The Old Fox and tales of a naked Uganda

Wednesday March 4 2020


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

It was not the kind of event that captures news headlines and gets Ugandans On Twitter #UOT furiously punching away at their keyboards.
There was no scandal, no guns and teargas, no slay queens. It was the Kampala International Book Fair, recently held from January 28 to February 2. But for a story in The East African, I wouldn’t have known it had taken place.
It told of “book lovers in Kampala were recently treated to a week of launches, public readings, poetry recitals and conversations”, at the fair held at the Constitution Square “after a four-year hiatus.”
It is a festival I remember with a lot of gratitude. In 1997, the Kampala International Book Fair had some big global players coming to it. A few months to it, Fountain Publishers’ founder and managing director James Tumusiime, came to see me at our Daily Monitor offices in Namuwongo, Kampala.
We had only just moved into the new office building, and there was still a smell of fresh paint in the air. The Monitor had become the first media house in Uganda to install a colour web offset printing press. Though a little overwhelmed, we were feeling triumphant and in good cheer.
Tumusiime had picked a very good time to come and ask for something near impossible. He said there were these international fellows coming to the book fair, but he was deeply concerned that beyond textbooks, there were hardly any other Ugandan books. He asked – actually, no, he said he “wanted” me – to write a book.
Then he threw the bomb. He wanted me to deliver it in no later than two weeks! I protested that it was impossible, but he said he would be happy to have even 24 pages, then he took off.
I found time off work, and the result was Uganda’s Poorly Kept Secrets, which was published in 1997 – in time for the book fair. It has been republished many times, and there isn’t a week when I don’t get tagged on Twitter or emailed by a foreigner who visited Uganda and bought a copy.
We were not very worldly those days, and the book was priced for a song. Both Fountain Publishers and I would have made some good money from it if we had been sufficiently greedy.
Last year, I was travelling to strange lands, and was asked to do a reading from “Uganda’s Poorly Kept Secrets. I decided to order a few copies off Amazon and ship them to the event. The price was a mind-blowing $217 for a copy from resellers, so I gave up.
Nostalgically, then, the fair got me reflecting on the history of popular book writing and creative work in Uganda.
There are many wonderful Ugandan writers we shall return to in future, but Uganda’s Poorly Kept Secrets stood on the shoulders of the tongue-in-cheek irreverent tradition championed by Tumusiime Rushedge, whom we lost in 2008. In turn, the foundation of that genre is to be found in Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Ocol and, more famously, Song of Lawino; and in the work of Ugandan-South Sudanese writer Taban Lo Liyong. His The Last Word is one of the most fitting manifestos to subversiveness and independent thinking you will encounter from an African author.
Rushedge was many things - a surgeon, pilot, novelist, cartoonist and newspaper columnist. He wrote a weekly column in Sunday Vision, titled Old Fox. But perhaps his most lasting footprint is not from his books, but as the brain behind the cartoon strip Ekanya, which was published daily in The New Vision, and in the early 1970s in its predecessor Voice of Uganda.
Easily the most famous single Ekanya cartoon is the one where he explains how you tell the difference between a sober and drunk Ugandan driver of the time. The drunk driver, he said, drives straight; the sober one is the one who is zig-zagging around the potholes.
Potholes still plague Ugandan roads, but the majority of roads are mostly smooth driving, so Ugandan millennials might not quite get what it means to have to drive everywhere on roads where there were more potholes than road. But “Tom Rush”, as he was more popularly known, had also turned the normal on its head with devastating effect, because generally the zig-zagging is the drunk, not sober one.
And then some. Only in later years did it become apparent what Rushedge was doing. In the days when any criticism of government meant prison or death, he had used the potholes to symbolise State incompetence and failure, and the stain that they left on the country.
To ridicule a system, and have the perpetrators enjoying it and blinded by the mirth of your method to your barbs; that is true genius. They no longer make them like “Tom Rush”.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Twitter@cobbo3