It was Charles Onyango-Obbo who invited me to write a weekly column in The Monitor, a Ugandan daily newspaper. He had been a regular reader of my letter to Tingasiga, published in The Ugandan Newsletter, a quarterly pamphlet that had been founded in Toronto in 1988 by, among others, Mr. James Mukooza Sejjengo, Dr. Ssegane Musisi, Dr. Nakanyike Musisi and Mr. Robert Ddamulira.
Although I was delighted to accept Charles’s offer, I was certain that it would be a very short-term gig. That was in May 1997.
The reaction to my early columns was as instructive as it was amusing. What was a medical doctor doing writing about politics and social issues? Where did someone living an ocean away get information about Uganda that was current and at times closely guarded by the rulers of the land? Was I not afraid to offend the rulers, their courtiers or their opponents?
My writing style was, and still is, based on the KISS principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid! Since I neither went to writing school nor spent a day in a political science classroom, I did not have the skills of the masters who could easily wrestle down a sentence or offer complex political analyses.
What I had was the gift of observation, the confidence to write as though in conversation with a friend, and to ask questions, unafraid to murder Her Majesty’s English language. And how I have assaulted the sensibilities of the experts!
I write to be understood, not to impress. I am an African who uses English words to reach a large audience. I believe in my freedom of speech and expression as a birthright, not a favour offered to me by a fellow mortal with a gun and claim to divine anointment.
I believe that I have a duty to document my thoughts, not to suppress them in deference to the rulers of any land. I must always be a servant of the truth as I see it. However, I also gladly change my views and positions when faced with persuasive arguments or incontrovertible evidence.
I believe in certain sacred principles, but I reject rigid opinions. Facts, always. Truth, always. Respect for differences of opinion, always.
I believe that the human condition is not painted black or white. It is mostly grey. No politician or political party has a monopoly on truth, goodness or the correct line. No politician is entitled to my permanent support and fidelity. They are entitled to my honest opinion and a parting of ways when they betray core principles and values.
My outlook has earned me a lot of hate mail from both the supporters and opponents of the rulers. A column that reflects my personal thoughts and tentative opinions often becomes a trigger for insults directed at my person and my family. Some react to a column’s headline without bothering to read the content.
Debate about my opinions can quickly degenerate into violent clashes of deeply held positions. There is often little room for the middle ground. The advent of the social media has offered a battlefield for commentators that has often left me hovering between tears and laughter. What starts as comment on my week’s column quickly becomes a battle between bulls that lock horns in a fight that discards all mention of the column’s central arguments. Many end up insulting each other and fighting old battles that haunt Uganda’s challenged history.
Your columnist is an ignorant fool who is out of touch with Uganda when he challenges policies or behaviours of the rulers or expresses other unpalatable views. He is brilliant and well informed when he affirms the reader’s views or position.
Some relatives and old friends have turned their backs on me, evidently afraid to associate with an “enemy of the state.” Their fear has been very easy to understand. An old friend, who was a minister in the Ugandan government, announced to mutual friends that I had joined “the enemies.” I understood why he felt the way he did.
Happily, though, over the years I have received thousands of e-mails and other communication from readers who have educated me and challenged me to rethink my views. Many have faithfully sent me regular encouragement to keep writing. My most treasured letters are those from people who have disagreed with my views and backed up their arguments with logic and evidence. They have enriched my continuing education.
There have been times when I have written under strange conditions. I have written while on the road, on a long-haul flight, during a break from caring for a critically ill child at the hospital, after getting home way after midnight – tired, sleepy and devoid of a clear subject to discuss. Strangely, the columns written under these adverse conditions have generally been the most popular.
It has been an interesting twenty years. I think I will continue to write. My fingers remain agile. I am still able to persuade an aging brain to yield understandable essays. So, I look forward to more years of writing, happily murdering the English language and always faithful to the truth. Unafraid.