Of Dogs and Fleas, Or a Letter to an Old Comrade

Ituri, 21 January, 2018.

Dear M.B.,

It has been a while since we exchanged correspondence, I hope all is well.

My reason for writing to you is, last night I had a strange dream that I need you to help me make sense of. I know Banyoro are good at interpreting dreams and you make good mediums between us mortals and the spirits of our ancestors.

It was the most strange of dreams. In it I saw a big dog, a Rukamba,  the biggest I had ever seen. The dog’s body was in an awkward twist as it tried to bite at its own tail. It kept straining its neck to reach the tail but it couldn’t. It seemed the more it strained, the shorter the tail grew, and the more the frustration on the dog’s face.

There was another strange occurrence. The dog could talk, you know, like humans. Like you and I.

Amidst its twists and turns, the big dog let out a cry: “If only I could bite off this tail! It is the cause of my flea infestation!”

It doubled-down on its effort to bite its own tail, this time twisting its spine into a near coil, but the dog’s teeth could barely touch the last hairs of the tail.

Frustrated, the dog gave up. Momentarily.

Then something even stranger happened: the dog’s tail grew a mouth and started to speak too. I kid you not!

Chaos, I tell you.

In its defense the tail retorted, “but I have always worked diligently to ward off many fleas…”

“My flexibility, strength, and length and ability to reach every part of the body, except the head, has kept many fleas at bay,” continued the tail.

Visibly angry, the rest of the dog merely shook its head and paused a few seconds, or minutes, I don’t really recall the exact duration.

Then the big dog started the strange twist-dance with its tail again. It spun the whole of its body, anti clockwise then clockwise, in a bizarre twist that must have left its insides hurting! Still, it could not reach or bite the tail.

Now weary, the voice of the big dog grew hoarse. Where it used to bark, it now growled and grumbled. It grew restless. The tail meanwhile also shrunk in size before my very eyes. It’s hairs grew thin. It grew shorter. It wagged slower than before.

The only thing that seemed to grow in size were the fleas. From small microscopic beings to the size of a well-fed housefly!

The giant fleas now sucked at the big dog with reckless abandon. The tail, too short to reach the rest of the body, preferred to keep in the war of words with the head of the dog.

Their growls now became even more intense. The big dog spun like a whirlwind. Left. Right. Then back. It was a sight to behold.

Then without warning, a big storm blew low and hard, taking with it the big dog in my dream.

Taken. Caput. No more.

The big dog was gone. In its place was left a litter of beautiful puppies—big-eyed and with moist snouts, they were the most beautiful puppies I have ever seen.

Then I awoke to blinding light coming through my bedroom window. Someone had drawn the curtains, and turned up the radio volume.

My heart was racing. I had a cold sweat. My head hurt. I was confused. I was scared.

And playing on the radio was Jimmy Cliff’s 1993 rendition of John Nash’s famous “I Can See Clearly Now” song. You remember it from the movie Cool Runnings?

Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sun-shining day …

Such a strange dream, don’t you think?

As soon as I regained some of my cool, I sat up in my bed and penned you this letter. As you read it, I am still in my pyjamas. I may not leave my bedroom today until I know the meaning of this strange dream.

Sincerely yours,



Letter to a Kampala Friend

Nairobi, 20 September, 2015.

Dear D.A,

I hope you are doing well my brother. It’s been a while since we last talked…oh, am sorry I changed numbers. But my old number should be back on some time next week. The last time I met you in your magnificent office at the imposing twin towers, I didn’t get time to talk to you at length about your party. You seemed to be busy handling complaints on behalf of Mzee–did the other man from Mbale/Sironko secure the RDC position?

And that is what I admire about you my brother: your ability to tolerate BS. The world, my world, is not generously sprinkled with such characters. Perhaps it’s something that has rubbed off your boss. How do (seemingly) intelligent people like you and, before you, my good friend Morris manage in an atmosphere so hostile to logic and understanding?

