John Nagenda passed away in March, only a month before his 84th birthday. He will be mourned for his intelligence and generosity, but above all, for his excellent sense of humour. Cameron Duodo recalls his meetings with the celebrated Ugandan writer, political figure and sportsman.
John Nagenda, who died in Kampala, Uganda, on 4 March 2023, aged 84, was one of the writers who emerged in the former British colonies in Africa, after their countries had gained their independence from Britain.
I met him at an African Writers’ Conference – the first of its kind – organised at Makerere University, Kampala, in 1962.
From Ghana, the delegates were myself, Efua Sutherland and Kofi Awoonor; from Nigeria came Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Chris Okigbo; while South Africa’s delegates included Ezekiel (later Iskiya) Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi, Bloke Modisane and Bob Leshoai.
Because colonial Africa had been arbitrarily divided into rigid geographical “grids”, with Africans hardly ever crossing the borders to meet one another in person, the Makerere conference uniquely enabled African writers to discover the real people who were behind the continent’s plethora of geographical labels.
I personally remember what a thrill it was to meet black South Africans for the first time in my life.
By the time I went to Kampala in 1962, I had been exposed to reports about South Africa, through DRUM Magazine (whose Ghana editor I had just become.) DRUM had originally been born in South Africa, but had soon sprouted a host of “offshoots”: in Ghana, Nigeria, East Africa and Central Africa.
So, I was thrilled to meet in person, Mphahlele (or “Zeke” as everyone called him) and Bloke and Lewis (all of whose bylines I had come across in the “mother” South African edition of DRUM. In fact, I’d secretly been hoping, after learning that South Africans would be at the conference, that the most popular writer on DRUM (South Africa) Can Themba (whose very courageous “Mr DRUM” series of stories, had titillated the whole continent for years) would attend. But alas, he didn’t. I never met him because he was soon killed while pursuing one of his adventurous stories.
I was late in arriving in Kampala for the conference, but on arrival, my compatriot Kofi Awoonor passed on to me the delegates who welcomed friendship, as against those who were somewhat aloof. The former included the brilliant poet from Nigeria, Chris Okigbo, who bravely fought for his Ibo people at the warfront, during the blood-soaked Biafran civil war (1967-70). But the friendliest guy was a young Ugandan writer called John Nagenda.
Friendship with John Nagenda was easily the most auspicious that I managed to cultivate at the Makerere Conference. It was to last a lifetime, though I didn’t know that at the time, of course.
Nagenda, who was 26 years old, was reading English at Makerere. He was full of life and – fun. Handsome and athletic in build, his trademark was to be extremely extremely humorous about all sorts of situations. He was amused at the reaction of us West Africans to the way some Ugandans pronounced certain words in English.
Normally, our comments on the subject would have been resented by an East African, but Nagenda, who had largely been educated by teachers from the UK in some of the best schools in Uganda, understood the problem of those Ugandans who didn’t possess the command of spoken English that he had been able to acquire. He explained to us that the ki-Swahili language,which was a sort of East African lingua franca, had, perforce, taken over certain common English expressions completely.
For instance (he said) what we and other English speakers called “roundabouts”, were called kipileftis (“keep left here!”) in Uganda! We laughed a lot at that, and sought new words from him to add to our collection. We thus found him to be one of the most unprejudiced human beings to be associated with. Indeed, when pressed about what he believed in, (in his later years) he defined himself as a “humanist”.
On leaving Makerere with a good degree in English, he was head-hunted by the Oxford University Press as its representative in East Africa – a position that enabled him to promote the writing careers of some of East Africa’s writers.
Exile in Britain
I re-encountered John Nagenda in England in the 1980s. As it happened, John had left Uganda for political reasons, aware as he was that his sharp tongue and haughty attitude towards political ineptitude could make him a target for imprisonment or even assassination, especially during the time when the fearsome General Dr Idi Amin Dada was making Uganda the laughing stock of the world.
“Good riddance!” Nagenda was quoted as having often said sarcastically of rulers he didn’t fancy, like Milton Obote, Idi Amin and Paulo Muwanga, all former “Heads of State” whose rule sent Nagenda into exile at different times.
In Obote’s case, he earned Nagenda’s anger by what Ofwono Opondo, writing in the Uganda Monitor newspaper, recalls as “the overthrow, destruction and abolition of [the] Buganda monarchy in May 1966”. (Nagenda came from Buganda aristocratic stock.)
