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A God-challenging book I did not write and a friend called Buruku

A God-challenging book I did not write and a friend called Buruku

Just a Moment God is the title of the book, and you may have heard the claim that I wrote it. I did not “write” this text, although I had a hand in it. Anyway, when you have been around as long as I have, stories and legends begin to grow around you.

The facts are that Dr Robert Green, my literature lecturer in Dar, edited Just a Moment God, an anthology of creative writing by undergraduates at the Dar campus in the late 1960s. My connection with Green’s anthology is that several of the pieces he included had first appeared in Darlite (later Umma), a journal I had edited with my colleagues, Ugandan Peter Songa and Tanzanian William Kamera, between 1966 and 1968.

Two of my early poems, “Naturally” and “One Same World”, appear in Just a Moment God. The former is familiar and it appears in a few later collections. It is “One Same World”, however, that is currently on my mind, for nostalgic and sorrowful reasons.

The piece depicts a split frame of a group of leisured (idle) socialites lounging on an elevated balcony while below them a gang of manual labourers toil and moil (and boil) on a construction site. As the walalahai (“haves”) on the balcony enjoy their assorted beverages and chatter about the trivialities of their privileged lives, “a desperate harambee dies on the parched throats” of the walalahoi (“have-nots”) below.

Between you and me, however, that balcony scene derives from my real life experience on the Dar campus, where I was a resident of London University Hall in 1965-68. My room in the hall was the first on the first floor of the wing facing the main drive through the centre of the campus. I often sat on the balcony of the room, often with friends, chatting and looking out across the valley towards “Academic Hill”, the administrative and teaching area, and watching the hectic toils of the labourers working on the many developments on that then-brand new campus.

You can thus see that I was very much part of the privileged walalahai that I seem to be lambasting in “One Same World”. With all expenses paid, commodious single-occupancy luxury rooms, sumptuous free meals, and regular cash allowances, we were literally pampered and paid to read books in those easy 1960s.

My next-door neighbour in that lap of luxury was Mr Tom Walter Buruku, my compatriot from the West Nile region of Uganda. His passing away earlier this week triggered these random ruminations that I am sharing with you. Unlike me, Buruku was a hugely successful man on the public scene, yet our lives seemed to keep interweaving as we journeyed along in this one same world.

Blessing in disguise

He was, for example, among the five of us Ugandan students thrown off our first Nairobi-Dar East African Airways flight, in July 1965, because we had not properly “checked-in” on arrival from Entebbe. The missed flight turned into a blessing in disguise, offering us a night and a day of exploration in the glorious Nairobi City of those days. The break also afforded us an opportunity to get properly acquainted with one another before we got to Dar, since we had come from different high schools across Uganda.

Growing up in an era that probably came the closest we have ever been to a meritocracy, where people advanced on the strength of their ability and hard work, country boy Buruku had worked his way to sixth form at King’s College Budo. This had previously been the preserve of the children of royalty, aristocracy and chiefs, where people like Charles Njonjo and the late David Rubadiri had their “Etonian” initiation. From Budo it was a fairly easy step for Buruku to the prestigious and then-East Africa’s only Law School at Dar.

At our London University Hall, we kept interacting and comparing notes on our progress in our different disciplines and sharing the patchy news we had of the increasingly turbulent times in our homeland. Then, sometime during our second year, a lovely relationship began developing between Buruku and Asha Daisy Sykes, who had just joined the University. Daisy was the daughter Abdulwahid Sykes, a close comrade of Mwalimu Nyerere during the freedom struggle. She remembered many encounters with Mwalimu, and even attending to him when he sought temporary shelter at the Sykes’ Dar es salaam residence in the pre-independence days.

Although we graduated and left Asha Daisy still pursuing her course, Buruku soon returned to Dar, marrying Daisy and setting up a home with her in Kampala. When my bride and I returned to Uganda from Scotland in 1972 and she went looking for a job at BAT Uganda, Buruku was one of the managing directors there and he hired her. Our paths were crossing again.

Daisy distinguished herself on the Uganda education scene, as a teacher and, especially, as Head of Nabisunsa Girls High School, near Kyambogo University in Kampala. It is the best-known Muslim-sponsored girls’ high school in the country. Daisy Sykes Buruku is now retired but still very highly regarded as one of the most respected naturalised Ugandans, in the same league as her fellow Tanzanian-born Angelina Wapakhabulo, former Uganda High Commissioner to Kenya, and even South African-born Pumla Ngozwana Kisosonkole, the first African woman in Uganda’s parliament (or Legco as it was called then).

Tom Buruku himself had a varied and colourful career, serving for many years as a member of the country’s Electoral Commission and as Secretary General of the Uganda Red Cross, which also led to a spell at the International Committee of the Red Cross Societies in Geneva. At the time of his death, he was Ghana’s Honorary Consul in Uganda. It is rare for one to serve as an ambassador to one’s own country.

But that is the story of my departed friend Tom Buruku, and the story of our dwindling East African generation.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature.