The day the tables turned!

“What has he come to do here?” Mr Mulimu asked his Secretary, on hearing that Mr Yaliwo, the former Managing Director (MD) of Bulya Cooperative Bank (BCB), was out waiting in the lobby. In the early 1990s, BCB, as part of agreement with IMF/ World Bank, had put been put up for restructuring. This was all to help stalled African economies revive by lending them money on certain conditions. BCB was one of many state enterprise consequently restructured which had led to Mr Yaliwo being laid off. Mr Mulimu, then a middle level manager, was one of the few survivors of a skeletal staff left behind. He was promoted as the new MD.

Soon after he received his terminal benefits, Mr Yaliwo, quickly noticed an error. He recalled back in the early 1970s shortly after joining BCB he was notified by the Head of personnel that 10% of his pay would be deducted automatically to contribute to a pension scheme based in the UK.  BCB would also add 5%; which made considerable savings for his retirement. However, in the mid-seventies, with the economy in doldrums, the bank started defaulting to remit money to the pension fund. Yet, in spite of that, the BCB continued to deduct staff pay and the money was used to cover operational expenses.

Once he got his pay slip, seeing the gap, Mr Yaliwo, immediately raised the matter with the new MD. “Some of us used to contribute to a UK pension based pension scheme yet you have not remitted us those funds,” he called on Mr Mulimu. “I know we kept deducting that money, as I was then a junior officer in the Accounts section.”

“That can’t be true!” Mr Mulimu did not take kindly to this claim. Soon after he had became MD he took quick offense if any person wanted to draw money from BCB accounts, which he almost viewed as personal. Not only would he have requisition papers sit for weeks, if not months, in his in-baskets, waiting for clearance, he would always find a way to reject claims, which often he claimed were fictitious.

Suppliers were habitually sent back empty handed, him accusing them of falsified delivery. Sometimes he watched them from his window apparently enjoying making them walk off BCB campus disgruntled. On occasion, upon receiving staff conference attending lists for workshops, asking for reimbursements, he would personally visit hotels, up country, to ascertain if the event took place. One day upon finding one workshop had not taken place, his vigilance rose to another pitch. Every claim that came to his desk had now to be routinely sent back for more proofs. “I need to see the photographs as proof of the workshop!”

Eventually, some staff decided to baptize him the nick name “Aswan Dam.” But on learning so, he took pride. “Yes, I am the dam against all those thieves hiding and wanting to steal money for no work.”

Not everyone was convinced though about Mr Mulimu’s motives. On one hand while he was slow and reluctant to entertain colleague request for advances, whenever he himself needed money, it would take just a few hours to force the whole Accounts machinery to release money to cater for his expenses. He would harass Accounts Assistants with repeated calls bordering on threats, noting the emergency of the matter, while easily shunning off any required proof, as not necessary. “This is urgent BCB business for the MD and please don’t frustrate company work or you will get yourself in trouble.”

So, when the former MD came back claiming that BCB still owed him money, his battle instincts rose. “I need proof of all those deductions Mr Mulimu hastily went on with objection, shunning off his former colleague.  When Mr Yaliwo, who now lived up country, left and traveled back with his pay slips, which he had meticulously kept, still Mr Mulimu demurred. “We have no money and what we gave you is enough.”

“But if BCB lacks the money,” Mr Yaliwo advised, “then take it to Finance Ministry since she is the one overseeing you. The debt can be passed on to the government and besides I also left some money in some reserves.”

“I will look into that,” he promised. But he didn’t.

After tiring of traveling back and forth, and being made to wait till late to see the MD, Mr Yaliwo, finally decided to team up with other laid off workers, denied of their full terminal benefits too and file a case in the High Court. But once he got summons Mr Mulimu, shrieking with anger, took the case to an old law firm of BCB, led  by a grey haired Senior Counsel, Mr Magezi.

“We must fight off these spurious claims by thieves!” Mr Mulimu urged the old seasoned lawyer. However, upon going over the files from BCB, Mr Magezi advised BCB that hers was a poor case. “Pay these old staff of yours,” he called BCB. “After all they used to work for you and are responsible for the BCB you found.”

