Kasirye Gwanga! Make mention of the name and you will be sure to get a wealth of descriptions about the beholder. Arrogant, proud, loose talker, down to earth, straightforward, brave and cantankerous….the list could go on and on. At the end of the day, it is a question of who is saying what about him and from what point of view. Thus is the world of the man whose domain I set out to explore.
The journey started with a one hour ride from Kampala to the remote Kisoga village in Mukono, a few kilometers away from Mukono town where his 200 acre farm lies. The place is so isolated that only a few wornout structures exist, the rest is his farm with livestock and fruits.
In the taxi, passengers stare at me in awe when I ask the conductor to drop me at Kasirye Gwanga’s place. The bodaboda rider who takes me to his farm wonders, “Naye gwe eyo empologoma mwogela ki naye?” meaning, “What do you talk about with that lion?” I only tell him I have a meeting and tickle him to tell me more about the “lion”. He goes into how one time Afande as he is popularly known, caned policemen.
“I wonder why people suffer with suicide; just go to his farm and before you know he has shot you, bodaboda men only go there when they are called by him,” he said. “Forget about Moses Golola (the kick boxer), Kasirye Gwanga is bad news, no nonsense!”
When he drops me at the entrance to the farm, he urges me not to take chances as anything can happen. I oblige and call Afande who asks one of the gate men to take me to our interview venue.
The middle aged man stares at me suspiciously. I tactfully manipulate him to tell me about his boss.
“Mama nyabo! Just go and find out yourself,” he says, making me push him to the wall to say something positive about him, “He is good, but changes colours. You work aware that there are slaps for you if you make mistakes.”
When I ask him how he has coped in the last three years of working on the farm, all he says is that life is about understanding people. He regrets why I did not call Afande to Kampala for the interview such that they get breathing space, “Even his children do not stay with him when he goes to Kampala. The man is too tough!”
With all this, I was filled with a mixture of fear and anxiety; not sure if the interview will go well. What if, as they say, he changes colours and turns the gun on me or gets emotional over a question and roughs me up? What if he says, “Go back, I am not in my mood?”
What would I do if anything happened On a farm of 200 acres, particularly in a location where only a gorgeous lass, him and I would be for over four hours? I murmured what could easily become my last prayer and resigned my fate to God.
The first meeting
my guide for the day salutes him and politely lets him know I had arrived. He tells me to wait and signals me to sit on a stout tree trump. As I wait with my heartbeat rising, the gorgeous lass (whom I later discover is relative) gives me a glass of passion fruit juice. I take time to understand the man from his environment.
Where I am seated, Rex cigarettes are littered all over with empty tins of canned beer. Next to them are magazines, a novel and bottles of mineral water. Meanwhile, the white Land cruiser a heartbeat away from me is intriguingly striking. While the rear bears a government number plate, the front only has an army star. There is no house, save for an army green tent, which I imagine is a store.
He moves with a mixture of a swagger and a stagger. He is dressed in old fading green jeans, tucked in with a T-shirt and black socks in African sandals. He opens his pepper red eyes and stares at me calculatively from head to toe and in a baritone asks, “For how long have you been a journalist? What is your name?” Reading how jittery I was getting, he offers a handshake with the stiffness of his palms not going unnoticed as we sit down.
I break the ice by passionately telling him how honoured I am to meet a man I greatly admire and look up to. “Yeah, some people admire me and others hate me and I like that. I do not like people.” He lights his cigar and turns down the volume of the radio playing Lingala music before continuing. “I do not have friends, all my childhood friends are dead. These people you meet at 30 years are not true friends; they just want to gain from you.”
He strokes his well shaven chin, coughs and thoughtfully adds, “Life is all about yourself. There are lessons to learn, if you learn them, you become successful.” With the dexterity of an accomplished philosopher or life coach, he then takes me through the waves of life (stages by which one should have accomplished certain things in life.)
“I am now in the fourth wave. Some of my children are working, others are married,” he reveals, pouring more passion juice in my glass and assuring me to feel at home.
