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BBC's Paul Bakibinga talks about practicing his passion

PAUL BAKIBINGA is a senior producer and presenter on BBC World Service. He shared his life story with Simon Kasyate, the host of Capital FM’s Desert Island Discs program.

Good evening and welcome to the program!
Thank you so much for having me.

I know you have been here before, doing what I am doing now.

Yes. But under a different building. I am a historical of sorts. I was there on day one when Capital radio opened…I presented the gospel program for a couple of Sundays and William [Pike] used to come in.

I think, his biases are not towards religion, but I wasn’t technologically savvy at that time; so, William would come to the studio early in the morning, I think 6am, and would play the music while I chatted away.

If I may ask, what was it they saw about you to give you a gospel program?

It just happened, Capital had just opened up and I think there was a bit of a race to get started between Sanyu FM and Capital. I think Sanyu pipped us to the post but I was told that this radio was going to start; so, I mean somebody gave me a tip-off that Capital was recruiting for presenters.

It happened that I had gone to the UK for a short course and I had expressed my interest in radio and film. So, somebody said we can’t get you film but I can allow you to do a short course in radio; I can pay for you to do a short course in radio production.

So, I did a short course in a place called Watford, north of London. I had a demo tape and I handed it over to Huub Gales [of Capital FM] and I think courtesy of that, I was able to get the job.

Here at DID, we are interested in knowing more about you the individual; who is Paul Bakibinga?

I was told that I should say I was born in the dry season in the 1960s at Mulago hospital. I am told I was born on the 6th floor and I was, between my mother and father, the sixth born. Between the two of them we wound up as seven boys and one girl. But then I have other brothers and sisters as well.

To the best of your recollection, what was your childhood like?

I think later in life you realize how inspiring the parents were. They were very keen on education, especially my father. I think by the time I was born, my father was a commissioner of lands and my mother had been a teacher but I think once the family started, she gave that up.

So, we will always be eternally-grateful to her. But I think being a teacher, she always gave us that push, always insisting that you read out to her, you did the homework and all that.

Who of the two was a disciplinarian?

I think they were on the same page as far as discipline is concerned. I think my mother, on account of spending more time with us, used the rod a bit more and sometimes, if I remember right, we always preferred our dad, the way he spanked us because he did it very quickly; he could give you a few thrashes very quickly and get over it, but my mom would lecture you ‘why am I beating you?

Will you do it again? Why did you do it?’. So, even though they were five strokes, they could take you quite a bit of time and the lesson sank in.

The little Paul, how would you have been described then?

I think I was a bit of a mixture. I think when you come down the line at number six, the parents have apparently seen it all and are a bit relaxed. My older siblings, the first two or three, had it much harder than the last three.

I have the feeling that the discipline levels regarding my older brothers were much more severe. I don’t know whether I was that mischievous, but I seem to remember that I was quite close to my father. I would be wrong to say that I was closer than the others, but I know that when they needed a favour, I was the spokesperson.

Was it because of your eloquence?

No, I have never been eloquent. I don’t know. I think it was some sort of affinity that I had with the old man in that regard.

Plays Dance With My Father by Luther Vandross as a tribute to his late father

Paul Bakibinga in the BBC studios

Paul, you have presented many programs at BBC, one of them I remember was health focus or something like that?

The problem is doing so many programs, you are likely to forget. The BBC, from the time I was recruited, has sort of changed. So, you are brought in as a producer and ultimately you may be a presenter who could just perform several roles.

So, my main presentation role was a presenter of Network Africa, which has subsequently been phased out. Then there was Focus on Africa. We had a department called the Africa Productions which produced discussion programmes and longer feature-like programmes.

So, I did an attachment with the African Productions and they did a program called Africa Live which subsequently, when they changed the format, they decided to create something called Africa Have Your Say. And I was one of the first presenters for this. It was sort of a test run for BBC and it became increasingly popular…

Paul, let’s go back to your childhood: which schools did you go to?

The first school I went to was Kampala kindergarten in Nakasero. After that, I went to Kitante primary school. I think the option had been, I still recall, that I did interviews for Nakasero primary, which should have been the immediate graduation from Kampala kindergarten.

But I remember my father saying that they were waiting for white kids to be taken care of before they would grant places to black kids. So, Kitante had given us a place and two of my brothers were already in Kitante. So, I think it made sense for me to join that school. It was an exciting time and we made life-long friends with the people we went to school with from primary right through university.

Initially, we were living along Nakasero road. So, we would get to walk from Nakasero road to Kitante. I remember the time in 1971 when there was a coup and we went to school and found the teachers hanging around and then they said ‘oh, we have decided to give you a holiday… can you go back home?’

