South Sudan

Professor Jack Ja’bi Ngalamu, my classmate with healing laughter

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Professor Jack Ja’bi Ngalamu, my classmate with healing laughter
Photo: Jack and Haida Ngalamu (photographer unknown)

High school brought us together. We were the class of 1967, King’s College, Budo. One girl and twenty-seven boys, freshly arrived from every corner of Uganda, to embark on a journey whose course we could not have imagined. Nearly 55 years later, we are still brothers and a sister, with a strong bond that time and distance have not dented. 


As I write, seventeen of us are alive, nine have died, and the status of two is unknown. Thirteen of us are in contact, via a social media platform, and share news about our lives, reminisce about our happy years, of innocence and maturation, and celebrate the lives of our brothers who have died. 


The latest loss is that of Professor Jack Ja’bi Ngalamu, an educationist at the University of Juba, South Sudan, who died in London, England on November 27, 2021. News of his death was broken to us by our classmate,  Aggrey Tisa Sabuni, a former minister of finance and economic planning of South Sudan, now a retired advisor to President Salva Kiir Mayardit on economic affairs. 


Jack’s death was very shocking because it was unexpected. The last time I spoke with him there was no hint of illness or impending difficulties. We had recently agreed via a WhatsApp text message to speak on the phone as soon as he returned to Juba before Christmas.


Memories of our early years at Budo flood back. Jack, a refugee from South Sudan, temporarily domiciled in Acholiland, Northern Uganda, had made his mark as a bright, quick-witted brother with a seemingly endless supply of humor and laughter.  It was easy for Jack to give his best. Ours was a class of happy teenagers, full of laughter and a natural camaraderie. 


Everyone who has shared memories of Jack remembers his good-natured character. Samwiri Njuki, a retired banker, wrote: “Jack Ngalamu was a jolly guy and a very good footballer. He was very well brought up too.”  


Like Njuki, George William Semivule, a former headmaster of King’s College Budo, now dean of the faculty of education at Ndejje University, remembers Ngalamu as one of the famous trio (with Charles Mukasa and Akera Abe) from our class “that played in the school football team when they were still putting on shorts!”


Besides academic pursuits, it was a period of transition to an open-minded embrace of humanity devoid of artificial, divisive cleavages. I never saw Ngalamu and other refugees as anything but Ugandan. Sarah Senoga Nalumansi, a mechanical engineer with a master’s degree in machine tool design, recalls our time with Jack Ngalamu: “1967 - 69 was the period when I was shaped into a person that does not look at nationality, tribe or gender as far as association is concerned. This quality helped me to live comfortably in six countries in my lifetime. I attribute this to Ngalamu and my other classmates of that time. Thank you and rest in peace my colleague.” 


One recalls with amazement, the collegial atmosphere in the class, everybody happy to share their knowledge, the brightest lot in each subject giving the rest of us foreign aid with unforgettable selflessness. We did not know it at the time, but Ngalamu was already a teacher-in-the-making. I stand on his shoulders and those of my classmates.


Jack’s father, Bishop Elinana Ja’bi Ngalamu Dudu, had narrowly escaped death at the hands of Arab Sudanese soldiers, and had fled South Sudan, via the Congo Free State, arriving in Arua, West Nile, Uganda in 1965. His wife, Dorcas Lorungwa Ngalamu, had followed soon after, taking their sons – William and Jack – and their daughters – Damari, Monica, Phoebe and Faith – across the border, to the safety and peace of exile in Gulu, a town that had not known war since the advent of colonial rule. 


Elinana Ngalamu, who had become Assistant Bishop of Northern Uganda, had sent Jack to Gulu Primary School (GPS), where he met Daudi Akera Abe, a young lad in Junior Secondary School. Akera Abe, now a retired chemical engineer in the USA, tells the story: 


Jack joined Primary 7 at GPS in 1966. My younger brother Onen Abe was in that class and I was in Junior 2. We took the same primary leaving examination, that year being the transition year ending junior secondary school in Uganda. We became very good friends but that does not mean that there were not some earlier ‘tangles’, especially since Jack was a newcomer to the GPS boys club.  


“In one instance, during a class debate, Onen made a statement that got Jack so mad that he threw a book at him. The teacher instructed Onen and Jack to meet after class and work out their differences. That simple gesture enabled the two to establish a lasting friendship. ‘Jack was a fierce but gentle competitor,’ my brother Onen stated a few days ago. ‘He would fight within limits. He loved challenges and never shied away’.  


“When Jack and I entered Budo in 1967, we ended up in Africa House and in the same class.  We shared many stories.  Jack related to me that while hiding from the Sudan Army, together with a friend, they were shot at and his friend was killed.  Jack did not know how he survived. That experience had a lasting effect on him.  


“Jack’s difficult life and hardship during the Sudanese civil war was very helpful to us after the  Uganda coup d’état in 1971.  My brother and I learnt strategies for survival in a war zone. Jack was the last friend I spent the night with before I escaped Uganda in May 1973 to Kenya and then the United States of America where I have lived ever since. 


“After the 1972 peace agreement in Sudan, the Ngalamu family moved back to Juba, Sudan. Jack always travelled between Juba and Gulu by road.  On one of those travels from Juba in October 1972, just before Nimule, Jack saw an old man pushing a bicycle. He quickly recognized the old man to be Julio Peter Abe, my father, who had just escaped from Uganda and was heading to Juba to seek refuge. 


“Jack turned round, transported my father to Juba, arranged help for him and resumed his journey to Gulu the next day.  Whereas my mother and I knew that my father was gone, it was Jack who informed us about his whereabouts and assured us that he was safe. My father stayed in Sudan until 1979. Jack's death is a personal loss of a childhood and family friend."  


One notes the story of Africa, encapsulated in the experiences of the two patriarchs – Ngalamu and Abe – each a refugee and host, a role reversal not their choice, their fates determined by gunmen masquerading as their leaders. 


Emmanuel Ngude Mukanga, a media, communication, and knowledge management consultant, wrote: “The news of Jack’s death hit me like a thunderbolt. A key influence of my teenage life has been taken away from me. Ngalamu was my classmate, my housemate, and a close friend.  He encouraged me to attend Sunday-Night-At-Eight, a weekly Christian fellowship at the home of Reverend Hugh Silvester, our O-Level class master. 


“Our closeness was such that when Mr. Ian Robinson, the headmaster, told me at the end of Senior 2 that, according to my teachers, I was academically lagging behind because of the company I kept, I told him that my friends were Jack Ngalam and David Akera” ‘Those are the ones, but they are doing their class work well,’ Robinson said, peering at me over his spectacles.”  


Jack, a native of South Sudan, was really Ugandan. Even in adolescence, he took great interest in some Kikiga cultural matters, about which I advised him, the blind leading the blind, let the truth be told. 


In our last conversation, mere months before his death, we reminisced about the matter, and chuckled like of old, amused by our self-assuredness, in issues beyond our comprehension. 


Buried in Mundri, Amadi State, South Sudan on December 18, 2021, a celebration of his life is planned to be held in Juba on December 30, 2021.  Ja’bi Ngalamu is gone from us, but he lives on in our hearts and memories.  I hear him laugh. I see him smile.



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