Introducing the autistic saxophone player

Sunday March 13 2011
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Caesar (right)with his father, Bernard Kajura.

When their child was declared unteachable by his teachers, Bernard and Susan Kajura tirelessly sought answers. They tell Robert Kalumba how they helped their son become the saxophone player he is now.

He’s 21 years old but if you asked him the answer to the question, “What is seven plus seven?” he would take 10 minutes to answer. The delay is not because he finds the question insulting. The long silence is not a sign of disbelief to the “offensive” question or that he is perhaps philosophising his reply. No. He actually finds the question hard.

Caesar Kajura has Asperger syndrome. It’s a form of autism, a developmental disorder, which affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills. His condition is characterised by poor social interactions, odd speech patterns, peculiar preoccupations, difficulty in demonstrating empathy for others, difficulty in reading body language of others and problems with reading, math or writing skills.

However that’s not Kajura’s real story. His tale is of triumph against severe odds that to this day define who he is. Despite the difficulties in what many of us take for granted, Kajura has struggled to grasp many skills. He doesn’t even have friends. Making friends is still a massive hurdle for him. He simply doesn’t know the mechanics of creating a friendship. Stacked with such odds however, Kajura has found himself in a way that’s not only both inspiring and defying but promising for many that share the same condition with him. Caesar Kajura is an accomplished saxophonist.

“He can’t read music. He can’t write music. But he understands music. Give him a saxophone and he will blow you away,” says the father, Bernard Kajura, who with the wife Susan, have walked an interesting path with their son, breaking down barriers that included their son being rejected by teachers who told them he was “un-teachable.”

“For six years after his birth, we never knew that he had Asperger Syndrome. We didn’t even know about that disease. What we found odd was that as a young child, he didn’t have friends. When he went to pre-school he was still a loner. We found this odd. Young children normally love to make friends but Caesar was different,” says the father. This got the parents talking to fellow parents and a lady called Gifty Quarcoo, offered to diagnose him. “That’s when we found out about his condition.”

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The diagnosis took place in Nairobi. Thereafter, Caesar was brought back to Kampala. “In Kampala, there were no facilities to deal with his condition. No information. Nothing. We were practically in no-man’s land. We decided to take him to different schools hoping that perhaps the magic wand would be found there. But teachers kept telling us to go pick up our child because he was ‘un-teachable’,” saysBernard.

What the teachers meant was that Kajura, instead of playing with his fellow young children, preferred spending his time with his teachers. He tagged along wherever they went. When it came to the classroom, he was withdrawn. He never participated in anything, be it class, games, or other activities. “Teachers had their school favourites. Children who don’t disturb them. Children they were comfortable with. In some schools I wasn’t any teacher’s favourite. This made me uncomfortable,” Kajura says. He adds, “In school, I had bad grades. I was told I was going to be a failure. I actually believed that. I was resigned to my fate.”

This behaviour pattern led to the inevitable. “I was teased and bullied by the students,” says Caesar. “I was told that since I couldn’t do well in academics, I wouldn’t get anywhere in the world. The teachers in some schools, at times would make me feel out of place by ignoring me. I wanted to leave school.”

For many parents, this would probably set off serious alarm bells. Questions like: “What’s will become of my child? Will they manage the world? Will they turn out as failures?” would be swirling non-stop in their heads. It would be a difficult time full of fear and doubts. “I wouldn’t say I panicked as such,” says Susan. “I was more anxious as are all parents about their children. You wonder what they will become.

Are you equipping them with the right set of skills and values to handle the future? I did worry however about finding him something he could do within his limitations that would help him earn a living and live a fulfilled life,” she said.

The saxophone was to answer the her worries. “It started when he was 10 years old. Since he preferred being with adults to his peers, he used to tag along with us, when we went to watch Afrigo Band perform at Bat Valley,” says Bernard. “There, he would watch the leader of the Afrigo Band, Moses Matovu, blow his sax and he would be taken up. Then one day while watching the show he told us, ‘I want to be like that man’.”

Immediately a sax was bought but the excitement was short-lived. “We got him a tutor but it simply didn’t work out. It turned out to be challenging for him. He simply couldn’t read music,” reveals Bernard. But this didn’t deter them. When the family moved to South Africa in 2008, they bought another sax. Yet again, it was a dead end. “In Johannesburg, we got him enrolled into a band, but it didn’t work out either.”

That hard luck was to change by a chance meeting in a church in Zimbabwe. “My wife got a job in Zimbabwe in 2008. She was attending church and she got talking about our boy and his condition and a gentleman called Tony Vas told her he could teach Kajura how to blow the sax and he wouldn’t have to read the music notes. “Vas said he would teach him to read music using the ear.”

It worked. Within six months Kajura could work the sax perfectly. “He would play a song on a CD player, listen to it for a few minutes, switch off the CD player and then re-play the song while blowing his sax. At times he would listen to a song off the radio and after the song was over, he would perform that song on his sax,” says Bernard.
“I love the saxophone because it’s got a unique tone from other instruments. I was told the sax is the best instrument to learn for music starters,” Caesar says. This love for the sax gave him what had eluded him since childbirth. “I felt confident,” he says. “I felt I could do something.” This confidence gave birth to an album titled, Self Discovery.

The album which was recorded in Zimbabwe, has eight songs with the sax on all the songs being played by Caesar Kajura. “Every song on this album means something important to me,” Kajura explains. “The album starts with a Zimbabwean folk song which says, ‘If I were a bird...’ This is fitting because through my music I found my wings.”

Kajura is soft-spoken, shy and comes across as a very reserved person. But underneath all that is a determined soul that believes in its destiny, a destiny which is as impressive as they come. “I know I will be somebody,” says Caesar with a determined look that speaks volumes about will, determination and courage as a human being.

When asked what any parent should do if they are in a similar situation, Susan says, “Love, support and believe in your child. Don’t hide him or her. Seek answers. Be his or her advocate. Find what he or she can do and support him or her all the way and pray. Remember it’s not about you, but them.”

Looking at Kajura, there is no doubt that his mum has done all that and much more. And Mr Kajura’s words are a testament to what his wife has done for their son. “All the credit for bringing my son where he is now should go to my wife. She’s the one that really toiled with him.”

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