Reflections on the essence of life

Author: Moses Khisa. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • The meaning, indeed essence, of life. It is something that has occupied my mind since I was a young undergraduate student at Makerere University close to two decades ago.

The rare occasion when I take leave of writing politics to wade into some social and moral questions!

The meaning, indeed essence, of life. It is something that has occupied my mind since I was a young undergraduate student at Makerere University close to two decades ago.

Last week, I was prompted to return to this question yet again after waking up to utterly devastating news. An old friend and colleague, Dr Catherine Namome, signed out of the life of this world. Deeply shocking and shattering. Turns out, Cathy had been dealing with a health complication many of us, friends and family, didn’t know about.

I spoke with her regularly when I was in South Africa between January and June this year, her in Pretoria and I in Stellenbosch/Cape Town. We made plans to meet, but we didn’t. My fellowship time at Stellenbosch ran out and I had to leave, but I promised to make the trip back down south just to visit her and her family. This won’t happen.

Cathy was a young scholar, a recent PhD in economics. She left so fast and quite suddenly. Why her? She was one of the kindest and most generous people I know, and was fortunate to benefit from her immense generosity and vast intellectual endowments.

We met as young ‘freshers’ at Makerere in 2002, having entered the hill on sheer merit, her from the high flying St Mary’s Kitende and me from the venerable and indefatigable Nabumali High School.

Cathy read economics, I read politics science and philosophy. I was somewhat opinionated but naïve and intellectually inadequate. By contrast, she was deeply thoughtful yet reserved. She offered wise counsel and held my hand in ways that made a difference.

In our years, Makerere felt like the real deal, the place to be. For all its flaws and failings, Makerere was special. It was a site of incredible intellectual ferment. It had a way of giving us the impression that we could just conquer the world. We had the uncensored imagination that the world was there for the taking.

Our undergraduate years were also a time of political tempest in Uganda. The so called Movement system had run its course. President Museveni too was supposed to be on his way out. The debates raging at the time, about transitioning from Museveni and his Movement system, played-out most eloquently and vividly on the grounds of Makerere University.

Uganda’s brightest and most articulate members of Parliament, ministers, serving army officers fully clad in fatigues, eminent journalists and editors held routine intellectual showdowns in the quadrangle of University Hall, in the Senate building’s conference hall, in the Main Hall and at the Freedom Square. Think about it: this was 20 years ago!

Our years at Makerere came and went in quick order. There was much going on yet this was not today’s era of social media, of being inundated. Out of the university, a young graduate is soon humbled by the vagaries of life out there in search of a career and livelihood.

Invariably, Cathy and I lost contact only to reconnect remotely after I entered Northwestern University to take a PhD in political science while she went south initially at the universities of Pretoria and Stellenbosch, and later University of Cape Town, South Africa’s topmost. 

I crossed the finish line in 2016, she did in 2018. There is an old cliché that life begins at 40. And scholarly productivity starts after getting a PhD. Cathy was only four years post-PhD. She bowed out.

What is the essence of life? My father, Mzee Hassan Wanyera (God bless his soul), had some deep ideas about life and its purpose. He always reminded us that the most securely held secret is death, yet we had to live our lives to the fullest and with conviction precisely because we have no idea when our lives would end.

Mzee lived a complete life, held an unwavering fidelity to fairness and justice, to doing good and being humane, to giving more and taking less. When he signed out at 90, we mourned but also celebrated.

How is one to process the passing of a relatively young Dr Namome, a recent PhD in economics, held so much promise and exuded extraordinary warmth, humaneness and empathy?

Death is our destiny. No one can outsource it or pay their way out of it. We can at best delay, not defeat it. It is the ultimate equaliser. Yet how and when it comes about is often profoundly puzzling.

At any rate, when someone so dear as Cathy departs, in an untimely and shocking manner, it is a rude reminder to us the living to be better, to be humane. I wonder why the powerful abuse their power, assault and torment others, commit heinous acts and even kill fellow humans!

Till we meet again, Cathy, peace.