Onoba: The blind guitarist on Kampala Road

Sunday November 25 2018

Alfred Onoba (playing guiter) with his son

Alfred Onoba (playing guiter) with his son Rwoth Okwany. PHOTOS BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA  

By Charlotte Ninsiima

When you walk the streets of Kampala, you cannot run out of amazing sights. From taxi drivers and boda boda cyclists hurling insults at each other, to touts on duty as they call out passengers pleading with them to board. Clusters of men sit by the pedestrian walkways engaged in animated conversations about a football game that aired the previous day while others make catcalls at passersby.
And oh, the children and women who make their way between vehicles as they wave asking for kikumi and their counterparts seat with their playmates on shop verandahs and walkways doing the “wave for kikumi ” on Kampala Road.

The Kampala Road
From about 10am, as you approach the MTN Service Centre opposite Bank of Uganda, you will not miss the echo of guitar music and a male voice singing along. As you get closer, you will notice a dark skinned man with a mini Afro perched on a stool with a guitar and a young man seated next to him.

In front of them is a white bowl with some coins which random passers-by drop in for the street musician. On the sunny afternoon I visit, the guitarist he is clad in a striped long sleeved dress shirt paired with black trousers and matching but pale ankle boots. On a stool, he sings a song in English and Swahili about Jesus. The young man keeps watch of the bowl and occasionally gets absorbed in browsing a red small mobile phone which he holds tightly between his palms. I later learn that it belongs to his father.

I take a step near and I ask him to tap the father’s shoulder so that we can have a conversation. He fades his song slowly and stops as he breaks into a smile. With his guitar strapped around his shoulders he listens attentively. I introduce myself. He seems pensive but he agrees to talk to me- only in Swahili. This almost gets me postponing the interview but I quickly scan those around me and I find the nearest volunteer to translate.

Like any other child, Alfred Onoba, 48, anticipated the best in life. However, “I lost my sight to what was said to be measles when I was two years old,” Onoba recalls. “I was given treatment at a hospital in Arua.”
He receovered but a few years later he became blind.
He attended Gulu Primary School which catered for the blind. But he did not go back after Primary One because he felt discriminated against. “The gloom of losing my sight deterred me from going past Primary One,” he says.

Magical skill sets in
He stayed home while his siblings and cousins attended school.
“At 10, my paternal cousins taught me how to play an adungu (African harp). They advised me to take it on for future source of livelihood,” Onaba recalls.
Equipped with skills of playing the harp, he was able to travel to different destinations for street gigs such as Tororo, Malaba, Busia, Jinja, Mbale and Masindi districts with the help of his cousins.
“I was one of the instrumentalists at our home church. While there, a visiting guitarist, Kizito Abogere (now deceased), picked interest in me because of my willingness and persistence to learn the guitar unlike my associates,” Onoba he relates.

One Sunday in 1997 at St Martin Bendre Church of Uganda in Nebbi Diocese, former Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi was chief guest and he led the service. He was impressed by the adungu players . “Thereafter, he promised and fulfilled his pledge of giving a guitar to the church. I was chosen to receive it by church leaders because of my active participation and unique performance,” Onaba recalls.
During Obote II reign 1981-1985, Onoba was housed in Masindi Army barracks, where he learnt Swahili.

Moving to Kampala
Alex Wino, a neighbor in their village, got concerned about Onoba. He was a tailor in Kampala and he asked Onaba to tag along where he could earn better from his skill in 2006. They stayed together in Kyebando and Wino secured for Onaba a spot after seeking permission from the traders at City House. Meanwhile, he had come along with his nephew, Tony Piwang,18, who acted as his guide. Piwang used to scout around for favourable spots and later told Onoba about the current place.
“Unlike City House, this spot is not crowded with hawkers,” he explains.
All that while he was not consistent, because he had to travel to the village to check on his family. “But I settled in 2008.”

In 2014, Rwoth Okway his first born dropped out of Primary Four because of financial constraints. Okway’s head teacher at Atyak Luga Primary School, Pakwach, became impatient with the routine school fees defaulting and discontinued him. He is now in charge of guiding his father.
“Besides holding my father’s hand for direction, I perform all the house chores such as cooking, washing clothes, and cleaning the house, except bathing. I pour water in a basin and he bathes himself,” Okway says with a shy demeanour.

Pedestrians walk past Onaba as he strums the

Pedestrians walk past Onaba as he strums the guitar.

Day at work
Onaba wakes up by 8am, eats his breakfast and sets off to workstation at 10am latest. “I play the guitar until 6pm. So I do not get tired since I have unmet needs,” he explains.
When I peep in the bowl, he has approximately collected Shs6,000 after midday in denominations of Shs500 and Shs1,000. On a good day, Onaba says he makes about Shs40, 000 and Shs15,000 on a bad day.
“Besides Bata City House and Mabirizi Complex, where I have worked before, I prefer this spot because more pedestrians give me money and my neighbours are friendly. Those other places were very busy with traders operating on the verandahs and I used to make a paltry amount of money.”
Sometimes he can afford lunch depending on pertinent issues at hand. He loves millet bread and fish.
“His only hindrance are thieves who steal and run away with the money, especially during riots such as the recent Bobi Wine woes that sent him back to his village and even when the caretaker is off track they pickpocket him,” Jingo Kalule, a book seller, confirms.

“I rent a single room at Shs80, 000 near Kisalosalo Stage in Kyebando. Also I rent farming land for about Shs200, 000 per annum, in the village to support my family. My wife is in charge of the children and our home. She grows maize, sweet potatoes and cassava for subsistence and commercial purposes.”
Although all is not well to keep the children in school, he hopes to stay supportive. He quips, “There is nothing else I can do to earn a living besides playing the guitar, so I need assets to bring in cash flow.”
He attends St Philips Church of Uganda on the Northern Bypass in Kyebando where he is one of the instrumentalists.
He is hopeful that God will one day give him a better life some day.

Quick take
Onaba,48, was born to Rapoke Jenesho and Elizabeth Adoko in Pamitu village, Pakwach Sub-county in Pakwach District in January 1970. He is the fourth out of five children. The three surviving siblings are upcountry engaged in fishing and farming. In 2012, he traditionally married Consolate Wanyesha and they have five children and two others from a failed marriage.
Best moment... playing the guitar and getting money from people. I also love to tell my story through interviews by journalists.
Worst moment... During riots when a crowd runs suddenly because I don’t know which direction to take for safety.

What they say…
Trinity finds no problem with Onoba. “He is good, friendly and minds his business.”
Trinity Awekonimungu, Security guard

His only problem is sight, I keep for him the seats at no charge so he works without any hindrance from any agencies or people.
Dennis Tugume, watchseller

”I clean where he sits,
so when it clocks 6pm, he first winds up his gig, so that
I can do my work later. He plays the guitar more professionally
than some people with normal sight.”
Andrew Ssenkasi, volunteer at MTN shop