When Kato, the boda boda rider, told me that it would take us an hour from Wantone, Mukono to Bunankanga, I thought he was scaring me into increasing the fare.
But after passing through tea estates and lonely forests, I believed him. At each forest, he slowed down to show how, in days gone by thugs had robbed him at 3am.
Kato, previously a fisherman, is now a crime preventor, which meant that at every stage we stopped to greet someone. Once, he left me on the boda boda to run after a passing lorry, to say hello. Our journey was stretched by 45 minutes.
In the quiet village of Bunankanga, on a six-acre farm, sits a modest house with a beautiful lawn, on which my guide immediately goes to sleep.
Ssalongo John has just returned from his garden. From the doorway, I can hear (birango) announcements on CBS Radio read by Christine Nassozi.
Ssalongo is listening intently Nassozi is his daughter. He switches off the radio and over black tea and groundnuts, we begin the interview.
By the mid-1960s, a few homes had telephones. They were found in government offices and the post office. Shortwave radio was the only way to know if a relative had died.
Ssalongo John read these sad notices with a flair. Some listeners were attracted to the drama his voice brought to a death announcement.
“How would you feel if you were picked by soldiers, in full view of your workmates and stuffed into a car boot?” he asks in response to my question about life during President Amin’s regime.
The 81-year-old looks at me keenly. Honestly, I cannot imagine what it is like to spend two hours in a car boot.
“I would have surrendered to the feeling of death closing in on me,” I tell him.
The silence is highlighted by a tawny kitten walking lazily across the room, followed by a chick. There is a whiff of nicotine in the air.
“My father worked for the Government Printery in Entebbe. When I was six, he took me to the village Nabuti, Mukono.”
Entebbe, in 1940, did not have a school for native children.
“I dropped out of school in J3, at 18. My father had stopped working so I had to give a chance to my siblings to study.”
In 1952, Ssalongo John joined his uncle, a dhobi (dry cleaner), in Nakawa. After two years, he sought formal employment in a cooking oil factory in Kololo.
“I am a clean man, and after a month I could not stand the dirty oil residues that littered the floor. I became a car mechanic for two weeks but I the grease stains got to me.”
While pondering his next move, an uncle, Moses Ssemambo, working at Entebbe International Airport, got him a job as a telephone operator in 1956.
“It was exciting, clean job. I lived in the airport quarters, opposite the cemetery (currently UPDAF quarters). I spoke to white people and saw planes every day.”
With a preacher for a father, Ssalongo says in 1957, at 23, he was compelled into a marriage with Margaret Nabunya, which lasted four years and resulted in twins.
On a monthly salary of Shs12m, he built a house in Nabuti and a commercial building in Mukono Town.
“I lost that job because of a new South African manager, Dawson. He did not like me. One day, he found me standing outside the office, conversing with a colleague. He abused me, calling me a black ape.”
Not one to stand a racist insult, the young African gave the White man a beating.
“I boxed him and he staggered,” Ssalongo narrates, with satisfaction in his voice. “When he wanted to return the punch, I was ready. I beat him until we were separated.”
Dawson had a meeting with the young man’s uncle and by 4pm, Ssalongo had his dismissal letter.
Without a job, he fried pancakes and doughnuts for sale until in 1960 when he began teaching sciences at Mwanyanjiri Secondary School.
Three years later, he had a traditional wedding with Joyce Najjuma. To-date, she lives in Nabuti, about 30 miles from Bunankanga, with their grandchildren.
“Bunankanga is a fishing village and the education standards are low,” Ssalongo explains. “In Nabuti, my grandchildren receive a better education.”
Although he had eagerly awaited Independence in 1962, Ssalongo John’s joy turned sour when the power struggle between Mengo and the central government intensified.
The coalition government which brought Uganda to Independence included the Kabaka Yekka party of President Muteesa II (King of Buganda) and the Uganda Peoples Congress of Prime Minister Milton Obote.
However, the coalition soon broke up and in February 1966, Obote suspended the Constitution and the President. Three months later, an attack on the Lubiri (Palace) by the Uganda Army forced Muteesa into exile.
“The news that the Lubiri was being bombarded was strange,” says Ssalongo. “Never before had a king been ambushed in his palace.”
