SPECIAL PROJECTS
 
17th November 2005
JOHN KEVIN OGEN ALIRO TRIBUTE

Adieu, dear Kevin

By Benon Herbert Oluka
WEEKLY OBSERVER

Many times in the last six months, when John Ogen Kevin Aliro, the fallen founding managing editor of The Weekly Observer, would tell bits of his life story, senior staff writer, Richard Kavuma, would ask him why he hadn’t written his autobiography yet.
Kevin would often brush him off.

Many times, however, Kavuma would not relent, because the story of Kevin Aliro’s life was the kind of stuff best selling novels are often made of.

One evening, after Kavuma had once again urged Kevin to start writing his autobiography, he agreed – but on one condition. They would have to take time off and go some place where Kevin would tell his story, as Kavuma writes.

Sadly, because of – among other things – the busy schedule at The Weekly Observer, the idea never bore fruit. And on Saturday November 12, Kevin died.

Last working day at the office

Kevin lived his last working day in the newsroom complaining of a severe headache.
But being the resilient man we had known him to be, Kevin was determined to put the paper to bed before he could seek medical attention.

That day, October 4, Kevin had provided the week’s lead story — an exclusive interview with presidential advisor, Gen. Salim Saleh.
It turned out to be his last story.
That evening, well past 8 p.m., Kevin said he was going to see a doctor.

Despite his state, Kevin was in upbeat mood. It was the last issue he was editing before starting his leave, which he had been looking forward to.

He planned to travel to Rwanda to interview President Paul Kagame, a man he considered one of his 10 best friends. Thereafter, he planned to travel to the UK.
It was therefore a surprise to hear the next day that Kevin had been admitted to Kadic Hospital.

Last Saturday, at 4:30 p.m., Kevin succumbed to meningitis. At the time of his death, Kevin was just five weeks shy of his 41st birthday – December 23.

Growing up

Kevin’s early life was far from cosy. In his mother Tereza Namukwaya’s eulogy:
“Kevin namuzaala mu 1964 e Nkokonjeru, naakula nga mwana mulungi ng’asirika nyo nga mugezi nyo. Mukaddewe omusajja yafa ng’ali mu P.5. Yali mugezi, teyaddamu bibiina. Namuweerera n’obusimbi obwavanga mu kulima mu kigo. N’anyamba n’asoma n’ayitamu. Abazungu baamuwa omulimu, n’agugaana nti tayagala kundeka. Yanjagala nyo, era nange namwagala nyo era mu Monitor yalinamu omuko ogwange. Munsabire ngume, era nammwe mbebaza okumwagala ne byonna byemumukoledde mu bulamu ne mu bulwadde. Omukama abawe nyo omukisa era munsabire nyo.”

(I had Kevin in 1964 in Nkokonjeru, and he grew up to be a quiet, well-behaved and very bright boy. His father died when he was in P.5. He was very intelligent and never repeated a class. I paid his tuition using the little I earned from digging around the convent. Luckily, he studied and made it. He got a job offer from Europe, but he turned it down, saying he could not leave me. He loved me so much, and I equally loved him; he even wrote a column for me in The Monitor [Letter To My Dear Mother].

Please pray for me that God gives me strength, and I thank you all for loving Kevin and for your assistance during his lifetime and when he was sick.

May God bless you, and please pray for me.
Kevin often told stories in the newsroom of a childhood in the convent at Stella Maris, Nsuube, where he had to learn to fend for himself at an early age.

“I used to fetch water to fill a huge tank. I used to feed pigs. Without that background, I would never have become what I am,” he once told the newsroom during an argument in which he supported child labour.

It is perhaps this kind of upbringing that inspired his career objective: “To strive to make the world a better place for all, by diligently applying myself to the tasks and challenges at hand.”

His son, Frank Kisakye, told mourners at Christ the King Church in Kampala that his father always put everything else above self.

The young Kevin later went to Nabumali High School for his secondary school, from where he was admitted to Makerere University to study for a bachelor of education.

In 1997, Kevin married Elizabeth Birabwa with whom he had two daughters; Susan Akech and Joan Athieno (nicknamed Tiny and Jojo). In a previous relationship, he had two sons, Frank Kisakye, in his first year at Makerere University and Ian Ortega in Senior One at St. Henry’s Kitovu. In 2001, Kevin went to study for his Master’s in development studies at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

An iconic journalist is born

The journalist in Kevin came to the fore while he was still studying at Makerere. He often told the story about his friend at university Henry Muwanga Bayego (who was also a scribe at The Monitor but now lives in the United States). Bayego gave Kevin his first story in journalism, when Kevin felt touched by the plight of this boy from war-torn Luwero, who couldn’t go home. He sat and wrote an article as his way of helping Bayego and other students in his situation, and a star journalist was born!

