A call to comment on a topical news story greatly startled Maj Gen Wasswa Kasirye Gwanga and he insisted I meet him in person at his Camp David country home.
I have heard several weird tales of unpredictability about the army general and the prospect of meeting him at his Camp David home wasn’t the most attractive. Nonetheless, I relished to find out what Camp David is all about.
Time check 12pm on this Thursday but incidentally, Gen Gwanga doesn’t pick my calls. We had agreed to meet but I proceeded with the journey in the hope I would find him there; after all, he assured me a general never goes against his promise.
After almost two hours rotating around the manned entrance to Camp David [it is guarded by the military], a tinted Toyota Land Cruiser emerged from almost nowhere and stopped by me. As I fidgeted to explain myself and where I came from, a loud voice from inside the car ordered me to get in.
There was no time to think when a door was flung open for me and I obliged. Inside were several rifles and three men; the driver and Gen Gwanga donning a blue shirt with a whitish suede trouser and a huge brown boot that seemed to outweigh his feet.
In the front passenger seat was his son whom I later learnt is Rommel Kasirye Gwanga, a burly thirty-something gentleman with an American accent.
“You came to see a general but you’re loitering like an idiot…Be a man of substance,” Kasirye Gwanga said. “Do you see all that land where your eyes stop to see? That is all Camp David and I hope you are ready for the tour.”
Little did I know that I was set for a rollercoaster tour of the farm, mostly on foot. A few metres into the ride, we stopped and he ordered us out to take a view of a large banana plantation.
“Mutabani [son], I’m the biggest landowner in this whole area and there is no other claimant like what I’m reading about this Mutungo land [which the family of Mutesa II is contesting with one Dr Muhammad Buwule Kasasa. One idiot claims to have transacted the land in 1978 when we were fighting Tanzanians…who had the time to do such stuff during war?” Gwanga boasted as he moved around to feel the air. “My land sits on 250 acres and there is no idle piece of land.”
Well, apart from being a big plantation, there was nothing special about the bananas, many of which were small in size. This prompted me to ask why he is not up to date with modern banana plants that are huge. “What you see here are the traditional organic banana plants free from pesticides. I have a mix of banana species like gonja, kivuuvu and ndiizi,” he said. “I am totally against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and I don’t spray anything on my farm.”
At the tail end of the plantation is a line of several guava trees and it couldn’t have been a better time to visit because they were ripe. I picked a few good ones to eat and they were tasty.
“I planted those trees 10 years ago but all I get from them is guava juice and the rest I give out to locals in the area as well as my pigs,” he says. “Why do you think I’m this fit to walk around? People say I smoke a lot but they forget I care about my diet. I don’t take that manufactured stuff you consume in Kampala.”
I was eager to find out how the juice is extracted but he told me the machine that does so is some distance away.
Right after the guava trees was an abandoned enclosure for rabbits. “I tried rabbit farming but they were eaten by my dogs one night…the few which survived vanished but since I couldn’t punish my dogs, I just had to abandon the project,” he said.
Camp David has a fine ecosystem with several streams passing through it. A few metres away is a fish pond that Gwanga said is one of his most promising projects.
“We just dug it up two years ago but on a good harvest, we get 100 tilapias,” he said.
However, there was little activity in the pond, which prompted me to question the viability of the project. “Look here…I’m a military man and I don’t base on assumptions like the katikkiro who promised to reconstruct the masiro [tombs] in three months but it is now more than seven years,” he said as I looked on bemusedly.
Gwanga seems to have an answer for anything and is also proving to be a master of diversion. Across the pond is a pigsty which is quite neat but there were only about 20 pigs.
“This is my initiative and we got most of these from Gen [Katumba] Wamala’s farm,” said Rommel, who was eager to show me that he is in control. “I plan to expand this facility to accommodate 500 pigs within the next 12 months.”
Rommel further took me through the vanilla plantation, which sits on five acres. Perhaps eager to impress me and his dad, Rommel handed out perks of between Shs 50,000 and Shs 100,000 to the farmers we found in the plantation.
“I give them the money to motivate them because whatever they harvest, we share equally,” he said.
Gen Gwanga chipped in: “Here, I make sure I uplift the community and most of the plantations you see here are managed by locals…For me, I simply offer guidance on the best farming methods and during harvest, we share 50-50,” he said. “I grow every food you know of on this land…I don’t eat anything from outside apart from a rolex.”
By now, I had become exhausted but the Gwangas seemed unbothered by the hot weather never mind he was smoking a cigarette all through.
Gwanga later showed a vast stretch of land which he said he donated to various people.
“In life, I learnt to appreciate people who left a mark on me. That part is for the doctors who operated on me when I was in coma in 2017 and they saved my life…It is two acres but they’ve never come to claim it,” he said. “Those guys saved my life and I will never forget it. I’m lucky I didn’t die before becoming a general because [President] Museveni promoted me just days after recovery.”