“We paid them already and enough!” Mr Mulimu cut off the old lawyer. He then started shopping around for a firm that would help BCB win the case against these “ungrateful thieves”. He found one but at a stiff price. However, when it lost the case, Mr Mulimu remained still unfazed. “There is no way I am going to see BCB give out free money to those people!” He declared and appealed. “I was given this job to protect BCB against thieves.”

And that is when tables turned.

As part of the restructuring exercise, Parliament had passed a law that Accounting Officers like Mr Mulimu could only serve two five year- nonrenewable terms. In the heat of all his battles with ex staff Mr Mulimu had forgotten that his tenure was of a limited duration. Seeing his end coming, he called for a special meeting of the Board to sit and extend his term. It was at a resort where as usual he forced Accounts to release a huge envelope for each Board member in record time.

Now, on the Board was a young Christian lawyer who noted that  the Board had no powers to override an Act of Parliament. “Members we need to be careful not to pass rulings in violation of the law!”  Observing that this was being noted in the minute, the rest of the members cowed and agreed, in spite of helping themselves to the envelope. Mr Mulimu’s contract was not extended.

Out of a job, Mr Mulimu, received his terminal benefit and quickly noticed all the money he had once remitted for the pension fund, was not passed on to him. Without wasting time, Mr Mulimu, got into his car, and drove fast to BCB.

At the entrance the old MD was shocked when security delayed allowing him to proceed inside BCB campus. “Do you have an appointment?” A new gruff security man asked him.

“How can you ask when I was the former MD here!” Mr Mulimu growled.

“Next time, it is better to first call!” Security warned him.

Once Accounts staff heard “Aswan Dam” was back to lodge a financial claim, they deliberately decided to make him taste some of his old medicine. “There is no need to talk to anyone here,” said an intern staff who was sent to talk to the former boss, as he stood waiting in the corridor. “Your matter is being handled and you would be informed in due time!”

Flushing with anger, Mr Milumu stormed back to his car. He could not understand why the organization he had in the past vehemently fought for, was now treating him so coldly. “People are so ungrateful!” he raged. He decided to call up the new MD called Mupya. “I have all this money owed to me,” he shared, heatedly.

“I will get back to you after making inquiries,” said Mupya, who had been hired from outside and knew little of her past operations.

When Mupya passed on the concerns of the former MD to the rest of Management he noticed they seemed all bemused. They took their time responding but finally gave him word for Mr Mulimu. “There is a court case on this matter under appeal and we need to wait for the outcome.”

It is at this point, that, Mr Mulimu decided to look up Mr Yaliwo. He desperately needed this cash payout as he was deep in debt and close to losing a commercial building he had mortgaged. Used to an extravagant life and realizing that he was now without a steady income, he had to find a quick way to make ends meet. “I think we should sit down and talk to see how to get our money back,” Mr Mulimu, lightly asked the man he had once seen as a nuisance. “I am now on your side.” He giggled, nervously.

“Is that so!” said Mr Yaliwo, quite surprised to hear from him, at last, as he had never called him before. It had been close to a decade when he had been made to suffer for lodging this very claim only to be resisted by the very man who was now at the end of the line. In the course of time, some of the old staff  he had started this struggle with had even passed on, while dying in poverty.

“Welcome to our side of the line,” Mr Yaliwo, finally told once his old tormentor. Having hung up, he sat, shaking his head.

Heroism in a time of an epidemic

In his mind Suubi always dreamt that after school, once he got a good job, married a beautiful girl, all would be well. The hard life he had endured while growing up would all come to an end.

Suubi had narrowly survived the harsh guerrilla war that brought the new military government in power. It had all come at such a huge personal cost. Suubi had lost both his parents, grannies and four siblings. Fate befell him when the family home was bombed after some neighbour alleged they had been sheltering guerrillas. Suubi had not been home at the time of attack, for he was down at the well, but when he got back he found once his home all leveled, with dismembered bodies, everywhere, of people he loved.