Kevin was soon spotted by the then editor of The Weekly Topic newspaper, Philip Wafula Oguttu.
At The Weekly Topic, Kevin said he took more than a month to get his first story published.
“Many times I would go to sleep at the City Square at lunch time, fearing that they would say I am eating their food for free,” he once recalled.

Once his first story was out, Kevin never looked back. He said he often wrote lead stories for consecutive issues of the paper at a time when sourcing for stories was so hard – without telephones or Internet.

Kevin’s star by then had risen so much that – together with Oguttu, Charles Onyango-Obbo, David Ouma Balikowa, Richard Olal Tebere and Jimmy Serugo – he left to start The Monitor in July 1992.

At The Monitor, where he served until December 2003, Kevin worked as a reporter, features editor, sports editor, and training and production editor, before rising to the position of editor.

But the most enduring memory of Kevin Aliro amongst Ugandan readers was his coverage of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the war in southern Sudan, and the clashes in Kisangani between UPDF and the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF).

He often joked about the monkey meat they ate in DR Congo after they ran short of food.
His trip to Congo was not sanctioned by The Monitor management, which earned Kevin the one blemish on his file – a warning letter from his then editor, Charles Onyango Obbo.

Despite all that, however, Kevin was the one who broke the story of the Uganda-Rwanda clashes to the world.

Kevin the teacher

Kevin was a teacher by profession, which perhaps explains why the majority of Ugandan journalists have him to thank for helping them find their footing in journalism.

Some, such as The Weekly Observer’s Pius Muteekani Katunzi, and columnist, Dismus Nkunda, were taught by Kevin at Namilyango College.

Nkunda, who cried while giving his eulogy in church, said Kevin influenced him so much that he became a part of his life.

Kevin often said he liked working with young people who were eager to learn. He would call reporters to his desk when he found anything he felt would benefit them.
His own work ethic was exemplary, if not unmatched. He often was last to leave office and many times, even worked through the night, taking naps under his desk!
Once, when we left the office at 1 a.m. and he drove me home, he packed by the roadside and – for more than an hour – talked about his vision for The Weekly Observer. It was as if the ideas could not wait for the next day.
But that was Kevin. He lived like there was no tomorrow.

Even at Sports’ Club Villa, where he was organising secretary, many players revered Kevin for his management skills.
Former Cranes captain, Edgar Watson, said in an interview published in The Weekly Observer last year that it was Kevin who helped develop him into not just the player, but the man he turned out to be.

A friend to all

Christ The King Church overflowed as people from all walks of life came to bid farewell to a friend.
Bushenyi Woman MP, Mary Karooro Okurut, described Kevin as, “A blend of the very cynical and the very witty; traits that make a journalist powerful and simply irresistible”.

The New Vision, editor-in-chief, David Ssepuuya, said Kevin’s death leaves the media industry “all the poorer.”

A message from Daily Monitor mourned the loss of “a young man with high potential to offer a lot more to the media fraternity and the general public.”

Franco Mugabe, the president of sports club Villa where Kevin served as organising secretary, described him as one of a rare breed in sports administrators.
Those messages and more tell the story of a man who lived his life, not just for himself but for everyone whom fate placed in his path.

Befitting tribute

In 1998, he was voted fourth best journalist of the year. Two years earlier, he had won the national Features Writer of the Year award for 1995/6.
In October 2003, a national poll conducted by The Sunday Vision rated him the 85th most influential Ugandan. Two months later, The Monitor gave him the Long Service Award.

In October 2005, Kevin, was voted President of UNEPA. He was also an Alfred Friendly Press fellow.
The yardstick Kevin has left is high. But as journalists, we owe it to his memory to set a new record.

Today, we sit gazing at his empty desk, with The Monitor plaque and one of his three rosaries draped around it. The other rosaries hanged in his car and at home and he often joked that the one at the office keeps him safe from “stray bullets” that could hurtle through the glass after a hard-hitting story; the one in the car was for road safety while the one at home was to guard against burglaries.

May be he needed one at Kampala International Hospital!

hobenon@ugandaobserver.com

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