I think possibly they knew much more than they were letting on…Then we moved from Nakasero to Kololo, which was just about a five minutes’ walk to Kitante. It made life much more exciting. There were lots of kids who had their homes around. So, you were always in and out of each other’s homes and I can only say it was an exciting experience.

You seem like a Kampala kid: do you speak any local dialect?

Well, I am from Busoga. So, my parents always insisted that we had to learn that vernacular. And we always communicated in Lusoga. Then growing in Kampala, you picked up Luganda.

I think my regret is we thought Kiswahili was an oppressive language and we never learnt that. I wish we had…so, after Kitante, my father retired and decided to move back to Busoga. So, I moved to a school called Victoria Nile.

So, where were you living?

Just outside Jinja. That is where my father built a house in a place called Bugembe, near the stadium. Now the stadium looks strangely small when I pass by, but those days it looked huge.

From there, where did you go?

I went to what they call the only school: King’s College Budo.

I hope you found an incredible school in Budo?

Idi Amin was still trying to fight the economic war and I think the school had landed on bad times. I don’t think it was only Budo that was on bad times, it was most of the schools across the country…

I remember my brother  always asking me, ‘will you manage to eat posho and beans for the whole week?’ With matooke being a delicacy for the weekend. But that is the sort of life we had during that time until Idi Amin was overthrown.

Did you have an appreciation of what you wanted to be in future?

I think you have an incline. I did know I was interested in drama. But of course under the Ugandan system, that would never bring home bread on the table.

Things have subsequently changed, though. There was the advantage of my older brothers. My brother had graduated as a lawyer by the time I was in primary; so, there was a part of me that was thinking maybe that is the place to be because I admired him quite a bit.

At Budo, I was also interested in writing; so, I revived an old magazine that had been at Budo called The Perspective and my father was into listening to the BBC but was also into reading a lot of newspapers.

So, despite the fact that the school couldn’t, this was in my HSC, provide materials for producing a magazine, or a newspaper, my father could buy me a ream of paper to enable me print out. That time it was like old-styled stuff. So, I got permission from the headmaster to get it cyclostyled and we release the Perspective to make it look slightly more posh.

Also, when I was in S1, my grandmother had passed away and she had a radio and up to date I don’t know why but I am told that she bequeathed that radio to me. So, I was one of the few kids that had a radio then. I was always tuning in to BBC.

Plays Sina Makosa by Les Wanyika

What combination of subjects did you offer at HSC?

That wasn’t difficulty; I think I was following in my brother’s footsteps. It was History, Economics and Literature.

From Budo, where does life take you?

After some time, I wound up partly by accident I think, I wound up at Makerere University.

You didn’t intend to go there?

Yeah. I did a law degree and I think it wasn’t basically my main interest; I was interested in other stuff like writing plays…

This play-writing you are talking about; tell us more about it?

…At university, we were involved in acting. There were several dramas that were produced by the Christian Union. So, we were involved in those. I wrote one that was slightly political which I called “The power of paradox”.

Which year was that?

It was in the mid-80s. We took it to a number of secondary schools. I hadn’t realized how tough it is to produce a play. It was quite a good experience; I think I fancied myself getting involved in more playwriting or film production.

That particular play was produced I think a few months after the NRM had taken over but it had happened that some soldiers from the previous regime had killed a close friend of mine in Mityana; so, that particular one I wrote it in his memory.

Plays Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel

Paul Bakibinga interviewing ex rebel child soldiers. Photos: Courtesy

Did you ever practice law?

Yes, if you are my father’s son, you have to complete everything that you are doing. So, I went to the law development centre and ultimately I was recruited as a state attorney in the ministry of justice.

I was working in the administrator general’s chambers and I subsequently left the ministry of justice because [of] a long story. While I was at university, I was involved in student politics as well. I was minister for African and pan-African affairs.

While at university, one of the things that we were facing at that time were these notices always on that main hall saying that a student had died after a long illness. Every week there seemed to be that notice that came out. We later realized that it was as a result of HIV/Aids and there was a certain doctor who was attending a church I had been going to who was one of the people who started the fight against HIV/Aids.

I was keen to ensure that people are aware about the horrors. We certainly lost a lot of good people because of HIV. So, it happened that I had travelled to the UK for a brief course, as I was about to come back, in those days the Ghana Airways was leased by Uganda Airlines and on that particular leg the plane did not work.

