We blinked and, just like that, a quarter of a century had gone by

Author: Daniel K Kalinaki. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

  • Only future generations will tell whether we were unduly pessimistic or unnervingly exact in our apprehensions; whether we told the stories that mattered, and whether the stories we told mattered. It’s been an honour.

Twenty-five years ago this month your columnist walked out of his last A-levels and into the newsroom at The Crusader, a small, plucky weekly newspaper in Kampala. I was only eight when journalism, in her sheer fishnet dress that left nothing to the imagination, first touched me. She had me at hello.
We became bedfellows: me, a harmless but eager prepubescent servant trying hard to become a savant; her, fleeting and flirting, pushing envelopes in a constant search for truth. The affair lasted throughout school with occasional cameos in the mainstream via children’s writing clubs.

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But this was child’s play no more. This was the real ish. We weren’t dealing with high school bullies any more. We were dealing with real-world thugs armed with baseball bats, lawyers, and enforcers.
Large swathes of northern Uganda were still no-go zones, with most of the population hostage in camps, and the Aids pandemic was still in full swing. But what a time to be alive! The Great Grab had moved from cows to government ranches to public housing and spaces. Privatisation was printing millionaires. DR Congo, the gift that keeps on giving, was giving. Young soldiers drove around the city during the day in cars stashed with cash.

At night they blew it in dimly lit bars where the only thing faster than the women were the fingers of the Congolese bands’ rhythm guitarists. Diblo? Dibala!
Everything was possible, nothing was certain. Young men and women, clutching forged documents, queued through the night for visas to the United Kingdom, where they hoped to forge new lives and find fortunes. Out they went, in came the do-gooders; the NGO mercenaries to take up the big mansions in the city and the places in the newly opened international schools.
The land was covered in the green shoots of renewal. A new Constitution offered hope of civilian rule of law. The Sixth Parliament buzzed with progressive views and young men and women bursting with optimism. The Speaker spoke. Legislators legislated. Hope bloomed.
Journalism itself was in transition. The older generation of hacks, driven mostly by passion and instinct, had survived war and political instability. But they were now being rapidly replaced by graduates as the profession sought to ‘professionalise’. 
On Second Street, William Pike even got his journalists to wear ties, although some of them kept turning up in what, swear-to-god, looked like cleverly disguised tablecloths.
Newsrooms were cauldrons of hope, pits of despair. There were folks who’d come to deliver death announcements and stayed. Others were relatives, friends and in-laws. Some of the best hacks had no formal training at all, except an incredible eye for detail and a remarkable nose for news. It was refreshingly egalitarian.
Most parents, thoughtfully, argued against journalism as a career. There was money and respect to be made from more ‘established’ professions like medicine and the law – yes, there was a time when lawyers were respected! But journalism wasn’t something you chose; it chose you or it didn’t. Then it took you in its vice-like grip and hoisted you onto a rollercoaster of emotions. One day you supped with presidents, the next day with the devil. Sometimes the difference was the same.
To stay in the game long enough is to see caterpillars turn into butterflies, and yesterday’s villains turn into today’s heroes. But if the sink clogs up and the swamp festers, you get to see good people go bad, their despair signposted on their boulevards of broken dreams.
Journalism is the first draft of history, and those who have a front-row seat, such as your columnist, are privileged in inexplicable ways. It helps if the story has a happy ending, if the forces of progress and enlightenment press back against backwardness and fear, if society evolves and congeals around shared values, hopes and aspirations.
Yesterday’s young men are today’s elders, and we are still stuck in the rut. We blinked and lost one, two generations. Soon my job will be done, and it will be time to move on, move on and, unlike Pras and John Forte, with no time to make another run. Only future generations will tell whether we were unduly pessimistic or unnervingly exact in our apprehensions; whether we told the stories that mattered, and whether the stories we told mattered. It’s been an honour. It’s been a privilege.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 
[email protected] 
Twitter: @Kalinaki