Richard S. Ssebaggala, a Ugandan who has immensely experienced devastating effects of alcoholism right from his father, uncles and other relatives, leave alone his own self rediscovery of alcoholism, takes on a case point about the demise of celebrated Ugandan music spinner on FM radios and a presenter of repute, Alexander Ndawula, to share experiences of alcoholism so that other individuals especially the young ones may learn and stay course.
This is going to be a controversial article but one feels there can never be a comfortable time to tackle this subject. It is going to be in three parts for reasons you will eventually understand.
Everyone is skirting around the fact that the late Alex Ndawula was barely functioning due to being an alcoholic for more than a decade. A radio genius, yes, Capital FM nonetheless babysat him and his chronic alcoholism, letting him slur incoherently through his show night after night for years. By the time Capital FM parted ways with him, Alex’s marriage had long disintegrated and his extremely ruinous drunken ways were stuff for open gossip. The end of that job will have severed the last semblance of relevance and a normal life that Alex will have had, leaving him finally exposed and totally vulnerable.
Alex is testimony to the desperate need for all of us to realise the effects of alcoholism, mental health and depression (often, one is a symptom if not the cause of the other) by talking about them openly instead of engaging in the current embarrassed whispers and barefaced lies. It would help sufferers, their loved ones and caregivers cope better if there was more openness.
One observer has castigated the New Vision newspaper for pointing out that Alex Ndawula was a “flawed genius”. In his words “we don’t care about the other side.” Shouldn’t we when there are millions of alcoholics out there and they are negatively impacting wives, children, relatives, friends and themselves? Not to care about “that side” is to condemn the respective victims to shame and stigma when openness and support could rescue them, is it not?
Others have tried to sanitize Alex’s death by attributing it to “high blood pressure”, a glaring whitewash which, sadly, suggests that Alex’s death is going to be yet another wasted opportunity to chip away at the stigma of alcoholism.
How do you know , I hear you ask, so much about the challenges of someone you never lived or worked with?
In a word: Experience.
More on that in part 2.
Alcoholism in Uganda – the Open Secret Killing Us
I had thought that this narrative would be in two parts, but I now see that there is a Part 3 that must also be told in order for as many people as possible to understand why we need to destigmatize alcoholism, depression, and mental health by talking about them openly.
My father was a functioning alcoholic for many years, perhaps two decades, until for the last 6-7 years of his life he wasn’t functioning. Being a Type I diabetic, he was injecting insulin on a daily basis all his adult life. His diabetic condition required that he didn’t drink at all if possible, but my father did exactly the reverse. My recollection of this part of his life was him having to be admitted to hospital at least 2 or 3 times a year on account of his drinking catching up with his diabetes and giving him whatever the medical situation that lethal combination causes. He would then go teetotal for a week or two and resume where he had left off. By the time he died, he had stopped functioning completely, had lost everything including his marriage and home, and was back in his mother’s living room in the village in Kyetume from where his body was lifted by the local villagers and taken for burial in our family’s backyard. None of his friends attended his burial. My father was 46 but looked a forlorn, gaunt, emaciated, 75-year-old when he died.
As a child, I remember vividly the shame and embarrassment my father’s friends tried to hide even from themselves at my father’s drunken shenanigans. Many of his friends were old Budonians. If you don’t know the Budonians, then think: uppity, genteel, the Ugandan version of stiff upper lip, keeping up appearances and decorum, and a Budonian must be seen to be a Budonian all the time. My father was a Budonian alright – when he was not on the bottle. Tall, handsome, with the gift of the garb, Samwiri Ssebaggala was as charming as he was sartorially flashy and conversationally irrepressible. His showiness will not have gone down well with the Budonian set because they prefer an understated presence, but my father was charming enough to fit in just fine with his fellow alumni … when he was sober.
Remember, though, that for the last 6-7 years my father was not functioning even as he sunk deeper into alcoholism. In those years, he had a pretend-job as a marketing and sales executive in an office on William Street that even my young, untrained, brain could decipher was not making him much money, if any. Yet my father had been one of the first Ugandans to work in Uganda Development Corporation, had worked as a high flyer in Tororo Cement Factory and a number of other high-profile companies and positions that his fellow Budonians would have approved of. He was a member of the Uganda Cricket Club which, in those days, met at Clock Tower most evenings and weekends. Before his slow descent into drink and nothingness, we were an admired family, thanks to the friends we had as a family and the wonderful jobs my father and stepmother held down.
