I was working on my undergraduate degree film project — I also studied film —when I encountered Robert Kalundi Serumaga by chance.
There had been a film viewing at the National theatre and Serumaga was one of the panellists. Journalist Bernard Tabaire was moderating this conversation, which also had Mzungu panellists. I do not vividly recall what we were discussing, but something about race and film and why Mzungu film directors are so obsessed with zooming in on facial expressions for emotional effect, something like that.
When offered the microphone, Serumaga exhibited a boldness I had never encountered before. Rather than celebrating this focus and emphasis on facial expression — as earlier speakers, the Mzungu film directors had quite convincingly argued — Serumaga turned their arguments upside down.
He argued it was poverty of expressional abilities on the part of our Bazungu friends. Africans had a complexity of full-body expressive ways for emotions, Serumaga argued along those lines.
But it was not just Serumaga’s intellectual rebuttal that was spectacularly impressive; rather, his stage-presence and performance. There was an infectious swagger in his demeanour, a depth of knowledge and logical reasoning. Serumaga was lucid, confrontational at times, as authoritatively prided in his Africanness to non-African interlocutors.
Recently arrived from the countryside, coming from a colonial modern university, and high on English romanticism and poetic-creative genius — Timothy Kalyegira style—I was awed by Serumaga. He was the complete decolonised intellectual.
Not too long ago, during my undergraduate days in the Literature department at Makerere, I had read and loved his father, Robert Serumaga’s Snr. poetry, specifically, the famously moving poem, “A Dual Piety,” which is still taught at Makerere University. Like father like son.
From then on, I felt Serumaga and I were friends, and the Uganda National Cultural Centre became home for us—especially with my co-film student, now dramatist and educationist, Deogratius Oyire — but not just as film students, but as lovers of intellectual engagement, debate, and the politics of culture and decolonisation. We are students of Okot p’Bitek, you know.
Around this time, I had only listened to the Andrew Mwenda Live show on Monitor FM. But then quickly, I learned that my newly- discovered sage hosted Spectrum on Radio One. Just like Mwenda’s show, The Spectrum was a blast, in a different way, though, because of the different personalities of the hosts: calm, a deep baritone, and articulate, Serumaga grilled his visitors on nuance and detail, accurate historical facts, and humour, and entangling logical reasoning.
Generally, Kampala’s political waves throughout the late 1990s and 2000s rocked with powerfully hosted and action-packed political radio talk-shows. So, you would imagine, a young me, insatiable and hungry for knowledge and learning, I would be endlessly switch between Radio One and Monitor FM during the 7 o’clock prime time.
This mostly depended on the guests and topic. Then 2009 happened with the Kayunga riots. For the same reasons—fingertip encyclopaedic knowledge of our political history — Serumaga would be controversially arrested while appearing on a WBS political talk-show, Kibazo on Friday, that was hosted by Peter Kibazo.
Held for some days and then released, Kalundi Serumaga remains at large, talking, but still wears a blanket, unclear, unwritten, unexplained ban allegedly by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), and carried on by Uganda’s media houses. Who banned Kalundi Serumaga? What do the bans contain in terms of scope and period?
Every time I turn the channels—be it TV, radio or print—Kampala’s wandering analysts are, to quote Ali Mazrui, “intellectually draining.” With a few exceptions, Kampala’s talking heads are inexcusably ahistorical, illogical, impressed by small things, obsessed by form and not content, short-visioned, et cetera.
On the other hand, our men of substance, specifically Kalundi Serumaga Jnr., have been sidelined by the platformers. Serumaga’s banning/shunning hurts me deeply not just because his eloquence and bravado, but also his work experience, and wealth of education.
I recently landed on his CV and I am amazed by the man’s accomplishments. Why does Uganda continue to waste its intellectual human resources in preference for gambling with half-wits and vagabonds?
Educated on Uganda’s resources, this man returned and became productive for region and country – while many Ugandan UK-graduates preferred to invest their skill inside UK. During his time as the director of Uganda National Cultural Centre (1998- 2003), that place was transformed into a vibrant centre for intellectual-cultural growth, decolonisation and entertainment.
He saw the birth and rise of comedy outfit, Fun Factory, which has remained a major imprint on the Ugandan comic scene (perhaps, the only one with grit and substance). For those who recall local sensational soaps such as That is Life Mwattu, or Entebbe, Serumaga was one of the brains behind them. A filmmaker, director, journalist, dramatist, historian, writer and activist, Kalundi Serumaga is the quintessential embodiment of an all-round humanities scholar, with heart and soul for country. He is the ultimate public intellectual.
Dear reader, I still struggle to understand— in the midst of rising anti-intellectualism— why UCC, and our media houses have chosen to shun our best. Serumaga loves Uganda too much to keep away from public discourse.
Sadly, and this is the truth, shutting down and shunning our intellectual resources such as Kalundi Serumaga not only hurts opposition voices in our political present; it hurts government and country even more. Because at the end of the day, the country has one major enemy: the same old coloniser who dropped short khakis for suits, and now signs contracts instead of grabbing with force.
The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University.