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A Call at Midnight: The book that Grace Ogot left behind

Saturday March 16 2019

A Call at Midnight will be launched on March 16 at the home of Bethwell and Grace Ogot in Gem, Yala, Siaya County. PHOTO| COURTESY

A Call at Midnight will be launched on March 16 at the home of Bethwell and Grace Ogot in Gem, Yala, Siaya County. PHOTO| COURTESY 

TOM ODHIAMBO
By TOM ODHIAMBO
More by this Author

Not so many Kenyans today remember Idi Amin Dada.

In fact unless one is interested in the history of African politics, there is little chance that one will be involved in a discussion about his rule in Uganda between 1971 and 1979.

There are not many popular books about Amin’s regime in Uganda, which means that it is films such as The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, Raid on Entebbe, and, lately, Seven Days in Entebbe, that keep the memory of Amin’s regime and its tragic consequences alive.

Yet there are hundreds of untold stories about Idi Amin fading with the memory of Kenyans who were adults in the 1970s.

Some of the tales about Amin are real; many are exaggerations. For Amin was larger than life, literally.

He was big. He was a boxer. He was a wrestler. He imagined himself the ‘last king of Scotland’ – the book and film of that title significantly adds to the story of Amin as a really bad African ruler.

Before Amin rose to power, it was possible for a young man to go to elementary school in Kenya, do high school in Uganda, attend university in Tanzania and find work back in Uganda.

Indeed when Amin came to power, there were many Ugandans who rejoiced.

He had taken Milton Obote off their backs. Obote had started off well as Prime Minister and even later as president, after using Amin to overthrow Kabaka.

However, he would later turn oppressive, making life unbearable for those opposed to his regime. Amin would not take long before he, too, became dictatorial.

ARMY IN DAILY LIFE

However, the one significant difference between Obote and Amin’s misrule was the presence of the army in daily life, with its scary symbolism as well as reality of violence.

Yet, it is when the economy tanked, as the government overspent but hardly encouraged economic productivity, that life became unbearable for people in Uganda.

As Amin faced international and regional isolation, he saw the foreigners as the source of economic decline.

Consequently, apart from the infamous expulsion of Asians, thousands of non-Ugandans, and Ugandans left Uganda. The regime hunted down and haunted its enemies, perceived and real.

It jailed, maimed, killed or exiled those it deemed were opposed to it.

Thus thousands of Ugandans who were able to escape arrived in Kenya penniless, many without a friend or relative to host them, others without any skills to enable them earn an income.

They ended up destitute and exploited by Kenyans.

This is the story told in A Call at Midnight (Anyange Press, 2019) by Grace Ogot, one of the stories that the author died before publishing.

A Call at Midnight takes the reader back to the 1970s. It is a tragic tale of one family’s fall from grace to grass.

Emanuel and June Bugembe’s lives change suddenly when Amin overthrows Obote.

Emanuel rises from an Under-Secretary to a Permanent Secretary, bypassing senior colleagues in the Ministry of Tourism and Game Parks.

But with such power and privileges always come intrigues. His wife, June Bugembe, catches the eye of the Minister for Tourism and Game Parks, Brigadier Abram Kitabu.

The minister desires June Bugembe and hatches a plot to have her work in the same ministry as her husband.

This annoys the husband, who suspects where such machinations will lead the family to. He decides to resign from work.

To quit, however, could be interpreted as challenging the authority of the government.

In the end Emanuel resigns but goes into exile in Kenya, hoping to find work and send for his wife and two daughters.

To pass through the roadblocks and border point, Bugembe uses an ID card belonging to a dead man. His new name is Yekko Mukoke.

On the other hand June and the children flee to the countryside, first to June’s mother’s home but decide against staying, afraid that state security agents might trace them there.

They travel further to stay with June’s aunt. But the security agents nearly catch them there. It is only through the ingenious efforts of the aunt and her husband that June manages to evade police capture.

Eventually she returns to Kampala, where she would probably disappear in the multitudes of the city. She soon decides to travel to Kenya to try and trace her husband, from whom she hadn’t heard.

She doesn’t manage to find her husband in Nairobi, where she had travelled to, but is rescued by an airhostess that she had once assisted in Uganda.

PERMANENT CHANGE

The relationship between the two sets in motion a series of events that would permanently change the lives of June, her husband, and a number of Kenyans that she would end up associating with.

In other words, the consequences of the oppressive regime of Idi Amin in Uganda would have adverse reverberations across the borders.

June ends up as a smuggler of goods from Uganda into Kenya and has a relationship with a married Kenyan man, Solomon, with whom she has three sons.

But when peace returns to Uganda, June and her Kenyan ‘husband’ relocate there in 1982. However, they are shocked when Emanuel Bugembe appears at their doorstep one day.

June agrees to pay him off. She and the husband had saved some money in Kenya – a considerable amount. She poisons Solomon and gets him to sign away the money. Solomon ends up in a hospital ward in Nairobi.

That’s how the call at midnight is made to the wife he had abandoned.

In A Call at Midnight, Ogot brings back to life a history that is fast fading away. It reminds the reader of what life under Amin was for millions of Ugandans who had to endure harassment by the police, soldiers and other government officials; who had to live without essential goods and services at some point; who were helpless as their friends, colleagues and relatives were arrested, jailed or disappeared; who had to adopt the identities of the dead in order to escape arrest or remake themselves to escape surveillance; who had to decide to abandon other family members to save their own lives by going into the unknown exile; who were often forced to start (new) families in foreign lands; who went back home and had to live with the ghosts of their dead, missing or new but unwanted family members, among other tragedies of Uganda of the 1970s.

But at the same time, Ogot’s story reminds us of how some Kenyans made their money by exploiting the dire lives of Ugandans. Kenyans ‘exported’ food and some goods such as oil, soap, sugar etc, to a country that couldn’t feed itself but in return ‘imported’ cars, household goods and coffee etc.

The smuggling happened through the so-called ‘panya routes’, generally using ‘boda boda’ – which is the origin of the bicycle taxis in Busia, and the greasing of the palms of border security agents on either side.

MINTED WEALTH FROM MISERIES

Several Kenyan families minted wealth from the misery of the Ugandans and the rest of the country benefitted immensely from the services of Ugandan teachers, doctors, nurses, mechanics, and housemaids, among others.

Kenyan men and women met wives and husbands. Children were born. Some remained in Kenya. Others went ‘back’ to Uganda.

Some others left for the diaspora.

There are those who wouldn’t wish to be reminded of that time. Yet some will always remember it as a life-defining moment. Grace Ogot retells this story to remind all on the wiliness of the human mind and its consequences.

A Call at Midnight will be launched on March 16 at the home of Bethwell and Grace Ogot in Gem, Yala, Siaya County.

This is the fourth anniversary since the death of Grace Ogot.

To commemorate her, a statue of Grace and Bethwell will be unveiled in the home at a ceremony at which UNESCO officials will speak about Bethwell Ogot’s work and relationship with the organisation.

The guests will be allowed to visit the Grace Ogot Mausoleum, which honours her contribution to culture and humanity.

 

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]

 

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