24 Apr Giant Killer: A Tribute to Samuel Agaba
Hope when you take that jump
You don’t fear the fall. Hope that you spend your days
But they all add up. Hope when the moment comes you’ll say. I, I did it all
I owned every second that this world could give
I saw so many places
The things that I did
Yeah, with every broken bone
I swear I lived
One Republic – I Lived
When did you last lose someone that meant a lot to you? There is an emptiness and deep sadness that follows. I lost my father at the age of ten. It was hard to come to terms with it, especially the deafening silence that trailed at the gate in the years that followed. I’d never hear his car honking, at the gate again. Over the last three years, my last surviving grandparent passed away. It was unusual. My grandmother used to seat on the front verandah with her battery powered radio. She listened to outspoken Pentecostal pastors preaching in Luganda. There, she hung onto every prophecy of good health that she heard. Her body was ailing, but her habitual practice of saying ‘amen’ wasn’t. I had to learn to see past the bareness of the verandah and the quiet that followed when she passed on. Having seen her routine almost all my life, I learnt to accept her absence and the idea suggested to me that she was in a better place. We all have our own ways of handling the death of our loved ones.
All these experiences have forced me to think about life from a different perspective. What does it truly mean to be alive? Can death ever be timely? Herbert Fingarette asked, ‘What is the point of it all?’ There are no widely accepted answers to what happens when we die. The ambiguity surrounding death has led many to succumb to manipulation. I often wonder whether my consciousness of this world will remain! Will I remember my loved ones and all the things they strived to achieve? Or, will I wander into a vacuum of nothingness, forlorn and searching for answers?
Of course, my birth religion tells me of the promise of eternal life that awaits, but, religion (in all its varied forms) has different perceptions on what happens when we die. Logic and science have even led us to greater speculation about this ‘unknown’. Honestly, sometimes I find it hard to accept the idea of existence after death and engaging with these thoughts leaves me with a lot of unresolved questions. To be no more in this plain. Is there an end or is it a new beginning that is infinite? Samuel Agaba was my close friend and prayer partner. He was full of life in every fabric of his being. The literal life of the party. Being around him was a joyous ride.
On 7th April 2021 as I was retreating from a tedious day at work, I boarded a boda boda (motorcycle) to beat usual Kampala traffic. In the midst of a busy intersection, I felt my phone vibrating incessantly. It was a call from a mutual friend who told me that Sam had passed on. In that moment, I did not know what to feel. The world seemed to pause, the noise from the hooting cars seemed to fade until the only thing I could hear in the deafening assumed silence was my racing heart. I was snapped out of my trance by the motorcycle rider.
On my way home after the call, my mind kept wandering back to the last time I had seen Sam. A few weeks back he came home to sign documents. We arrived at our gate, after a depressing two and half hours’ drive through Kampala traffic. It was dark and the moonlight was dim. Someone was standing at the gate. My mother was paranoid about driving at night. She always thought that thieves lay somewhere, waiting to target hardworking Ugandans as they returned home at their gates. Sam was standing near the gate leaning on his car. ‘I hope I didn’t scare you. I am not a thief waiting to beat you up.’ He said with a loud laughter that was met with the same reception. We opened the gate and went into the house. As I opened the paper forms and book marked where Sam would sign, we caught up. He told me about his post graduate research and start up company, Licious Foods Limited whose regulatory forms we were filling in. He was enthused, Sam had just completed his book, ‘The Tempest’ and was planning for a number of things. Hearing that Sam had passed provoked a weight of sadness, mostly reminding me of the temporariness of life. We make plans for a future that is not known to us.
In the first year of our friendship, we were part of a church youth group. One Sunday we danced in front of our local church. I was far from a gifted dancer, I was as stiff as pale dry cassava, but in church, all of us were part of the body of Christ. Church offers a lot of refuge even for us poor dancers. I guess, this, alongside the encouragement we received when we took part in church activities, kept me coming back.
We used to attend weekly bible study sessions and dance practices together. On one of our journeys, we were flagged by a police officer as we drove. We were heading to a secondary school to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, the speed at which we drove was anything but, Christian. If Sam was driving then, you really had to brace yourself. He stepped on that gas like a race car driver. On that occasion, the traffic officer who flagged us kept on rumbling for over four minutes. He said that his family had no ‘sugar’ for breakfast yet we continued to break the law. We knew that he was asking us for a bribe. I looked at Sam and we laughed at each other. The Police Officer continued to tell us about his family and wife. Although we were in the wrong, we were not going to give him a single shilling.
‘Tuwe ekipapula, Ssebo.’ (give us the speeding ticket, sir) Sam responded. At that time, we were jobless and living on meagre allowances from our parents as we awaited admissions to University. Even in that state, we insisted that he gave us the ticket. He reluctantly booked us. Our stand, defeated all logic but we were very pleased with our resolve. After we had received the ticket, we headed to the school to preach the Gospel. We scraped our pockets to clear off the speeding ticket, for the next two months. We did not mention this to our parents. That was Sam. He was steadfast in his Christian values. He always insisted on doing what was right, inquiring of the Lord and putting Him first.