Anyways, it is a question I think will better be answered in person. How about tea next week when I come back?

I have been off the Ugandan news scene for a couple of weeks now but I endeavour to follow the on-goings. However, I couldn’t quite believe my ears when I heard that you people (excuse my plurality here; but you are still NRM, non?) sat and decided to spread the “gift” of sole candidature to the rest of the CEC executive, dropping young people like Hakeem Lukenge and Odrek. I have been following the latter’s writings and campaign in the press for quite a while now. I must say I saw this coming. Do you young people still think they’ll come a time when the old guard will simply pack up and leave office for you? That cabal?

I would like to disabuse you of that notion my brother.

And I hope in the future you will remember the words of small men (in size, and nothing else) like us who attempted to prevail over you while you were hounding out your party Secretary General last year, and claiming that it was a step towards “sweeping out” the old guard. Well, tell you what, we are having the last laugh. Aren’t we?

That party you claim to serve my brother is an exclusive club of old folks brought together by different circumstances almost forty years ago. Some were naive young people from the university, others were running from the law while many just enjoyed the others’ company. But now they are joined at the hip by a singular desire to stay. You are marginal players…if players at all, in that organization’s running. The ideology you so claim to profess you know very little about. Which is why the old guard must have enjoyed the exchanges between your two young turks – Morrison and Odrek – in the papers. Talk to Kajabago Ka’Rusoke,he seems to understand these things better than anyone else.

I don’t know why you people are so worried about succession in that your party. Your old folks seem to think the laws of biology do not apply to them, like, indeed, most national laws. But like my friend Hakeem (I have met him a couple of times. Knowledgeable fella that one!) said on the news last evening, this river cannot be stopped. No amount of bunking of the river banks will stop the river from bursting.

But you are not alone.

On March 15, 44 BC, Gaius Julius Ceaser lay dying from 23 stab wounds at Pompeii’s theater in Rome. In his will he asked his grandnephew Octavian to succeed him, overlooking his wife Cleopatra (with whom he had a son) and friend Marc Antony. Octavian (who would later be called Augustus, the first emperor of Rome) was clearly an underdog but he quickly re-organized Julius Ceaser’s private army to defeat Antony and Cleopatra by 42 BC. He went on to win favour with the Roman Senate, ruling as emperor for two decades.

However, for all his achievements, Augustus failed to do one thing: handle succession. After Augustus, the empire hurtled to decline; (mis)managed by erratic and semi-deranged rulers like Nero and Caligula.

The Roman case therefore provides us with some of the earliest examples of what can happen to a country/institution if the process of succession is not managed well. Often if leaders leave it too late, or keep postponing the decision, the inevitable – problematic succession – happens. And if the same affected mighty Rome, we can only wonder what will befall your beloved party…and country.

These are debates you young people should be involved in. Not hopping from State House to Kololo and carting away groceries from both camps.

And before I put this to rest, my brother, I must say I am enjoying my stay here. It is amazing the pace a country can move at when reform happens, when new constitutions guaranteeing individual freedoms are passed and there’s change (or semblance of change) at the top. Mzee Kibaki, whom Moi chastised as “adui wa maendeleo”, might have had his shortcomings but he set this country on the correct path. He made these two boys’ work a little easier. Turns out even people who’ve been previously in bed with government, given opportunity, can cause tremendous change.

I can’t help but draw eerie comparisons with Uganda and the fight between your party and it’s former SG.

Often I catch my cynical self imagining that maybe the former PM could do a Kibaki and upset some people who have long thought they were the very best we could have, and what we haven’t achieved under them we will never have achieved anyway. The strange thoughts that my mind is always conjuring!

I have got to go. That tea-do should be coming next week–and don’t stand me up this time. Plus, I could have carried you a few reads from Nairobi (I know you love Castro) but the way our shilling is being battered here, my tiny stipend is almost done. And people here are saying your election is to blame for the Shilling’s woes. They are wrong, aren’t they?


