Many people enjoy fame and permanence in the human story because of the empires they built, their conquests of territory or the numbers felled by their guns and spears.
Uganda’s honour roll is dominated by those who shed blood in the struggles to liberate our land from the grip of darkness.
Today, I honour one whose hands were not stained with blood, one whose intellect and honest service tower above those of numerous countrymen who demand accolades they do not deserve.
Eli Nathan Bisamunyu, who died last week, was one whose life was a series of triumphs against incredible odds and an inspiration to many.
Born in 1928, Bisamunyu was an early beneficiary of a colonial education that offered a lifeline out of the poverty and uncertainty that was the fate of the majority who made their homes in the remote villages of the Uganda Protectorate.
One imagines the young Bisamunyu sprinting the five or so kilometers from his parents’ home in Kasooni, Mparo to Kihanga Elementary School, his small frame a perfect load for his nimble feet that, in later years, would serve him well on tennis courts.
By the time he arrived at Kigezi High School, Bisamunyu was renowned as a student whose brilliant mind impressed teachers and peers alike.
My father, his classmate at Kigezi High School and lifelong friend and confidant, always spoke of Bisamunyu with a deep admiration. He was the one person who denied my father a chance to come top of their class.
My father’s recollection was repeatedly affirmed by many of Bisamunyu’s classmates with whom I interacted over the years. All spoke of his genius and ease with a British school curriculum that challenged many.
It is difficult to overstate Mr Bisamunyu’s genius and impact on our attitude towards academic excellence. The first university graduate from Kigezi, Bisamunyu was a published historian of distinction. However, it was his fluent command of English, an early skill by all accounts, which secured him the lifelong reputation of supreme master of the colonists’ language.
We grew up on a diet of stories that spoke of Bisamunyu’s linguistic exploits. No doubt many were embellished, even apocryphal. Yet we loved to hear them because we lived our own fantasies of excellence through him.
How could we not believe reports that British teachers and other expatriate workers deferred to him on matters of English grammar and syntax? Was he not the final arbiter whenever there was a dispute between two Englishmen over their own language?
How could we dismiss the sweet story of Bisamunyu dispensing with an English dictionary because he already knew every word and phrase in that edition?
Besides, had he not come first in a class that had counted among its ranks the dictionary’s author?
Whether it was true or not, it made the point that Mr Bisamunyu ruled the floor of parliament, not only with the weight of his arguments but with the eloquence that kept his colleagues thirsting for more.
My admiration for Mr Bisamunyu was without reservation, perhaps because he was a non-conformist. He was one of the very few people to have crossed from the ruling party to the opposition ranks. Not even the risk of imprisonment deterred him from criticising his party and president. That would remain his trademark for the rest of his life.
In my view, Bisamunyu’s greatest triumph was his abandonment of alcohol consumption in 1970, a habit that he had struggled with for many years. With the support of his beloved wife Irene and many friends, Bisamunyu quit the bottle and became one of the founders of the Uganda Chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was an accomplishment that he always spoke about with prideful satisfaction.
It was, of course, very fitting that the current government honoured Bisamunyu with a state funeral. Yet he would have been the first to state that it was a complete misreading of him. The Bisamunyu I knew would rather the energy was expended on improving substandard social services in the country.
For example, Bisamunyu would have been mildly amused by the proposal to name a city street in his honour while the road to his home in Mparo, Kigezi and other roads in his old constituency of Kigezi East are in a worse state today than they were when he first entered parliament over 50 years ago.
Kigezi East, which covered present day Rukiga and Rubabo counties, had exactly 11 kilometers of tarmacked road when Bisamunyu was the area MP. Forty-three years after he left parliament, his old constituency still has exactly the same 11 kilometers of tarmacked road.
A tarmacked road from Muhanga to Mparo and beyond would be a fitting tribute to a man who paved the way for bright boys and girls from the area.
Bisamunyu was a very good human being, with a kindness that was as limitless as his forgiving spirit. As I mourn with his son Edward and his daughter Jeannette, I am thankful to have been associated with him as a friend and a beneficiary of his extraordinary intellect and forthright counsel. By God’s grace, we must and shall be worthy of him.
Dr Muniini is based in Toronto, Canada