Festo Karwemera: a productive life, a great legacy

Festo Karwemera: a productive life, a great legacy

To have a brilliant mind is a blessing. To put that mind to work - teaching students, supervising schools, carrying out extensive research and publishing reference books on your chosen subject – is a priceless legacy. To have that mind in excellent shape in your tenth decade is God’s favour displayed. 


Omugurusi Festo Karwemera Mwene Karagare Kabure-Nkeecwere, now aged 95, is one of the brightest people I know. A great thinker and writer, he toils away at his desk, not for profit, but to save a language and culture, passed down to us by generations of ancestors, now threatened with erosion and potential extinction in a new world of Euro-American domination. 


A visit to Kabaare, Kigyezi is never complete without an hour or two spent at his home, learning from him, milking his inexhaustible mental database and partaking of his wit and humour. 


Our conversations are always punctuated with corrections of my misuse of a word here, a mispronunciation there and a test of my knowledge of the clans and totems of Abakiga. He asks me the origin or meaning of a word. With a smile and twinkle, he awaits a response that is likely to be incorrect. Occasionally, I get it right, such as when he asked me the origin of the word “omugurusi.” 


In most cases I am so way off base that we usually laugh at the paradox of a Mukiga whose mother tongue has seemingly become his second language. However, over the years my annual tutorials under him have expanded my grasp of the language with which I was raised. His many publications, twenty-two of them at last count, have rewarded repeated reading and consultation. His exceptional discipline and resilience have inspired me to  continue writing even when I have felt like retiring my pen. 


Omugurusi Karwemera was born in 1925 in Kaarubanda omu Ibandiro ry’Engwe owa Rwanteezi ishe Rubanyaga, in present-day Buhara, Ndorwa, Kigyezi. He is a Mukiga w’Omurihira of the Ba-Karobwa clan. Those familiar with Kigyezi know that Abarihira have a rather unfair abundance of the intellectually advantaged. No surprise, then, that Karwemera is one of them. 


Upon his birth, his mother declared: “Nkarwemera!” literally meaning “I put up with it.” She had endured the torment and other consequences of producing four daughters in a row. Her husband had been urged to marry another woman who would give him a son. 


While the name “Nkarwemera” suggested relief, it also expressed the anguish of the oppressed woman in a patriarchal culture that prized male offspring over females. She also spoke for her husband, perhaps inadvertently, for he too had endured the pressure and ridicule that came with his presumed “inability” to sire an heir. 


Now that he was the name’s owner, a literal translation suggested that it was Nkarwemera himself who had endured the challenges. So, the young boy’s teachers kept telling him that it was his mother, not him, owaarwemaire (who had endured.) That is why he removed the first letter and became Karwemera.


Like most people of his generation, Karwemera started formal school late. He was 13 years old when he joined Grade One at Muyebe Primary School in 1938. By 1940, he was in Primary Three at Kigyezi High School, where he studied with my father and others who would go on to share his passion for preservation of our language and positive traditions. 


However, none of his peers or their offspring devoted their lives and resources to the Bakiga Project the way he did. Starting in 1946, Karwemera interviewed elders and recorded nearly everything that constituted the canon of emicwe n’emigyenzo y’Abakiga (the traditions of Abakiga.) 


A teacher by profession, who served as an assistant supervisor of schools, Karwemera started writing for publication in 1956. Besides nearly two dozen books that he has written as the single author, he was also the actual writer of Paulo Ngorogoza’s Kigezi n’Abantu Baamwo (Kigezi and its People) and contributed a chapter in a History of Kigezi in South-West Uganda, edited by Donald Denoon. 


Among his great contributions is a small book titled Empandiika ya Runyankore-Rukiga Egufuhaziibwe (Abridged Runyankore-Rukiga Orthography). That such a book exists in a country where newspapers and other publications murder Runyankore-Rukiga and render many words and sentences meaningless is rather sobering. A few written words, including personal names, sound vulgar when read correctly. Many do not convey their intended meaning, while others mean absolutely nothing. 


Karwemera has used radio and video broadcasts to educate and advocate for the preservation and promotion of Rukiga and the traditions of the Bakiga. His programs have been well received by the listeners, and he has received verbal accolades and recognition by a number of organizations, including the Government of Uganda and the International Community of Banyakigezi. Kabale University awarded him an honorary doctorate in literature.


However, he has essentially depended on his own resources to do the extraordinary work that has salvaged so much for us and future generations. That is why it is a national embarrassment that Omugurusi Karwemera, who worked as teacher and supervisor of schools for 20 years before retiring from the Uganda Civil Service, has not been paid his pension. 


Furthermore, his books are not part of the primary school curriculum in Kigyezi. Not for lack of trying on his part. His offer was simply turned down. Dozens of copies of each of his books sit on shelves in his office, gathering dust, while Bakiga-Banyankore children struggle to read and write their language.  They are inexpensive to buy, yet worth way more than their price tag. 


If we cannot honour him because of his extraordinary literally and anthropological work, here is an equally seminal achievement for which he ought to be recognized.  Until last year, my father was the oldest alumnus of Kigyezi High School, where he was in the same class with the much younger Karwemera. With my father’s death, Karwemera is now the oldest alumnus of the school. 


When I visited him early this year, I could not but notice that he was frail, albeit intellectually sharp. While he firmly holds onto the baton, the ravages of age have slowed him down. Is this not the moment for those who have studied at Kigyezi High School, such as Ruhakana Rugunda, Amama Mbabazi, Kizza Besigye, Tumusiime Mutebile, Hope Mwesigye, Pamela Mbabazi, Augustus Niwagaba, Mwesigwa Rukuutana and Richard Kabonero, to show him our gratitude with a practical financial gift that assures him a very well-deserved retirement?  


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