Sometime in August, I met a man who was born in 1869. He had died in 1945 but his pulse was still alive 73 years later. Some dead are really not dead.
The remains of this legendary compatriot are buried under the serene canopy of mango trees in the compound of Bukoto mosque. Here, one is welcomed by the sight of neatly kempt vaults in which Sheikh Abdallah Sekimwanyi’s remains, and a select few, lie. The winds make their circuits gently, allowing the deceased to instruct the living uninterrupted.
Those familiar with the monumental story of Sheikh Sekimwanyi note that he was a figure of immense accomplishment: wealth, knowledge, scholarship, travel, authority [and if I may, women and children].
Sekimwanyi owned almost all of Bukoto area from the area occupied by Kabira Country Club all the way to Bukoto hill were a mosque stands – and beyond. His grandchild, who guided my walk through what used to be their family estate, recalls enjoying his childhood games in expansive banana and coffee plantations straddling hills and valleys.
All of these legitimately belong to his grandfather. Most likely, from being a clan estate, the 1900 Buganda Agreement gifted him with private possession – which he deftly turned productive under colonial rule. My guide never saw the old man, but the discipline and careful enthusiasm with which he reminisces his grandfather is revealing of the man’s eminence. But he’s fallen.
As we walked through their now barely recognisable estate, squeezing through dingy hallways, jumping garbage and open sewers, you are struck by both the enormity and ugliness of the transformation.
The lush green and fruity countryside environment my guide was nostalgic about has been replaced by slummy shelters and other unplanned gigantic structures typical of Kampala’s poorly-educated-pseudo-middleclass neighbourhoods.
Most of Sekimwanyi’s biological children are deceased, and his grandchildren are now grannies in their own right battling old-age and the terrible effects of Uganda’s dryland economy.
For those still resident in the area, square miles have reduced to plots of some decimals. An Indian proletariat and the thieving Kampala political elite are the new landlords. Life is such a delusion. And time is a terribly dangerous animal.
Every time Kampala’s ruling and wealthy elite hear stories of their great ancestors who have now turned to dust, their response is machismo indifference. Often, these stories are mobilised as stern reminders of our God-blessed idiots to be more moderate in their actions. “Who cares about their greatness; they lived their time!” they retort back.
These stories tend to sound too far-fetched to make sense to those living in the present. Living generations tend to overestimate their importance to the point of delusion that the world might stop with them. If men only knew and fully appreciated their mortality, perhaps their actions would be more controlled and kinder to their human and animal brethren.
The cliché about power’s corrupting effects builds on the understanding of those things that raw power enables: easy access to the amenities of life – vehicles and houses, and for many men, women—in their numbers—and children, and more money.
Power and money enable those with appetites to eat their favourite cuisine on a daily; and the ever-growing list of goods of ostentations that the market churns out every day. With money and power, it is the imagination of the powerful that determines what they can and cannot access.
Our very less imaginative compatriots in the executive and parliament – by far the majority – like mammals of the Stone Age, see automobiles, big houses and bummy women as their absolute heart’s desires and yardsticks for success. What vanity and commonplaceness!
The magnificent and well-kempt vaults at Bukoto hill that house the remains of Sheikh Sekimwanyi are not celebrations of his wealth and material possessions.
They are memories of his dedication to learning and scholarship, to family and posterity. As a Muslim scholar, Sheikh Sekimwanyi moved from pillar to post, Tanzania mainland to Zanzibar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia engaging with the different scholarly traditions of Islam so as to benefit himself and those around him.
That he died rich is a matter of little consequence. But his scholarship and generosity that benefit many keeps him alive. There are lessons for the living.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.