The man who fears nothing
By now, I begin to appreciate his simplicity and humility and wonder why he has no military escorts. “I am not like these other Generals, I do not like escorts!” He says, adding, “No one can kill you in David Tinyefunza’s office, but if you mess up here, I kill and bury you here. I can kill you without a pistol in four seconds. Do not ask me how, go and get an instructor.”
He clears his voice and narrates an incident when armed car robbers attacked him and a friend whose car they wanted to hijack by putting them at gun point.
“I pleaded with them to take the car and spare our lives. When we got out, I pulled my pistol and shot the idiot!” The praise I heap on him for the movie like act morale boosts him to continue. “The fool shot me in the thigh and thought he had finished me off. I touched the sensitive organs of the body, realised I was safe and shot him.”
He then paints a picture of the scene he created, becoming a legend in the area and how he had to drive himself to hospital as his friend had rolled himself like a ball in fear. As our lunch of deep fried chicken, matooke, avocado and passion fruit juice arrives, he assures me of how people need him and he does not need them. “All the food on this table is from my farm, why should I go to shops?” he wonders, reminding the lady to pack groundnuts and matooke for me. Meanwhile, I am compelled to ask about his family and wife in particular.
What he thinks about marriage
“Why do I need a woman? I want to live my life, I cannot even wed! How do I imprison myself in five minutes?” We laugh as the conversation takes a youthful twist as I naughtily wonder if he is living like a celibate. “My driver has all the contacts!” he replies adding, “But on a serious note, I got the children I wanted from different women.
They (women) are all over the world, some in Europe, others are dead. That is why I cannot tell you about them.” He declines to tell me how many children he has, taking refuge in the Kiganda culture where counting children is taboo.
He then boasts of how successful all his children are, dotted all over the globe, singling out the last born who plays American soccer and has been admitted to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). One of the daughters is, “a great lawyer.”
He brings out framed photos of all his children, assuring me that they are the reason, he is retiring from the army. “They keep asking when I will give myself a rest after forty years in the army. Mine is the happiest family you can find. Everyone lives their life,” he says. Adding how he never beat his children, but only uses his eyes to show disapproval.
Living in a tent at his Camp David
As the plates are taken back to the tent, I wonder where his house is. He points at the tent and says, “That is my house. That is how Generals live, I bought that tent from Game Stores at Shs1.5m.” Out of disbelief, I make it a point to peep into the tent and the sight of a three inch mattress and a lamp removes my doubts.
“I left Kampala because of dust and noise; I am at peace at Camp David with my antelopes, snakes and monkeys.” He says, prompting me to ask why his place is called Camp David.
“I got the name from the US but their Camp David was not natural.” He boasts of how there are now only two Camp Davids in the world, only that his has taken him 25 years to establish. He brings out a glossy magazine and shows me two palatial houses which he will have built by the end of the year.
“One will cost me $8.5M and the other $11M at Camp David, I am building 21st century houses for my retirement,” he says with a mechanical smile.
How much are you worth and are you a tycoon? I become inquisitive.
“Tycoon? I am Kasirye Gwanga: Rich, happy, hardworking and I cannot be arrested!” is all he says, putting his net worth at least Shs70b. My attention is caught by the phrase “I can’t be arrested” and I ask him who he thinks he is.
“Why would anyone arrest me, I do not owe anybody a shilling, I have no grudge with anybody!” he says. As I push him to imagine if a traffic officer stopped him for overspeeding, “Why would I overspeed, am I going to heaven? In any case, she is doing her work; I would stop and get the ticket!”
The mention of heaven compels me to ask him why in 2005 at his Makindye residence, he shot in air at born again Christians who had pitched camp in his area.
“They were making noise for us, we are rich men! Do you see any shop there?” he says, going into how the savedees refused to listen to residents’ pleas to minimise the noise.
“People got concerned and showed me packs of condoms, children were messing up. I was forced to speak my language which worked and they understood the hard way,” he says, rubbishing me when I wonder why he didnot seek police intervention, “My friend, you are talking to Kasirye Gwanga,” he retorted.
So, do you go to church? I ask as I anxiously touch his pistol and a gun which he says are there to kill but only professionally. “To do what? Me Kasirye Gwanga to pray with these idiots? I do not pray, I speak with God anytime, I am Him,” he says, then asks me, “Did I write the Bible? Doesn’t it say I was made in His image? So I am God and even now I am speaking to Him”. I throw in the towel and proceed to ask another question.
