By Dr Martin M. Lwanga
Late one afternoon as I was going about my daily chores of teaching and writing about management, I got a call from one distinguished gentleman of society. He wanted me to come over and look at the business model of an industry where he was an investor. It was a Kampala hospital. I was only vaguely aware of it then. So I did some quick research and discovered that the brain behind it was someone called Professor Richard Kanyerezi.
I knew a little about the Professor of Medicine. As a child of a nurse stationed at Mulago hospital, I had grown up in the shadow of some of the best doctors ever to grace this country. These were the African Mulago doctors of the 60/70s who took over once the Whites left. Mainly from humble backgrounds, kids who had grown up bare footed from African villages, they had stormed the best medical schools in the world, excelled with honors and though sought abroad returned to serve a country they loved and called home.
My mother who served under many of them, through sparkling clean wards of those days, stood much in awe of all. Back home she could not wait to share with us their exploits. The list was endless.
She would mention Professor John Kibuka Musoke, a pioneer in cancer research who was the first African President of the Association of African physicians. There was Professor Sebastian Kyalwazi, the first African surgeon in East and Central Africa and a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. We could hear of Professor Jovan Kiryabwire, the first African neurosurgeon in East and Central Africa. We knew well Professor Stephen Bosa who drove a grey combo, always past our house, along Gayaza road, to his home not far, the first Professor of Psychiatry in the region.
And of course, there was Professor Richard Kanyerezi, who stood in equal stature.
Now I felt rather intimidated being called to go and size up the business started by the hero of my childhood. In fact when I had left the country for further studies in the US and for the first time got to know how blacks were perceived as anything less, for me, I could only chuckle. I had grown up in the wings of amazing great African brains. How could I feel inferior when great men who exercised their minds unsparingly for good like Professor Ali Mazrui and of course, Professor Kanyerezi, had lived not far from our home.
Anyway, for old time’s sake, we agreed on a date and time. At the hospital in Kololo there I met another prominent distinguished gentleman well known to me in a dark suit promptly waiting. He was also an investor in the hospital. The Board had delegated both to invite me and see how the business was doing.
After catching up on little town talk, in walked Professor Kanyerezi. Of course, by then I knew more of him, having been attending some social functions organized by his children, old school mates. He came over and in a very friendly voice said: “This is the great man we’ve been waiting for!” Now that threw me off! He was so nice, refreshing and calming, like meeting a favorite Uncle.
We moved to a quiet room to discuss the business. Clearly a number of investors were not so enthused with the state of the hospital. They had taken out loans and mortgages to bankroll its founding expecting dividends. The two Board members lightly shared their concerns. Then the Professor took over.
I pulled out my notebook. The Professor started by giving an account of how the vision of putting up this hospital was born. As doctors, many had long been frustrated that Uganda lacked a hospital of high repute which they could rely on. In its absence, they would send their patients to Kenya, South Africa or far away. “Why can’t we start a high-class hospital to save Ugandans from going overseas because we can offer the same treatment here.” They often would murmur.
Professor Kanyerezi was not just a dreamer but a man of action. The land was secured in Kololo but finances to start were lacking. In between came wars and exile of a dark era. Not to let the vision die the Professor one day, now in his 70s, decided to call upon some of his old friends to invest in this vision. Slightly less than a dozen rallied and joined him in this noble journey.
For those not in the know, the health care business is one of the most daunting. It is an intensely cash-driven business with high daily outflows to cater for personnel and drugs. The equipment can be quite costly. In a market without a national insurance scheme and where the pocket of many are stretched to cater to just basic needs niche hospitals like these are bound to struggle. There are not for the faint-hearted.
Without notes and speaking with great fervor, the Prof gave a good expose that in spite of the setbacks this was a solid business. He appealed to his other investors not to tire so soon. The dream of having this niche hospital was too beautiful that they could not just walk away from.
After the end of the meeting, I considered putting together a consultancy team to help boost the hospital’s fortunes. However, there was also another idea, perhaps more urgent.
