With friends, we recently made a journey back to St Francis Chapel, Makerere, where it all began 50 years ago
We have been celebrating a wedding through most of October, and I was the best man, as I was 50 years ago. The exact date was October 12, 1968, barely seven months after Peter, the groom, Ida, the bride, and I graduated from Dar es Salaam University. We had all been classmates, specialising in Literature, Linguistics, Language and Education.
I need not boast that we had excelled at our studies, which we had. But, as you can surmise from the above, we had found some time for a few co-curricular activities, including striking some firm friendships and even a few serious love affairs.
Peter and I, together with William Kamera, who eventually became an eminent literary professor, had also been founding editors of the university’s literary journal, Darlite, later renamed Umma.
This was UDSM’s counterpart of UoN’s Nexus/Busara and Makerere’s Penpoint/Dhana. I was to learn later that, during our tenure at Darlite, we had rejected a few articles submitted by a contemporary of ours who eventually became an East African head of state. You could say that I know something about the trials and tribulations of editorial work.
I am, however, digressing from the “wedding” and the really juicy details. The event itself was held at a campus, but not on the Dar campus, where the ngoma (dance) had started. Rather, we went to St. Francis Chapel, the Chaplaincy at Makerere, where we returned recently for a thanksgiving service and a renewal of Ida and Peter’s vows.
We even held our original wedding reception at the Students Guild Canteen, a famous Makerere landmark that has, sadly, been demolished in the spate of recent innovations.
John, Peter’s brother, reminded us at the recent Golden Jubilee celebrations that the 1968 reception had cost all of Ush700! Seven hundred Uganda shillings would probably buy you a boiled egg today. But even Ksh700 would not go very far in funding a typical Kampala or Nairobi wedding reception today. How the times have changed.
Anyway, holding the wedding at Makerere might have sounded reasonable, especially since Peter’s twin brother John was a student at the “Hill” and I, the best man, had just moved there as a Tutorial Fellow in English. You would assume it was a Ugandan affair on a Ugandan campus.
But Ida, our bride, was Zambian. Indeed, Peter had had to travel to Lusaka, where she had returned on graduation and taken up a job with the Kenneth Kaunda Foundation, to try and persuade her to come to Uganda and marry him. Obviously, it was not only Ida but the whole of her family that had to be coaxed and cajoled into the deal.
Indeed, our bride was not the toughest part, since she obviously loved Peter. But it took a lot of Peter’s natural charm to persuade Ida’s family that he would take good care of her and, especially, that he would not cut her off her family in “that far-off land”, as Uganda must have appeared to them in those distant days.
Their cautious consent, as Ida told us later, was grounded in the realisation that, if they let Ida go, she would probably be returning to visit from time to time. But if they didn’t, she would probably go anyway, and maybe not come back again.
It does not all sound very sensible or very sober. But, looking back on it now, I am struck by two endearing realities.
The first is that we were all very young and, consequently, quite daring, not to say reckless, in those days. Secondly and more importantly, my friends were deeply, unconditionally and irrevocably in love.
Our youth struck me visibly when I had a look at the black and white snaps taken at the wedding and during Peter and Ida’s courtship. We were really tiny! We were all in our early 20s, and Peter and I looked truly slender, not to say slight.
As for Ida, who was always petite, she was simply diminutive in those days. It is, indeed, this apparent fragility of ours that set me wondering how such young people could dare undertake such a serious commitment as a transnational marriage, and eventually keep it running for all of 50 years.
For these people had, literally, nothing to their names, except maybe the degree certificates that only entitled them to probationary hire. Ida, as we said, had walked out of her job in Lusaka and Peter was a vicarage child, the son of a Bishop.
The Church, as is well-known, confers a lot of respect on its servants, but it rarely endows them with material wealth. There was neither property nor prospective inheritance for Peter in Kampala or in his hometown of Koboko in the West Nile region of Uganda.
There was thus hardly any material attraction or prosperity prospects in this affair. I cannot help wondering how many of today’s hard-headed, “realistic” young people would sustain such a relationship and even walk it up to the altar. But Peter and Ida did, and they did prosper.
They distinguished themselves in their educational careers, teaching brilliantly at a striking string of Uganda’s top-notch schools. Ida was in top administration at the world-famous King’s College when she retired.
Peter had moved on to become a senior inspector of schools, a job which he did more as a quality assurance consultant than an intimidating inquisitor. All this was in addition to bringing up five highly educated children, and continuing gracefully, as they now do, on their amazingly amorous journey.
But that is where the bottom line comes in, and it is, simply, love. This couple seems to have found superhuman faith, courage, patience and even physical strength to enable them to dare and undertake all that they do because they had “discovered” each other.
Trusting and valuing each other totally, as they do, they seem to continually achieve miracles.
Need we ask the seven-hundred-shilling question, how they do it?
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]