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Festo Karwemera was among the best of the great generation

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Festo Karwemera was among the best of the great generation

Photo: Omugurusi Festo Karwemera on January 8, 2020


 Kigyezi, the land of my birth and people, shivers in the darkness of an orphan, bereft of words that adequately express the depth of pain that weighs upon us.


Our leader and guide, Omugurusi Festo Karwemera Mwene Karagare Kabure-Nkeecwere, has rested his pen and stolen away from us under the cover of night.  We reach out our hand to touch him but feel an empty void. We call out his name and hear a most oppressive silence. We listen for a proverb, an idiom, a heroic recitation, a riddle or a poem but his lips remain sealed. 


This moment reminds us of the words of James, the brother of Jesus, in which he tells us that our lives are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. All we hear at the moment is omukuri (a flute) in the distant mist, serenading Omugurusi Karwemera at the end of a triumphant sojourn that began at his birth in 1925.


 At 95 years of age, he has far exceeded his allotted threescore years and ten. Yet the labour of his extra time has been  highly productive, on a scale that few of us dare to claim. 


His last years, burdened with physical frailty but propelled by a very sharp intellect, have probably been his most productive in a career that has spanned 74 years. The author of more than twenty books, Karwemera has capped his labours with a complete translation of the Constitution of Uganda into Orukiga, whose manuscript he has left in his office. 


He has also been working on the manuscript for the second volume of Manya Ebimera Byawe, a pictorial manual about plants and their traditional medicinal uses. 


Till the end, he has been working on his proposed changes to the Rukiga-Runyankore orthography, of which he was a co-author, along with several others who were on the committee that set the rules of our language in 1954. 


These are some of the final projects of a man who has singlehandedly toiled to put a stop to the absence of written records of the traditions of Abakiga. To do so, he has traversed Kigyezi and distant settlements of migrant Abakiga for 74 years, tapping into the rich knowledge of the elders and applying fastidious scholarship to ascertain their truth and consistency before publishing his findings for posterity.


What, besides his written works, will be the story of this man who has now closed the curtain on an era that produced the greatest generation of Banyakigyezi?  It will be said that he was among the best of that generation. That like his peers, his patriotism to Kigyezi was not a meaningless and partisan word, but a selfless devotion to a people whose collective interests superseded his. 


It will be said of him that he was a traditionalist possessed of a liberal outlook. That he was a cultural rebel because he was free. That he was free because he knew who he was.  That his self-confidence and cultural pride enabled him to claim a place for his language in an African country that called English its first language, one whose people mistook loss of self for education. 


Karwemera was honest to a fault, never afraid to challenge or correct even the most revered people in the community. In his use of Orukiga, no words, phrases or proverbs were off limits. He refused to yield to British sensibilities that forced many to dilute Orukiga in a misguided attempt to sanitize our language. That English was considered by many to be “cleaner” than their African languages amused and frustrated him to no end. 


He was a well-rounded gentleman with a great sense of humour. He relished a good story or anecdote. He told jokes that were teaching moments. Not for him the serious demeanor of the “grumbling old man.” 


So, even as we wipe away the tears and shiver in this temporary darkness, let us celebrate his life with laughter as we remember the stories and some startling words and statements that he so freely shared. 


Whereas he was still very much in love with life, Karwemera had good reason to feel he had emptied himself in serving his ancestors and descendants alike. His records of who we are will be here as long as humanity retains the capacity to communicate. 


He leaves us a priceless legacy that demands careful custody and nurturing. Happily, among us is one whom God has prepared to pick up the baton that Karwemera has so lovingly carried. I unreservedly commend Rev. Professor Manuel Kamugisha Muranga, Director of the Institute of Language Studies at Kabale University, as a very worthy successor to Karwemera.


Muranga’s love and mastery of Rukiga is equaled by his unrelenting determination to preserve and promote it alongside other languages. His respect for Karwemera reflects a true scholar’s humility and recognition that he stands on the shoulders of our less decorated pioneers.


Muranga’s love of documentation and archiving offers Kigyezi an opportunity to create a permanent home and resource centre that preserves and builds on the rich work that our Teacher has bequeathed to us. There are many of us who will be honoured to be partners in such an initiative. 


In the meantime, the Board of the International Community of Banyakigezi (ICOB) has resolved to honour him through an annual “Festo Karwemera Award of Excellence.” This will be given to a person that shows excellence in leadership, innovation or service in accord with the organization’s mission to advance the cultural, social and economic interests of Abanyakigezi.


To his wife Aidah Ziryabura and their children, thank you for sharing him with us. He was as much ours as he was yours. To think that we shall never see him again crushes our emotions. Yet he lives.


A thousand years from now, parents will tell the story of a people called  Abakiga before they were absorbed into a new mega-nation whose primary language and traditions were English. 


Karwemera’s books will be there as the evidence about these ancient people whose endangered or even extinct language and traditions will be fascinating to anthropologists and students of history. Very few of us will be remembered.


It is an honour to have lived with him and to have received from him the glue that anchored many of us in our rich heritage. 



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