An African elegy of the nations we never built - Daily Nation

An African elegy of the nations we never built

Tuesday November 29 2016

Ugandan President Idi Amin is seen at a news

Ugandan President Idi Amin is seen at a news conference during a visit to Damascus, Syria, in this October 16, 1973 file photo. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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One of the most memorable poems — if not the most unforgettable — from East Africa is Henry Barlow’s ‘Building the Nation.’ This caustic verse by Christopher Henry Muwanga Barlow rings as true today as when it was written or spoken. Barlow mocks the civil servant who has opted to use public office for his personal gain. The contrast between the senior civil servant, the Permanent Secretary, and his driver, is not just a witty and sarcastic take on the emergent social class distinctions in post-colonial Africa, it is a horrific prophesy that continues to haunt the continent.

It isn’t worth the effort here to begin to speculate on where Africa would be today if the civil servants had remained civil and served the nation. And Henry Barlow would have known all about civil servants-turned tin gods, for he wasn’t just a permanent secretary in the 1960s Uganda, he headed the Uganda civil service in the 1980s.

Barlow might mock African civil servants and politicians, but these new rulers had learned significant lessons from the colonisers on how to ‘manage’ the native. This is why the PS in the poem comforts his driver — who is suffering from hunger-induced ulcers — that he, too, (the PS) suffers from ulcers! Gazing at meat eaters can cause one ulcers just as the meat might cause the eaters sores.

The point is that the haves and the have-nots, whatever their differences, are stuck in the same nation, often fated to suffer together. And this is the tragedy of a socially differentiated society.

This is why reading Flame and Song: A Memoir by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa (Modjaji, 2016) one re-encounters Henry Barlow’s poem and vision of post-colonial Africa so vividly.

The memory of Barlow’s poem happens because of two things. First, Philippa is the daughter of Barlow. But second and most significant is that Philippa’s elegy invokes not only nostalgia for the 1960s and 1970s Uganda/East Africa/Africa and the promises of anti-colonial struggles and independence, but it also lays bare the failed dreams of progress in Africa. Flame and Song is a daughter’s memorialisation of her parents, siblings, relatives, friends, acquaintances, the community of one’s childhood, one’s motherland, whilst at the same time it is also a celebration of a season, a history and dreams — realised or shattered.

Philippa Namutebi, daughter of Henry Barlow

Philippa Namutebi, daughter of Henry Barlow revisits a topic made famous by her father’s poem in new book. PHOTO| COURTESY


In this memoir one encounters a young Philippa, growing up in Kampala. Hers is a childhood of love, peace, happiness and adventure. This is a family of educated and working parents, living in a good neighbourhood, of children going to a good school, of emotional support in the family and from relatives, of a close-knit unit. Love is primary here and that is why Philippa introduces her story in the Prologue with the metaphor of the endurance of love. She writes, “We burn up with flames – of love, hope, fear, rage — and then burn out. And always an ember still glows.” She talks of her father always calling his five children — Maliza, Estella, Fay, Chris and Philippa — ‘Love’.

Indeed, it is this love that guarantees the family sanity and security whenever faced with tragedy. Philippa recounts how Uganda changed after the coup of 1971. She speaks of the expulsion of Indians from Uganda and the consequent scarcity of goods; of daily queues to buy necessities such as sugar, milk, cooking oil or soap; she paints a picture of a steadily collapsing social order — of rough soldiers harassing civilians and baffling killings. But even in such times, people shared whatever little they had; love for family and friend still bound people together. But conditions worsened as Ugandan exiles together with Tanzanian soldiers sought to overthrow Amin from 1972. The one serious consequence of this invasion was the horrific murder of supposed opponents of the Amin regime.

In today’s world where history is seen fleetingly, Philippa reminds the reader of the tragedy of Uganda under Amin when she writes: “The aftermath of that (attempted coup)  was the abduction and killing of many of Uganda’s brilliant academic, business and community-building citizens: Ben Kiwanuka, the chief justice; Frank Kalimuzo, the vice-chancellor of Makerere University; Jospeh Mubiru, the governor of the Bank of Uganda; Basil Bataringaya, the first leader of the opposition in the Ugandan parliament and minister of internal affairs, and later his wife; James Bwogi, a well-loved TV personality; William Kalema, minister of commerce from 1967-1971; the list goes on.”


It is this unending list, for it definitely doesn’t have the names of the mwananchi of her father’s poem, ‘Building the Nation’, that should nudge us to reckon with this sad history of Uganda. Even as she names these prominent men and women, Philippa is reminding us about the cruel destruction of family and community lives as fathers, mothers, wives, children, uncles, friends (or even enemies) were killed simply because they were suspected of not supporting the regime in power. Although initially protected from the dangers and vagaries of the political rulers, Philippa’s family was eventually forced to leave Uganda.

Yet, despite what was relatively a secure life, Philippa captures the tragedy that was Uganda in the 1970s for its citizens when she writes: “For many, the horror of what happened in those times could not be put into words. Some did not talk about it for years; others remain silent. Some vowed to fight this evil, either from within or from outside. Some did whatever they could just do to survive and keep their families alive in Uganda. Some left and tried to forget, tried to shut away all that happened. Sometimes they even changed names. But Uganda lived on inside them.” This is the justification for the story of Flame and Song. For her, she went into exile with her family and despite returning to Uganda later, she became a child of the world; a citizen without geographical borders.

It happened that her father resigned from his position as the “managing director of the Lint Marketing Board” and took up a new job in Addis Ababa as the “first secretary general of the African Association for Public Administration and Management.” Eventually, after a brief stay in Addis Ababa, Philippa and her family relocated to Nairobi, where she stayed with her mother and her two siblings. One sister, Maliza left for studies in America and the other, Estella, went back to Uganda to complete her A-Levels education. Philippa joined Kenya High School, while the mother taught at Pangani Girls. The family eventually returned to Uganda in 1981, in the immediate post-Amin days.

Philippa would end up getting married to Victor in 1990, back in Uganda. She had earlier left Uganda in 1988 to join her boyfriend in Lesotho, where he was working as a doctor. They later moved to Namibia, then South Africa. The land of Mandela is Philippa’s new home but Uganda remains her motherland, the land for which she swears love and sings praises to. Uganda, the land that her father celebrates, mourns and immortalises its tragedy in that poem, ‘Building the Nation’, retained one last irony for Henry Barlow, as the daughter recounts, when it abandoned the old man in old age and illness. Barlow died at Mulago Hospital, Kampala, with his broken hip untreated after six weeks of hospitalisation.