Joseph Mayanja, aka Jose Chameleone, arguably Uganda’s most popular musician today, somewhere in his discography has a song called Basiima Ogenze.
It is a sobering polemic, a tirade against Ugandan society for the ungracious manner in which it treats its heroes; praise them only when they are dead.
And quite hauntingly, it should seem striking that it is on the passing of Uganda’s most famous musician, the man who gave the country her musical identity, the national anthem, that the words in Mr Mayanja’s song now ring out loudest and truest.
George Wilberforce Kakoma died yesterday morning, after a yearlong spate of ill health. He was 89. He has passed on in 2012, 50 years after his country got independence, and, since the creation that punched his name into the walls of history, took form.
And when history looks back and delivers its verdict on Prof. Kakoma, it will find it fair to conclude that he was a man who gave to his country, but from then-on, spent the rest of his life anonymously lurking in the blanketing shadow of what he gave, devoid of attention and due recognition.
Struggle to get medical care
The final lap of his life, starting on February 23, 2011 until the finish line, encompasses what the rest of the race that his life has been, entailed. On that day, while at his country home in Wakiso District, he fell down. His wife thought it was simple dizziness. But he had developed a minor stroke due to heart-related complications. He was taken to Nsambya Hospital, where a cardiologist and urologist attended to him.
The situation only got worse and for the next seven months, his family spent the time shifting from one hospital to another and back to his daughter’s home in Kololo.
All along, the family sought financial assistance from the government to settle hospital bills that were accumulating at Shs1m rate per day. But junior officers at the President’s Office simply trampled upon the pleas. One is said to have told Maria Teresa Kakoma, Prof. Kakoma’s wife, that, “(the) President is too busy with national issues. This was a minor one.”
And in late September, six months, three letters and multiple phone calls and visits later, after the media reported that the singer was struggling with bad health on one hand, and huge hospital bills on the other, the State reacted and finally moved to help the family.
A massive pillar to what the definition of Uganda is today, Prof. Kakoma had been left to fend for himself. There was no house, or a car, or a driver, or even a stipend given to him by the State. It is a fact that did not pass his family by: for Prof Kakoma had friends, some doctors, and others from different professions, who enjoyed these very privileges from the State.
Chief among his gravest causes for discontent is the royalties for his song, the national anthem, for which he still owns the copyright. As a token of appreciation for winning the anthem’s contest in 1962, he was awarded Shs2,000, an amount Ms Kakoma equates to about Shs200,000 today.
But he was never compensated for the song. And when the High Court awarded him Shs50m in 2008, the family found the amount laughable and demeaning, as it “could not even buy a brand new (Toyota Land Cruiser) Prado.” They appealed against the decision at the Court of Appeal and are awaiting a ruling.
As is the case for many Ugandans involved in the country’s independence, Prof. Kakoma’s family were made aware of a plan by the then Kampala City Council to name a road in Kampala after the singer. But the plans died away without a worthwhile explanation.
No wonder the feeling of under-appreciation is rife for the Kakoma household. “There was a time, especially when he started claiming his dues, and sometimes officers gave it cold water, while other people in the country who did not do very important things were rewarded, (when he felt the country had not fully appreciated his contribution,)” Ms Kakoma said.
As the singer went down with disease last year, organisers for this year’s Olympics in London were struggling to find a way of making a stanza of Uganda’s national anthem long enough to play across 60 seconds.
For Prof. Kakoma’s composition, is the world’s shortest national anthem, at eight bars. The song is entirely in English, a feat that has drawn criticism from some for lacking a native African appeal, especially as compared to Kenya and Tanzania’s anthems that are entirely in Kiswahili.
But the song achieved the goals of the committee that commissioned it - solemn, praising and looking forward to the future. The phrase “Oh Uganda”, the first two words in the anthem, have come to mean a rallying point for many Ugandans, especially in times of a national crisis.
Prof. Kakoma attended Mengo Primary School and Kings College Buddo. He then studied music at the East African Conservatoire of Music in Nairobi, the Royal College of Music in London and the University of Durham in the UK.
He married Maria Theresa in 1953, having been attracted to her first because she was “a girl who liked reading newspapers.”
By the time he composed the national anthem, he was a schools inspector for music. He later worked as a Principal and Culture Development Officer at the Minister of Culture and Community Development.
He fled to Kenya in 1975 in fear of his life, returning in 1986 to work as the Head of Music Department at the Music, Dance and Drama faculty in Makerere University. He retired in 1992. By the time he fell ill, Prof. Kakoma had been serving on various committees and boards of governors for schools.
Ms Kakoma says her husband was “a very gentle and loving man. He was a friend of everybody, young and old. He had a very high sense of humour. He cannot be in a place and you do not laugh. Very simple and humble man, no wonder many people got surprised that he is the one who composed the national anthem.”
On October 9, this year, Prof Kakoma’s song will be played to a country passing a 50-year mark. He will not be here. And Ugandans can rest assured that Prof. Kakoma was not entirely happy about the way his contribution to this country was treated by the time he died.
But if there are any attempts to recognise him now that he is gone, they will be seen as part of a general societal failure: failing to fully see the good in people, until they are gone.