During my time as an inmate of King’s College, Budo, Wednesday afternoons were free. No classes. No set activities. For some, an opportunity to be idle and disorderly. For others, time to do laundry, clean up this and that, play favourite sports or solve the world’s problems through intellectual debates.
To the music-addicts, it was an opportunity to sit by the radiogram in one’s House (dormitory) and spin some vinyl – Franco and the TP OK Jazz, Dr. Nico, the Monkees, Otis Redding, the Beatles, Wilson Pickett, the Drifters and so on. To the musically gifted, time to practice their chops on their chosen instruments.
To the love-smitten, a chance to sit under a mango tree and declare one’s eternal love for her or just feel each other’s electric charge while staring at a distant nothing.
To the bookworm, the great library beckoned, its excellent stock a priceless source of information that would propel boys and girls towards success that lay in an unknown future.
To the sick, it was the day to visit the doctors at Mengo and Mulago Hospitals. I know at least one Budonian who once took advantage of a scheduled visit to the medicine men to rendezvous with a venturesome damsel in distress. All strictly above board, of course, very much in the open and sinless, you understand!
To the rest of us, Wednesday afternoon, like all day on Saturday, was associated with a man who answered to the name Kongo. Whereas I hardly remember most of what I was taught by our wonderfully gifted teachers in the classrooms of Budo, I retain a vivid memory of Kongo’s ministrations under a huge eucalyptus tree on the soccer field adjacent to the Library Road (later called the Bursary Road).
Kongo, who shared the open-air stall with a lady called Nnalongo (a mother of twins), faithfully supplied us with the tastiest roast groundnuts that I have ever eaten in my short life on Earth. Eh! The sweet aroma’s effect on a lad’s olfactory organ!
Most Budonians could afford Kongo’s offerings, for we received a biweekly allowance of Sh. 2/= (two shillings) to spend as we wished. In those heydays of socialist indoctrination, we called the allowance “common man’s salary”, a nod to Milton Obote’s Common Man’s Charter that he introduced in 1969.
In exchange for a few cents, the exact amount now long forgotten, Kongo would offer his customer the fat roast seeds wrapped in a cone made of a piece of newsprint or a page from a used exercise book. The happy customer would gently tip the cone into the mouth, allowing a few groundnuts to drop onto the tongue, followed by a gentle and slow mastication that allowed every taste bud to savour this great magic of the Earth.
My purchase rarely made it to Ghana House, my dormitory that was a mere three minutes’ walk from Kongo’s stall. I confess to an appetite that was only exceeded by a hyperactive olfactory process.
A frequent problem that confronted one after an encounter with Kongo’s groundnuts was a husk or two lodging on or between one’s teeth. To imagine a smile with these dark brown husks adding colour to one’s teeth was a most frightening nightmare.
Understand that Kongo and Nnalongo’s open-air stall attracted a number of our female schoolmates. Nnalongo’s offerings included kabalagala, sweet banana flat cakes that were popular with the girls. A multi-coloured smile to one of these sisters would deal a fatal blow to one’s hopes of establishing diplomatic relations with Grace House or Sabaganzi, the girls’ residences on the southern tip of The Hill. The experienced consumer knew to rush back to one’s dormitory and give one’s mouth a thorough cleansing before disaster struck.
In any case, Wednesday evenings featured Upper School Lectures that were attended by A-Level students and our A-Level guests from Trinity College, Nabbingo, an all girls school across the valley to the north of Budo. One needed to be at one’s best in order to make a good impression. On behalf of the school, of course! Groundnut husks on one’s teeth or a disagreeable breath would have posed a serious threat to Budo’s national interests. Mercifully we avoided that fate, though, of course, some might say we successfully repressed all memory of such disasters.
Kongo was more than a merchant of these wonderful nuts. He was a fascinating character and teacher. He laughed easily and always had a joke or funny story to share.
Now, I do not know whether or not he was a Mukongo (Congolese), though he claimed to be. Perhaps he was. Or perhaps he was from one of Uganda’s short-boned ethnic communities. He may well have been from any community in East Africa, but nicknamed Kongo because of his vertically challenged frame. What I recall is that he spoke fluent Luganda.
Congolese or not, it was Kongo who first taught me the meaning of the name that Gen. Joseph Désiré Mobutu of Congo (Kinshasa) acquired during his brilliant attempt to reclaim his country’s cultural identity.
In the late 1960s, Mobutu declared a new state ideology of “authenticité” that included, among many changes, the rejection of European names. The Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa) was renamed Zaire in October 1971.
Whereas the president’s own name change was formalized on January 12, 1972, I am not sure when I first learnt of it. I know that it was Kongo who told me what it meant. Was it in 1971, my last year at Budo? Perhaps, but only if he had got wind of it from his Zairean sources or Radio Bukavu before it became official. Or was it during a visit to the school in 1972, a more likely scenario?
Kongo’s translation of the great man’s name – Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Zabanga – was “Mobutu the great cock that leaves no hen unturned.” His mischievous laughter was infectious. I was old enough to understand the joke.
To this day, Kongo’s version remains the most meaningful translation of the late dictator’s name. Whether or not he was the author of that one does not matter to me. I cannot hear or read Mobutu’s authentic name without remembering Kongo of Budo. Subsequent translations included burdensome ones like “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” They do not do justice to the great Emperor of Gbadolite.
To my regret, I never took time to ask Kongo about his family, his village, his journey to Budo, his dreams and so much else that would have enriched me. More importantly, I lost track of Kongo. All that remains is an enduring memory of his groundnuts – nicknamed “kongo” in honour of their purveyor – and many unanswered questions.
What happened to Kongo? When did he retire from Budo? Did any of his children join our school? Is he still alive? Who was Kongo? Perhaps Budonians of my time and our younger brethren and sisteren can fill in the gaps.