On a sunny morning in Kabwangasi Town Council, Butebo District, a 93-year-old man, whose stooped posture is down to the ravages of old age, emerged from his two-roomed house, clad in a yellow T-shirt.
The early morning fog had gradually given way to the gentle tweet of birds. Kabwangasi Village had sprung to life, with locals immersing themselves in their daily routine tasks.
Mr Sowedi Kirya, the man with a stooped posture, has three wives. Two of them, Ms Amina Ganza and Ms Fatuma Nabudo, stay in Bugumya Village, Mayuge District. The other wife—Ms Maliyati Nawede—is partially blind, and stays with Mr Kirya in Butebo. Together with her husband and son, Twaha Kirya, she welcomes us to their abode.
Twaha, who brings us chairs, is one of Mr Kirya’s 10 children still living. Ten others are six feet under.
When Mr Kirya was born on December 28, 1928, to Asuman Kirya and Safiyatu Muyugumya in a remote village of Bwase, Kabwangasi Parish, he was expected to lead a simple life. But aged just 11, he was conscripted into the King’s African Rifles (KAR)—a multi-battalion British colonial regiment. He was to take up arms in the Second World War.
Mr Kirya told Saturday Monitor that the Gombolola chiefs mobilised youth to join the war. While the caveat was that recruits had to be “men ranging from the age of 18 to 30”, Mr Kirya says the chiefs just “handpicked the youth to forcibly join the army”.
Following the conscription, Mr Kirya says he was transported to Tororo where “we spent two weeks” before being “transferred to Nairobi, Kenya”. There, they spent another fortnight “before being taken to Mombasa to board one of the hired vessels.”
They spent 22 days at sea before reaching the Suez Canal. In Egypt, they underwent training and Mr Kirya says he gained the highest distinction in target practice. After reportedly being selected among the top 72, Mr Kirya told Saturday Monitor that he put on an impressive display when he planted all the dozen bullets he was given to aim at a target in one spot.
“I was eventually called in one of the Major’s offices and consequently promoted to the rank of corporal because of being the second runner-up in target shooting,” Mr Kirya recalled.
After displaying such great promise, Mr Kirya was challenged to learn the workings of the Bren gun. It would turn out to be a handy weapon for the British and Commonwealth armies during the Second World War (WWII).
“It was a heavy gun,” Mr Kirya says of the Bren gun, adding, “I took only three days to complete training and later I was returned to the camp for two months.”
Wielding the Bren gun
Much like the KAR that took part in the First World War (WWI), the regiments that fought in the WWII were trained and officered by the British. While the KAR marched and fought on African territory during WWI, the reconquest of Burma that played out from November of 1944 to August 7, 1945, gave KAR battalions the opportunity to fight outside the continent of Africa for the first time.
As a Bren gunner, Mr Kirya recalls putting the weapon he was entrusted with to devastating effect. That’s not to say the KAR battalions did not suffer grievous losses. Casualties were registered on the battlefield. Others died of disease.
“Thousands of people sacrificed themselves to defend a distant land, an unknown land, a land they had until then never trod, a land they have forever marked with their blood,” he told Saturday Monitor.
Mr Kirya received his discharge note in January of 1946 after WWII had ended on September 2, 1945, with victory of the Allies over the Axis powers.
“They took us to board a vessel that ferried us directly to Kenya,” Mr Kirya says of the endgame, adding, “When they discharged us, we were only given $24 as compensation while the Ugandan government paid us Shs60,000. This money was quite good at that time.”
After the ship docked at Mombasa, he took the train to Tororo and then proceeded to Mbale through the Mbale-Soroti-Gulu railway line. He married his first wife, Amina, in 1956. Soon, he acquired land in Busoga Sub-region and another wife—Fatuma.
It is unclear how Mr Kirya became financially handicapped, and he is not willing to be drawn in that subject. What is clear is that he has since fallen on lean times. He admits that “sometimes I am forced to sleep without having a meal.”
“Sometimes I attempt to utilise these national events to attract the President’s attention so that he could offer some support, but in some cases I am only given a small token as transport facilitation which cannot even clear some of the outstanding demands,” he laments.
To describe the house in which Mr Kirya stays as deplorable is an understatement. When the rain pounds the two-roomed structure, it is easily submerged with water.
Mr Bulaimu Waliwonaki, 78, a neighbour, says the government should spring to Mr Kirya’s rescue.
“He is a humble and polite old man with no bad record,” Mr Waliwonaki says of his neighbour, adding, “He should be rewarded and supported both financially and with basic needs.”
As per Mr Waliwonaki, Mr Kirya regularly puts on “his uniform and [displays] the gun that he used during the war.”
Mr Moses Mbulamuko, another neighbour, concludes that—while he was conscripted into the army of the Allies—the WWII veteran ended up loving the part he played in repelling the Axis powers.
“Every national event, Mr Kirya will never miss to attend where he joins the parade to march with the UPDF, Police, and Prisons. This signals that he liked his job,” Mr Mbulamuko told Saturday Monitor, adding that the valour he displayed shouldn’t be in vain.