My Father Was An Incorruptible Genius
My father had no regrets even while living in poverty; some of his colleagues had businesses. "I have clean hands," my father would boast. I'm not sure it was much comfort to my beloved mother, who had to get a job cleaning offices.
[Happy Father's Day]
I miss my father E. Otema Allimadi.
My father was a good man. He was strict. He was gentle. He was generous to a fault and would give his last shilling to a stranger in need even when his own family needed the money.
My father took great satisfaction out of helping people and improving others' lot in life. He was born in 1929, in what was then colonial Uganda in British East Africa.
As an adult, years later, my father told me how all his life he learned how to make do with little. He recalled with pride when he bought his first pair of pants, a shirt and black leather shoes. He said he always made sure he washed the same clothes every night. He made sure he pressed his shirt and his pants in the morning with a charcoal heated iron and polished his shoes until he could see his reflection.
He dressed smartly all his life. Of course, later, he could afford a few more pants and even a couple of suits--he even yielded to dry cleaning.
My father belonged to the generation of Ugandans that led the country to independence from Britain in 1962. The colonials strove to keep the African population relatively unread, hoping that uninformed people would be less capable of articulating the demands for Uhuru--independence.
My father loved to read, a life-long habit. As a young man, he won a scholarship to attend university in Britain, but he opted to remain in Uganda to be a part of the independence struggle. So, Otema Allimadi joined what was then the Kings African Rifles, or the British colonial army in East Africa, where he was part of the medical unit as a doctor's assistant. Meanwhile he completed his higher education through correspondence courses.
He also made contact with the Eastern block countries, and acquired scholarships for other young Ugandans, many of whom, such as Akena P'Ojok, would later become trained as engineers and serve as ministers in Ugandan governments.
The British would not allow the would be students to travel through official channels for overseas studies so my father was part of a team that smuggled these young nationalist Ugandans out of the country, through what's now the Sudan. Often, my father was in hiding from British colonial authorities.
After independence my father became Uganda's ambassador to the United States, and later, concurrently, ambassador to Canada and Uganda's Permanent Representative to the United Nations. So my siblings and I spent a few of our early years in the United States, where I remember a first grade teacher lying to my classmates--informing them that my father was a "big chief" in Africa and that I got to play with lions and elephants. She even squeezed my shoulders until I nodded in agreement to legitimize her lie to the other impressionable kids.
When my father was a diplomat here, he took care of students from allover Africa --Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria-- whenever they were in need. Many years later, when I was doing research on a totally unrelated topic, I accidentally stumbled upon his photo in a file which contained pictures of African ambassadors from the 1960s, at The Schomburg Center up in Harlem, where I now live.
My family returned to Uganda in 1971 when General Idi Amin overthrew Milton Obote's government. Obote, my namesake, had led Uganda to independence. When Amin tried to kill my father, he was smuggled in disguise by friends to neighboring Tanzania. The rest of the family followed later--we too were spirited out with fake documentation. I was about 10 years old at the time --and had obviously grown up watching too many American movies. I had made up my mind that if the Ugandan soldiers manning the border post discovered our true identities, I was going to grab a gun from one of them and shoot them all down while my mother and siblings ran across the border into the safety of exile. Luckily it never came to that.
My family lived in exile for nearly nine years. Gone were the ambassador's residence and other comforts. There were days when the family had tea and bread with no butter for lunch and dinner. Sugar, milk, and rice and beans were occasional luxuries. Clothing, donations from the U.S. and other countries, came from Tanzania's version of the Salvation Army. One day, our classmates ran into us at the donation center where they had come to play table tennis. My younger brother Andrew and I were so embarrassed to stand in line to receive our clothing allotment that we pretended we were also there to play ping pong and we missed out. My mother was furious when we returned empty handed as our other siblings also depended on the donations.
My father was a news junkie and he made me buy him a copy of The Daily News, which was the major English language paper in Tanzania, hot off the presses at around 10PM. I would quickly read the paper before bringing it to him--that's when and how I developed my love for the news and for reading.
Even though times were tough, my father always managed to find a few shillings whenever I wanted to buy books. I also wrote my first book manuscript when I was 12 years old. I remember my father reading it and saying, "You are a genius."
I would also check out dozens of books from the main public library in Dar es Salaam. We lived on the edge of a rough neighborhood in a tiny apartment and the local toughs mocked me when they saw me carrying books. I was taunted by the street toughs as a "msomi" or book worm, and even a girlie-boy, when they heard that my mother made me accompany her to watch "The Sound of Music." Later, I would wait until it was dark before sneaking back home with books. Things improved somewhat when my father teamed up with a friend to start a business in Tanzania. Later, he bought a small farm to bring in extra income.