Thanks to his own booze-fueled actions, many so appalling that they are best left untold, his marriage of 13 years effectively ended in 1981 and my stepmother left Uganda. The downward spiral accelerated and this time Samwiri Ssebaggala didn’t have the support system his long-suffering wife had kept throwing out at an unimaginable physical and emotional toll on herself. He suffered a collapsed lung around 1982, survived but walked with a side stoop from there on. The once respected, debonair, quick-witted and confident man I had known shrunk into a shadow of himself, lived in slum tenements for a while, and for the last two years or so, my father walked around looking like death warmed over. It was an embarrassing, humiliating, fall for someone who had once had the Lord Mayor of Kampala, Walusimbi Mpanga, eating out of the palm of his hand and whose social connections had included every who was who of Kampala’s society.
His downward spiral was, of course, not missed by his old King’s College Budo friends. Understandably, they avoided him like the plague. Being ostracized by the Budo set hurt my father very deeply, but what could they have done? Babysit a down and out adult when they, too, were struggling to put food on the table and keep their children in school during those awful days of Idi Amin and the equally terrible days of the civil war that raged in Uganda from 1981-86?
Why am I telling this deeply personal story? All the way from when I was a young boy, I used to overhear my father’s friends talking about his drinking problem in hushed whispers – at the Cricket Club, at Nook (then it was located in Mengo, near the Palace) when he was out of earshot. Then they would straighten up, change the subject, and shower him with praises about this and that and buy him even more drinks when he wasn’t the one buying rounds. Nowhere was this as regular an occurrence as at Sebalamu’s Bar which was located at City Square, at the site of what recently was Pioneer Mall until it was razed. At no point did I hear a single one of his friends suggest that my father needed help. But at no point did I ever hear my father admit, either, that he had a problem so please don’t mistake this to be a blame-laying excursion.
That left the thankless task of trying to keep my father off the bottle and on the straight and narrow to his wife, my stepmother, and her sisters who gamely stood by us though their helplessness was also obvious. Turning things around was an impossible paper because Samwiri Ssebaggala listened to no one when he was sober and was worse when he was in his boozy, depression-laden, lows which became more often than not as his financial fortunes deteriorated together with his relevance.
By the time he died in 1986, my father was penniless, homeless, friendless, and, yes, hopeless. He had sunk into totally non-functional, irrecoverable, depression. When the end finally came, it had been apparent for about two years that there was nothing more anyone could do to help him regain his erstwhile life of gregariousness, holding court, being the center of the conversation and living large. Without the social vibrancy of old, daddy didn’t know how else to live and so there was only one direction left for him to go – down. They wouldn’t admit it, of course, but it was a palpable relief to his Budonian friends who would have been totally mortified at the un-Budonian penury that my father had been reduced to in the final years of his life.
My grandmother told me that daddy had expressly requested that he should be buried immediately so that his Budo friends of yonder years didn’t learn of his death in time to attend what turned out to be a very ordinary, poor, sparsely attended funeral for a man who had once had the world at his feet. To this day, we don’t talk about it, but the truth is that my father was taken out by alcoholism and its attendant challenges.
Do you now understand what I meant in Part 1 when I said that I understand Alex Ndawula’s demise even though I never lived or worked with him?
Dealing with alcoholism
My Uncle Charles, my mother’s oldest sibling was a functioning alcoholic for decades until his problem got out of hand and killed him. At the height of his alcohol-fueled dysfunction, he would walk from whatever watering hole, through the dark Mbuya roads, keening drunkenly at the top of his voice and singing secular and Christian songs, totally oblivious of the irony. Often, he would arrive home with signs of injury, after either having been beaten up and mugged by unknown assailants or fallen and injured himself.
Other than ridicule, criticism, reprimands, threats, and tears (none of these work) from his loved ones, I am not aware of any other intervention Uncle Charles received from anywhere.
Much more recently, Uncle Eddie Kigonya (bless his soul) lost two sons within two years. Both died of alcohol-related challenges but only one of the deaths was publicly admitted to being alcohol-fueled. During the funeral service for her husband, Edward Kigonya’s wife told the mourners that her husband had struggled with alcoholism for years in vain. There had been multiple efforts that got him into a number of rehab centers, but none had been able to turn him round. Eddie’s problem had been treated as a secret and he, too, had treated it as such. Before him, his older brother, Dr. Peter Kigonya had also succumbed to alcoholism. I knew of Peter’s alcoholism firsthand, having socialized with him closely. His father admitted that alcohol had led to Peter’s death, but there was never a public admission.
They are not the only ones. For years now, and perhaps predictably given the environment I have grown up in, I have toyed with alcoholism on many occasions. Ever since I was old enough, I have been drinking some booze or other. At Makerere College School, I was suspended for 3 weeks for getting drunk on Kasese and failing to attend prep. Ironically, I took my father to school when my parents were summoned to chart a way forward. The reason why this was deeply ironic is to be found in Part 2 of this trilogy; my father was already a non-functioning alcoholic by that time.