He fled. For days and nights, surviving on cassava he stole from gardens and drinking water from stagnant wells, he eluded government soldiers searching for rebels, as he made his way through the bush to the city. When he got to the city it was now a question who would take him up. He saw lots of kids milling around the streets and he considered starting life there too. But then he recalled he had an Uncle, Nkalyanzekka, a younger brother of his murdered Dad, who was a big shot in the city.

But he hesitated going there. Suubi knew that Uncle Nkalyanzekka had long cut himself from his family, which he despised. He had last seen him almost a decade ago when he came for a funeral of an aunt, in a big car, and quickly left once the funeral was over.

“That brother of mine is a very proud man,” Suubi had often heard his father complain. “He forgets he went to school only because we sacrificed and let all the school fees be used for him. But since he got up he thinks we are too small for him.”

That was part of the truth. Having got up in society Mr Nkalyanzekka had formed all sorts of negative views about the relatives he had left behind. He chided them for not being developmental like him. “Look,” he would hiss back in his palatial home of five bedrooms, “those people are so lazy. With all that land they still ask me money. All they do is drink and spend all their earnings in witchcraft chasing fantasies.”

So, how could he now go to Uncle Nkalyanzekka and ask for shelter when he had this low opinion of his family. But then he had no choice. Indeed, once he got to the house, tucked in a leafy suburb, before even greeting him, Uncle Nkalyanzekka on realizing who he was, cried through the window, “What has brought you here, boy, all rumpled up like this!”

“Everyone in the village was killed,” Suubi broke the sad news. Uncle Nkalyanzekka took in the news, without much of an expression. “Come in,” he finally allowed him in.” Suubi gingerly stepped on to the carpet.

“But I hear those people were supporting guerrillas,” his Uncle snapped, after taking in all the news. “So, what can I do for you!” He started pressing him.

“I need somewhere to stay,” Suubi pleaded.

“We have only a small place here,” the Uncle, who had two children, mostly away in a boarding school, wavered. It was only when his wife later showed up and hearing Suubi’s story of what had happened in the village urged her reluctant husband to take his nephew in. “He can also help us with chores, anyway.”

This is how Suubi had ended up being raised as a Shamba boy in his Uncle’s palatial home. He was housed in a boy’s quarter. Life was restless as the deal was to do odd jobs around the house as a way to earn money to pay for his school fees. Through hard work Suubi had finally made it to the university, and soon got a job in a government agency. Finally secure, he felt it was now time to live the life of his dreams, just like his pinchy Uncle.

But then he was in for a rude shock. Soon after leaving university Suubi saw one of his best friend die of a mysterious disease that had drained him into a poor skeletal frame. By then there were people dying all over, taken by a new strange disease. Finally someone gave it a name- Slim. After a lot of research, it was discovered, it was largely caused through sexual activity with an infected person. Young people like Suubi were urged to marry and stick to their partners, if they were ever to avoid it.

So, when Suubi married a girl called Mary, he knew his troubles were over. After all he had now a good job, a wife, a house and soon a car, all to himself. He would now be like Uncle Nkalyanzekka, a wealthy man living in the city, enjoying life to himself.

One of the things that had drawn Suubi to Mary was that she had grown up in a hard up family, far away from the village, much like his.  But Suubi and Mary had hardly settled in their new life of tranquility when in quick succession she lost four of her elder brothers to Slim. Her parents back in the village decided to send two of her remaining sisters, still in school, to her to raise. “With our grief, we can only manage to look after one child.”

Suubi’s first reaction was to send them back. “Why are your people coming here to enter our quiet life!” he wondered aloud. Mary did not answer. But later, as he reflected back on his life, Suubi recalled he had survived because someone had let him in, albeit reluctantly. Otherwise he would have ended up on the streets. Maybe by letting in these two girls, they too would survive, just as he had scrapped through the bush war, and go on to become something.

Those are the stories of Slim days. Although looked at as a very wicked period, and certainly it was, there is also a lot of good that came out of that dark period. In 1988 at its worst, a musician by the names of Phily Lutaaya, gave a feared disease a human face, by boldly presenting himself, and going a long way to reduce the stigma that had left many to suffer in morbid silence.

