Flashback: It is 8:40am, the date is September 3, 2012.
Five colleagues and I who make up the core of The Opportunity Media that publishes The Opportunity magazine are in office to start piecing together stories for the next issue of the monthly magazine.
It being a Monday, we are still catching up with the weekend banter. Our boss, the editor-in-chief and CEO, Frank Sserwaniko, is not in office; he has not been since Friday.
The editor, Taddewo Ssenyonyi, sprints into the room calling out: “Do you know what, guys…?” “What’s up, man; who is chasing you?” Francis Ndugwa, a sub-editor, breaks in.
“Frank bamukubye akatayimbwa.” [Frank was mugged and hit with an iron bar]
Later that evening, we visit Nsambya hospital and there, lying on his back, eyes closed and motionless, is Sserwaniko with no trace of life whatsoever.
Tubes run all over his body. Earphones are playing soft music in his ears – we are told they are meant to stimulate his brain. Sserwaniko’s wife Josephine Nabukyu and another woman sit at the bedside, chins resting in their palms.
After a few minutes, we leave, wondering whether we can keep afloat the company solely owned by Sserwaniko with a few shares held by his wife and four children, until he recovers.
He has been everything; editor, chief financier and face of the company. The following weekend we hold a meeting with his brothers, Mike Wagaba, Leonard Ssemugooma Kyazze and his wife Josephine to chart a way forward.
We pledge to keep the magazine operational until Sserwaniko returns. Five years later he has not returned. The magazine has since collapsed and all of us have moved on.
That Nsambya hospital visit had been the last time I had seen Sserwaniko until July 10, 2017.
Visit to Kyotera
I set off from the new taxi park in Kampala for Kibinge village, about 20km from Kyotera town, a greater Masaka district. I arrive shortly before 2pm and find a mosque to offer my afternoon prayers before jumping onto a boda boda to Kibinge.
Wagaba had told me to ask for directions to Betelemu village and the home of the late Gita Kasirye. It has been a while since it last rained in this part of the world. On top of it being very dusty, the road is bumpy making the boda boda ride an unpleasant experience.
After about 20 minutes we arrive in Betelemu. Like I suspected, the real name of the village is Bethlehem, like the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Don’t get ideas; this is not Nazareth, but I nevertheless ask locals why their village is named after Jesus’ birthplace.
“Tulina wano ekigo kya Bakatuliki ekinene, ndowooza be baatuma ekyalo kino Betelemu (We have a big Catholic parish here, maybe it was their idea to name this village Bethlehem),” one man tells me.
After getting lost several times, crisscrossing an extremely dusty, recently-graded road, we finally arrive at the home. It is a big, old house surrounded by coffee and banana plantations; evidently, its owner had some money in its hey days.
Coffee beans are spread on the ground to dry in one part of the compound, while packed coffee sacks lie near an old Toyota Sahara pickup truck.
Beyond the truck, on a small verandah a seemingly overweight man sits in a blue plastic chair. He is wearing a checked grey short-sleeved shirt and tight shorts, with no shoes on his feet. Two crutches rest on the wall next to him.
Hearing the approaching motorcycle, the man lifts his head to see who comes calling. Our eyes meet for a moment, but I turn away to wipe away my tears that are now falling.
“Is this the Frank I knew?!” I wonder, memories of him in his designer clothes and always shining shoes, flooding me.
“Tusanyuse okukulaba ssebo,” Sserwaniko welcomes me in Luganda.
Before I muster the courage to answer, an old woman comes out the front door and repeats Sserwaniko’s pleasantries before inviting me inside. There are four old ‘Johnson’ chairs with red cushions.
Underneath one chair, there is a Nomi bucket whose smelling contents attract my attention. It is urine. Going by the smell, it has been here for at least two days.
Near the bucket, a small portable radio is tuned to 88.8 CBS FM with Hajjati Hadijah Kinobe and Kanyanya presenting their Munna-U program. Like many village homes, the walls are covered in expired calendars, a portrait of Mother Mary, posters of 2016 political contenders, among other memorabilia.
In one corner, a small table holds two very old Independent magazines. In the other corner stand two wheelchairs gathering a lot of dust; it has clearly been long since they were last used.
Sserwaniko’s mother, now sitting on the floor, repeats the pleasantries. After about two minutes, walking with difficulty and supported by crutches, Sserwaniko joins us, heading for the chair with the improvised bedpan underneath it. His mother helps him sit.
“My name is Baker Batte Lule. I worked with Frank at The Opportunity Magazine before this unfortunate incident,” I introduce myself to the duo, their gazes curiously fixed on me.
“Where are you headed to? Surely you did not set off from Kampala just to find me?” Sserwaniko asks in Luganda.
His old mother repeats the salutations with a lot of warmth now. The revelation that I used to work with his Opportunity Media brightens up Sserwaniko who has been visibly worried since my arrival. He does not remember me!
The old woman leaves and returns with water for us to wash our hands for lunch – it is past 4pm. Matooke and beef stew is served, but I decline to join in the meal.
“Brian, I am so happy to see you,” Sserwaniko repeats, and I gently remind him my name. Throughout our two hours interaction, he asks me several times for my name.
He suffers from amnesia that left him with just a few years’ memory. Sserwaniko remembers the date on which he was hit, but cannot figure out who did it and why. Remembering it, tears roll down my former boss’ now-chubby cheeks.
