Tuesday January 14 2014

Paddy Bitama: A man of two seasons

 Paddy Bitama, Amooti and Messe. Although

L-R: Paddy Bitama, Amooti and Messe. Although Bitama had left Amarula Family in 2011, he rejoined them again in 2013 and was meant to stage a few shows. He was only able to perform in one show because of his ailing health. Courtesy photo  

By Abdulaziizi K. Tumusiime

During the early days of Bukedde Television, Side Mirror was one of the programmes that made the channel appealing to its fresh viewership. It was a platform used by Amarula Family, arguably the country’s oldest comedy outfit to give viewers a weekly dose of laughter. To show you how hilarious he could be, I shall take you back to a skit that was broadcast sometime in 2010.

Paddy Ssali alias Bitama is dressed in an ill-fitting tank top and short skirt. Instead of the usual eye – candy cleavage, the top reveals a flat hairy chest. The make-up on his face is a joke itself. Bitama is a naïve hotel proprietor and is at its premises to observe the progress of business. When he gets to the swimming pool, he is angry with its attendant. He asks while pointing at a fat man in the pool, “Why did you let that buffalo swim from the sharon [instead of shallow] end? Do you know the kilograms of water that splashes out of the pool when he is swimming?

Such ga men infect our water with water porn [instead of borne] diseases like headache and the water’s temperature rises.” Bitama dips a finger in the water and asks the attendant, “How many kilometers of chloroquine [instead of chlorine] have you injected in this water?” Even before he answers, you can tell that the attendant is fighting a losing battle to laugh out loud.
Bitama really was funny

When he appeared on stage, his costumes invoked mirth. If he was not clad in the feminine revealing clothes or anything clownish, he was in a gomesi. The memorable performances in the gomesi were when he was acting the role of seasoned politician Beti Kamya. No wonder she was one of the first politicians who visited Bitama’s home, when news started making rounds that Bitama had died.

Suits were also part of his stage wardrobe. He often wore them to imitate male politicians, especially the President and his former vice – president Gilbert Bukenya. He was actually the first to tread this path of political satire.

The start of imitating politicians
Nicholas Mpeirwe alias Messe, a long time friend of the deceased, says that Bitama gave the recent generation of comedians, confidence to make use of events and persons in the world of politics as comedy material. “There was always that fear of the politicians’ reactions upon seeing the skits in which we made fun of their actions. I am talking of big people like Museveni himself.

Only he was bold enough to give it a try. His strategy was that he made it a point not to be abusive. All he did was imitate them and add a few hilarious exaggerations. When the feedback came in, it was encouraging. Actually he became friends with most of these people,” says Messe in a sombre tone.

His widely publicised depiction of Museveni was in their 2008 play titled Akaama ka Chogm. The sunhat, loose suit, eye rolling and stutter akin to the President’s left many ribs cracking.

Faith Kabasindi, his sister, says that it was evident at an early age that Bitama was slated to be a comedian. She states that his company was the most sought for in the family because he was hardly short of hilarious tales. “Surprisingly, he did not know that he was a talented comedian.

It was after making impressive performances during the early days of his comedy journey, at Jenina Bar in Nansana, that he realised that the art was his calling. Our deceased mum was his number one fan. When Bitama had a show, she would ask all the people in the neighbourhood to attend and support her son,” says Kabasindi, tears rolling down her cheeks. Hours before his death, she says, Bitama was still his comical self. He was mocking the eating habits of one of his aunties who was attending to him. He remarked that she could gulp a bucket of porridge and still ask for more.

His siblings defined him as a lovely and generous man. They say that he paid tuition for many and the amount he would give them for pocket money was hefty. “Sometimes, he would call you suddenly. Then he would inquire of your whereabouts and ask you to meet him somewhere so he could give you money. Just like that,” Kabasindi states. If Bitama’s life was filmed it would play out well as a series whereby, in season one, there is Bitama, the chubby comedian and then in season two, Bitama the lean political activist comes out.

His first attempt at politics was in 2005 and 2010 where he attempted and failed to contest for the country’s presidency. Different colleagues of the deceased have different opinions of his early political ambitions. Messe says that he was serious much as they thought he it was a comical stunt. On the other hand, George Mulindwa alias Afande Kerekere says that he was joking and gives his reason.

“One of the promises in his manifesto was that he would construct a swimming pool at Constitutional Square which would be open to all Ugandans. He added that a free bottle of soda would be given to everyone who entered,” says Afande Kerekere.

Serious about politics
However, in 2011, he proved to his doubters that he was taking his political ambitions seriously. Asuman Basalirwa, Justice Forum (JEEMA) Party president narrates that in that year, Ssemujju Nganda had organised a rally in Kireka, a city suburb, where Bitama was in attendance. “After a couple of speakers had addressed the audience, he came forth and requested to say something.

Semujju was reluctant to avail him the opportunity. After some cajoling, we granted him his wish. We could not believe his eloquence and informed arguments about the dictatorship in the country,” says Basalirwa.

Thereafter Bitama became an active member of opposition pressure groups For God and my Country (4GC) and later ,Activists for Change (A4C).

“Doubts were still rife that he may be one of the regime spies who are up to cheap intelligence. But, over time, we believed that he was in for the cause. He later became the group’s source of spiritual inspiration. He led the opening and closing prayers at all our rallies. He was persistent amidst the brutality of the police. I remember in 2012, I was with him in my car when we were profusely teargased by the police but this did not shake his resolve to be an activist.

It is unfortunate that his ill health could not let him proceed acutely,” says Basalirwa. The Jeema president says that with his death, the country has lost a patriotic celebrity who saw the common Ugandan’s challenges, folded his sleeves and joined the cause to address them.

Messe states that in Bitama, Amarula Family has lost a relative, and the comedy fraternity in the country has lost an elder.
Our dead, they say, are not dead to us until we forget them. That he made us laugh and stood for our rights, means that forgetting him will be no easy feat.

Bitama was a founding member of Amarula family along with Amooti Omubalanguzi (Allan Mujuni) and Messe (Nicholas Mpeire). In 2011, he abandoned the group after they could not let him juggle comedy with political activism.
Latif Latigo, the group’s manager says that their fans had started viewing them as a “political comedy group” which they were uncomfortable with. Bitama, in turn formed his own group, Amazon Family. Latigo says that this group did not stage any show. Mid last year, Bitama said that he was giving political activism a break for he could not take the beatings and teargas anymore.

With that, he was accepted back to Amarula. Towards the end of the year, they run adverts of a show dubbed Amadda ga Paddy, (The return of Paddy), which was to take place in Kampala (at La Bonita), Mukono and Nansana. Because of Bitama’s ailing health, he only managed to perform at the La Bonita show. Bitama has been battling cancer for a number of years.

He lost the battle in the afternoon last Saturday at Mulago Cancer Institute. He is survived by a widow Sheritah Nalubega and four children.