The Independent (Kampala)

18 August 2012

Uganda: The Return of the Old Fox

book review

The corrupt, the quick and the dead

You are corrupt, quick or dead - And only the smartest will take the day

Poisoned at a bar on the orders of his wife, and admitted to hospital in critical condition, city tycoon Festo Sempa, will not die alone -- his current condition notwithstanding. A renowned wealthy housing contractor, a baroque businessman, and philanthropist, Sempa has done everything, and anything rich men do except one, getting himself an heir. He is aware, Peter, his son and heir apparent is not actually his son. He might not know who Peter's real father is, but he's sure his wife, Sofia is telling a lie of this and has the intentions to use this son as a password to his wealth in case calamity struck. And calamity might not be too far!

Endeared to Ugandans as the Old Fox and with his "innumerable and unforgettable" ribald escapades that used to run in the Sunday Vision newspaper, here is a narrative that creates fresh all that we knew about the genius who died in 2008. By all estimates, this is a signature work.

Sempa has been desperate to have a baby boy. He has consequently bedded a string of girls; from barmaids, town whores, his secretaries to new office recruits. Sofia, his official wife, deeply troubled by her husband's penchant for new wives, acts faster--she must finish him off before he sires another child to lay claim of this wealth -- wealth that she has secured through another's man's son, Peter.

Will all the women Sempa has slept with remain friendly after he's poisoned? Of course, each one of them has interests to protect, they are aware of each other and their relationship with the rogue philanthropist. How about the many men employed in his private businesses; how friendly and truthful have they been all along? The stage is set for a rush against time, luck and smartness will dictate the course of action in the next few hours, and the days ahead. This is an action-packed tale, seasoned ribald humour, complex plotting and deep satire.

The police have been involved in Sempa's business for a while in one way or another. Sometimes, they have been recipients of his generous kickbacks, and in other times, they have been the pitiable victims of his roguery. Between the time he's poisoned in the night and the break of dawn, he is not dead as had been anticipated. But in that single night, there are more than five deaths, several robberies and disappearance -- all related to the man in hospital and his businesses. One of the dead is a senior police officer! Mission Impossible!

It is a historic journey and experience reading this book. Just like Homer's Iliad, this is a modern day epic that spans territories and a thousand odds. Its main character, Festo Sempa assumes epic powers. He is to overcome odds and survive traps in ways that are in some ways, supernatural. As many of the characters are beneficiaries of blind chance and coincidence, Sempa's luck seems not to run out that easily.

Set in Kampala, the DRC, Mombasa and the Seychelles, and told in typical Old-Foxian style, this story makes for pleasant yet nervous reading. The police have a life-threatening jumble to break, one that is cast against people's lives on the one hand and Sempa's expansive business empire, on the other. One question seems to drives the tale: Who is behind these so many deaths?

Modern post-colonial writing has been focused on investigating one or two aspects of the community. Authors like Meja Mwangi of Going Down River Road set to question the spirit behind urbanisation in Africa as thousands of people got condemned to a life in slums as men were reduced to just 'hands' -- just like a cement mixer! Something Ochola, one of Mwangi's expresses in the line, "if the contractor manufactured more hands, he would need no labourers."

Tumusiime Rusedge, perhaps the most talented humourist Uganda has produced, paints us the true shape of postcolonial Africa -- a situation where progress is not only threatened by corruption in both big and small state institutions, but have to also grapple with the consequences of crude sex and scandal in the lifestyles of their people!

Like Meja Mwangi, Rushedge sets to question and expose the modern day realities. In fact, what seems to be treasured is showed as rotten at the core. How far can money run the lives of men? Sempa's quest for wealth is unstoppable, as are his business partners, wives/whores and the police.

Training principally as a surgeon but making (much of) his name as a cartoonist, humourist, pianist, educationist and author, Rushedge had also learnt the art or science of flying small planes. Old Fox, as he was widely known, travelled widely during his life, reaching as far as the Caribbean, Jamaica -- and all these experiences seem to combine and create a master narrative. For its uniqueness of style and creativity, The Quick, The Corrupt and The Dead, published posthumously, claims a special place in East Africa's world of fiction.

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