Earlier in 1987 after losing her husband to HIV/ AIDS, a young widow called Noreen Kaleeba, decided to turn  a tragedy into an opportunity, by linking up with others who had experienced as much fate, with a simple mission, to lift up each other and find a way  for life  to go on.  Eventually, from this band of widows, would grow one of the most respected global health organization called TASO, which has gone a long way to end this disease.

Times of tragedy can also birth the most heroic feats, as the days of HIV/AIDS revealed. On the other hand there are those who can become withdrawn and perhaps callous. Throughout history even in dark times, often in the midst of falling bodies, there are those who see this as their best opportunity to collect sacks of money they always longed for and build mountains of castles for their enjoyment. That’s how life goes.

But still,  there are those who choose to rise above the waters, forget about themselves, even if for a while, and become bigger, as we saw back then.

The Covid- 19 pandemic is no less, of times of upheaval seen through history. In spite of all the misery, it is a gift as well, to mankind, because it helps us draw back to find the very essence and meaning of life. At the end of it some will come out narrower in life; as other will have risen to become larger in life.

The Enigmatic Son of a Priest from a Split Uganda and Kenyan Family – Aggrey Awori ( 1939- 2021)

In the early 1998 I became the second host of Spectrum, the long running current affairs Radio 1 talk show. One of my regular guests to discuss the days events was a man I scarcely knew much about before called Aggrey Awori. But with his winsome smile and quick wit, any might strike a friendship with him. Once I also discovered we had passed through the same school, King’s College, Budo, we hit it off. Yes, of course, I did have other interesting guests. There was Winnie Banyima, later to head the global relief organization Oxfam, who had also passed through the same school at one point. Once I recall Winnie wanting to put questions in my mouth, leading us to draw into a stalemate. But that was never with Aggrey. He exuded  a certain gentle confidence, that long after the show came to an end, we carried on off air discussing Uganda, and generally life.

The late 1990s were an interesting time in the political development of Uganda. In 1995 Uganda had drawn up her third constitution (within a space of just 33 years) after a tense debate between Federalists who longed for a return to the 1962 constitution and the Centrists certainly sympathetic to the 1967 republican constitution. Aggrey had participated vigorously in the writing of that constitution, leaning with the Centrists, as a Constituent Assembly delegate. A few years back he had been plucked from exile by the Museveni government, eager to secure a mandate and lend credibility to its shaky regime that had overthrown the Obote 11 regime in 1986.

Aggrey had lost his job as Uganda’s ambassador to the US and later Belgium, following the National Resistance Movement (NRM) coup. Apparently angered he decided to form an outfit called Force Obote Back Again ( FOBA). It was mainly composed of  ragged youths he readily supplied AK47s directing them to attack and blow up government offices. This was around the time when  Eastern Uganda which had long proved as one of the most stable support of the UPC  government was spawning all sorts of rebel movements. Alice Lakwenya had started here in 1986 with her Holy Spirit movement before she was forced on the run. Her outfit however had given birth to the Lord’s Resistance Army ( LRA) under a one former Catholic Catechist called Joseph Kony who took his battle theater to Northern Uganda. In an attempt to end these wars, in 1993, after a reconciliatory meeting with President Museveni, in New York, Aggrey, decided put aside his guns and return to Uganda.  He then settled into a long career as an opposition politician.

In the debates we had on Spectrum and off air, sometimes later on the terrace of Speke Hotel, Aggrey was unapologetic in drawing the government of President Museveni to account. Once he shocked parliament by revealing that  the Presidential jet flew a daughter of President Museveni to give birth in Germany costing taxpayers $50,000. Another time he pointed out how Uganda was funding a US lobbyist at an astonishing fee of $300,000 for some fuzzy trade deal. He always came to the studio armed with lawyerly facts and I sensed government was on high alert based on calls that I fielded to refute his claims of alarming corruption in NRM. A formidable debater, I personally wasn’t much surprised when  he was voted the best legislator of the sixth parliament, and possibly ever in Uganda.

