The nation lost a loyal citizen this week. The passing of Amirali Karmali – Mzee Mukwano as he was affectionately known – marks a sad moment for the nation and for the multitudes of people whose lives were touched by this remarkable man.
Karmali began life with the most humble of beginnings. As a truck driver, his early life included periods spent largely on the roads across Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. It was a time when life may have been simple, but the terrain was rough.
Driving through the rough roads of the time required a level of resilience that signalled, early on, the determination and strength of the man. It was an attribute that would serve him well in what was to follow.
The political upheaval of 1972 saw the dispersal of the Karmali family. But Karmali stayed back – reluctant to leave the country he loved and anticipating that the family would be able to return soon.
Although the Ugandan supply chain for coffee was largely disrupted during this period, coffee prices were high and the enterprising Karmali trucked the coffee to Kenya, returning with goods with a ready market in Uganda.
His inventories of textile fabrics ensured a ready supply of the latest fashion in fabrics to local tailors and seamstresses. The tailoring hub along Luwum Street in Kampala owes much of its foundation to that enterprise. The Mukwano empire broadened its reach, but Karmali never lost his eye for quality fabric.
His wife, affectionately known as Mama Mukwano, told me recently that even now, he would often want to feel the fabric of the saree (Indian-made women’s garment) she was wearing and admire its quality.
As the Mukwano businesses grew, so did their investment in local manufacturing. Karmali committed himself to developing a fast-moving consumer goods industry in Uganda, leading to local manufacturing of products such as soap and other consumer goods.
Political upheavals in Uganda did not make for an easy path to growth and Karmali was personally a target through each period of civil unrest.
However, as peace and security returned under President Museveni, the business climate improved. I recall President Museveni once telling me how, in those early days, he had called Amirali Mukwano and enlisted him to the development cause of Uganda through building manufacturing facilities for products such as soap.
The Mukwano family’s generosity, under the patriarchy of Mzee Mukwano, is legendary. I know from my first-hand experience of their support to many of the development programmes of the Aga Khan Development Network and their broad support to many communities across Uganda. It is a tradition that his children, including Alykhan and Rukhsana, carry on with grace.
In the few years that I have been in Uganda, I have lost count of the number of people who have shared with me stories of how their lives, and the lives of their communities and families, have been transformed by the generosity of Mzee Mukwano and his family.
More remarkable was his ability to offer his hand of friendship without in any way diminishing the dignity of the beneficiary. Mzee Mukwano – named after the hand of friendship – set an example for us all.
Our world is a poorer place for his passing on. May his soul rest in peace.
Mawji is the Diplomatic Representative, Aga Khan Development Network