There are two hardly told Ugandan stories that sound like myths but they are real and he uses them to hammer his point home. First, his signature laugh, and then he tells the story of a male Ugandan, who has since passed on, but he still does not disclose his name.
He narrates how the man left the pearl of Africa on foot to Kinshasa, DR Congo via the North Eastern city of Kisangani. Arriving in the Congolese capital did not satisfy this itinerant.
Through sheer industry and an enterprising spirit, the person earned some money jumped onto a ship to Europe where he studied law.
Then, the late Justice Emmanuel Oteng is another example, the storyteller cites. Using a motorcycle, Justice Oteng started a 5,149.2 Km journey that saw him arrive in Alexandria a Mediterranean port city in Egypt via Khartoum, Sudan. He would later use a ship to leave Alexandria for the UK where he obtained a Bachelor of Laws.
Oh, the person musing over those adventures is retired High Court judge John Patrick Mashongo Tabaro an eternal believer in two ideas: African renaissance – a concept that African people will overcome the existing challenges irritating the continent and achieve cultural, scientific, and economic renewal, and hard work. He is yet to talk about what he is up to.
Life is about hard work
Sporting a surgical mask, which is now a permanent fixture on people’s “soft parts” following the advent of Covid-19, the lanky judge mutters “hard work” four times.
“A civilisation without hard work will be swallowed up by other civilisations. Tenacity and resilience are key. Nothing can be achieved without hard work,” theorises Justice Tabaro in an interview conducted at KTA advocates – a law firm where his sons Edgar Tabaro (one of the founding partners) and Edwin Tabaro work. Justice Tabaro has been the firm’s a senior legal consultant, specialist in mediation and arbitration ever since he hanged up his wig eight years ago.
Hard work is not something that Justice Tabaro just talks about, he insists with a smile that his life has been nothing but hard work. For instance, in 1984, at the height of the Luweero bush war, the economy was plunged into dire straits. Justice Tabaro at the time was a chief magistrate at Buganda Road Court and that meant as a public servant he was assured of his salary.
Still, the inflation that had reached galloping levels meant the money was simply not enough. To go through this tricky situation Justice Tabaro says he had to summon his ingenuity and above all hard work which saw him supplement his judicial salary with incomes he got as a result of part-timing as a lecturer at Law Development Centre (LDC) and the most intriguing job: trading in tea leaves.
“The economic situation was difficult,” explained Justice Tabaro whose eyes are archetypally hidden behind his spectacles. “I had to do a lot of moonlighting in order to survive. Before I could go to court I had to ensure that tea leaves are delivered to traders here in Kampala from Fort Portal.”
The seventh child and ultimately the lastborn of Paul Mashango - who was polygamous- Justice Tabaro was born on June 19, 1947, in the western craggy district of Kisoro near the Rwandan border.
“We were seven from two mothers but we lived harmoniously, you couldn’t tell which child belonged to who,” Justice Tabaro who got who married to Philo Kamanzi Tabaro on April 24, 1976.
“They were hard-working and though they were peasant farmers and earned little they used to save from January to December in anticipation of hard times.”
By 2004, Justice Tabaro had served the judiciary for 29 years starting out as a grade one magistrate, serving temporarily at the novel Constitutional court and later returning to High Court which he had joined in 1988 but he realised his hard work in the judiciary had to come to an end.
High Court judges are by law supposed to retire once they clock 65 years but at 57 years Justice Tabaro wrote to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) a letter therein seeking early retirement because his leg had got sicker. Though it took the JSC a mammoth seven years to grant Justice Tabaro his prayer, he insists that he was mentally ready for retirement.
“… At the Judges conference, we used to have professional advisors. They advised how we can manage retirement; they told us not to retire away from your friends. That if you are lonely you can develop stress and that stress can result in depression,” Justice Tabaro says, adding that they came to know that a mere change of routine, which was bound to happen once they retire, would affect them physically.
Justice like pan Africanism
A father of four children, who are now adults and grandchildren he cannot count, Justice Tabaro says once he retired from the adversarial system of delivering justice, he reinvented himself as a mediator since he is passionate about mediation, a strand of alternative dispute resolution (ADR).
It entails parties settling disputes outside the courtroom, with the mediator acting as the go-between of the warring parties. The judiciary in Uganda has adopted in an effort to get rid of the colossal case backlog. There is convergence, Justice Tabaro says, between African traditions which are dear to his heart and mediation.
“In African traditional settings, settling of disputes started at village level up to gombolola [Sub – County] level,” Justice Tabaro says, “If we have a crisis we have to sit down and talk. The adversarial system can’t solve our problems as Africans.”
His Pan –Africanist stance was augmented when he crossed paths with celebrated political scientist Professor Dani Wadada Nabudere, who passed away in 2011, and Chango Macho w’Obanda, the Marxist who died in 2013.
“Once I came to know that ancient Christians were black people that was the turning point,” Justice Tabaro, an Anglican and whose caller tune is Manu Dibango’s Aye Africa explains his belief in African civilisation.
“I have come across many authors who assert that Greeks who civilised Europe got that civilisation from Egypt.”
In an effort to show how Africans were advancing in science long before the imperialists could make their way to what they christened as the “dark continent”, Justice Tabaro cites the works of Dr Robert W. Felkin, a Scottish medical anthropologist who witnessed caesarian section operations in Bunyoro in 1873 and also similar operations were carried out in Buganda in 1879.
“In Europe, it was impossible to carry out a caesarian by 1873,” Justice Tabaro assures me, “But when you read you will find out that such operations were done in DR Congo. So we just need to revive the African systems that work for us. That is what the Europeans did during their renaissance.”
Pursuing his passion
Once he retired, Justice Tabaro rekindled his love for farming and he did it in his favourite town Fort Portal town where he has a piece of land he calls “Kibanja”. His love for the western town, he now calls home, is traced to the 1970s when he left his native land Kisoro for Nyakasura School for his high school.
At different intersections, he would restfully return to the town to serve as its chief magistrate and High Court judge. When he retired in 2012, however, he says he turned to commercial agriculture planting a cache of plants including tea, clonal coffee, Moringa and matooke.
“I used my pension to pay off my loans, mortgage, buy a tractor, buy a water bowser, water pump and brush cutter. When I’m not in Kampala, I’m in Tooro farming. Agriculture is very rewarding.”
When he talks about Moringa, Justice Tabaro pauses.
“Quote me on this,” he says emphatically, “Moringa when mixed with cerium which is from Senegal or China you get a drug that increases immunity in HIV/ Aids patients. The formula is available at Friecca Pharmacy where it is sold with the label Booster Plus.”
With that, he goes back to his favourite topic: hard work. Although he is a farmer and a consultant, Justice Tabaro, 73, has to juggle those responsibilities with being the chairperson board of directors Uganda Pentecostal University and also the chairperson of the Makerere University Staff Appeals Tribunal.
“At the law firm I’m supposed to work for only four hours but I work for six hours,” he says. “Hard work is what was taught to us by our teachers at Nyakasura. Without hard work, you can’t compete with other civilisations.”
Just in case you don’t appreciate what the retired judge is talking about, he threw in a Luganda saying, “Kola nga omuddu olye nga omwami.” It’s loosely translated as “work like a slave such that you can eat like a master.”