You must be familiar with radio death announcements normally read shortly after the news bulletin. That segment most people loathe because it reminds them of the life we are here for. His signature mellow voice went, “Kino kirango kya okubika” on CBS FM and Super FM. In a fast flawless Luganda accent, Ssalongo John Ssekandi dramatically anchored death announcements in the morning, lunch time, evening and night.
Ssekandi had mastered the trade ruling the airwaves by reading death announcements on Radio Uganda, at a time when Uganda had only one broadcaster until he moved to Buganda kingdom radio, CBS.
For most people, he remains the best death announcer on radio. The narrow and diminishing pool of radio announcement readers include Christopher Kigunga, Fred Musisi, Nyansiyo Mulyowa, Kagolo Mayanja, the late Omugeye Kirumira, Serugga Matovu, Thomas Kagera, Charles Seggane, Dizzy Kibuuka, Julie Ndagire, and Joseph Kateregga.
To dabble in death announcements is not what he chose and prepared for as a career, but to make a living out of fate is what happened to him.
His love for drama and fluency was taught to him at the home of his grandfather, Yeremiya Katalikabbe, a former evangelist at what is now St Philips and St Andrews cathedrals, Mukono against his own better counsel, saw him stumble into revolutionalising announcing death.
His father, Yesero Settubakadde, who used to work at the government printer in Entebbe, had lost his job and the only chance to have his children study was to have the eldest, John Ssekandi, drop out early. Having dropped out in Junior Three, as an 18-year-old, life was a hustle.
His uncle Kamadi Nsubuga secured him a job as a laundry attendant commonly referred to as dobbi in Nakawa. This trait still flows in him. Even at home, his clothes must be ironed all the time.
At one time he secured a job at an oil refinery near what is now the city abattoir but the filthy environment saw him last just two days on the job.
With so little from his laundry job, an uncle, Moses Ssemambo, working at Entebbe International Airport, got him a job as a telephone operator in 1956.
“It was an exciting job because it was clean and on top of that I was meeting with white people and seeing planes every day.
It was during this time that he married Margaret Nabunnya with whom they had twins. Wasswa passed on in June this year while Nakato is married in Luweero.
It was a marriage that was forced on him by his religious father at just 23 years. It lasted four years.
While working at Entebbe airport, Ssekandi fought with his manager, he only recalls as Dawson, over racist remarks.
He had been at the job for three years but when Dawson came, his job did not last a week.
“I beat him and I was terminated right away,” said Ssekandi who does not regret the incident.
During this time at the airport where he earned Shs12 monthly, he built a house in Nabuti and a commercial building in Mukono Town.
But he did not know where he was headed as trying moments hit.
He did several odd jobs, including making pancakes, and building until he started teaching at Mwanyanjiri.
In 1963, he married his second wife Joyce Najjuma, who lives in his second home in Nabuti town.
In 1966, he attempted a shot at politics joining the mass movement of Kabaka Yekka after Milton Obote’s army forced Kabaka of Buganda Frederick Muteesa II into exile.
But the death of those took the trip for rebellion made him change his opinion about politics.
“We were in hiding for some time because soldiers were targeting Buganda loyalists,” he says.
Life changing meeting
In 1967, he bumped into his former schoolmate Moses Nkangi after a church service at Mukono and Nkangi advised him to seek a job at Radio Uganda.
He was lucky because he had no training at all. The diploma he later obtained from International Institute of Business and Media Studies (IIBMS) followed pressure from radio management at Radio Uganda.
But when he reached office the following day, he met Kagimu Mukasa, the station manager, who was a former schoolmate and his assistant Dizzy Kibuuka was not a stranger either.
After recording his demo, of the five people at the auditions, he was instantly offered the job.
“For sure I was good and after listening to the recording they wanted me to start work as soon as possible,” he says.
The dramatisation and proper Luganda magically attracted many listeners to his death announcements slot.
He had mastered Luganda from the daily family fellowships at his grandfather’s home,.
But he had some days in the cold of prison in 1975 on unknown charges. He recalls, though, it could have stemmed from the desire he had to defend the Kabaka.
When he was released, he was transferred to the Ministry of Information headquarters in Nakasero as a clerical officer.
“It was all boring. I had been used to being on air but here I was with people and serious mean looking people,” he says.
He called it quits in 1976 and started working in his shop full-time.
It was at this time that he married his third wife Juliet Namirembe, who died, leaving the house to his children.
Another chapter opened for him in 1993 when Buganda Kingdom started CBS FM.
The radio had four slots for personal announcements; 5.30am to 7am, 10am, then, midday to 3pm, 5.30 to 7pm.
Kagolo Mayanja, the senior reader at CBS FM, recalls that by the time he joined in 1997 the volume of work was so huge that in an hour one needed to read more than 150 announcements to be able to catch up. Peter Ssematimba zeroed in on him as the only choice. After five years, he moved with Ssematimba to Super FM.
He is happy that he mentored his daughter Christine Nassozi. She had a stint reading death announcements on CBS FM but when she failed as a Member of Parliament for Gomba, her job was taken. She now lives humbly in Gomba with her family.
“I am disappointed with the politics at CBS FM that cost my daughter her job because there is no other way this could be explained,” he says.
“She was good and I was hoping my legacy would be transferred to her.”
He is, however, disappointed with the several media outlets that have failed to professionalise thinking every comedian is radio material.
He retired into farming at his six-acre farm in Bunankanda, a fishing village in Ntenjeru Sub-county, Mukono District where he grows fruits such as oranges, mangoes, avocado and bananas.
There has been only one Ssalongo John in this world and he thinks a presidential recognition can do him well.
The polygamous man
Officially, Ssekandi has three wives but he is not afraid to talk about having others with whom he has a number of children.
It is his biggest regret.
“Things have changed a lot and I always tell my children to keep the number of wives to at least two because the costs of living increases by the day yet even sexually transmitted diseases are worryingly many,” he says before puffing away a cigarette which he ‘was thirsty for’ in our one-hour interview.