In the struggle for freedom, those who do things quietly often go unrecognized. One example of this is Godfrey Karangwa Katanywa, a Ugandan who played an unexpected role in the struggle for civil rights in the United States of America.
Katanywa from Ankole Kingdom, together with John Rwangoga from Kigyezi District and Francis Manana, another Ugandan, had gone to the United States for a 4-month study of American government at all levels. When a European-American racist in Washington DC refused to cut his hair in March 1964, Katanywa lodged a complaint with the US Department of State that garnered headlines and editorials in major American newspapers and became a sentinel incident that rallied anti-segregation activists.
In his letter to the State Department, Katanywa noted that the barber, one Rene Nezet whose shop was located in the Investment Building at 1010 15th Street, NW Washington DC, had directed him “to a negro area on 14th St.” Katanywa added: “Our group, as guests of the United States Government, has been shocked by this kind of discrimination, especially in the capital of the nation.”
For his part, Nezet told a journalist that he did not serve Negroes because he was afraid he would lose most of his customers. He added that he “felt sorry for Katanywa because it is not good to be rejected.”
Of course, Katanywa did not need the racist’s pity and did not crave social acceptance by European Americans. He sought justice and an end to discrimination, and affirmed his pride and confidence in self as a human being. Katanywa knew that he was equal to all in America, regardless of their race or colour. Where others would have shrugged their shoulder or feared to raffle feathers, Katanywa asserted his racial pride and a natural expectation of civilised conduct by his hosts.
Katanywa’s formal complaint to the United States caused Chester Grey, the Corporation Counsel of the US State Department, to push an anti-segregation legislation that would compel licensed barbers to cut “all types of hair.” Though this was not passed into federal law, Katanywa’s petition forced the District of Columbia and several states to pass legislation that prohibited barbershop segregation.
Upon returning to Uganda, Katanywa, who had hitherto preferred very short cropped hair, started wearing it long, Afro-style, just trimming it slightly for neatness. It was a quiet expression of solidarity with African Americans whose struggles he had glimpsed in a very personal way, and had contributed to during his short stay in the United States.
Katanywa’s story is an example of the tragedy of racial and other prejudices under which millions, perhaps billions, labour. Racism and other forms of prejudice are a consequence of ignorance and fear of “others”, denying the sufferer an opportunity to enjoy life in its fullness. Had the poor Washington barber welcomed Katanywa to his chair, he would have discovered that he was in the presence of one of the most refined and wealthiest clients that had graced his shop. Why, he would have made the acquaintance of a royal prince, one who could well have been the king of Ankole!
Katanywa, who was born in the ruling family of Ankole on July 11, 1926, was one of three princes that was a candidate to succeed Omugabe (King) Edward Suleman Kahaya II of Ankole upon the latter’s death in 1944. Though it was Prince Charles Godfrey Rutahaba mwene Rwakatogoro rwa Nkuranga ya Mutambuuka who became Omugabe Gasyonga II, Prince Katanywa remained a respected and influential figure in Ankole throughout his life.
Katanywa, a native of Rwabuza, Sheema, had a distinguished career in the Government of Ankole. Starting as a Clerk to Eishengyero (Parliament), he rose to become a Mubiiki (Treasurer) and then Kihimba (Deputy Prime Minister) of Ankole. He retired young to become a fulltime farmer and rancher, his name synonymous with fabulous wealth. Unfortunately, he died prematurely on September 17, 1979, aged only 53.
Walking with Katanywa on his journey to success was his wife Mary Mbeetabaitu, daughter of Samwiri Bitsintsi and Elizabeth Mungura. Born in 1934 in Rukindo, Rugando, Rwampara, she grew up in Kati, Kashaari and was educated at Rubaare and Kabwohe Primary Schools. She married Katanywa on December 16, 1951. She was 17 and he was 25. Their marriage produced ten children, only two of whom are still living.
In spite of her multiple losses, Mrs. Katanywa has faced the adversity with elegance and grace. When we visited her at her home in Ishanyu, Mburara on January 16, 2018, the flowers on the grave of her daughter Anne, who died late last year, were still fresh, so to speak. Yet Mrs. Katanywa was as delightful and gracious a host as ever, and an inspiring source of knowledge and wisdom.
On the other hand, Nezet, the racist barber, does not seem to have been so lucky. He seems to have vanished into the dark vapour that consumes those without impact on society. That is not surprising, of course. Racism is a disease that afflicts the sufferer with grand delusions of superiority. A struggling European barber in Washington DC on the one hand, and an educated African prince with great political power and influence, plus fabulous wealth on the other, belonged to completely different worlds. Who needed whose pity was self-evident.
Mr. Katanywa’s act in America helped move that country forward, a fact that is recorded in the books and newspapers for posterity. His stature in Ankole’s political and economic development remain very significant. What remains is for the authorities in Mburara (Mbarara) and Uganda to honour him by naming a public place after him. I suggest that the new Mburara Bypass be named Katanywa Highway.