Celebrating Aliro’s Legacy

What comes to mind for those who knew John Ogen Kevin Aliro at the mention of his name?

Aliro, the founding managing director of The Observer newspaper, who died on November 12, 2005, was so many different things to different people. Within The Observer family, Aliro was a father-figure. At Sports Club Villa, he was a loyal fan and a no-nonsense administrator. To Elizabeth Birabwa-Aliro and her children, he was an inspirational husband and father.

Aliro’s friends and acquaintances also had several adjectives to describe him. They knew him to be fearless, stubborn, hilarious, aggressive, selfless, generous and a workaholic. Indeed, there was so much life packed into his slight frame. Aliro was a journalism giant he swept all criticism aside to fight for the truth at whatever cost. He told his stories with flair and passion he inspired several upstarts to emulate his style and enthusiasm.

Listening to Aliro speak on radio, one visualised a huge man who took no prisoners. In person, though, he was diminutive, stooped at the shoulders and dragged his feet as he moved about – almost as though they were too heavy for his slight frame. Aliro was the epitome of bravery in journalism, always at war fronts covering conflicts, from northern Uganda to DR Congo, to Sudan, to Rwanda.

Kevin’s legacy:

Perhaps bigger than his vocal and writing abilities, is the legacy he left behind in Uganda’s media industry he was heavily involved in founding The Monitor and The Observer. While the former recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, the latter commemorates 10 years this week.

Aliro also left behind a family his wife Elizabeth and four children, Frank, Ian, Jojo and Tiny. While Birabwa-Aliro quit mainstream journalism earlier on, two of their children have been actively involved for a couple of years, while the younger two are testing the waters of writing.

Describing her late husband, Birabwa-Aliro says: “If he believed in something, it didn’t matter what people told him. He did otherwise. Never at any one time did he stop pursuing a story, as long as he believed it was important.”

Aliro’s style of writing on social issues was also unique. He was the brains behind the Baba Pajero column, first published in The Monitor and, later, The Observer. It was a popular light-hearted column full of night-out escapades spiced up with political humour. Aliro’s second column, Letter to my dear mother, served as an update of the latest news to his mother who, although illiterate, had managed to raise him and his siblings all by herself.

“That’s where he rubbed people in high places the wrong way,” says Birabwa-Aliro.

Aliro sacrificed so much to see his dream flourish he turned down several well-paying job offers with the United Nations, Commonwealth Secretariat and other international organisations because he could not abandon journalism. Next to his passion for good journalism was an unmatched love for football and Afrigo band. In fact, he once manned the gates during an SC Villa game to ensure that gate collections didn’t go missing.

Due to too many late nights in the office, Aliro carried a safari mattress from home to work, on which he rested during breaks.

“By the time he started [The] Observer, I had got used so, it wasn’t a challenge,” says Birabwa-Aliro, adding, “In the initial days of marriage, I remember asking him, ‘Did I marry you or the job?'”

Like father, like sons:

A teacher-turned-journalist, Aliro’s other dream was to set up an institute to train media professionals once he retired from active media management. Although his life ended before he achieved that dream, he had personally nurtured many journalists. It is no surprise, therefore, that his sons are effortlessly stepping into his shoes.

Aliro’s first son, Frank Kisakye, 27, graduated with an Information Technology degree from Makerere University. Although he was initially not passionate about journalism, the legacy left by Kisakye’s father has seen him gravitate towards working in a media house. Kisakye, who started by contributing articles to The Observer, eventually joined full-time, and says he was driven by the urge to be seen as his own man.

“What made me write more was the fact that everywhere I went, I was referred to as Kevin’s son. I got tired of that. I wanted to create my own name. I wanted to be known as me. I know he was wonderful and he did a lot. But I didn’t want to ride on his legacy,” he says.

Today, Kisakye mans the paper’s online section.

“One of The Observer’s greatest attributes is the ability to take on young talent and nurture them to become the best,” he says.

Ian Ortega, on the other hand, knew from the start that he wanted to write. While in his first year at Kyambogo University pursuing a bachelor of mechanical and manufacturing engineering, he started writing notes on his facebook wall. His cousin aised him to start a blog. His blog eventually led the 21-year-old to Daily Monitor’s features desk.

“My greatest moment was when I spent a week in Bwaise. I rented a house and wrote about my experience. Editors ranked it as one of the best of 2013,” he says.

Inspired by his contributions to Daily Monitor, Ortega and a friend founded Big Eye, a social media platform that focuses on entertainment and social issues but not politics, which everyone was discouraging him about.

“Writing has transformed me,” he says. “When you find out your dad left a certain legacy, you feel the need to not let this die out. That has haunted me. That’s one of the core things that kept driving me to show that he still lives on in one way or another.”

Dream lives on:

Using an analogy, Ortega says he sees Kevin as “the Steve Jobs of Ugandan journalism”. Jobs was a co-founder and CEO of tech giant Apple. Aliro always walked around the newsroom with a steaming coffee mug peering at writers as they typed their stories.

And when he was unhappy with one’s work, he immediately lashed out at the person. Jobs did the same with lazy programmers. Both were also kicked out of the companies they helped found.

Birabwa-Aliro says he was hot-tempered on the outside but tender, loving and caring on the inside.

“I remember him as a person who always committed to whatever he started,” she says. “He was friendly and made a lot of friends from all walks of life. I would like the children to take that.”

As The Observer celebrates her 10th birthday, Birabwa-Aliro shares a message with her late husband’s professional family.

“I appreciate guys at The Observer,” she says. “They should be commended because many people thought it would not last. The paper has had its ups and downs but they have persevered. They should keep up [Aliro’s] spirit. It is one thing that always consoles me that he is happy wherever he is.”

Source : The Observer

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