown on Boeing 727s, 737s, 747s, you were probably using our Inertial Guidance Systems.

John Nazareth
Toronto, 1994


Postscript 2018: In 1995 I joined Bombardier Aerospace (which had acquired De Havilland in 1992)and worked as Chief of Maintenance Data Analysis within the Reliability Engineering department. My group collected data and publishes statistics to help our aircraft maintain good reliability and safety. I retired in September 2015.


[1] Postscript 2018: Ssekandi later joined politics and has been Vice-President of Uganda since 2011.

[2] Postscript 2018: Walusimbi served as Katikkiro of Buganda 2008-2013. Katikkiro is a position similar to a Provincial Premier.