By Henry Munene
In 1986, Kevin Shillington, an independent English scholar and author of A History of Africa, approached Ugandan guerrilla fighter Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and impressed upon the newly installed president the need to record the success of his struggle against Idd Amin Dada and Milton Obote in a book.
Although Museveni thought it was a brilliant idea, he reckoned that he would be hard pressed for time, what with the war going on and placing lots of demands on him.
So a deal was struck. Shillington would bring a voice recorder and interview the man who would become president of Uganda and go on to stay at the helm for well over three decades. The interview was done in the presence of one of Museveni’s chiefs of staff, Madam Kanyogonya. Ever the stickler for details, Museveni even suggested the title, Sowing the Mustard Seed. Macmillan Press Limited published the book in 1997.
But when the book came out, the president was not quite satisfied with Shillington’s work.
“They did a good job even though, being people who were not part of the events, they would provide emphasis to points that were peripheral, and sometimes even get the facts wrong,” Museveni writes.
He gives an example of kashuumba, which in Runyankore (the president’s language) means a mixture of cow urine and fresh milk, and which his father, Amosi, used to administer to him as a laxative. In the book, Museveni says Shillington and Kanyogonya gave the meaning of kashuumba as “human urine”.
But it is not only the need to correct facts that compelled Museveni to sit down three decades later to tell the story in his own words and illuminating nuances that the first version missed.
The real trigger was a meeting – four-and-a-half years ago – with the US chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. Museveni says he was touched when the US army commander thanked him for writing books that gave him a better understanding of Africa.
“Which book of mine have you read, General?” Museveni asked.
Dempsey said he had read The Mustard Seed, whose epigraph is mined from the parable of the sower, as related in the biblical book of Matthew.
Amused, Museveni went back and reread the story. He wanted to be sure that it had “the best packaging that could inform the people thirsty for information about our epic story.” This left no doubt in his mind that he needed to go back to the writing table.
There was also a point of grammar. Museveni noted that the writers broke some rules of grammar he had been taught by his teacher, Mr Byres, at Ntare, such as using commas after conjunctions. Still on grammar, Museveni wanted to correct the use of vowels in the Runyankore words used in the book, more as a way of ensuring future generations get the intonation of the words used and the spelling right than for their usage in the initial book.
The tale as retold in his version is more powerful as the author shares with us the feelings, emotions, scenes and thoughts they evoked as his life unfolded. We are especially left pitying the family, as the man was so busy with the struggle when the children were so young. There is also the silent commentary of the non-committal stance adopted by official Kenya in regard to the Uganda struggle. This contrasts sharply with the overt assistance Nyerere and other leaders such as the late Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Cuba’s Fidel Castro extended to Museveni and his men.
Happily, it is not just the sad moments that pepper this book. There are instances of comic relief. A case in point is Museveni’s brush with Kenya’s police reservist Patrick Shaw at the Hilton. Shaw was a burly executioner who rained terror on criminals in Nairobi. When Museveni noticed that Shaw was furtively eyeing him while pretending to be reading a newspaper, the man who would be president left his coffee halfway taken, sneaked out and hired a taxi to the Tanzanian border at Namanga (P.116).
Elsewhere, on the first page, Museveni claims to remember events that took place when he was four months old. It is a claim that, as he tells us, even his own family disputes!