Yet, what is interesting here, and of our politics, is that when he stood to be reelected in subsequent elections he lost his Samia- Bugwe North seat to a relatively unknown novice. While on the national scene Aggrey was exposing high level corruption, on the ground, back home, he was losing out. The days of able debaters in Uganda’s political evolution were quickly coming to a close, soon to give way to a crowd of comedians taking center stage.

Perhaps I am being rather harsh to point out that Aggrey enjoyed being in the limelight. For me it did not come as a surprise when out of seeming political oblivion he decided to bounce back and take on President Museveni during the 2001 elections. It was pure comedy as Aggrey kept boasting of his connections with world leaders and distinguished East African family roots. To prove his financial muscle he ordered a helicopter; but which only arrived in the wee hours of the election. He lost, rather ignominiously, polling less than 2%.

By then I had lost touch with him, though I kept following his politics. Sometime later I read he had crossed from his UPC party to join the party still led by the man whose policies he used to habitually question during our radio programmes and off air. Later in 2009 he was appointed by President Museveni as ICT Minister, which I thought was a reward for his crossing over to the ruling party. But in 2011, the Museveni government having exhausted all his usefulness, no longer of much threat, casually dropped him, sending what was once the most feared opposition politician into political limbo.

I must here pause and question if Aggrey’s crossing to NRM from his traditional UPC, was a sign of political maturity or an unprincipled move by a humbled politician eager to stay in the limelight? There are many other UPC politicians, like his classmate at Budo, Peter Otai, once State Minister of Defence in Obote 11 regime, who never warmed up to President Museveni’s famous advances to the very end. Although ideologically, Aggrey was closer to NRM, which was anyway a breakaway splinter movement from UPC, by the time he made peace with it, the party had long meandered from many of its earlier nationalistic pretenses.  For example, in 2006 it had abandoned the two- term presidential limit at the core of the 1995 constitution. By then there were cries accusing NRM of sectarianism, especially in favor of the Western region.

So, how could he join NRM then? This is why to me Aggrey comes off across as an enigma.

Perhaps to get a better understanding of this rather complicated man we need to start with his roots. Aggrey was a sixth child of an Anglican pioneer priest, Canon Jeremiah Musungu Awori and his wife Maria, a nurse and community. This Basamia family strode along the Kenya and Uganda border, two nations arbitrary created by the British. The Aworis were an amazing couple who would raise over 16 children. But because of their settlement along the border lines, part of the family was cut off on the Uganda side. It is said Aggrey grew up with an elder sister over in Uganda and after attending Nabumali High School he joined Budo where he starred as an athlete. At one point there was interest by the British who took notice of his athletic prowess to take him to Sandhurst Military Academy. But Canon Musungu, who ensured all his children get a good education, dissuaded his son.

Instead Aggrey secured a scholarship to Harvard University where he initially enrolled to study nuclear physics but later switched to political economy. After doing post graduate work at Syracuse University in journalism, he returned to Uganda and was shortly thereafter appointed a Director of Uganda Television (UTV).

There are some unverified reports that he had long been enrolled into General Service Unit (GSU) as an intelligence officer by its head, Obote’s cousin, Akena Odoko. In any case accounts from that period do indicate that he was a partisan Director very committed to UPC  Centrist ideology. Reports I never verified with him mentioned that he was very belligerent towards those for a federal arrangement, particularly the Baganda, who had been sidelined after Obotes’s 1966 coup, forcing a number into political exile.

According to some, why Aggrey was placed at UTV was to use his office and spy on journalists. Indeed, from what he would later share, Aggrey had an advance tip of the 1971 Amin coup. He made frantic efforts to alert President Obote but to no avail. Once in power Amin detained him. He might have been killed, like later his Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Alex Ojera. But Aggrey had army contacts and through the intervention of Col Nyagweso, he was freed. He quickly escaped to Kenya.