As for Amin (Opondo records) “Nagenda once wrote that Amin lived much longer than he deserved because, throughout his life, Amin was a model of a bad career. Idi Amin’s many hobbies included expediting the trips of others to heaven, prominent among them [being] Chief Justice Ben Kiwanuka, Vice Chancellor of Makerere University Frank Kalimuzo, Archbishop Janan Luwum, and several ministers including James Ochola, Alex Ojera, Kalema, Charles Oboth Ofumbi, and Erinayo Eryema.”
Before going to live in exile in Britain, John had achieved fame as the only black African to play in the Cricket World Cup of 1975. (He bowled for East and Central Africa in a team made up of Ugandans, Kenyans and Tanganyikans.) His participation in the World Cup tournament earned him an invitation to a reception in Buckingham Palace, London.
Nagenda described his World Cup experience as life-changing – “just imagine” (he said) “rubbing wrists” in person, as it were, with the likes of Vivian Richards and Michael Holding [West Indies], Imran Khan [Pakistan] and the other cricket geniuses that one had been seeing on TV!”
Ugandan obituarists have not been parsimonious in lauding Nagenda’s style of writing. One noted that Nagenda’s One Man’s Week column in the New Vision newspaper was “gone, and with it, the flourish style. Or, as he would say, ‘never throw away old pantyhose. Use the old ones to tie gutters, child-proof cabinets, tie toilet flappers, or hang Christmas ornaments….’”
He could have added “if a possum takes up residence in your shed, grab a barbecue brush to coax him out. If he doesn’t leave, brush him for twenty minutes and let him stay.”
It is worthy of note that John fulfilled our Makerere Conference expectations and published a novel entitled The Seasons of Thomas Tebo. He also published a children’s book entitled Mukasa.
During his days spent in exile in England, John helped to run a highly esteemed cricket magazine. I met him at a pub near the magazine’s offices, one afternoon. He was surrounded by a bevy of pretty lady admirers, who made sure that he didn’t drink too much white wine, and that the horses he fancied, were worth betting on!
Adviser to Museveni
Around 1985, he called me in London and introduced me to a Ugandan politician, whom he wanted me to interview for one of the papers I was writing for – Chief M K O Abiola’s African Concord.
The Ugandan politician was Eriya Kategaya, and he was one of the top leaders of a movement that had been formed by Ugandan exiles, called the National Resistance Movement (NRM).
Kategaya said he belonged to the NRM army and that they wanted to seize power in Uganda through guerrilla warfare. I was sceptical, for I knew that Africa’s political landscape was littered with all manner of “revolutionary” movements, most of whom spent their time in European capitals and did very little fighting on the ground in Africa.
But Eriya Kategaya’s modesty and apparent seriousness of purpose won me over, and I gave the interview quite a good play.
Within months, the NRA had achieved battlefield victory in Uganda! And I was sent by the London Observer to go to Kampala to cover the story. The new Ugandan Prime Minister, Mr Samson Kisekka, gave me an exclusive interview, and two of his sons took me into the Ugandan countryside to find out how much support the NRM had in the rural areas.
I was astounded to find that at a road junction, a couple of unarmed civilians were guarding a person who had sold to other people, rationed goods supplied to him for his family’s use.
Surprised, I queried: “But he can run away, if he is being guarded only by unarmed men?”
The guards shot back: “Run away to where?” I realised, then, that the NRM was a truly revolutionary movement with grassroots support. It had organised the countryside the countryside into parishes in which all decisions were taken collectively. There was nowhere for a criminal suspect to run to!
John Nagenda became Senior Adviser to the NRM leader, President Yoweri Museveni. Museveni has been ruling since 1986 – despite John sometimes going out on a limb and ribbiing him gently to retire. Ignored, he consistently says Museveni should retire after “training” someone else to take over the leadership of the country. “For if you don’t look for a successor, you won’t find one!” he observed in a TV interview. He laughed at the idea that he might want to do the job himself.
“I DO work for the man!” he retorted. “You can’t dictate to your boss, can you?”
John also had problems dealing with the Kabaka of Buganda, Ronald Mutesi, whom he helped back into power. Riding two headstrong horses in Uganda – Museveni and the Kabaka – must have tried his resourcefulness enormously.
John passed only a month before his 84th birthday. He will be mourned for his intelligence and generosity, but above all, for his excellent sense of humour.
He definitely had a very good innings. But I am inconsolable, nevertheless. My heartfelt condolences go to his wife, Marion, and their children.