I could see that the hospital was eating up my hero, which I did not like. The Prof looked a bit frail. Then his wife, Elizabeth, was bedridden, a particularly trying time to be in with a struggling business. Elizabeth was sister to Rev Sylvester Kadu, with whom I enjoyed chatting up about life and other issues and felt endeared to the family.
So, I decided to look up the Profs eldest son, my friend Tim. “Why not advise Mzei to give up on the hospital and enjoy his cool retirement!” I mentioned when we caught up.
Or should he! I had doubts though. How many men in their seventies, perfectly settled in society, kids out of the house, could think of starting one of the best hospitals in East Africa, which involved taking on a huge debt, among others, I wondered. All that was needed was to support this late-blooming entrepreneur.
One of the key ingredients in business success is a committed visionary. Many business start-ups collapse because of half-hearted commitment. From what I had seen the Prof was not an absentee landlord. He was there day in and night to ensure the business succeeded. I knew he would eventually win.
Richard Kanyerezi was the son of Asanasio Masembe. Born and raised in Mityana he grew up in a household where he was instilled in values of hard work and a prayerful life that would steer him well in life.
Kanyerezi’s paternal Grandfather was Yokana Kamya Kajjongolo, a Gombolola ( sub-county) chief who had fought in the religious wars that split the Baganda at the turn of the century. As part of the winning Anglican party, he was now a large landowner and also a businessman trading in cotton.
Chief Kajjongolo was a deeply religious man. In her book, “It’s pity it is not a boy”, Joyce, his granddaughter narrates how the day in his vast house manned with servants started with him leading all his household in prayers and closing it at night in prayers. Those prayers, as time would tell, would serve his descendants well.
When Kajjongolo’s second son, Masembe, came of age, he contacted his friend, Gabriel Serunyigo to find a suitable marriage partner. Girls at that time were being raised and groomed for the job of a home maker. They wouldn’t go far in school ( even for those who could afford) and after picking up simple writing and math skills they would return home and wait to be married off.
The Serunyigo home had four promising well brought up girls. They had been trained in craft making and knew how to read the Bible. Serunyigo who had also served in the religious wars of that era took his friends request seriously. He believed the youngest girl in his house, Manjeri, would make the best wife.
The problem was Manjeri was still a tender 14. So Masembe was advised to wait. When Manjeri made 16, it was time for Masembe to wave bye to bachelorhood. On 17th October 1931, the two love birds were wedded in Bakuya Church in Singo. The wedding was reported in the Anglican Church Newspaper, Ebiffa mu Uganda!
Kanyerezi came soon after Joyce, of the couple’s 17 children. Masembe was a man who highly valued education and at 6 took Joyce to a girl’s boarding school, Nalinya Lwantale in Ndejje. Kanyerezi himself was taken to Mityana Primary on to Mityana Secondary school. A bright kid in 1952 he progressed to the prestigious Kings College Budo as a science student.
Budo was then led by Headmaster Timothy Cobbs. There Kanyerezi who loved playing football met and made lifelong friends. Some of these are Paul Mugambi, later a professor of mathematics; Sam Kajubi (RIP), later a professor of nuclear medicine; Dan Mulumba, proprietor of Kampala Junior Scholol and Norman Shalita.
From Budo Kanyerezi was admitted to Makerere Medical School. It is there that he also began a courtship with Elizabeth, whom he soon married after he graduated as a medical doctor.
In 1966 the young East African nation of Uganda had begun to dismember, a mere two years soon after her birth as an independent nation. Relations between the founding President Mutesa and Prime Minister Obote had frayed and irretrievably broke down.
Mr Masembe who had risen through the Buganda civil service and was now Head of the palace protocol had seen one by one of Mutesa’s friends, the very people who had convinced him to embrace the ill-fated UPC/ KY alliance abandon him, crossing the floor to join the UPC government. The Kabaka was increasingly isolated and sat in his palace lonely, surrounded by just a few trusted friends.