Aggrey had married a Liberian national, Thelma. The two had met as students at Harvard and had a young family.  At that point in life, he could have renounced his Ugandan citizenship and taken on Kenyan citizenship,  joining the majority of the Awori siblings. In Kenya the Aworis had proved to be high achievers, becoming firsts, in many different specialties. For example, there was Professor Nelson Awori, who was the first Kenyan to carry out a kidney transplant. Engineer Hannigton Awori had established himself on the board of many blue chip companies. And then there was an upcoming politician called Moody, years later to emerge as Kenya’s Vice President.

Aggrey would not renounce his Ugandan citizenship, though, in favor of Kenya, whose independence fortunes were strikingly far much rosier than Uganda. It is possible that he might have had regrets especially as he saw Uganda, the country he had adopted, descend into a bloody orgy with hundreds of thousands of Ugandans, pouring into Kenya where authorities would hound them. Simply he took up a job as a lecturer at Nairobi University.  In 1979 he was one of the “Moshi revolutionaries” who joined hands leading to the overthrow of Amin regime. After President Binaisa took over he joined his government to serve as one of his Assistants. In 1980 he stood for Parliament under UPC party ticket but lost. He was then posted to the US as Uganda’s envoy.

Last year, early one morning while going through the papers, I noticed that after the 9th parliament had decided to further increase the size of Uganda’s already oversized parliament to 524 members, with also elderly MPs, which was causing heated debates in some of my circles, Aggrey was offering himself to stand as one of the elderly candidates representing Eastern Uganda. In the past I could recall he would have been the first person to question the soundness of such a decision for a strained economy like ours, unable to pay doctors a motivated wage. But now he was part of the whole gravy train. For some reason, I could no longer recognize, the man I once knew.

Ambassador Aggrey Awori’s life was heroic but also one which leaves some of those who knew him bewildered. At Harvard University he smashed records, becoming the first person in heptagonal track history to win concurrently three events, setting records that stood for years. He was a man destined for greatness, and there is no doubt he towered over his generation in many ways. But in deciding to join a party which for long he despised,  at its very low moment, one can only give him the benefit of doubt. Rest in peace, Aggrey!

The writer is Associate Professor of Management, Uganda Christian University, Mukono.

Lessons on Successful Leadership Transfer

Rotary is a worldwide movement that brings together professionals to serve their community. It is a tradition in Rotary that every year a new crop of Presidents are nominated to take over the mantle of leading their clubs. Having served as President of Rotary Club Kampala West, last month of June, I dutifully handed over to a new President.

Aware that the subject of leadership transfer probably needs more discussion than has been given attention, I invited Rev Canon Dr. John Senyonyi, who in September 2020, after serving a mandatory 10 years as Vice-Chancellor of Uganda Christian University, handed over to a new CEO.

The first challenge Dr Senyonyi observed, might have to do with completing a leader’s legacy. Almost all leaders have particular aspirations they have purposed to realize. The years at the helm run fast and before long one’s term is over. For many leaders, there is a certain anxiety about not having finished the business of their term.

This fear is not willful imagination. Dr. Senyonyi shared an experience of once traveling through Nigeria where he came across a suspended bridge dwarfing over one important city. It so happened that the project had been started with one Governor of a leading state. When a new came to office, he decided to discontinue funding of any past projects of his predecessor. The new Governor wanted to build his own towers, without giving his successor any room to shine.

One way to address this problem is by building systems that are larger than one leader. A new leader who comes into office should only feed into a system, with his new set of aspirations, other than seeing his mandate as breaking up anything that was related to his predecessor.

In most of those organizations where we have seen successful leadership transfer, there is often a clear pipeline of leaders, being groomed for the job at the helm once it fell vacant. In the Rotary organization normally one would expect any club to plan for its President possibly three years ahead by taking them through various club positions. This helps expose the potential President to how the organization works, such that by the time one succeeds into office, there is little fear of disruption.

When leaders depart office the relation between the new leader and his predecessor needs as well to be managed. Some new leaders wanting to quickly establish their purpose not to have anything to do with their predecessors. Yet, this is a disservice to themselves and the organization as they miss out on good counsel, garnered after years of experience by their predecessors.

