Godfrey Orikiranga Mwene Kalimugogo, the distinguished Ugandan novelist, diplomat and thinker who died on Sunday at the age of 71, was a bright shooting star that shone briefly in the vast sky of life.
Humble to a fault; sincere; dignified; brilliant; bilingual master of his mother tongue and the one in which he wrote; wickedly witty, Kalimugogo has left in his wake a legacy of achievement that will keep his name alive for years to come.
Our paths first crossed at a distance in the early 1960s when his was a household name, one of many high achievers from Kigezi whose academic exploits were recited to us by parents who hoped and prayed that we would emulate them.
Even by Mparo standards, Kalimugogo’s birthplace of Kyokyezo was considered so remote that it pushed one’s survival will to the edge. Forever shrouded in darkness that was, in reality, an illusion of mountain shadows and the setting sun’s silhouette, Kyokyezo seemed to be another world, inaccessible, even un-inhabitable.
Yet every school morning, out of the mists that shrouded those distant hills, would emerge a young lad that ran the 12.8 km (8 miles) to Kihanga Junior Secondary School from 1957 to 1958.
His was the pioneer class that started the junior school at what was one of the finest schools in Kigezi. He had come to Kihanga from Kigezi High School where he had had his first six years of education.
In 1958, a nine-year old boy from Kyokyezo was placed under the care of 15-year old Kalimugogo, to chaperon him to and from Kihanga Primary School where the younger lad was starting his primary education.
The two would undertake the gruelling run five days a week, except on rare occasions when hostile weather or darkness forced a sleep-over at relatives’ homes closer to the school.
The younger boy was Amama Mbabazi, who would become an accomplished athlete and, 53 years later, prime minister of Uganda.
From Kihanga, Kalimugogo went to Nyakasura School in Fort Portal. Having got the top mark among those who joined Nyakasura in 1959, he was awarded the school’s prestigious Tomblings scholarship.
From then on, the poor boy from Kyokyezo would enjoy a free education and an exposure to English literature that would become the centre of his life’s work.
By the time he left Nyakasura, Kalimugogo had already read most of the great English masters, including William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Alexander Hope, James Joyce and Thomas Hardy.
He studied Classical English Literature at Makerere University College, graduating in 1968 with an honor’s degree and notes for a manuscript that would become his first novel, Dare to Die (EALB 1972).
He later studied African and Caribbean Literature at the University of Dar-es-Salaam.
Kalimugogo, who retired from the diplomatic service in 2003, having represented Uganda in Kinshasa, Addis Ababa and Dar es Salaam, wrote seven novels during his tours of duty.
In his retirement he penned and published seven more, with the eighth, titled The Billionaire’s Disease, completed shortly before his death.
Written with liberal doses of wit and humour, most of Kalimugogo’s 15 novels are forthright descriptions of the clash between traditional values and the influence of the colonial and post-colonial experience, and the descent into darkness that has been occasioned by greed and corruption.
Over 50 years have passed since my first encounter with Kalimugogo, but the very fond memories of watching him dressed in his Nyakasura School uniform, complete with Scottish kilt, remain vivid.
The sight of the exotic school uniforms displayed by Kalimugogo and Kigezi’s other trailblazers who went to Kigezi College, Butobere, Ntare School, Nyakasura School, Busoga College, Mwiri and King’s College, Budo was enough incentive for us to put extra effort into our studies.
We were very lucky to have had them ahead of us. That most were from extremely humble backgrounds made famous schools and Makerere University itself psychologically accessible to us.
Truth to tell, they set the bar too high for us. However, by making it possible for us to believe that we could, we climbed on their shoulders with confidence and tried our best.
In a conversation with Kalimugogo one year ago, we marvelled at the ease with which boys and girls from places like Mparo back in the 1950s and 60s stood shoulder to shoulder with those from schools in Kampala and other major urban centres.
Today, painfully few schools in areas far from Kampala register on the radar of those whose kids are destined for the great schools in the country.
Kalimugogo, he who inspired us in life, challenges us in death to restore the milieu in a place like Mparo that gave Uganda a celebrated novelist, a prime minister and many others who successfully scaled the heights of their chosen professions.
To his beloved wife, Dr Grace Mafigiri Kalimugogo, the earthly rock upon which he has stood, and to their children Rubanza, Rumanyika, Kanshakama and Barungi, we join you in celebrating the life of a great man, a pillar who has given us of his best. His baton is now firmly in your hands.
Dr Mulera is based in Toronto, Canada. [email protected]