Mr Mwirabi Sise is a dad many times over and, indeed, a granddad in the bargain. But the “DAD” that made me think of him is the Disability Awareness Day (DAD), which is celebrated on different dates in many parts of the world, but mainly between July and August each year.
Mr Sise’s birthday also falls within this period, on July 22, to be precise, and the distinguished former top-flight Tanzanian civil servant decided to share with us, his friends, a bit of his life story as part of his celebration. Sise is a graduate of what is today the School of Languages, Literature and Communication at Makerere University, where he was one of my best students. He spent most of his public working life managing information and communication in the Tanzanian government, where he rose to the rank of principal information officer in his ministry. So, I was not surprised that his autobiographical sharing with us was an excellent piece of writing.
Ndugu Sise’s brief tawasifu (autobiography), however, was also such a deeply heartfelt, inspiring and stirring affirmation of human faith and strength that I found myself compelled to share it with my other friends, including you, my reader. Indeed, if journalistic and literary etiquette permitted, I would just have downloaded Mr Mwirabi Sise’s piece here and let you absorb it in the precise, concise and idiomatic Kiswahili in which he wrote it.
To connect this to the Disability Awareness Day theme, Mwirabi Sise is acutely physically challenged. Born several decades ago in a rural area of what is today called the Serengeti Region of Northern Tanzania, Sise suffered an attack of polio at the age of two, and it left him with a completely paralysed left leg. A year later, he narrates, he fell into an open fire and spent two years in hospital being treated for his burns. Even then, he ended up losing his entire right palm, leaving him with only a stump of his hand above the wrist.
These early childhood traumas, however, did not deter Mwirabi Sise’s irrepressible development. Soon after leaving hospital, he started primary school, where he was carried every day on the back of his mother, the late Yusta Rhobi Itosi. Ms Itosi eventually taught her son how to walk with the help of a sturdy stick, and that is how he has been getting around most of his life.
Indeed, that is how I best remember Mr Mwirabi Sise during his three undergraduate years at Makerere, toiling and trudging up and down the slopes of the “Hill”, and up and down the steps of the lecture and seminar blocks. There are no ramps or lifts in most of the old, stout edifices of Makerere. I do not know if Mr Sise has a wheelchair. I certainly never saw him in one. He was always up, and “upright”, going and doing, with his mum’s stick.
Not that it was easy. Sise once shared with me a horrifying experience he had had as a National Youth Serviceman. There was a stampede among the spectators when he was on duty at an event at the Ilala Stadium in Dar es Salaam. The crowd surged out, knocking down everything in its way. Sise was hit and, in his own words, he just curled up and let himself be “kicked around like a football” until the crowd was gone. Miraculously, the tough little serviceman had been only slightly bruised.
If you are wondering why such a patently handicapped person had not sought exemption from the rigours of such organisations as the National Youth Service, you are not reading from Mr Mwirabi Sise’s script. For him, apparently, every handicap, every disability, every deprivation is simply a challenge, to be met and, wherever possible, overcome, only for the fighter to emerge even stronger than before.
This, indeed, is what is particularly inspiring, and humbling, about this quiet and hugely understated achiever. There is very little in the life of a typical rural upcountry East African child today, and there was probably even less when Mwirabi Sise was growing up in Serengeti. That he was able to battle through all this, polio and crippling fires notwithstanding, leaves me wondering not only at his strength and faith but also at my own glaring underperformance in the face of all my privileges.
For Mwirabi Sise did not falter from the moment he climbed down from his mother’s back. He shot through primary school and went on to join the Musoma Alliance High School, one of the best in the region, where he did his O-levels. Realistically judging his prospects, he opted for immediate employment instead of proceeding directly to costly higher education.
So, he settled for teaching, even as he studied privately, first for his Advanced Level school certificate and later a teaching diploma. You would have thought that that was enough for a man of Sise’s humble background and physical challenges. Even more importantly, he loved teaching and all the work he was doing for his church and his community.
He speaks endearingly of his home base. “I remember with love my school of Iramba in the Serengeti area, where I was first a pupil then later a teacher, and also the priests of the Iramba Catholic Church, where I served as a catechist and choir master.” It would also appear that this is where he met the love of his life, “binti wa Kengoreme, Sophia Myakorema,” as Sise describes her. I only need remind you that “Sophia” means wisdom.
Anyway, in their wisdom, when an opportunity arose for Sise to go for further studies, Sophia and Mwirabi decided that he should take it. That is how, sponsored by the late Reginald Mengi, Sise landed in Makerere, and eventually in the top echelons of Tanzania’s official information practice. Even in retirement, Sise is vigorously active, editing periodicals like Aviation & Tourism Magazine and Jambo Brand Tanzania, among others.
The moral I see behind the story is that “disability” enabled is ability enhanced.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]