However, there are also those leaders who apparently never leave, and are up and about, quick to show their influence, not allowing the new leader to properly establish themselves. This is ill-advised for it can result in a conflict of allegiances, with the old leader continuing to hold more influence, and not giving the new leader a chance to properly build a new team.

Sometimes the community complicates leadership transfer when it fails to recognize a past leader just out of office. Used to being chauffeured and greeted by their ceremonial titles, past leaders are shocked when the day after they leave office, none seems to care much for them anymore. It can be a catastrophic experience especially for someone who for a decade everyone was fighting to gain favor from, only to be abandoned. Leaders must prepare for this reality, though also as a community we deserve to treat past leaders respectfully, giving them their deserved dues, if only to encourage their successors not to demur once their time is up.

The country where things never change!

Something puzzling caught the attention of the young doctor. After observing carefully he noticed a sudden rise in number of patients, dying from a condition all the books he had read back in medical school did not properly describe. Once bright and up on their feet, stricken patients soon after admission would wither away slowly into skeletal frames, of much pity, before drawing their last breath. The young doctor applied all kinds of standard treatment to bring relief and recovery but to no avail.

Finally, he approached the head of his department, Professor Nkumbi. “I am puzzled,” he sighed. “We are losing so many people and none of the standard treatment is working. I suspect we are faced with a new dangerous disease.”

Professor Nkumbi had also been noticing through his regular rounds of supervision and his concern was growing. Over the years he had seen batches of new viruses break out to cause new strange diseases. But even with scarce knowledge there seemed always a way out to manage any. Many times he would use his vast experience to apply a combination of different medicine and administer their properties in different amounts to help heal the sick.

The Professor was a lazy writer but on occasion once certain of his treatment he would author a paper packed with statistics which he had assiduously gathered as proof of the efficacy of his treatment regime. His findings were reviewed and published in leading medical journals. It is only after the scientific community had reached consensus that he would accept invitation locally and globally to promote his medicine. The Professor was now recognized as an expert in managing tropical diseases and some of his medicines had been patented by leading pharmacies.

“Perhaps we should get out blood samples and anything we consider useful to a partner laboratory in the US,” Professor Nkumbi advised the young doctor. The two agreed, and quickly sent samples out by DHL. However, after a week anxious for feedback, came a terse reply. “There is nothing we found giving us clue to this new disease.”

“If they can’t figure it out,” said the Professor. “Then we need to figure it by ourselves. They have their problems and we have ours. Sometimes we need to take the lead.”

In his long career of handling epidemic crises Professor Nkumbi had taken an interest in studying human behavior under odd circumstances. Although at an individual level there were observable differences, there were also commonalities. First, human beings in the absence of assured treatment, many started panicking. This would be accentuated as the diseases became viral. In this case, Professor Nkumbi saw it happen when sometime later, the young doctor who had taken it upon himself to immerse himself in treating the afflicted, fell ill. Then, as were others, he wilted away, and in no time lost his life.

The death of the young doctor made all the health workers pause. Putting in long hours, working under strained circumstances with poor equipment, tempers rose. “No one knows what this disease is,” said a young worried medic. “This disease will wipe us away before anybody knows.”

The Professor knew that one of the first things he needed in the midst of an epidemic was to bring reassurance and calmness. The day after the young doctor was buried he called on all staff for a meeting. “I know many of you are scared stiff and for good reasons,” he said to the hushed room. “But I want to assure you that if we stay calm and work together on this thing we shall find a cure. Let us keep our hands joined together otherwise if we left fear take over us, we shall all lose out. I say, the only thing to fear is fear itself!”

“But how can we work under these conditions,” a staff raised concern. “We are short on beds and gloves. Patients are sleeping on floors. Our pay comes in late. We are hungry. Don’t sell us on this hope stuff.”

“I do hear you,” the Professor said calmly. “How I wish I was the one managing the health sector. But for now our complaints won’t help much. We are at the frontline. Everyone is looking up to us. Let us do all we can!”