At Makerere University, a German lecturer invited us to her home for her farewell party and I drank everything that I could lay my hands on. I passed out upon return to University Hall at 9pm on Wednesday and didn’t come to until Friday around 3pm. I learned not to mix alcoholic beverages from that close brush with death by alcoholic poisoning.
Flash forward decades to February 2021. I was taken ill and driven to hospital with a very high fever and goodness knows what else. Upon admission, it became clear that I was so severely dehydrated that the malaria that had also been discovered in my system couldn’t be treated until I was first hydrated intravenously. It took 24 liters (that is the equivalent of more than a jerrycan of water) to get me hydrated enough for the malaria medication to be administered. In the run-up to this hospitalization, I had been drinking perhaps one liter of water a month, two 500ml bottles, but I regularly put away ½ a bottle of Uganda Waragi (375ml) every evening, and more than that over the weekend … with tonic.
As had always been the case when I visited this hospital (I have been visiting the same hospital for 10 years), the doctor mentioned my drinking. As usual I admitted to it and promised that I would do something about it. After I was discharged, I spoke to someone who helped me adjust my boozy habits in ways she is not aware of – Nana Kagga. To cut a long story short, we had a frank exchange, and, amidst the laughter and banter, during which I admitted that I had been overindulging in the booze which led to the sobering hospital experience, Nana said to me “Gwe! Olina okwelabirira. Wetutuuse ffe tulina okwerabirira”. (You have to take care of yourself, no one will do that for you). It was said in such a friendly, pat, totally non-judgmental way that it registered. If Nana Kagga could see it, I would have to be foolish not to see it for myself.
Ever since then, every time I wake up in the morning after the boozy night before I ask myself “Naye Ssebaggala, werabirira?” Whenever a day runs to 4pm and I haven’t had at least a liter of water I ask myself the same question. I backslide every now and then, especially where drinking enough water is concerned. However, I have broadly stayed faithful to my vow not to drink during the week. Fast forward to six weeks ago. I decided to cut out Uganda Waragi completely and have been good. It was zapping my energy, making me pass out mid-party and then giving me insomnia because I would wake up at 1am and stay awake for the rest of the night. I made that decision on my own after talking about the issue openly … over alcoholic beverages.
This entire week, I have had two beers – actually one and a half because I failed to finish the second one. I am not praising myself. I have no intention of jumping on the “I have quit” bandwagon because I don’t want to quit. I am old enough to understand when I have imbibed excessively and there will, no doubt, be times when it happens. It is my responsibility “okwerabirira”, to ensure that it doesn’t happen more frequently than I would wish it to happen. I want no lectures, no pity party regarding my conscious decisions.
What do I feel has helped prevent me (not anyone else, me) from slipping into the abyss?
1. I am naturally not one to wallow in self-pity and I think that helps me not to sink into depression when life isn’t going my way.
2. I usually accept responsibility for my actions. When I do wrong, I own up, and when I let myself down, I also don’t have a problem admitting it to myself and others.
3. I have had no inhibitions about accepting publicly that I might be on the slippery slope whenever the boozy binges have gotten out of hand.
4. I have cultivated a set of friends who tell me openly what they are seeing, without judgment, criticism, pontificating, or patronizing lectures. This has perhaps been the most useful check mechanism and I put it down to the fact that I am also open to them about my vulnerabilities.
5. I have developed a high level of self-awareness. I understand myself; I know myself and I accept who I am without wishing to be someone else. I am in no competition with anyone, I don’t try to keep up with the Joneses, and I thus have no ego to protect by hiding or disguising my habits. Because of that, there are more people willing to tell me what they see of my conduct than if I had been secretive and /or pretentious.
6. I have gotten much better now at saying “no” to gigs, parties, outings that I would have agreed to, often reluctantly, in the past. Age has had something to do with it, but I also sincerely love my own company and I have no problem refusing to go out and staying at home to listen to Monserrat Caballe trilling the evening away, or watching Judge Judy upbraid yet another foolish defendant on her reality show.
7. Because I don’t feel that I have anything to prove, I am making my own decisions, not acting based on what others have done or what they have said they have done. Telling me that you have gone completely teetotal is excellent news – for you. I don’t wish to go off alcohol completely; I find happiness in boozy parties and I don’t want to have it any other way. “I roll my own deck/Sometimes the ace/ Sometimes the deuces” is my Broadway-inspired mantra.
8. If I fall, I pick myself up again. After all is that not what the cliché exhorts us to do? Precisely.