Touring his farm
Talking about agriculture, I remind him that in 2006, he clashed with NAADS officials, called them ignorant and awarded himself a degree in agriculture. Before I know, we have boarded the car to find out why. As the afternoon sun rays pierce us, we go over a number of gulleys as black jack sticks unto the clothes. He shows me farming techniques only unique to him and boasts of how all the grafted fruit trees is money in the waiting.
“Some whites came here offering me $50 for each of these over 100,000 old trees. The deal? I was not meant to cut them for the next 30years. I turned them down. How do you tell me what to do in my farm? In fact, I have awarded myself a PhD in agriculture; I do not wait for Makerere to do that,” he says, requesting me to wait for him as he drives back the prisoners, whose labour he hires, to Nakisunga prison.
When he retires in August, he says he will enjoy his retirement at his farm and travelling the world. After 40 years of service, all he can say to soldiers is, “Persevere and fight on, there are no frustrations in the army. That is what has kept me moving.”
After a marathon half day with him, I wonder what people base on to paint an impression of a lion. This is confirmed when he drives me to the taxi stage from where I get a taxi back to Kampala.
Everybody screams his name and show popularity for him. Little wonder he asks, “So, am I as tough as people say? Tell them I am very tough, I like it when people fear me.”
His background in the army
Coming from a peasant family in an Indian dominated, small urban centre in Mubende of a butcher who sold puppies at Shs100 to educate him , Kasirye Gwanga went to Namukoni Primary School (present day Mityana S.S). His childhood from being a truant pupil who consulted by everybody on anything, hustling with odd jobs to buy knives and put them underneath the belt, points to a man born to be a soldier.
“I began fending for myself at five years. I taught myself to read before even enrolling at school and that is why I read so much literature!” he says. How his hobbies rotated around making catapults to shoot at birds and despite being the dirtiest pupil, he enjoyed putting red pepper in jigger wounds of peers.
Drawing inspiration from an elder brother who got transformed from Kibuli S.S, he joined the same school for his O-Level. After Senior Four, he saw joining the army as the only solution to getting rich.
He was then recruited by Uganda Army in 1972, which trained him and posted him to Arua in West Nile as a map instructor untill 1977.
While there, he recounts his most challenging time as struggling to teach the Nubians map reading, as they could not read contours. One of his most memorable moments when he was in Mbuya is when he slept in a bloody stretcher while his peers feared and went for the cold cement floor.
In 1978, he was promoted to artillery officer and by the time the Tanzania led liberation war ousted Idi Amin, he was a staff Sergeant. He puffs his cigar and takes a sip of liquor as though to rekindle sweet, indelible memories of service under Amin.
“That was a real professional army, we enjoyed being soldiers and had the best welfare!” he tells me, debunking talk of Amin having killed over 350,000 people.
As fate would have it, the liberation forces sent him and his colleagues to Luzira Prison for 897 days as prisoners of war. He got disorganised so much so that he swore never to join the army and resolved to settle down and rehabilitate himself.
“In fact, I had ventured into maize milling business,”he recalls. However, not being the architect of his destiny, his brother was killed for refusing to reveal his whereabouts when Andrew Kayiira invaded the Kabaka’s Lubiri reportedly in search of bullets. “I joined the army to avenge my brother’s death,” he reveals. “The man who killed him is Maj. Ageta, he lives in Tanzania and I am still looking for him.” As I try to tell him about forgiveness and forgetting, he reminds me that he never wrote the Bible which talks about an eye for an eye.
Thus, he joined the Uganda Freedom Movement later named Freedom and Democracy Movement of Uganda. This was a rebel outfit (about 650 men) fighting Milton Obote’s regime in Mawokota, Mubende, alongside Luweero based National Resistance Army of Yoweri Museveni.
When Obote’s government fell, his successor, Tito Okello Lutwa invited all rebel groups for the Nairobi peace talks. He declined to go there and instead joined forces with Museveni in 1985. The first met him in 1983. “I had been hearing about him (Museveni) and I wanted to see him face to face!” he asserts.