The next day about a third of the health care workers did not show up. Professor Nkumbi had seen it all. But he knew a certain critical staff would stick on. It is those few he embarked on a journey of finding a discovery to this unknown disease.

The Professor decided to close off one of his wards where he would carry out rigorous research. As he studied the disease he noticed that a majority of patients fell in the 15- 25 age bracket. He would ask them all sorts of questions about their lifestyle. Yet he couldn’t figure out why this new disease was more virulent in attacking this rather athletic age group. He wrote to the Ministry of Health asking for funds to research more on this age group but he was quickly rebuffed. “Maybe you should write to the donors,” the Permanent Secretary wrote back. “The funds available are for buying cars for political leaders to sensitize the population about His Excellency programs.”

In the meantime, without much research going on, all sorts of speculation started going around town, explaining this disease. There were those who quickly pointed the finger to witchcraft. “This thing was brought by those witch doctors from our neighbors,” seemed to be the chorus in local pubs. As many were convinced, they rushed to local shrines to fight off evil spirits causing this unknown disease. There, almost all would not survive, including some of the shrine ministers, which left as many perturbed.

“God is punishing us for our sins,” a number of Pastors claiming to be in constant contact with God now took center stage. “If you come here and we pray for you then you will be healed.” Added to this, there were those who claimed that racist White doctors had planted the disease in Africa to wipe out the population and recolonize the continent! Promoters of this conspiracy were drawn largely from the more educated class.

All this Professor Nkumbi had seen. “Human beings will always grapple for answers from all sorts of angles in the face of the unknown,” he had once written a paper. “In situations of anxiety, it is expected for opportunistic groups to thrive.”

As all was going on, one-day Professor Nkumbi discovered that a young man on his research team had pieced some of his data to put together a concoction claiming it as a cure for the new disease. This medicine was marketed across the country, especially at bus stops and popular drinking joints, where a number would always come up with testimonies of “being cured” by gulping it. No one would take time to probe their testimonies. Marketed intensely, the new “cure” soon ran out of stock. When Professor Nkumbi learned that the chap behind all was on his research team, he promptly fired him. “I have nothing to do with anyone who takes advantage of poor people’s ignorance promoting unproved gimmicks.”

Poorly funded, Professor Nkumbi pressed on with the few staff left on his team. After many months of gathering evidence, his data started coming together. He discovered the young people who were most affected tended to exhibit an aggressive sexual lifestyle. He found that in the absence infection rates tended to be minimal. With this in mind, the Professor now realized that lifestyle change was one line of attack to reduce infection. He started advocating sexual abstinence as one line of attack. He also found that by using condoms where one’s status was unknown, infections fell to almost zero. He became a serious advocate of condom use.

Not everyone was pleased with the Professor’s findings. For those who were marketing “cure” concoctions, using some of their profits, they started waging a campaign against the Professor. “This man shall put us out of business,” they seethed. Meanwhile, certain government officials displeased that reports of lower infection rates meant the country was earmarked for less aid, also started attacking the Professor. They knew less aid would mean less funds to maintain their expensive lifestyle which they dared not forsake, even in the midst of a ravaging epidemic…

It is now nearly four decades away since Uganda was at the center of the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic, whose origins was initially a cause of so much speculation. However, after the rigorous work of dedicated research scientists in Uganda, it was discovered there was a link between the spread of the HIV-causing virus and unprotected sexual activity. Armed with this knowledge the doctors then started advocating abstinence, faithfulness and condom (ABC) use as a line of defense.

But as we all know the simple message of lifestyle behavioral changes, was not good news to everyone. All sorts of power centers rose up attacking ABC, without much else to show, but the power of charged emotions.

And so it is with Covid-19. A lot about managing this virus has simply to do with limiting its spread by observing simple behavioral practices – physical distancing, sanitization, mask-wearing, isolation of the sick, etc. More so, there are various tested vaccines fortunately now available which serious governments have quickly and without waste bought and ensured the majority of the population take immediate benefit of. Never mind all that. There are those places where things just never change.