Remembering The Late Israel Wamala, Founding Editor – BBC Focus on Africa, Uganda Diaspora Lifetime Award Recipient

 Remembering The Late Israel Wamala, Founding Editor – BBC Focus on Africa, Uganda Diaspora Lifetime Award Recipient

Israel Wamala may be little known in the United Kingdom but at the height of his career at the BBC World Service he was a household name to millions in Africa. The programme he edited, Focus on Africa, was obligatory listening for anyone who was interested in the intricacies of African politics. The rich, the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed all tuned into Focus daily to catch up on the turbulent events sweeping the continent: independence, civil wars, coups, assassinations and famines.

Wamala was born on Christmas Day in 1932, the son of an influential chief who was close to the Kabaka (king) of Buganda. He was small in stature but, by all accounts, tough. He was a flyweight boxing champion while still at school and considered a career as a boxer, much to his parents’ dismay. He was educated at King’s School Buddo and at Makerere University where so many of the East African political elite rubbed shoulders. He was sent to London to study law at the Middle Temple but, apart from a brief spell in chambers suffering at the hands of a hostile clerk and informally giving legal advice to the notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman, he never practised.

His BBC career started while he was a law student. He dropped by Bush House to do freelance work during the holidays, and his talents were quickly spotted. He had a fine broadcasting voice. He was bright, lively and fluent — just the kind of person the World Service was looking for to front its programmes for Africa.

By 1967 Wamala was already well established. He was an extraordinary boss. For ever engulfed in a haze of tobacco smoke, he wrote scripts on the back of the packets. He could not type and was hopeless at editing tape. The Focus office was a cauldron of noise and chaos as guests popped in from Africa, and producers shouted on bad telephone lines to correspondents all over the continent. Wamala was always serene and unfazed. He never panicked, never lost his cool, and the programmes, somehow, went on air without too many hitches.

He had the good sense to employ ambitious young producers who came to learn the trade and then moved on to the brighter lights of television. They were aggressive and hardworking. Wamala knew how to harness their energy and the programme flourished. Every day was exciting; civil wars raged in Nigeria, Angola, Mozambique and GuineaBissau, as governments were toppled in Ghana, Ethiopia and his own Uganda, and as the liberation nooses tightened round Zimbabwe and South Africa. Wamala insisted that the facts were right but otherwise let his staff get on with it.

He was a wonderful interviewer — polite but insistent. Politicians could not lie to Wamala and get away with it. He was also even handed — he may have hated the racism of minority right-wing regimes but he was equally tough on the purveyors of left-wing liberation cant.

Wamala never intended to stay in England. For many years he refused to buy an overcoat or a jumper, insisting that he was about to go home to Uganda and would not need them. But the years slipped by and eventually he compromised and bought a mackintosh and a white umpire’s cap. He was fiercely patriotic and a Buganda royalist, but Uganda was not a politically attractive place for him to return to. The Kabaka, Sir Edward Mutesa, had been driven into exile by Milton Obote, the President, in 1966. Mutesa, or King Freddie as he was known by the gossip columnists, lived in London, and Wamala was a frequent visitor to his house. He claimed to be the last person to see him alive. Then came Idi Amin, whom the Buganda first supported, but soon came to realise was a murderous thug, deeply suspicious of anyone with an education. Wamala followed events back home with deep sadness but covered them professionally. The Focus office had a constant stream of Ugandan visitors with stories of the horrors back home, but Wamala would not let them on air unless he was convinced their stories were true.

Wamala liked to spend his evenings in the BBC club. He drank Bell’s whisky with soda and nothing else. Surrounded by friends, he would discuss politics late into the evening.

Outside work Wamala was a very private man. He loved to go on long solitary walks on Hampstead Heath. He appreciated English literature. His favourite book as a child was Wuthering Heights and he could quote at length from Macbeth and Hamlet. His favourite television program was One Man and his Dog.

Although he never married, he had two daughters: the first, from a relationship in his youth, died of hepatitis in Kampala; the second, by the radio producer and writer, Fiona Ledger.

He returned to Uganda in December 1988, disappointed that he had been passed over as head of the African service. He did some work for the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation and Action Aid. But by 1999 he was not a well man. At a meeting two years ago in Kampala his faithful driver delivered him in his beat-up car for a drink at a bar. He was no longer drinking whisky — “just a very small beer before bedtime”. He was still talking politics and was still very good company.

He is survived by his mother, Grace Serwaniko, his daughter and a large family in Uganda and abroad.

Israel Wamala, BBC broadcaster, was born on December 25, 1932. He died on March 4, 2006, aged 73.

Source — The article above first appeared in the Times of London.

On 30th December the Uganda Diaspora Network will posthumously recognize the contribution of the Late Israel Wamala in developing the (BBC – Focus on Africa) program and Journalism in Africa.

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