Kung'u Karumba story reopens 40-year-old Ugandan wounds
- Forty years later, books and films are comfortable exploring the political excesses and murderous side of the Amin machine.
- In difficult economic times, if you wanted even a small government tender, your wife is the one who took the documents in and was the face of the bid.
A Sunday Nation story, “How Karumba’s pursuit of debtor led to his death”, made for fascinating reading.
It told the story of Kung’u Karumba, one of the “Kapenguria Six” — the prominent Kenyan nationalists, including later-Founding Father Jomo Kenyatta, who were arrested and tried in the northern Kenya town in 1952—53, jailed and released in 1961.
Of the lot, Karumba was the one who did not end up in politics, and he became a wealthy businessman.
On June 14, 1974, he left Nairobi and drove to Uganda, where he had a thriving textile business. The country was ruled then by military dictator Idi Amin.
According to the story, a businesswoman called Margaret, in the eastern industrial town of Jinja, owed him lots of money. He went to collect it. However, as misfortune had it, Margaret was also a mistress of an Amin army officer.
As was common those days, she called up her boyfriend, who took care of business. Karumba disappeared, never to be seen again alive or dead, his body probably fed to the crocodiles in River Nile.
Karumba was not the only Kenyan killed in Uganda by Amin’s goons. Perhaps, the one that had the more long-term impact was the disappearance of Esther Chesire, who was a Second Year law student at Makerere University.
Her story was well retold by the Sunday Nation on July 13, 2017. She was picked up by Amin’s security officers in March 1976 as she waited to board a flight to Nairobi. It’s widely believed that it was part of a crackdown.
In a case that remains emotive, a charismatic student, Paul Serwanga, who was a classmate of Ms Chesire’s, was shot to death on March 5, 1976.
In a rare show of defiance at that time, university students took to the streets in Kampala, calling for Amin’s overthrow.
To get a sense of how audacious the protests were, one has to remember that Amin’s full title was “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Alhaji Dr Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE (that is, ‘Conqueror of the British Empire’).”
Virtually all but a handful of Kenyan students at Makerere were recalled to continue studies at the University of Nairobi.
Theresa Nanziri Bukenya, the warden of Africa Hall, where Ms Chesire was resident, was also killed when she refused to fudge the evidence about Esther’s death. Eight months pregnant, she was seized, her decapitated body to be found days later.
That series of incidents led to several students fleeing into exile, feeding the myriad ranks of rebel groups that were to band together with the Tanzanians and oust Amin in April 1979.
But the role of Margaret, either as wife, mistress or just a regular woman navigating a dictatorship, also speaks to the complicated question of what happened to women — and their men — during Amin’s time.
Forty years later, books and films are comfortable exploring the political excesses and murderous side of the Amin machine. None has really looked at what it actually did to society.
Amin was a contradiction. Murderous, and possibly insane, he did more to bring women into public life than any African leader at that time — and probably until the late 1980s.
He was the first to appoint a woman as permanent secretary, minister or ambassador.
And, perhaps, taking a page out of the book of his buddy, Libyan crazy man Muammar Gaddafi, he surrounded himself with female bodyguards.
But it is in homes that Amin’s rule was most felt. It was a time when it was common to be killed by a soldier so that he could snatch your girlfriend or wife.
If one of the military men drove by and liked your house, he would come around the next day with his boys, take you away, murder you, kick your family out and move in.
Any of Amin’s thugs could stop you on the street if he fancied your car and kill you for it. And that was it.
At a time when men had all the power, and owned everything, some 99 percent of Amin’s victims were also men.
To minimise risk, in family businesses, the men would not sit in the shop front or the big corner office. They would hide.
In difficult economic times, if you wanted even a small government tender, your wife is the one who took the documents in and was the face of the bid.
Often, she would have to sleep with a bunch of fellows to get it. It was something some couples accepted as the inevitable cost of feeding the children and keeping the lights on.
But it ate people inside, and did damage, which the country has still not come to terms with. Karumba’s disappearance sheds only a tiny light on the tragedy.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. @cobbo3