What you need to know:
Dr Mengi’s unstinting generosity earned him the trust of his Tanzanian countrymen
Dr Mengi chose to use most of his wealth for the benefit of others.
He spent millions of shillings on the treatment, both in Tanzania and abroad, of children with life-threatening ailments.
He also sponsored the education of hundreds, maybe thousands, of disabled young Tanzanians up to the highest levels.
The Waswahili often say, “Ya dunia ni mengi (many are the affairs of this world).” Those who are spiritually inclined put a divine twist to it by saying, “Ya Mungu ni mengi,” implying a humble trust in the ways of the Almighty. Trust, indeed, is the link between the two recent events that set me reflecting on these sayings.
The first and more obvious event was the widely reported death of the Tanzanian billionaire, media and industrial mogul — and philanthropist — Dr Reginald Abraham Mengi. Between you and me, I felt rather silly that I had heard practically nothing of this Tanzanian age-mate of mine, until his death. But as I watched the whole of Tanzania plunged into national mourning over the passing on of Dr Mengi, I realised that here was a man who had truly won the trust of his people.
The other event was the Aga Khan Development Network’s (AKDN) presentation to President Museveni of its advanced plans, including architectural drawings and models, for the setting up of a state-of-the-art Aga Khan University Teaching Hospital in Kampala. The idea is not entirely new. Indeed, the ADKN was allocated land for the project a couple of years ago.
Two things, however, struck me about the ADKN visit and the cordial reception accorded them. The first is that the visit came just a few days after the Speaker of the Ugandan parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, was discharged from Aga Khan University Teaching Hospital in Nairobi. She had been urgently flown to Nairobi from Uganda and admitted with a life-threatening condition.
Could Speaker Kadaga’s admission to the Nairobi facility, and her subsequent happy recovery, have been a gentle reminder to the ADKN of the genuine need for a comparable establishment in Kampala? After all, Ms Kadaga was only one of the many Ugandans who flock to the Nairobi Aga Khan Hospital in search of their excellent services. So, why should we not take a similar facility to Kampala instead of having thousands of Ugandans trooping to Nairobi?
But an even more intriguing aspect of the prospective Kampala Aga Khan University Teaching Hospital is that it is being welcomed amid an acrimonious debate among Ugandans over another proposed privately run international hospital, just off Entebbe Road. What lies at the heart of the controversy is the money for the hospital and how it should be spent.
It appears that the Ugandan administration intends to raise the money and lend it to the “private” entity to set up the hospital. But the opponents argue that if the government can raise that amount of money, would it not be better to invest it in refurbishing the sadly ailing public health system? A quietly voiced suspicion is also that the hospital may end up being an exclusive club of the super-rich, inaccessible to the ordinary mwananchi.
By contrast, I have not heard of any such murmurings about the proposed Kampala Aga Khan University Teaching Hospital. I will not venture into sophisticated analyses because I do not have the necessary data. But my gut feeling is that the ready acceptance of the AKDN project has everything to do with trust.
This trust is the confidence, credibility and appreciation inspired in a partner by sustained presence, consistent performance and perceived goodwill of a person or an organisation. I once mentioned in these columns the iconic presence of the various Aga Khan institutions in our region. I know that the principal actors in this phenomenon are rather averse to publicity. They prefer to let their actions speak for themselves.
Their persistent presence in Uganda, however, even through the toughest upheavals, has earned them trust. If Ugandans have been, and still are, voting with their feet (or is it plane wings) to throng the Nairobi Aga Khan University Teaching Hospital, you can imagine how they would receive a replica of it in the centre of their capital city.
Likewise, Dr Mengi’s unstinting generosity earned him the trust of his Tanzanian countrymen, as the response to his departure revealed to us ignorant and indifferent outsiders.
As I came to learn, Dr Mengi, a self-made entrepreneur, was one of Tanzania’s richest men. He was at one time included in the famous Forbes’ List as one of the world’s significantly wealthy people. He even married a beauty queen, Miss Tanzania 2000, Jacqueline Ntuyabaliwe.
I cannot comment on the glitter and the glamour. I cannot judge players in a league where I will never be able to play. A Tanzanian millionaire, especially one who, like me, was brought up under Nyerere’s ujamaa philosophy, sounds like a contradiction in terms.
But then, Dr Mengi chose to use most of his wealth for the benefit of others. He spent millions of shillings on the treatment, both in Tanzania and abroad, of children with life-threatening ailments. He also sponsored the education of hundreds, maybe thousands, of disabled young Tanzanians up to the highest levels. This, I think, is what made him a national hero.
Indeed, that is how Dr Mengi came to touch my own life, without my knowledge, as I found out only last week. During the early years of my return to Makerere, I was strongly impressed by one of my Tanzanian students, Mr Sise Mwirabi. He was always the heart and soul of his class, not only because of his academic brilliance but also because of his energy and irrepressible humour. But Mwirabi was seriously handicapped, with several physical challenges.
Anyway, Mwirabi ended up becoming such a close personal and family friend that when he graduated, one of my brothers escorted him all the way home in the Tarime area. Mwirabi only recently retired from public service after a distinguished career.
Strangely, it was only when the country was mourning Dr Mengi that Mwirabi revealed to us that his university education had been funded by the now departed philanthropist.
Ya dunia ni mengi.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]