My friend was buried in Rutooma Kashaari, Nkore on Saturday. Lt Thomson Taremwa wa Mutembeya, a veteran of the NRA war in the Luweero Triangle, who served as a soldier until the end, lost the battle against an enemy that has been pruning our ranks with what appears to be an accelerating pace.
I first met Tom on Thursday, May 9, 1996, the day Uganda held its first presidential election under the 1995 Constitution. Stephen Ruhinda, his older brother, who lives in Toronto, had asked me to deliver a message to Tom.
On our first encounter, I noted that Tom was very ill and physically weak. I let him know with words and body language how concerned I was. Ignoring my comments, Tom effortlessly deflected our conversation to the big political event of the day. “Have you voted?”, he asked me. “No, I haven’t,” I told him. “I am ineligible to vote because I lost my Ugandan citizenship.”
Tom burst out laughing. “Who cares!”, he exclaimed. “You must vote. I have already voted six times!”
His companions nodded their affirmation, and all burst into laughter. Tom’s laughter was contagious. His humour was flawlessly delivered in abundant doses. His courage in the face of an energy-sapping illness was captivating.
He was a free-spirited young man whom I immediately recognised as one whose friendship I was going to enjoy. That is if he lived long enough for me to see him again.
When I next saw Tom in Toronto, where he had come to stay with Ruhinda, he was very much on the mend, physically energetic and as jovial and witty as ever. During his very eventful five-year stay in Toronto, Tom enriched me with his evidently inexhaustible jokes and humorous observations.
We shared the joy of laughing at ourselves, and freely shared facts, myths and legends about our ethnic nationalities, and our different political views and leanings, without ever offending each other.
Our freedom and emotional security enabled us to talk about the unflattering aspects of our respective ethnic nationalities, and to laugh at some of these without being handicapped by the politically correct dictates of some of our thin-skinned compatriots.
I was not alone in enjoying Tom’s inexhaustible fountain from which came priceless jokes. To a person, all who spoke about him during a celebration of his life at his brother’s home in Toronto on Saturday commented about Tom’s humour and carefree spirit.
He was as gifted as international celebrities like the comedians Trevor Noah and Anne Kansiime. Had he taken to the stage, and with good professional and financial support, Taremwa might well have become one of the most famous humorists.
However, there was a very serious side of Tom that placed him in a relatively small group of men and women who had demonstrated exceptional bravery by joining an armed rebellion whose victory was very far from certain. He dropped out of Senior Five and joined the NRA. He survived the gruelling and mentally traumatising experience of being shot at, of losing comrades and even of shooting and killing other humans.
After five years in Canada, Tom, still struggling with physical disease and, in all likelihood, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), returned to Uganda and rejoined active service in the UPDF. One of his sisters spoke of Tom’s refusal to leave the military life inside Bombo Barracks even when more comfortable digs outside had been identified.
Tom carried genetic material that he shared with two of the key figures in the early years of the post-independence armed struggles against dictatorships in Uganda.
Martin Mwesiga, one of Tom’s older brothers, was a pioneer member of the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA), the Tanzania-based rebel group that would ultimately become the pre-eminent shareholder in the Museveni-led capture of State power.
Mwesiga was killed in action in Mbale in late 1972 or early 1973. Sam Magara, another brother, who was the first commander of the National Resistance Army, was killed in Kampala in 1983.
We may never know, but the tragic losses of his brothers, and his experiences on the battle-field probably inflicted a psychological trauma that may have accounted for some of Tom’s self-destructive engagements. His excessive consumption of alcohol was a frequent source of conflict between us.
Not that I judged him, for I did not, but my gentle advice that his indulgence was detrimental to his health often triggered some thorough expletive-loaded rebukes directed my way by one who was more than a decade younger than me.
He would then laugh as I attempted to rephrase my exhortations in the hope that I would not offend. Our friendship remained intact.
Yes, whether angry or happy, Tom found humour in everything. When Ruhinda visited Uganda two months ago, he discovered that his brother’s health had deteriorated. The diagnosis was made.
Tom, aged 53, understood the gravity of his situation. Yet he did not appear to be afraid. Instead, he continued to dispense his trademark humour, sharing his gift with his loving family, and going out as he had lived – a happy, carefree spirit who did things his way.