Due to a problem with the indoor plumbing system, Sserwaniko had stepped out of his home in Bwebajja to collect water from a tap for his bath. That is when his assailant hit him on the head with a suspected iron bar. It was August 2012.
Sserwaniko only came out of coma in February 2013. The attacker was never found, because according to the family, Nabukyu refused to commit funds to the process, saying she would rather spend on Sserwaniko’s treatment.
Waking up after six months, he could not walk, write, read, comprehend simple objects; he even forgot his Luganda – he could only speak English.
The trauma to his head also caused partial paralysis to his right side. After another six months at Nsambya, he was transferred to a stroke rehabilitation center where he spent close to a year before finally returning home.
Although he still cannot walk without crutches, he says that is the least of his worries.
“I have on and off mental breakdowns. Sometimes I’m fully in control of my senses; I remember everything I have done but then after sometime I can’t account for the time that has passed; the brain is very unstable,” Sserwaniko says.
Asked how long he has been in the village, Sserwaniko looks at me for a moment before saying, “I can’t tell how long, unless you ask one of my brothers.”
The fact that Sserwaniko has lost his family is adding to the mental anguish.
When I ask him about his wife Josephine Nabukyu and their four children, he cannot hold back his tears.
“l really don’t know what she’s up to. I don’t remember when she last came here, but I need to confirm with my people, because she might have come when I was unconscious,” he says, struggling to convince himself that he has not lost her.
Although Nabukyu lives in Sserwaniko’s Kyotera home with their children, the kids have not seen their father in two years. The family admits they don’t get along with Nabukyu anymore since she refused to use any of Sserwaniko’s savings on his welfare, because she reasoned “he is going to die, anyway”.
His mother says he was delivered to her home with just the clothes on his body and nothing else. They also don’t know whether the Bwebajja house was sold or not, seeing as even the children attend Kyotera schools.
“When I think about the [journey] to where I am today, I become confused. I ask myself, how did it come to this? When I think about my people, my family, my children… I fail to reach a conclusion. I ask, ‘why, God?’ I have lost everything; I mean, everything,” a distraught Sserwaniko says.
Asked about what he can remember of his life, he says, he went to Betelemu primary school, Betelemu secondary school, then sat for his O-level exams at Kiteredde Secondary School.
“Then I went to St Henry’s College Kitovu for A-level. In 1997 I went to Makerere University where I studied Mass Communication and graduated in 2000,” Sserwaniko says.
From his Mass Communication class, Sserwaniko remembers Charles Kakaire, Elvis Sseyanzi, Tina Turyagenda, Angela Nabwohe. He says after graduation, he worked with The Monitor [now Daily Monitor] and New Vision.
He also remembers working with Robert Kalundi Sserumaga at Panos Eastern Africa, Joseph Were, Patrick Onyango, David Ouma Balikoowa, Charles Onyango-Obbo, Teddy Nannozi, Mulinde Musoke, and Steven Asiimwe. Sadly, he cannot piece together details of his own dream.
“I think Opportunity Media was not there for a year…no, wait a minute. I joined Procurement News in 2003, then I…no, I can’t recall,” Ssewraniko says before giving up guessing in frustration.
“Everybody defines my problem as they think. Some say it is brain shock; I don’t have full detail of what it is. Oooooh God, I have gone through very difficult moments. On several occasions I wish I had died; the pain is too much both physical and psychological. I wish I would be okay even if I’m to remain in the village. I wouldn’t care. You know we used to just come visit for a day or two and then go back to Kampala. Now I’m fulltime in the village, I see a lot of things that can be done and someone gets a harvest,” Sserwaniko says resignedly.
After five years in a state of helplessness, he says he has come to accept his situation. He now only aims for things within reach.
“I’m a strong believer, but one thing killing me is this back and forth mental lapse. Now I feel as if you have been here before and we did this interview. I also remember Ssebaana [Kizito, the former Kampala mayor] died, but I was surprised to hear that he is sick so, I was like, how can a person who died long time ago be sick?”
Sserwaniko, born on June 1, 1976, planned to retire from active journalism at 50.
“I thought I would be just a visiting chief executive officer of a successful company. I thought of so much to be achieved during that time. Anyway, I thank God that I can still speak, I can still hear,” he says.
The action of one man or woman, not only dealt a blow to Sserwaniko, but also his family. His 85-year-old mother says she cannot hold back her tears every time she sees her son in that state of helplessness.
“My heart aches, seeing him like this. He was everything to me; he looked after me very well. I could spend months at his home in Kampala when sick, but look, it’s me now looking after him in everything, including bathing him and taking him to the toilet,” his mother says, revealing she has also developed health complications as a result of what happened to her son.
“I’m an old woman, I have no one to help me look after him. We are here, two helpless people,” she says wiping away tears from her sunken eyes.
However, her biggest challenge comes when his mental breakdown comes.
“He can talk the whole day and night for three days, nonstop. Worse still, he becomes very aggressive and speaks only English, which I don’t understand,” she says.
According to his elder brother, Kyazze, Sserwaniko, the only light that illuminated their dark home, was mercilessly put out.
“There are days you come here and look at him so helpless; you feel like something wants to tear you up,” Kyazze says.
“Our mother was badly affected with what happened to her son; every time she looks at him she weeps uncontrollably,” Kyazze says, sending Sserwaniko into loud wailing.
“Sirika Frank, tokaaba, (don’t cry, Frank)” Kyazze comforts him. “Frank was a person the family was looking up to. He had started companies where our children would work, but they have since all collapsed; so, as a family, what happened was a very big setback.”