Open Letter to All Freshers

Dear Fresher,

I am sorry but you’re going to have to get used to that label–for the next one year at least. Yes, most people will call you that. Fresher. The more refined ones, and they will be very few of them, will call you freshman. All mean the same thing: you’re fresh in this new business called life at the University. 

But that’s not the point of me writing to you anyway. You know when I turned 23 just the other day, I promised myself that I would dedicate these next few years to speaking to younger people and sharing with them my experience so far. Then I can move on to greater things. So here I am, I hate preaching and therefore expect nothing of the sort in this long-short piece. Neither do I intend to lecture you.

Drink, if you must

First, I know you must be excited you will be joining the university. Good enough. And you must also be bracing yourself for the unfettered freedom that university life provides. You wish. Well, yes, you’ll certainly have lots of freedom at the university. Not until those exams beckon. So if you’re the kind that has never been introduced to drinking–thanks to your folks, or the school–please feel free to have a taste of the bitter drink. Drink if you must. Drink if you can afford. And if it doesn’t work out for you, quit. It’s that simple and such is the freedom (of choice) that university provides.

University is so overrated. Get used to it!

If you are the bookish kind, high school is the busiest you will ever be–academic-wise. Do not expect to cover more stuff here than you already did at A’level. And if you are headed to any of the five public universities, what you have as a 17-week semester is actually 10 weeks or less of serious work. The rest of the time will be taken up by incessant strikes over anything from the quality of meals, graduation fees, lecturers’ pay, non-teaching staff pay, name it. Use this to your advantage. Also, prepare to lose lots of time in the first two weeks of the semester as everyone settles in. Personally, I preferred these “interruptions” as they gave me time to catch up with my reading. You could use this time to check out the library (these next three or four years, the library will be your best friend–if you’re the serious kind) and read around your subject as much as possible. Read History. Read Economics. Read Psychology. Read Zoology. Read everything. It doesn’t matter what course you’re doing. Such wide reading will come in handy (like I will show you later).

Let’s face it, the most time you are going to spend in a class is four hours in a day. So what will you do with the other twenty hours (less about six hours of sleep)?
Make friends. Date. Expand your social network. Those three things will be helpful, sometimes more helpful than the degree that you will carry with you from that University. And I should let you in on a secret many students at campus are not lucky enough to know–before it’s too late: there’s a lot of goodwill out there for someone at the university, if they exhibit a certain degree of seriousness. So many individuals and offices are willing to open their doors for you to ask questions, to seek advice and seek internships. The problem is most young people at campus are too busy being busy that they don’t look out for such opportunities. I have since lost count of the number of offices that opened their doors to me. How many editors, managers, lawyers, businessmen have volunteered their wise counsel to a young man like myself because I just asked.


At KFM radio. Credit: Timothy Kalyegira/Kampala Express

If you are lucky enough to be offered an apprenticeship, please take it up. And at this stage payment should be the last thing on your mind. Anything monetary, you have your parents and, for a few of you, government to look to. I remember the first time Ivan (Rugambwa) and I, then second year students, walked into the KFM radio studios for the Friday Panel of journalists show. The first few weeks were not easy. Keeping up with a motor-mouthed, figure-spewing, and know-it-all like Andrew Mwenda was not easy. So we had to learn fast. And learn we did. I have since lost count of the number of shows I have done. How many events I have been asked to moderate. The same is true for my brief writing stint in the papers (The Independent and Daily Monitor). Non of this affected my grades at school meanwhile and never did I have to skip any class to attend to any of these other activities.


Ivan Rugambwa and I. KweziPhotos©

Books vs Booze

I often joke to friends that I don’t regret the money I spent on books and booze while at Makerere–it was worth it. It might not be the case with most of you, but those who are lucky to have a government scholarship will have plenty of disposable income (I hope the system won’t have changed by the time you’re accepted into the university). As a first year student on state scholarship, tuition was the least of my worries, food was also catered for, so with a sizeable stipend from my parents I had quite a bit of money by any freshman’s standard. “Lucky bastard!,” you must be saying. But, hey, we worked our butts off for this–so we could enjoy life at campus. Joking.