So, I was delayed by 24 hours and the person who gave me a ride to the airport subsequently said ‘ohh you belong to an organization that was involved in fighting HIV/Aids and he said ‘by the way, we are thinking of starting an organization in Uganda’ because I think they had heard that the carnage here was going on.

Many months later, he said they had sent somebody to be like a director of the organization here in Uganda. I joined him to work as a facilitator in educating people against HIV/Aids.

Which organization was this?

It was called Aids Care, Education and Training (ACET).
Did you proceed with your passion for writing plays?

Because I had been involved in writing plays, there was a lady who was part of my church who said ‘by the way Unicef has some money towards fighting HIV/Aids’.

She said you can apply for this money, and I did. I had written another play called The Close Acquaintance which dealt with Aids and its horrors. I sold the idea to Unicef and they sponsored...

Are you married, Paul?

Yes, I am married to one wife and she currently works at the Uganda Registration Services Bureau. She is called Fiona.

Are you blessed with any children?
Yes. Three. One boy and two girls.

They live with you in the UK?

They are currently with their mom and I think that is part of me, where I think I want to come back home and serve the great nation. 

How did you get your way into radio?

I worked on a documentary that was highlighting the various ways in which people were getting involved in the fight against HIV/Aids. We had this thing, people were putting out fires in various parts of the country and doing incredible work. Everybody seemed to know what the other was doing.

So, ACET went around and filmed various people doing various things in teaching children in terms of preventative messages; there were others who were involved in looking after people infected with HIV/Aids. There was a documentary highlighting what people were doing.

There was a certain elderly lady who asked me what my dream was and I said that I was interested in learning how to shoot videos. So, I went and did a short course; it wasn’t an academic course but a practical course at New York University.

After I finished that, I had some friends in the UK and I was travelling back, so, they said why don’t you drop over and spend a bit of time, which I did. I thought to myself that I have always been interested in BBC. I went and asked them [BBC] to see if I could just work with them and get a bit of work experience. I went there and someone said the best person to talk to is Robin White, who happened to be the editor of Focus on Africa at that time.

But he was very busy. They said call this number later and ask for Robin. So, I kept on calling. I was realizing my time in London was running out but he would always say he was quite busy. So, one day I thought to myself and said I am going to call one last time, if I can’t talk to him, then I will give up.

Then behold the person who picked up the phone was Robin White! The message had been passed on to him; so, even before I could explain, he said when can you come in? I went in and did those two weeks of work experience but it looked like what I did, I mean they don’t give you too much to do, just scripts and researching stories. It seems to have slightly impressed some people.

They said that they had been clamouring for a long time to be able to recruit people from Africa to work in the Africa Service; but the rules at that time were strict, they said that you needed to prove that nobody in the entire Europe could do that job.

So, they had made a case to the foreign office that they needed to be given permission to recruit presenters and producers from Africa…I was informed later that interviews were going to be done after a certain time. So, I applied and was shortlisted and went through the process of becoming a producer in the Africa Service at the BBC…

How were the first days like for you?

Daunting, but remember I had had the two weeks of work experience and I made some acquaintances there and I think there are people who took you under their wings and helped you learn. I think that is something that we always need to inculcate…if I have made it anywhere, I think I have done it with the help of others.
Plays Alone and Frightened by Philly Lutaaya

What gives you a good laugh, Paul?
I see the funny side of things even in the darkest moments. So, I am not the type of person who will laugh out loud…

What gets you angry?

I think the story of Africa, especially in post-colonial Africa, we haven’t quite lived up to our expectations. People like my father passed on… because they were the ones the baton was handed over at the end of colonialism, they died slightly disappointed that the country may have been worse off than it was when it gained independence.

Now that the baton has been passed on to us, I don’t think we have done great for the next generation. We are not where we should be. We have made some progress but there will always be those instances of a few steps forward and many more backwards.

Things you get angry about like corruption, misappropriating funds. Somebody told me that if someone misappropriates funds supposed to go to fund a health facility, shouldn’t they face capital punishment?

What is your best dish when back in Uganda?
Organic food – sweet potatoes and groundnut sauce.

How do you wash it down?
With water.

Where do we see Paul five years from now?

I am interested in the media and I would like to [set up] maybe a radio or production company, although I am told that Uganda is flooded with radios…I think Uganda has a lot of stories to tell… and also I want to inspire the next generation about the good journalism that there is; how to tell the proper story…

If you were marooned on a desert island and are allowed to carry one thing or person, what or who would you take?

Plays Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson



+1 #1 Saigon 2017-02-08 12:57
Quite insightful and kudos to a Ugandan positively representing the country globally.

A wide acting portfolio and yet Life Mwattu stint not elucidated.
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