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The many faces of Ben Mkapa, the late president of Tanzania/John Nazareth/Trevor Grundy

Two stunning reads, worth a bit of your time.




A clinical examination of the life and times of the former president.


The Elvis fan by John Nazareth

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.

https://www.thecitizen.co.tz/news/1840340-5598906-b1396v/index.html

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!!!

https://www.123rf.com/photo_14617056_elvis-presley-set-of-9-stamps-1996-tanzania-.html

 

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.

 

 

John Nazareth

28 July 2020


1 comment:

  1. In August 1998 I had the pleasure of meeting President Mkapa in Oslo, Norway. He was here on a state visit and as part of the programme he met with individuals and organisations relevant to Tanzania. I was on the board of the Norway - Tanzania association and was asked to lead a small delegation to present the association and its activities. But what should we give him as a gift to remember the Association and his visit to Norway? For some reason I remember Peter Nazareth's brother John Nazareth once telling me that Mkapa and Peter had studied together at Makerere and that Mkapa was a fan of Elvis Presley. So I scoured around music shops in Oslo and found a cd album that was special and seldom. (At least that's what the cover said). So I bought it as our gift to him. At our meeting and after the formal part, I told him that I had a source who told me he liked Elvis Presley and that here is a special cd of the singer! The Tanzanian ambassador and the people around jumped in their chairs and wanted to know how come I had information of such personal character about the President! Luckly, I remained calm and told a curious and wondering president that I know his former university mate who had "leaked" the information. The president kept the cd aside and wanted to know about Peter's whereabouts and doings. I told him what I knew, and his face lit up as he then looked back at the album and kept it close to himself. A moment I will never forget, and from what I could judge he would't either. The Mkapa- Presley moment. Rest in peace Mr President.
    Rodney Lobo, Oslo, Norway.

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