Ben Mkapa (President of Tanzania 1995-2005) – Death of an Elvis fan
Ben Mkapa died on Friday July 24th, 2020. He had a reputation of having worked “diligently to turn around Tanzania’s economic fortunes” that culminated in the country become a lower middle income country by the World Bank recently.
But Mkapa was young once and this is his story.
Mkapa attended studies at the Makerere University College (it was then part of the University of London) graduating with a BA in English in 1962. Among his collegemates were Peter Nazareth (Professor University of Iowa and Uganda’s foremost author), Adolf Mascarenhas (Professor University of Dar es Salaam), Henry Kyemba (former Principal Private Secretary to President Obote, and former Minister in the Amin government), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (Kenya’s foremost author), Bhadur Tejani (Kenyan author – and the Uncle of Canadian MP Arif Virani). John Nagenda (Uganda cricketer and writer).
Educational institutions is where the different races got a chance to mix and be friends in pre-independence East Africa. Ngugi in his memoirs “Birth of a Dream Weaver” (2016) said that as a Kenyan this was the first chance he had got to befriend other races – Kenya being strictly separated as a colony unlike Uganda. (Uganda’s separation was more a state of mind. People kept their place, but were not compelled to.) He was delighted that when he put up his first play at Uganda’s National Theatre, several Asians volunteered to play roles in it.
Friends in Makerere took part in many group activities – the Makerere Jazz Club (where Nazareth was President). They hosted Louis Satchmo Armstrong when he visited Uganda 1960. (Ugandan weren’t used to autograph hunting at the time, but when some presented Satchmo with their autograph books, people grabbed any piece of paper to get one. Some even used Bronco toilet paper. (For the uninitiated, Bronco was not the soft toilet paper we have today. It was hard and could be written on. Many of us used it as tracing paper.)
There was the Elvis Presley fan club that was pretty popular too.
Mkapa was a popular man in Makerere. His friends nicknamed him “The Cat” a play on his name (paka = cat in Swahili).
Fast forward to 1995; Mkapa has just been elected President of Tanzania. Professor Nazareth wrote to Mkapa a few months later to congratulate him and renew their friendship.
To backtrack Professor Peter Nazareth had launched a university course entitled "Elvis As Anthology" in 1992 at the urging of an African American colleague from the University of Iowa? The course became a worldwide phenomenon with Nazareth interviewed on radio and TV in the US, Canada, Germany, Israel, Australia, Thailand… Nazareth intended it to be a one shot deal. It continued for over 20 years.
So in his letter to Mkapa he tells him about his Elvis course – “Are you interested in seeing some of it?” “Of course!” So Nazareth sends the course. A few months later Tanzania released Elvis stamps!!!
Which reminds us that behind famous people or icons are real people with sometimes simple likes as dislike. Mkapa’s tenure was not without controversy, but Tanzania came out better for him. Besides his economic prowness was the fact that he followed the example set by Tanzania’s first President, Julius Nyerere – two terms and you are out. This is something one rarely sees in the world today.
Honorary Ben Mkapa RIP.
28 July 2020