It is lunch time at The Observer. Not less than 50 staff members file past a delicious-looking buffet set up in a tent by Yasmin’s restaurant. At one table, a group of male employees is loudly debating The Observer’s 10-year journey and how far the newspaper has come.
That is until Promotions Officer Charles Ssebugwawo, known for his blunt humour, quips: “Unless you have ever had your lunch delivered in tiny school-like containers, please desist from commenting about this topic.”
And long after that debate has died down, I sit thinking about those early days of The Weekly Observer – as it was baptised on March 25, 2004.
Daring to dream:
With Ogen Kevin Aliro at the helm, a group of nine other journalists, dared to dream of starting a newspaper. The group had no money, no investors just experience in journalism and sheer will.
Yet not once, did I fear that it would not work out. On the other hand, Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, who in 2010 left journalism to join politics and now represents Kyadondo East in Parliament, recalls how trepidation soon set in for him.
“I remember Kevin shouting in the newsroom shortly after we had started: ‘This is our funeral! We fail, we go home.’ All my hope and faith were in Kevin, who had some money (he had received a retirement package from his former employer) yet here he was calling this our funeral!” Ssemujju says, amid laughter.
“We had been a little reckless so, there was no opportunity to fail.”
As the inaugural newspaper issue drew closer, we had to take on management roles as well, because we could not afford to hire all the staff we needed. For each of us, in addition to our editorial roles, we also had administrative duties. We were the paper’s first vendors, first aertising executives, procurement officers, etc.
“That first Wednesday, we finished the paper by 4pm and we had been assured that our printer would also distribute it. We left in celebratory mood and I even threw back several beers in celebration. You can imagine being called back at 3am by Kevin, because the paper had not left the factory,” Ssebugwawo recounts.
Ssebugwawo managed to deliver the copies on the eastern route, while Hassan Badru Zziwa and Ssemujju drove west and others hit the streets as vendors. The headline of the maiden issue was, 2006: Museveni speaks, written by Aliro and Sarah Namulondo.
“The president made us camp in Soroti for three days and when we finally saw him, he gave us only 35 minutes,” Ssebugwawo, who accompanied the crew, recalls.
Nevertheless, the story was a coup as it was unusual for the president to grant an interview to a newspaper that didn’t even exist yet. Gaining aertisers’ confidence and business was another story, though. I remember being assigned to one of the ministries to butter up a publicist that I was on good terms with as a journalist, for an aert.
He left my hair standing on end when on approaching him as a sales executive this time, he asked me for a “ki-kiss” before he could sign any business. I reported back to office at Ruth Towers empty-handed, and the ki-kiss joke still comes up from time to time. Choosing Ruth Towers along Clement Hill road was meant to give us an upmarket feel, but we had no money to purchase the furniture to go with such a flashy neighbourhood.
So, we settled for plastic chairs and tables, the kind you find in a cheap restaurant.
“I can’t forget those plastic chairs. Especially for us who were editors, they were extremely uncomfortable,” recalls Managing Director James Tumusiime. It was not until we got little money from a savings cooperative some of us had been part of at The Monitor, that each one bought their own slightly more comfortable chair.
Elsewhere, CBS FM’s Abby Mukiibi donated a TV set, while Aliro’s savings helped in buying an office printer, a couple of computers and rent for the first three months. Apart from one or two specialised staff, who had to be paid a salary, the rest of us went without any pay for months.
Being journalists, putting together a newspaper was not much of a problem distribution and selling aertising space proved to be the most challenging assignments. We had contracted a company owned by former media colleagues to distribute the paper. They never remitted a coin for months and before we knew it, we had been conned of approximately Shs 50m in circulation.
“The funniest moment, now that I look back, is when those circulation guys conned us and we met with them in some lawyer’s office downtown for arbitration. We had no money to print the next issue and the thieves were not showing any remorse. And then the lawyer told us to hold hands for a prayer!” Ssemujju remembers, now laughing heartily about it.
At that point, Linda Nabusayi Wamboka burst into tears of frustration. We were forced to start our own circulation department. Meanwhile, personal economies were running in red and those answerable to landlords were particularly hit. With families to feed, personal loans to repay and cars to fuel, life was becoming unbearable.
Ironically, as things started to improve, our darkest moment was yet to arrive. Aliro’s health started failing mid-2005 and the worst came to pass on November 12 that year, with his demise. I was on duty in Maputo, Mozambique, when Ssemujju’s email, came in: “Kevin is dead” was its title. My life seemed to grind to a halt. None of us can adequately describe the pain we felt.
What compounded the pain was the fact that many people, including some of our own, also saw The Observer in that Nkokonjeru grave, as they cast flower petals onto the casket carrying Aliro’s remains. It did not help matters that Sarah Namulondo was away in Tampa, Florida, for her doctorate studies and Nabusayi had moved on to join Public Service. We were already short-staffed, yet here we were, faced with one prominent death and multiple exoduses.
One year ago, we also lost Dr Namulondo, who had only rejoined us two years earlier, and that wound is still bleeding. But the spirit of The Observer has refused to die.
“When Kevin died,” recounts Ssebugwawo, “I overheard a group at his vigil say, ‘Those people are finished!’ Eight years since his death, here we are.”
To God be the glory.
Source : The Observer