“But then why didn’t you turn up for decoration?” I prodded. “I remember some idiots ran headlines that I boycotted, kumbe I couldn’t risk attending the event just in case I collapsed and cause unwanted headlines…by the way, the other part is for Afrigo band… abo ba guy bankyamula nebwemba nga ndi wansi [the band lifts me up even when I’m down] and I donated that land to Gen [Ivan] Koreta…that part is for Siraje Lubwama [journalist and close friend] …Oyo omugwagwa oba talyagala?”
Sensing I was getting tired, he called for the driver and off we drove to the eastern side of Camp David, the side where Gwanga hangs out in his free time. “Western side is strictly plantations but here is a variety of activities,” he said.
Here, we find two tractors stationed near a huge warehouse which Gwanga calls the collection centre. “All the produce from various farms is first brought here before I decide whether to sell or give away,” he said. “I give out my tractors for free for neighbours to use in cultivating their land as long as they put in fuel.”
Rommel, yet again eager to show driving skills, started one of the tractors and drove it around ‘to check whether it is in good mechanical condition.’
Here, Gwanga also rears about 50 goats, which he describes as his most important asset on the farm. “The beauty about goats is that you don’t have to treat them yet they provide me a meal anytime,” he said.
To prove his point, he ordered one of his military guards to slaughter one for me as we set off for the western tour. As we moved around, I inquired to know what motivated him to join farming.
“I didn’t join the army to remove a government but because I had the passion to become a soldier…it is the same passion I have for farming because my goal is not to make money,” he said. “Even when I was imprisoned in Tanga, Tabora and Dodoma, I never lost the passion for the army.”
Talk soon diverted to other things.
“Let me assure you young man, youth today are wasting time politicking simanya people power…all that is rubbish when you don’t have an income,” he said in a tough tone. “Then you also shout mbu [President] Museveni should show you the successor as if anyone nominated him… For us in the army, we know the successor…there are people who can take over from him because there is never a vacuum in life.]
Fearing to go astray, we moved on to the cattle paddocks. Gwanga has about 15 cows but complained they are difficult to manage. “Cows are delicate to raise because every other time you have to call a vet,” he said.
We moved across the valley, where Gwanga has a vast stretch of maize garden with a mini forest in the background. It is a neat garden but Gwanga seemed unhappy with what he saw.
“I planted that forest but little did I know that monkeys would use it to frustrate me,” he said in an angry tone.
But just when I had turned my back to look at the damage caused by the monkeys, a loud gunshot went off. It was a heart-stopping moment that left me for dead. I was in total panic and confusion at what had just happened. There was deafening silence and I couldn’t dare turn around or move a step lest I get shot. It’s until I heard Gwanga and company laugh out loud that I realized they had pulled off a prank on me.
“Olimutiitiizi [You’re a coward]. I shot towards the forest to scare away the monkeys,” he tried to explain as wild thoughts ran through my mind. He patted me on the back to ease my tension and even offered to grant me any wish.
He later told me about his many near-death experiences.
“Imagine I survived on the frontline twice but I was almost killed by mere LDUs in 1995 when they shot me five times…Then onetime car robbers attacked me at gun-point to take my car but I ended up killing both of them…Nze sizanya [Me, I don’t joke] and I believe I’m still alive for a reason,” he said, quite emotionally.
At the end of the tour, he offered me to take everything I wanted as long as I can fit it in the car.
“Also feel free to call me and bring along friends for a party here…It can be a great experience for camping,” he said as he ordered aides to get me the best bananas.
Looking back, it was evident there is nothing fancy about Camp David but there is every reason to feel fanciful when there. Later on as we exchanged pleasantries, I wondered what inspired him to start Camp David.
“Make no mistake, it is the years I spent in jail in Tanzania that shaped my character and determination,” he said. “I fear no one and I don’t fear to engage in what I feel is right regardless of what the foolish majority may think. Don’t you find me extraordinary?”
“I’m also fascinated by myself and what I’ve managed to achieve. Sometimes I look into the mirror and I ask myself; ‘Idiot, who are you?’”
Going forward, Gwanga doesn’t plan to change anything.
“I plan to have my children take over this farm from me when I’m still alive to supervise them because I don’t want to be like Zzimwe…They grew up in the USA but I’m returning them home one by one. You know today’s kids are much smarter than us and I want them to implement what they learn there here,” he said, before diverting.
“Just like the army, for me and many of the old guard, we are analog but the young officers are digital; that’s why some are ranked higher than us. Today’s warfare has also shifted from the combat operations to the computers. When you go back, tell your boss [Ibrahim Ssemujju] Nganda to stop criticizing army promotions because the dynamics have changed from experience to technicalities.”