Mr Masembe was much like his father Kajjongolo, a principled man. He decided he would not abandon the Kabaka although well aware of the central government plans to invade the palace and take him out “dead or alive!”
Talking his daughter, Joyce, who had now graduated from Makerere University, becoming the third woman graduate in East Africa, he told her he had swore absolute allegiance to the throne: “Woligwa Wedingwa!”
Finally, in May 1966, the central government forces of Obote led by a one cruel fellow called Amin moved in with furious gunshots. Masembe was one of the hundreds of the Baganda who quickly came out to defend the Kabaka. They were poorly armed. He was shot and lay wounded. Red Cross ambulances were not being allowed to come and take out the wounded for treatment. He must have bled to death as later traces of him failed to yield any result. To this day the remains of Masembe have never been known were they were interred along with some other brave Baganda who died in the Mengo battle.
Kanyerezi had moved to UK to specialize in rheumatology. Joyce whose husband Fred Mpanga, as Buganda government Attorney General, was also one of those being sought “dead or alive” advised him not to return after his studies. “Things are not good for the Baganda!”
But Kanyerezi was now the heir, and Father to his over a dozen siblings. What would happen to all the siblings still in school? The two graduates had to find a way of enabling them finish school, and get on with their lives.
In writing about the the life of the Late Peter Nyombi, Uganda’s former Attorney General, I shared how he as the eldest son set the pace for his siblings who later all progressed to play an important role in society. Here we find the same case of what I shall call Pace setters. Joyce and Kanyerezi as the eldest children would lead the way for the rest of the siblings, paying their fees. They who would all grow into persons of influence.
Doctors are persecuted
To be a medical doctor in a young nation scarce of skills one would think that only a bright future lay ahead. However, in this new self-governing country things were quickly spiraling out of control. After General Amin overthrew his old ally who had declared himself President Obote from power, in 1971, the soldier now in the seat of power soon sent the young nation into an economic free fall.
In 1972 Amin expelled Uganda’s community of Asians who had long been part of the economic fabric of the country. Shops and factories were given to a queue of illiterates whose badge was being African but lacking in business management. In no time shelves and stocks had run out.
Professionals like medical doctors had now to dabble in private practice to make ends meet, previously unheard of. My mother would come home and whisper, “so and so doctor has left or disappeared!” Life now revolved around hoarding the most basic essential items like soap, salt and sugar. Fuel was being rationed.
Fresh from Harvard University where he had got a doctorate degree as a Fulbright scholar, Kanyerezi was one of those doctors who chose to stay and serve his country. This meant working under increasingly unbearable conditions.
In 1976, at 42, Kanyerezi was promoted as a full professor of Medicine. He served as Head of Department of Internal Medicine introducing there a Masters Programme. He was inducted as a Member and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.
After the fall of Idi Amin in 1979, there was some hope that normality would return to Uganda. But following the removal of Professor Yusuf Lule in just two months the nation soon descended into widespread killings now targeting medical doctors.
Dr Jack Barlow, a dentist who had served through the hard times of Amin was shot dead in his house by unknown assailants. Soon followed Dr Joseph Kamulegeya, the Chief Medical Officer at KCC. Life in independent Uganda in the words of the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes had become “nasty, brutish and short!”
Kanyerezi had up until then never shown any aversion towards politics. But in such troubled times good men could not just continue seating on the fence. In 1980 there were General elections to usher in a new government. One of the contestants was Obote, the man whose forces had killed his father.
Kanyerezi now decided to join others in forming the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM). It was mainly a movement of young fire-spitting radicals led by a Marxist enthusiast, Yoweri Museveni, hailing from Ankole region. The movement was seen by some as a third way in Uganda’s troubled politics, bringing in a new voice between the UPC and DP, which had all been aligned to religious factions that were seen by some as the source of all the nations’ trouble.
