Sunday June 1 2014

Adventures of the Son of a Rat Catcher

By Harold Acemah

Son of a Rat Catcher is the title of a new book by a friend and former colleague at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Jenkins Kiwanuka.

The 251-page paperback is Mr Kiwanuka’s memoirs and due to be published soon by MK Publishers (Uganda) Ltd at the pocket friendly price of Shs15,000 which is the cost of only two Club or Bell beers at the Kampala Sheraton or Serena Hotel.

This publication gives meaning to the old adage that one should not judge a book by its cover; the cover of Kiwanuka’s autobiography gives the impression that it is a children’s story book.

The author is a self-made man with a sharp memory and a jack of all trades. Although I have known Jenkins since 1970, it is only after reading the book that I learnt he was not a university graduate.

Samwiri Lwanga-Lunyiigo portrays Kiwanuka’s background accurately in the foreword to the book. He writes: “There are a lot of achievers who have not had the benefit of a full formal education. Kiwanuka is one of them. Tailor, carpenter, builder, clerk, journalist, politician, public relations practitioner, diplomat and business executive” you name it!

Lwanga-Lunyiigo, a historian who was my contemporary at the University of East Africa, Makerere calls the author a lifetime student and observes correctly that Uganda’s salvation lies in people of Kiwanuka’s mettle who can continue to read and write without the pressure of an exam. He argues that such people will eventually build a literate nation.

Samwiri laments the poor reading culture of educated Ugandans who, if I may add, would rather buy and consume four or more beers everyday than buy one newspaper, preferably the Daily Monitor, at half the price of one beer at a two-star pub.

Without readers there can be no writers, but in Africa and, Uganda in particular, Samwiri argues “it is only the eccentric ones like Kiwanuka who dare to perform even when the theatre is virtually empty. To those, posterity will be their audience and hopefully vindication.” How sad!

Son of a Rat Catcher is written in simple and readable language with no words which may require the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary to be on standby. Its primary lesson is that it does not matter what social and economic background one comes from, how many degrees one has acquired, success in life depends on one’s strength of character and capacity to project the best of one.

Kiwanuka echoes the above in his preface where he states: “Let me say from the outset that those who look for profundity and analytical precision may not find them in this book” which reminds me of something which renowned British author and political scientist Bernard Crick wrote in one of his bestsellers.

He lamented that he was “constantly depressed by the capacity of academics to over-complicate things” to everybody’s disadvantage.

I have watched a few such types on NTV news; instead of giving clear and straight answers to questions which ordinary people can understand and benefit from, they speak in tongues and use all manner of jargon and complicated words to essentially avoid tackling burning issues head on, due to fear which has regrettably paralysed Uganda.

Kiwanuka informs his readers that he dropped out of school at the age of 15 after completing the equivalent of Senior Two, but continued to educate himself through reading and writing up to now in his 70s. His daughters, Sarah and Monica, are Ph.D candidates in South Africa which compensates for the formal education he missed.

As one who worked with him for almost 30 years, I can attest to the fact that Kiwanuka is better than most contemporary Ugandan graduates with their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the local universities.

He performed a lot better as a diplomat than his namesake Prof Semakula Kiwanuka whose work I supervised, with difficulty, for five years as head of the multilateral organisations department at the Foreign Ministry.

Congratulations Jenkins, son of a rat catcher, for a job well done; I promise you many cold beers for the road when we meet again at our usual joint.

The title of the book derives from one of the many activities Kiwanuka’s father Andereya Zaake Katabara engaged in, namely trapping rats to prevent plague which apparently killed thousands of people in Buganda during the early part of the 20th Century.

Andereya earned some money from the colonial government for his efforts depending on the number of rat tails he submitted to the local Gombolola or Sub-county chief. Kiwanuka believes that his father’s rat deals paid for his education.

The book is divided into 25 chapters, perhaps too many for a small book, but as the English say, the more the merrier! It is filled with serious and funny tales by a man who is endowed with wit and a sense of humour; he often shared jokes with me, Mr James Kalebo and our mutual friend Daudi Taliwaku (RIP) at our Lugogo joint where we met most Friday evenings to brainstorm on political, diplomatic and mundane issues.

I was surprised to read in Chapter 24 titled: “Daylight Robbery” my saga with the accused Permanent Secretary of Public Service, Jimmy Lwamafa. On page 233, Kiwanuka addresses a blatant and sectarian abuse of office committed in 2000 by a man who is now on trial for grand larceny and corruption.

When I failed to obtain justice through normal channels, I sued government, on principle, in 2005 and after a long delay won the case in 2012. As of today, I have received barely half of the agreed compensation; I hope the balance will be paid soon. Better late than never!

Son of a Rat Catcher is a must-read book, especially for public servants and I recommend it to all educated Ugandans.

Mr Acemah is a political scientist, consultant and a retired career diplomat.