Over the festive season, the people of Kampala Metropolis voted for their Man of the Year. Thanks to digital social media, there’s no need to line up at polling stations while glancing furtively at guns and uniforms, no need for anyone to count ballots or announce results. You just feel the results as you browse on your phone.
And greater Kampala’s Man of the Year 2021 is… Godfrey Jjemba!
He is tired, weather-beaten and his clothes are threadbare. At 68 years, Jjemba even looks 10 years older than his age. He has lived a life of peasantry though for someone who finished O-level half a century ago, his East African Certificate of Education then could have led him to a less needy or better kempt existence than he appears to live today. Anyway, stuff happens.
That is what an undiscerning observer sees of Jjemba. But Jjemba is neither tired nor seeking help. Instead he rises every day, mounts his bicycle to go and help fellow citizens in rural central Uganda to manage that most difficult of times – bereavement – the final destination for every living thing.
These days they say everything is perception, that it matters less what you do and more how the public perceives it –like your wedding or your funeral – as people pass their final verdict of you. In a deprived society where middle income remains an elusive mirage, a man who makes you perceived favourably at your funeral does you and your bereaved a lot more good that you could ever pay for.
So Jjemba turns up at the home bereaved home – and they are there every day – and the people sigh with relief. With an inborn professionalism of a Mass Communications PhD, Jjemba starts taking notes from amidst the sobbing relatives and chattering friends, of the deceased and as the burial hour gets closer, he organises all the bits gathered on pieces of paper and at the final hour, he presents a well compiled bulletin.
The only modern tool Jjemba usually uses is a megaphone, occasionally a microphone. At burials in countryside where 80 percent of our people live, there are no funeral companies whose services and equipment some of you take for granted. In the countryside, Jjemba’s God-given voice is the public address system. His diction, perfect blend of his native Luganda and some school-acquired English, but above all, his meticulous compilation of the final bulletin for ‘Omugenzi’ – the late – accords the ceremony the honours that even money would not have bought.
At a time when many people are hard up thanks to nearly two years of Covid-induced economic lockdown, Jjemba has enabled the poor folk experience an honourable, memorable send-off worth a lot, without spending money.
If we are quick thinkers, Jjemba’s services can show us that we have within us what it takes to do things we keep begging others to do for us – at a stiff cost in terms of debt. And people of Greater Kampala are having enough sense to note this, even though the less perceptive only think that Jjemba is ‘interesting’.
And here is Part Two to the Jjemba act: Impressed by his performance that social media has popularised, people who were shocked that the man didn’t even have a smartphone quickly provided him with one, so now he can be up to date with the world. Further inspired, others started collecting money to buy Jjemba a motorcycle so he can use less energy and time cycling to far-off places where families are bereaved.
And Part Three is that gradually, the Kampala metropolis folk, where two thirds of Uganda’s monetary economy is, are stumbling upon the concept of crowd funding. Or can we say re-discovering! For decades ago, cooperatives were the driving force of the country’s economic development. In fact, the agitation for natives to be allowed to form cooperatives was a key stage in our independence struggle.
Ironically now, a man who works at funerals is providing a beckon to Ugandans to see their own capabilities to do what they think needs external funders that come with unfathomable bondage and exaggerated figures for entrenching corruption.
After people raise money to buy Jjemba’s, we pray they have the sophistication to see they can similarly buy airplanes, build airports, oil refineries and heavy industries. And that the internet that made them discover Jjemba also has all the modern information needed to develop Uganda – without sinking into debt grave.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]