Ten years ago, I ambled into The Weekly Observer offices at Clement Hill Road looking for anything interesting to do.
At first glance, it was almost empty a couple of people in the room were glued to their computer screens, and the boxes and piles of paper suggested there was a process of either packing or unpacking taking place. Not my idea of a great place to work but what did I know being so low on the employment ladder?
What I thought would be an interview turned out to be 10 minutes of Sarah Namulondo asserting her belief that I would make a good writer and if I wanted I could start the next day. So I did. My first assignment was a story on the growing number of male nurses. I was told to research online, set down some questions, find out whom I can interview for answers, make appointments and… be a journalist.
Thus I was plunged into the midst of an assortment of wildly talented characters whose fervour in pursuit of stories created a nurturing environment for many writers. In a small space, with a few desks and even fewer computers that had a knack for crashing on Tuesdays just before we went to print, 10 journalists worked tirelessly to turn out a well-researched paper week after week.Where raw talent wouldn’t take them, sheer persistence did. And now 520 weeks later, I recall the spirit that each of them brought into The Observer family.
John Ogen Kevin Aliro – The Head teacher:
I spent my first days at The Observer avoiding Kevin. There had been a brief introduction where he seemed distracted and grunted something that sounded like ‘welcome’ but I couldn’t be sure, so I avoided him… or tried to because from his corner desk, with an open-plan office, nothing escaped his keen eyes.
The first real conversation we had was also the most memorable one for me. We were heading to Spear House to interview Gordon Wavamunno on some Hungarian anniversary since he was their honorary consul in Uganda. Hassan Badru Zziwa was seated at the front of the car Kevin and I rode in the back. I wasn’t nervous I was terrified.
I held my breath and waited for the quizzing that I knew was going to happen: had I made my research on Hungary, did I have a notebook, the list of questions… Instead, Kevin made small talk.
I relaxed enough to tell him I felt inadequate because I had not studied journalism and didn’t really know the first thing about writing intros [the first paragraphs in an article] or even what went into a by-line.
To this, Kevin snorted in derision and gave me the words that have shaped the rest of my life: “You do not need a degree to be a journalist!”
He then made a list of distinguished journalists who had trained on the job and said that if I wanted to learn, he would teach me. Perhaps it was the passion with which he said it or the fact that I was very much in awe of him, but I believed him.
Since then, taking on assignments on unfamiliar subjects, learning to edit, going into the business realm, Kevin’s words stay with me… I do not need a degree just the right attitude and a willingness to learn.
We all were his students. Sometimes the lessons involved yelling across the room because an ‘i’ was not dotted or a story angle was missed. Sometimes he simply showed us how it was done by doing it himself.
There was the day he went with Pius Muteekani Katunzi to interview President Museveni. The interview had been a hard one to set up it was a big deal and the proposed cover story for that week. Hours later they returned, looking downcast. Pius sighed and cursed under his breath. Kevin mumbled incoherently.
It turned out, gadget-whiz Pius had been let down by some hi-tech recording device he had proposed they use at the interview. So three hours of talking to the president and nothing to show for it. After throwing a jab or two at Pius and his gadgets, Kevin sat quietly at his desk.
The next morning he had the entire interview subscribed. How? Off head. Genius.
After his death, many wondered if The Observer would stand. That was not an option for us. What kept us going through those first few months without him was the same desire students have to please a favourite teacher with good grades. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson said, the man of genius inspires us with a boundless confidence in our own powers. Even from beyond the grave, Kevin continued to inspire us.
Dr Sarah Namulondo – The English Teacher:
Sarah was my teacher at Makerere University literature department. At The Observer, she continued in that role seamlessly.
When she edited your story, she invited you to sit beside her, and you muffled groans as she re-wrote sentences, caught silly grammatical errors and moved paragraphs around, occasionally pausing to ask “what did you mean?”
From her, I learnt that an intro was really the heart of the story. And from the questions she asked about what I had written, I learnt what questions to ask in the field and, more importantly, how to respect every writer as the owner of a unique creative process.