Then the erratic Idi Amin made the mistake of invading Tanzania. I was in high school by then and I remember President Julius Nyerere making a speech at The National Assembly, or Bunge, which was the country's Parliament.
"When a snake enters your house, what do you do?" Nyerere asked the legislators, and then promptly answered his own question, "You cut off its head. So I have ordered our young men and women to mobilize and to cut off the snake's head."
About five months later, General Amin was on a plane fleeing Uganda as his army had been routed by the Tanzania People's Defense Forces and Ugandan exile soldiers. My family returned to Uganda; before leaving, my father gave away the farm to the farm hand and his wife. I realized my lifelong dream which was to return to the United States for college. I wanted to study cinema and become a film director; my father would not hear of it. At Syracuse University, I studied economics, and years later, I attended the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia.
My father resumed his political career, first serving as minister of foreign affairs and later as prime minister. My father was incorruptible and a man of principles. One day, over dinner in Kampala, I remember my beloved mother, Alice Allimadi, asking my father why he didn't have a business outside Uganda when some of his colleagues in government had companies, including hotels, overseas.
"What if we end up living in exile again one day?" she asked.
"Milton, did you hear that?" my father said, laughing, "Your mother believes we could end up in exile again! Har, har, har!"
“A legitimate business. Even a small one,” my mother implored.
“Nonsense; Uganda needs all my attention,” my father said.
In 1985 Obote's government was overthrown again --while I was now living in the United States-- and my family ended up in exile again. Mothers know these things.
I visited my parents and siblings in their tiny apartment in London; my father would wake up early and buy all the newspapers. My father had no regrets even while living in poverty; some of his former colleagues in government had homes and businesses overseas. "I have clean hands," my father would boast. I'm not sure it was much comfort to my beloved mother, who had to get a job cleaning offices. While pained by their circumstances, I found myself admiring my father's incorruptibility.
My father led a half-hearted effort at insurgency to overthrow the dictatorship of Yoweri Museveni who now ran Uganda. Yet, he was not a man of violence; he was a diplomat, a man of the ballot rather than the bullet. He eventually retired from politics and returned to live out his years in Uganda. When Museveni offered him a government post he refused—it would have betrayed his belief in electoral politics, since Museveni had come in through the barrel of a gun.
Ironically, today, many years later, Ugandans have finally tired of Museveni's 26 years dictatorship and have been agitating through popular street protests to get rid of him. Many Ugandans revile Museveni, not only for despotism, but for corruption, which now permeates the entire regime and the country.
I did not see my father in the remaining years of his life. After graduating from Columbia, I interned with The Wall Street Journal and later worked as a freelance reporter for The New York Times. I then reported for a weekly paper called The City Sun, and years later, with seed funding from Bill and Camille Cosby, teamed up with two colleagues --Ben Otunu and Mana Lumumba Kasongo-- to launch The Black Star News, which I still publish today.
Like my father, I also believe in fighting injustice and The Black Star has broken many major exclusive stories here in New York and in Uganda as well. In fact, it was because of one of my articles --The New York Times later published its version of the same story-- about Museveni being implicated in a plot to smuggle missiles from the United States that landed me on the crosshairs of the Ugandan regime. Some senior officials in the Museveni regime, who had been friends of my father, told me that there had been a cabinet meeting to discuss the fallout from the article. I was strongly advised never to travel to Uganda.
My father survived a stroke and lived for a few more years. His speech was affected; but we had memorable conversations over the phone. Every time we hung up, my heart bled, knowing that I might never see him in person again. My father suffered another stroke and died on August 5, 2001. I could not attend his funeral in Uganda. I dedicated my book about the history of racist portrayals of African peoples, The Hearts of Darkness, How White Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa, to my father.
My mother outlived my father for a few more years until she succumbed to cancer in 2007. I rushed to London when her condition worsened. She had shrunk to a skeleton but was still beautiful. She had been unconscious but soon opened her eyes and found me by her bedside. She summoned strength and clung to my hand, until she closed her eyes for good. I'm sure she forgave her husband's stubbornness and preference for poverty over enrichment.
On this Father's Day, I am happy to return the kind words E. Otema Allimadi told me years ago: "Dad, you were one stubborn genius."
"Speaking Truth To Empower."
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It was sexy to be against the war back then. He was probably in it to get laid.
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