The year was 1966 or maybe 1967, I am not quite sure. The mid-day sun was beating down on us without mercy making my father and I pant in the heat. We had been flagging down everything and anything that moved on that road, trying to get a ride without success, and personally I had lost all hope. Lukaya a small township only a few miles south of the Equator line, can be hot, dusty, noisy, stuffy, smelly with the exhaust fumes of the countless long distance trucks passing through, and extremely uncomfortable; and on that day it was being all those.
Suddenly, a black Mercedes-Benz limousine came into view travelling from Kampala towards Masaka. My father, ever the optimist, flagged it down. I watched without interest, since I knew that that was not the kind of vehicle we travelled in. But amazingly, the Mercedes reduced speed and its left side indicator began flashing; it was stopping! It came to a halt about 10 yards short of where we were standing on the dusty road side.
It was a beautiful car, sleek as a fish, with tinted glass windows. Its headlamps and front grill suggested the face of a snarling powerful black cat. The driver opened his door and rushed out in some haste into one of the little roadside restaurants to buy something.
A leap of faith
That is when my father grabbed our bag off the dusty road verge and said to me “Hurry!” and we ran towards the car. By the time we reached the car, the front passenger window had slid down, and I saw a policeman in the passenger seat, with a long rifle cradled against his shoulder. I was taken aback; policemen were not my heroes. My father (the man believes in miracles), approached the policeman’s window and asked him for a lift.
The policeman eyed us with a look that said, “You must be joking”, but he told my father as politely as he could to ask the mukulu, the important one, in the back-seat. By then, the back window had soundlessly slid open and we could see a finely dressed gentleman on the left-hand side of the back-seat, the owner’s corner.
My father sallied forth in faith, went over to the back window and bravely asked for the lift. I wasn’t betting on it. Unbelievably, the man in the back-seat said something to the effect of “Okay, get in.” Then we were falling over ourselves, hurrying to go around the back of the car to get into the back-seat with our benefactor. The policeman had to help us to open the door, and then we scrambled in, me first right up next to the mukulu, with my father struggling in right after me, encumbered by our bulky travelling bag. The policeman closed the door after us with a polite click.
Awed by the lavish mercedes
Just then the driver returned with his boss’s drink, opened the car door on “our” side, and got a shock. The look on his face seemed to ask, “What is that?”, that, being the pair of us. I mean, we were not exactly Mercedes material; we were peasants, and we looked it. Picture me about 11-12 years old, in my locally-put-together khaki shorts (and no, it was not new), a short-sleeved cotton shirt that could have been any colour in its early days, barefoot, sweaty and dusty; and my father only slightly better presented than I.
Seeing his driver’s eyebrows shoot beyond the hairline in surprise, the boss told him gently, “We are giving them a lift; put their bag in the boot”. And that was that; the boss had spoken, what could the poor driver do? So he took the bag off my father’s lap, (and no, it was NOT a Samsonite, but that’s all I will say about it), and went and put it in the boot.
The driver then got back into the car and touched something, and the car vibrated ever so slightly without making any sound at all, and we were on our way. The experience was rather like being under-water.
All the road and wind noises were excluded, and the environment was comfortably dark and cool, unlike the baking heat and blinding sun we had just been in.
The interior surfaces were smooth to touch and it smelled nice too. The car carpets were so clean you could have eaten off them. From my vantage point in the middle of the back-seat I had a clear view of the road, and I couldn’t help that feeling of pride every time “our” car passed a slower vehicle. But mostly I was mesmerized by the illusion of telephone and electricity poles which seemed to zip past us in the opposite direction. We were going fast, but you could not feel it.
Never too posh for peasants
At some point I became aware that my father and our benefactor were talking. I heard my father respectfully ask the gentleman what he was called, and the gentleman replied in a quiet voice that his name was Bwambale. It is a name I remember because at that time it sounded so strange to me, as I had never heard of anybody called that. I turned slightly trying to steal a look, to put a face to the name.
I started at his feet which were conveniently close to my dusty bare left foot. His feet were of course in shiny black shoes, above which were legs in sharply pressed trousers, above which was a suit jacket, shirt and tie. On his lap were some papers that he must have been reading before the peasants descended his car. I don’t carry an impression of him being a large person.
He was of what I can only describe as a normal size, if not a bit on the small side, and very smart.
Unfortunately I never did see his face as it had been drummed into me as a child that it was bad manners in the extreme for a child to openly stare at an adult. The car ate up the 18 miles in what seemed like a flash, and then we were in Masaka. Mr. Bwambale asked us where we would like to be dropped off, and my father said anywhere would do fine. So they dropped us at Luna’s Corner.
He wound his window down as we stood on the pavement and waved to us like we were old friends. Then the Mercedes merged into the traffic, slipped around a corner and went out of sight into the mists of time. Out of sight that is, but it was never out of my mind. Later that day I heard my father tell someone that we had just had a lift in a minister’s car!
An unforgettable mark
Fast forward to December 2012: Recently, I found myself retelling this story again, of how my father and I were given a lift by a minister during what is now known as the Obote1 era, wondering what kind of person, what manner of man, he was, that he would give passing peasants and their barefoot sons lifts in a ministerial limousine, and treat them so well.
Someone suggested a Google search on “Bwambale minister Obote 1”, and would you believe it! There he was in an article in the Monitor of the 7 October 2012. His name was given as Ezron Mbethe Bwambale, former Deputy Minister for Culture in the Obote I government. I was elated! It must be him; there cannot have been many ministers called Bwambale at the time.
He is in his 80s now, and in the photograph accompanying the article he looks old and rather frail, and not as impressively turned out as when I last saw him. But I know I am not the only one who knows that inside that old man’s chest there beats a heart of gold!
I do not drive a Mercedes, but whenever anyone asks me for a lift, they get it if it is at all possible. They would not know of course, that they are getting the lift because a long time ago Deputy Minister in a Mercedes limousine showed a man and his young son such honour.
Honourable Bwambale, I thank you.