In the elections that were clearly rigged in favor of UPC acting on the orders of the Paulo Muwanga who later became Vice President, the UPM scooped only one seat. Soon after its President, Yoweri Museveni, took to the bush to fight the new UPC government led by second time President Obote
As a known member of UPM Kanyerezi’s life was now in danger. President Obote declared he was “omuyekera” and wanted. He decided to flee and relocate to Kenya. His family was now divided. In her book, Joyce Mpanga, recalls struggling to secure traveling papers for the children to visit their parents. She could not dare mention they were Kanyerezi.
In Kenya Kanyerezi was followed by Uganda state agents as often his home would host guerrillas coming in and out of the bush front line. Once he narrowly escaped being abducted (which happened to a one former minister of Obote, Balak Kirya ). Someone eavesdropped to him about a trap ahead which he eluded and survived. Partly to elude his captors he took up an expat job in far way Saudi Arabia.
Return from exile
In 1986 the NRM overthrew the government of General Okello that had just overthrown Obote in 1985. Home is always best. Without waste Kanyerezi packed up his bags and returned to his house in Rubaga, just below the Catholic Cathedral.
Unlike many others who sought to take up big government positions in the new regime Kanyerezi simply went back to his profession. He opened up a private clinic. His was a simple life of going to work every morning, attending to his patients and driving back to Rubaga to pass time with his wife Elizabeth and their two girls and two boys.
But the dream of opening a hospital was always on his mind. In 2007, now 73, when most men and women have long given up on their dreams, Kanyerezi assembled some of his best friends to put up money to start Kampala Hospital.
Fast forward. A decade later, in 2017, I run into the Prof in Kamwokya at Kisementi. Now 83 he was still working at the hospital. The business had moved past its worst and was now flourishing.
So we talked of other things. Although I had since become aware of his heroic role in the NRM struggle I had never heard of him being honored. King’s College Budo had though recognized him with its highest award. We talked about the state of the country and how things had fallen apart.
“How did you end up with Museveni as your leader?” I asked him, looking up Mulago hill where he served for many years.
“We had no idea!” He said and then jumped into his car and waved me off with that endearing smile.
Late one afternoon in the middle of last year following the death of my cousin, Nabulya, the wife of his partner, Dr John Nsimbabi, I saw him came over to grieve with the family. That is when I first noticed he was now looking a lot weaker than the last time we talked. He was being aided as he walked.
Early in December of last year I saw him again at the book signing of his sister’s biography. I thought of walking up to greet him but I could clearly see he was not well.
Surrounded by his family he was dressed in a dark suit, and had that calm and ever reflective face. Soon after the event, I heard his condition had taken on for the worse. I called my mother as I often do whenever I hear of something about the doctors she served under and relayed to her the news. She was already aware through her networks of retired Mulago hospital health care workers. “All of them our Mulago doctors are going!” she said.
On December 30th, 2019 Kanyerezi breathed his last.
The measure of life
There is an important event that happened towards the end of Kanyerezi’s life. Through the diligence and prayers of his children, the Prof received and accepted Jesus as a personal savior. This must have brought a fresh smile to his Grandfather Chief Kajjongolo who had instilled in his household the importance of putting God first in one’s life.
Kanyerezi’s life was of course not easy. It portrays in a way the pitfalls of the African professional class in a young nation. What would have been a dazzling career was derailed with family assassinations, scarcities, an exile and business uncertainties. But Kanyerezi persevered against the odds and made his life meaningful.
In Kanyerezi’s life we see that purpose unfolding in a lasting contribution that would long outlive him for the betterment of humanity. Late in life he still believed in his dreams and started a hospital.
Kampala Hospital has since excelled in providing Magnetic Reasoning Imaging and CT scanner services. Whereas it is true that Ugandans still have to fly out to other nations for services not found home, there is no doubt Kanyerezi helped save the lives of many from that burden.
Lt Col Besigye ( Rtd) who was not just a student of his but ended up as a fellow warrior in the struggle to free Uganda of the tyranny of bad leadership that has long crippled this nation, at his funeral service in Namirembe, said it well: “If it were not for this hospital I would long be gone!”
Heaven awaits with open arms those that do good!