It may not seem like much but consider that she left to pursue her doctorate in the USA only a few months after The Weekly Observer was born.
Even with a busy school schedule, she sent emails praising a story well-written or critiquing one she thought could have been done better.
I didn’t get a chance to work with her after she returned but I know she opened up The Observer newsroom to students and gave her time to teach many like she taught me.
Her legacy to The Observer is her teacher’s heart to correct, to share what she knew. Always quietly, always with a smile.
James Tumusiime – The Head prefect:
If Kevin were the head teacher, JT was undoubtedly the head boy – the liaison between the gods and lesser humans. There was (still is) a brooding quality to him, like he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.
After Kevin passed on, he did carry the weight at least of The Observer because like orphaned children, we all turned to our big brother. What next?
That quiet strength gave us the confidence to follow him. For the longest time, he shunned Kevin’s desk – it sat there in the corner, empty, almost as if he hoped to find Kevin back behind it some morning. Clearly, he never wanted to become the head teacher. The day he finally moved, he was even quieter than usual.
Often he kept out of newsroom banter but you knew he was listening as he would pipe in with a comment, usually humorous or to demand that we tone it down as others were trying to work. I cannot forget the day one gentleman came to see him on some other matter and as he was leaving asked if he could meet the Sex Talk columnist Carolyne Nakazibwe.
He went on to explain why he wanted to meet her… I looked up at Carol who was quietly typing at her computer and then to JT who without missing a beat and with a very apologetic smile told the fan that unfortunately Carol was out of office but he would let her know of his interest in the column. The guest left. As the newsroom burst into laughter and chatter about his ingenuity, all I could think was… there are layers to him after all.
Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda – The school bully:
Ebintu olya? That was Ssemujju’s standard greeting for me. The Luo girl that I am, translated it literally to mean ‘are you eating things?’ to which I responded with ‘what things?’ to which he in turn responded with a self-satisfied grin. It was months, maybe years, before Carol really translated the question. Awkward moment.
But even after he knew I knew what he was asking, he kept asking anyway. When I got creative with my answers, sometimes I would manage to shock the grin off his face. But rarely.
Ssemujju loved to argue for argument’s sake. He didn’t need to be right or to have all the facts, if there was a discussion going on, he asked what everyone else agreed on and then he took off in the opposite direction.
This usually led to a very heated debate that ended with him saying something to the equivalent of ‘I just needed you to see that there was another side to the story’. Sometimes it was annoying, it definitely cost us all time but it was always very entertaining.
When I see him being manhandled out of parliament, I wish someone could tell those parliamentarians that the quickest way to get him to see their side of the coin is to flip it and agree with his opinion.
However, when he really was passionate about something, it was different. He fought mightily to keep his headlines or captions or a phrase that he believed defined his story. He argued his case and stuck to his guns. Sometimes he lost but he never backed down.
Carolyne Nakazibwe – Teacher’s pet we all know really is naughty:
In the assorted batch of 10, Carol was selected to be the human resource officer (of sorts). If you got a pay rise or warning letter, she signed it.
If you had issues to raise, you went to Carol. Naturally, we (the junior staff) didn’t trust her. She was after all one of ‘them’. And at least 90 per cent of our issues had to do with ‘them’.
Also, we all were aware she had no prior experience of managing HR.
However, that didn’t stop her Carol listened, admonished and handed down management decisions as gently as possible. That was her least favourite job.
What Carol really liked was to be out in the field, researching and writing stories. So, she was often either out of office or quietly typing away at her desk.
I always admired her ability to focus on the job at hand. If the newsroom banter was interesting enough, she joined in, usually with a humourous take on things.
Also, if the discussion involved all things male and female, she was the go-to person after all, she wrote Sex Talk. I had questions that made her ask questions about the questions I was asking.
So, one day she offered me a book and instinctively, I flipped the pages open. Wide-eyed, I slammed the book shut and dropped it. For weeks after that, she re-enacted that scene to her own merriment.
