John Zzimbe: Mathematics was his life and love

Mr Muniini K. Mulera

What you need to know:

Zzimbe was devoted to the pursuit and sharing of knowledge, especially his beloved mathematics and physics. He cared about justice and the fate of Uganda and Africa...

Dear Tingasiga:

A brilliant mind in Toronto has been silenced by death, leaving an empty void that may never be filled by anyone like him. John Fisher Zzimbe, who died in Toronto on February 2, 2024, was a genius that fit with ease in the world of high-end academia but was utterly disinterested in the lifestyle of all-consuming materialism.

A socially unconventional person, his was what the wordsmiths call a Bohemian lifestyle. Simple. Happy on his own terms. Easily underestimated by those who judge human worth and ability by the clothing in which we wrap our mortal bodies.

 Zzimbe was devoted to the pursuit and sharing of knowledge, especially his beloved mathematics and physics. He cared about justice and the fate of Uganda and Africa, a subject about which his passion was quickly evident to anyone who spent a moment with him.

 When I made his acquaintance when he arrived in Toronto in the late 1980s, I quickly detected a high intellect and love for joyful debate. Regardless of the subject, Zzimbe would skillfully dissect the issues as though he was dancing with his thoughts and ask questions that left one rethinking one’s position. He did this with an infectiously attractive laughter that was his trademark to the end.

 My most vivid memory is from a sunny Saturday in the Summer of 1999, when my wife and I had an unplanned meeting with him as we entered the “World’s Biggest Bookstore,” an iconic Toronto establishment that was a mandatory frequent destination for booklovers. Without greeting us, Zzimbe laughed and informed us that he had just bought a book that we had to have. He turned round, hurriedly led us to the science section, and pulled out “The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory,” written by Brian Greene.  To Zzimbe’s joy, I bought the book. His excitement was akin to that of a hunter who had just speared his prey. The teacher in him was as evident as ever.

 That book was my introduction to the fascinating world of string theory and superstring theory, and a new understanding of the multidimensional universe or universes in which I am a very tiny and inconsequential nothing. I cannot read new material about the universe without thinking about Zzimbe. Each time I look at the latest images of deep space brought to us by the James Webb Telescope, I remember Zzimbe.

 Born In Masaka on November 14, 1947, Zzimbe was the son of Nomia Namatovu and Joseph Sserwada. He received his foundational education at Buyisa Primary School, Bukalasa Seminary, and Saint Mary’s College, Kisubi. He then read mathematics at Makerere University, before embarking on a distinguished career of high school teaching.

 Zzimbe taught mathematics and physics at King’s College, Budo in the 1970s and early 1980s, and earned himself the adoration of his students, many of whom continue to express their deep gratitude, and memories of his teaching style. Descriptions of his performance in the classroom suggest a sportsman, wrestling with mathematical or physics concepts with the joyful confidence of inevitable victory. I am told that he would laugh with giddiness whenever he solved the problem, much to his students’ pleasure. This was a style that made these often dull or scary subjects come alive and accessible to the students.

 He is said to have been unsparing to those whom he judged to be strugglers in mathematics and science. He would tell them that mathematics or physics was not for everybody. The targets of these piercing observations recall them with delight.

 Zzimbe left Uganda in 1983 and took up a job at Lesotho High School in Maseru, Lesotho where he continued to dispense his knowledge with the same joy. I am reliably informed that he enjoyed the respect of his colleagues and students in that country. Zakes Mda, a famous Southern African writer and dramatist, mentions Zzimbe with respect and affection in his memoir titled “Sometimes There Is A Void.”

 When Zzimbe arrived in Canada, he quickly joined the University of Toronto, and immersed himself in a world of thinkers, philosophers, and academics. This became his adopted family that nourished his brilliant mind and harvested from him in equal measure. Over the years, I saw him less and less, but our very infrequent encounters would always add value to my knowledge.

 Sadly, he developed lung cancer that was confirmed to be inoperable. In mid-January this year, Dr. Peter Bikangaga, his former student at Budo, and I spent an afternoon with Zzimbe in his final bedroom at the hospice where he was receiving palliative care. Zzimbe was obviously very ill, but he was not letting that reality pull him down. We had a lovely and lively conversation that, I knew, would be our very last one.

 Besides his very sharp mind, sense of humour, lots of concern about the education of his nephews and nieces in Uganda, and an upbeat spirit, I was struck by the title of the book that he was reading: “A History of Mathematics.” He was committed to his great love affair to the very end. He rests. We remember him. We honour him, and pray for grace for Oscar Kisekka, his only child, and for other family members in Uganda. Sseruganda Zzimbe was a great man.

Mulera is a medical doctor.