So I drank a bit of that and, perhaps more importantly, spent some of that money on a few books. I have always loved books but being in high school I couldn’t afford all the books I wanted to read. And the school library provided plenty of reads, so I wasn’t really badly off. Nothing beats having your own collection of good books though. You don’t really have to spend a fortune. For those of you at Makerere, there are plenty of second-hand books (novels, biographies, etc) around Wandegeya and they are quite cheap. If you are the kind who wants serious titles or new releases there is the University bookshop next to the guild canteen.

I should be boring you with this already, but you came here to, above all else, read and make your parents proud. It matters less if you are an avid reader, intellectual-wanna-be, or none of that, you will have to do quite a bit of reading if you are to walk away with a good degree at the end of the day. So accept my apology…as you grab a book.

Another thing I learnt at campus, and hope I had earlier: you don’t have to attend all lectures. You heard me right. Forget the roll calls (if you’re (un)lucky to land such a fussy lecturer), anything above sixty percent attendance should be enough to get you on the safe side. I tell you this because, even with a small class of eight, there are some lectures I found boring and had to abandon them altogether. No one will cane you here. You’re old enough to know what is good for yourself. So please don’t hesitate to run out of any class that sucks the life out of you. Careful however that this doesn’t develop into a habit. It could easily do. And above all: try to always keep abreast with what is happening in class; copy the notes if needs be. Be ware of impromptu tests by some overzealous lecturers. If you’re the smart kind such shouldn’t worry you–otherwise why would a thought of flanking classes cross your mind if you’re not the brainy kind?

Menu: Chapatti, Rolex

Food prices around Kampala are not all that friendly, especially for a broke-ass campuser like yourself. Here is where Chapatti and Rolex (for the uninitiated: a Chapatti plus fried eggs, basically; Kampala folks are known to add lots of God-knows-what lately). Eggs and myself are not the best of buddies, so it’s surprising all the three years at Makerere a Rolex never appeared anywhere on my to-eat list. Yes, there were lots of chapattis, lots of mandazi and samosas to accompany that breakfast or evening tea. It was all great and saved me a few coins. It could save you a few more too.

The university (Makerere; sorry folks, that is the only University) no longer provides meals at the halls of residence these days. The service was out-sourced to private firms, meaning you will have to cater for your own meals…and part with quite a significant amount of money. Which makes my earlier proposition even more relevant: befriend that rolex guy, he will be of help.

In closing, no conversation about life at the university will ever be complete without reference to the.fairer sex. Yes, there will be plenty of beautiful young ladies at campus. And this time no one will report you to staff because you hit on them. It doesn’t get better than that, does it? You will have plenty of opportunities and time to flirt. To fall in and out of love. To fight. To make up, make out. Get laid and get dumped. Utilise them.

I had wonderful friends of the opposite sex. I tea-d many. Laughed with many of them. We exchanged contacts. Spent nights texting back-and-forth. I was a regular visitor to many a girls’ hostels and halls of residence. Got locked up, and spent a night, in Complex hall but that was just about it. I don’t regret anything now but, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish something more serious had developed out of the friendships. Maybe my expectations were too high, which I am not sorry for.

And that shouldn’t discourage you. Go forth, make friends. Fall in love. Be dumped. Suck it all in and move on. In the end it will be worth it.

You don’t have to spend the next three or four years living life the way I lived it. It would be very boring! But you can learn a thing or two from my experience and improve your stay here.

So come January, hopefully, I walk away from Makerere with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology (they will only be seven of us graduating with that qualification, I know, not many understand that, save yourself the trouble!). In the same time you will have walked half-way through your first year journey . A perfect time to revisit this letter.