Pius Muteekani Katunzi – The dreamy newcomer:
He arrived from Europe with a love for Golf cars, cowboy boots and gadgets.
He was interesting to look at and listen to he had radical views on everything, challenging us to ask not only ‘why?’ but also ‘why not?’ on issues ranging from marriage and kids to homosexuality and animal rights.
He owned not one but two cats (I think one was called Lala) bought for them toys and went shopping for their food in a supermarket!
As far as we were concerned, schooling in Europe had got the better of him.
But when he was done regaling us with stories about the exploits of this cat or that other one, he brought the same diversity into reporting.
It was working with Pius that I first appreciated that business reporting wasn’t all about figures and exchange rates he asked for the stories of the people behind the figures, the lives that were changed because of business decisions, the business of the street food vendor, the works.
Hassan Badru Zziwa – The coach:
I have all too vivid images of Zziwa’s desk every morning: There would be a polythene bag of roast (or was it pan-fried?) goat meat and cassava and a bottle of Fanta.
Everyone was welcome to share the feast. It was with this same attitude that he set about teaching photography to all and sundry: lighting, angles, best photo opportunities, how to take portraits, and on and on.
He told stories of the glorious days when journalism was in its truest form: writers chasing stories in an era of no mobile phones, no internet and almost no public transport.
Sometimes the stories took on such proportions that Pius always teased that it was hard to tell what was fiction and what was truth… still, we were entertained and inspired.
Lindah Nabusayi Wamboka – The senior lady:
What I recall most about Lindah is that she was hardly ever in office and usually out of the country.
It was either the USA, Thailand or some African country… we could always expect goodies. Everyone got something. That was Lindah: motherly and inspiring.
Also, of the whole batch, she was probably the sanest one. Her exploits in the field of journalism left some of us wondering if we would stick around long enough to achieve even half as much.
I remember marvelling at a stack of notebooks that she had I cannot be sure but I do believe she said she had kept from her very first notebook.
At the time, I had probably gone through a few and left them incomplete as I couldn’t find them. After witnessing Lindah’s stack, I took better care of mine.
When I needed a phone number of someone I had interviewed the previous year and I could locate the notebook and find it… I owed that to Lindah.
Elizabeth Kameo – The cheerleader:
She didn’t like being called Liz. She preferred Eliza (pronounced Elaiza). But everyone called her Kameo.
One word comes to mind when I think of her, volatile. You never could tell what mood she was in and whether her storm would be blowing your way or not.
But what I admired was that she knew everything about everybody in town.
Juicy tales that could not be printed, scandals that had befallen ambassadors, which minister was really dating which other minister’s wife… little wonder she was in charge of the gossip column.
With the same gusto with which she trawled the social scene, Kameo would attend business forums and development conferences and write equally compelling stories.
She didn’t have to be an expert on anything, she simply researched. She made a phone call and another and soon her story would be coming together. We were watching and learning.
Fideri Kirungi – The one with swag:
The first time I stepped into a nightclub was because of a dare.
Fideri, popularly called Fidz, said he didn’t think I could. I asked, ‘why not?’ He said, ‘ok, let’s go.’ So we went.
That pretty much summarises Fideri. He swooped in, stirred things up, treated us to green ones (Sprites and Tuskers), got everyone’s morale up and then he swooped right out.
Juggling the newsroom with his lecturing job at Makerere University and the UNDP job that was conveniently across the street from The Observer offices at the time, would seem like too much to do.
Not for Fidz. He once said sleeping was a waste of time that while he slept, life was going on without him.
That did not change the very close relationship I have with my sleeping quarters but it sure gave me a new perspective about how I spent my time… like him, I am usually juggling two or three jobs at a time.
The writer was a reporter and editor at The Observer for five years before she crossed into the world of corporate communication, marketing and brand development. She is currently a graduate student of Global Communication at The American University of Paris, France.
Source : The Observer