Many Baganda sought transport to Mengo, the seat of the Kingdom.
“An Indian, Babu, provided his lorry. I was with my grandfather, Lameka Luwambo. There were many men, with sticks, pangas, and spears. It was chaos. People were shouting, encouraging each other.”
The lorry was so full that the two were left behind. They waited impatiently for its return journey.
The old man pauses his face, an expression of wonder.
“None of them returned. They were killed. Even the lorry was burnt! We went into hiding because soldiers were targeting Buganda loyalists.”
Joining Radio Uganda
“When it was safe, in 1967, Moses Nkangi, my old boy, got me a job with the commercial section of Radio Uganda, reading announcements.”
Without training, Ssalongo fell back on the reading culture his father had instilled in him. Every day, the children had to read out portions of Luganda Scripture.
“He would listen, correcting our mistakes. This is what helped me. I never told anyone about my desire to defend the Kabaka. We loved the job, although we did not support the president. When (President) Amin took power in 1971, there was jubilation in the studio. People called him omwana wa Chwa (King Chwa’s son). He brought peace in Buganda.”
Ssalongo soon had a taste of Amin’s brutal soldiers when in 1975 he was stuffed into a car boot. Without a charge sheet, he spent three days in prison.
“A Nubian, who used to bring announcements to the station, recognised me as I was squatting for the headcount. He intervened and I was released.”
Back at work, Ssalongo was transferred to the head office in Nakasero, as a clerical officer, but in 1976, he resigned.
Life in retirement
The veteran announcer was hired to manage Mukono Community Centre, and while there, he moved in with Juliet Namirembe.
He built her a house on Mukono Hill. She died seven years ago.
When Obote returned to Uganda in 1980, Ssalongo fled to Ngogwe, Buikwe.
“When I heard that they were not persecuting people, I continued running my businesses, until I heard that (President) Museveni had started a rebellion.”
Eager to join the rebels, he built a shelter on his farm in Nabuti, where people could learn how to use guns.
“There were five of us. My in-law, who worked in the Prisons Services, taught us. The place was bushy. We thought no one would see us.”
But someone did and alerted the soldiers, who lay in wait.
“Those soldiers beat us. Luckily, my in-law had not yet appeared. I am not a bush war veteran but for three weeks I was tortured.”
After their release, the conspirators put all friendships on hold and stopped going to town until after the war.
With peace restored, to supplement his farming, Ssalongo built Njovu gardens to host parties and weddings.
Back on radio
“In 1993, Peter Sematimba offered me a job on CBS Radio. Our voices were the first to go on air. I was 59, and enjoying my retirement but it felt good to be back behind the microphone. There are no innovations in reading announcements I just read them the same way I had in the 1970s.”
This time, Ssalongo’s workmates were much younger than he was, but he was a legend among them. They got on well for the five years he worked there.
“When I was invited, I acted small parts in plays, like with Afri Talent.
When Sematimba started Super FM, Ssalongo followed him.
“I retired after one year on Super FM. I met a colleague from Radio Uganda begging on the streets and this encouraged me to retire while I still had the strength to do my private work.”
Thoughts on radio now
“On Radio Uganda, the standards were high. Now with many radios, some presenters have poor manners. Some words should not be said on air. Presenters should familiarise themselves with different cultures so that they do not say offensive things.”
Only one child, Christine Nassozi, followed Ssalongo into the broadcast career. Nassozi reads announcements on CBS Radio.
“None of my children studied anything to do with broadcasting, but I am glad that at least Nassozi considered the career worth following.”
Ssalongo advises career people to have a place to retire in. He also advises village youth not to sell their land, to buy things which do not last, like boda bodas.
“The good things in life never end, but you should work hard to enjoy them.”
Ssalongo grows bananas, coffee, mangoes, and oranges for sale. He is a member of the PTA committee of Bunankanga Primary School.
Ssalongo John was born on June 24, 1934 in Nabuti, Kyaggwe County to Ssetuba-Kadde Kikomeko and Miriam Nansubuga.
He attended Bishop Primary School and Luwuule Secondary School.
He has many children who he refuses to count.