Letter to the Future

Kampala, Monday 6th January, 2025.

Dear Friend,

I hope you’re doing well. It has been a while. You know I came back to town the other day – doctorate in tow – from a neighbouring country.

I must say Kampala has changed a lot these last few years. Driving past Bwaise the other day, I couldn’t help but notice the conspicuous absence of the police mamba that used to park in the middle of the roundabout; same case with other roads leading into Kampala. What happened? And those machine gun-totting, mean-looking policemen at parliament avenue, where did they go? What happened to the barricades along most roads in Nakasero?

When you guys talked about “change”, nearly a decade ago (in 2015), I thought you were kidding. It couldn’t happen. How? I must say am in utter shock – for the right reasons though. You know, last week, I was at City Square – not a lot has changed since I was last there in 2015, except that now it is open to the public. Where did you people deploy the police officers who used to seal off this space? And Al Shabaab have not attacked Kampala – that was one of the reasons we were given for its closure to the public – since its opening? You must be kidding!

Anyways, I guess I should have smelled the coffee those many years ago…you know, a friend visiting from Kenya, back in 2013, once remarked that Kampala, with mambas at every junction, looked more of a military garrison than a capital city. “You’re wrong,” I retorted. “Kampala is one of the most secure cities in the world. Those policemen you see are here to guarantee your security – or you want to have another Westgate here?” He was disarmed. “And just so you know, Uganda is not Kenya!” I prodded him further. Now I know better: yes, you can have a secure city without necessarily having mountains of soldiers on the streets. The things that come with age!

Perhaps we should catch up this weekend so I can fully debrief you on the events of the last decade. A lot of water seems to have passed under this Uganda bridge since I was last here. One question lingers in my mind though: what really happened in 2016, that election?

You remember those lines we used to recite from Homer’s The Odyssey, “My word, how mortals take the gods to task?”

These last few months I have been going through my old notes on Greek mythology. The way these plays portray human frailty, pride and how these two lead to eventual downfall is nothing short of sobering. All the villains in the Greek tragedies are at one point or another, often so many times, warned by the gods about their fate; how, if they do things in a certain way, they will suffer the gods’ wrath. However all the Greek heroes – from Oedipus to Odysseus – blinded by hubris, seem to do ever so little to change their fate.

In the Odyssey Zeus, the father of all gods, invites the other gods to his hall at Olympos and tells them about Aigisthos who is advised by the gods; through their courier Hermes, not to kill Agamemnon, take his wife, lest he faces a reckoning with Agamemnon’s son Orestes. Friendly advice–but would Aigisthos take it? He went ahead and killed Agamemnon, married his wife and just like the gods had foretold, Aigisthos was killed by Orestes.

Revisiting these texts I can’t help but draw comparisons with Uganda.

But we predicted these things; that things would change someday. That normalcy and sanity would return. Didn’t we, my friend? But like the suitors of Penelope who couldn’t envisage Odysseus ever returning to Ithaca, let alone that his son, Telemachos, would drive them out of his father’s court, your people were incredulous. Hubris blinded them.

You know I could go on and on about this, my pet subject.

And by the way, I was just wondering…what became of the famous POMA? Eh. Still at it, who is the DPC Kampala or even the IGP of the Uganda Police? I don’t know those people’s names…yet, I swear. A week since I dropped in, there has not been a news item on the two police heads. Ten years ago, a bulletin without mention of these two breaking up rallies, interpreting political party rules was as rare as hair on this my balding head! How times change.

But your Kampala remains potholed, like those many years ago. Whoever dreamed up the idea of cable cars must have been in their wrong senses–what a waste of taxpayer money! That was in the past anyway. Where did the bodabodas go? I hear even Garden city…gone. Did you ever get to know the owner(s)? You people!

About Mzee–

I’ve got to go. Let’s catch up later this weekend. 6 pm sharp, at the Serena.

Your long lost friend,

Sent from my I-Phone 10.