We joined different universities, 25 kilometers apart. It was much more difficult for us to meet up. I was a bad prayer partner, Sam often joked. Probably because we barely saw each other during the term. He often teased that joining law school had changed me. I hope that he meant that it had changed me for the better. When we met, we spoke and caught up on what was going on. Our conversations had no limits. We spoke about school, our aspirations and disappointments. We spoke about our crushes that had thought us unworthy of their time. On some occasions, we gossiped, about our mutual friends.
‘Joel, you need to come to Makerere and support my campaigns.’ He told me over the phone. My father was a politician, but I was never keen to participate in elections. A lot was promised yet less was delivered. Despite my misgivings, I went to Makerere University that weekend. We hung Sam’s posters from one lecture room to another. He was convinced that he could use his position to do good and make things better. Sam always looked for a way to help and make others feel better. I miss that about him. He was relentless, if he wanted something, he went and got it.
As our campus time came to an end, I received an email from the Dean of the Faculty of Law. The email informed me of a ceremony I was required to attend where I would receive some academic awards from the Vice Chancellor. I was excited. My journey at law school was an unexpected journey. I forwarded portions of the email to Sam. Minutes later, my phone began vibrating in my pocket. Sam was calling.
‘Whaaaat!’ He said, shortly before he started screaming. He was so happy (I could tell from the tone of his voice). I wondered whether he was the recipient of the award. I had to attend the commissioning (awards) ceremony which occurred on the eve of graduation. Without inquiring about the number of guests allowed, he said, ‘I am coming to Mukono.’
True to his word, we drove all the way to Mukono. ‘I have to be there, to bare testimony,’ he said. For context, Sam had just battled a potentially life ending medical condition that had kept him in hospital for a long time. He probably had other important things to be thankful about, especially being alive. But he was in the car, driving to Mukono. All he was saying, ‘Congratulations Joel! These are answered prayers.’ I am in awe of the kind of person that Sam was. He wished me well and would go to the ends of the world, to be there for me.
‘You see, real friends are those that will see potential in you and will selflessly give of themselves to help you grow your value even when they will not actually benefit. It’s from those people that you actually make raw organic friendships that will stand the test of time.’ Sam wrote in one of his blogs last year.
They’d been a lot of visits to the hospital in Sam’s life but he never gave the impression that he was unwell. Over the years he had different names, ‘Giant Killer’ like David from the Bible. The phrase was popularized by Pompi, a Zambian Artist whose song (Giant Killer) had sent shockwaves throughout the Pentecostal churches in Uganda. Most recently we referred to Sam as ‘Audacious Sam’. He signed off on most of what he wrote as, ‘Audacity, Resilience, Determination.’ He was the personification of each of those nouns.
I visited Sam at the hospital. I remember one time, we sat at the Cafeteria. His father had seen to it that they’d served him his favorite, bacon. He held my shoulder and told me that he was in so much pain, that the morphine was not helping. But just as he opened up, he said, ‘Joel, pray for me.’ Sometimes he was scared too. His brother had passed away last year with a similar condition. In November last year, I sat beside Sam in the patient room. We had a long chat about the aching he felt. However consuming the agony was, he had hope. He kept on saying, ‘pray for me’. That is who he was, he pushed through every wall that was ahead of him as any Giant Killer, he was fearless in the face of fear.
I recall as we were leaving, he asked us, to stay. I understood how he felt. His room was hollow with blurred light. The beeping of the health monitors, honestly reminded me of how fickle our lives were. I can only imagine how he felt in that room, which he’d sometimes occupy for weeks. That November, he recovered. Unphased, Sam got back up and continued his master’s degree research. His life was a testimony. He was a musician (worshipper) and enjoyed spending time with friends at church premises. When Sam entered a room, he was radiant. He laughed so loudly, people always turned their heads to look at him. He was hopeful, optimistic and joyful, yet he remained brutally honest. He called a spade, a spade.
Even when I returned from the United Kingdom last year, Sam together with a longtime friend, Esther, were the first people to come and see me. I had barely arrived or even spent four hours at home. I was told, that my friends were waiting to see me. It was dark. I still don’t know why they came that night. I certainly wasn’t leaving the following morning. But that’s who Sam was. He came in shouting at the top of his voice as he always did. Very cheeky, surprising and full of excitement. He made jokes about how my accent had somehow strayed from its original form. He was the chief convener of events. He always insisted and planned our reunions from the church youth group.
Now. I struggle to comprehend his absence physically. Sam’s life was well lived, he had a supportive community of family and friends. I think about life. There is difficulty in acceptance of the reality that death creates. That a friend, a partner, a father, a mother are no longer with us and somehow you have to go on until you too, are called upon . The experiences shared together; at church, at our homes; are still very real to me, even though I cannot see him, physically. They are part of me. Sometimes, I do not want to think about the impermanence of my own life. Is it our mortality that drives us to have the meaning and purpose by which we measure our life? In Christianity, the death of Christ as recently celebrated, symbolizes death to sin and his resurrection (we are told), symbolizes victory over death for us, all. However, when my father, grandmother died and most recently Sam, it has been difficult to see their parting as a victory. I always go back to the Steve Job’s Stanford commencement where he echoes thoughts I am always afraid to speak out.
‘Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, living only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.’
C.S. Lewis writes that man’s search for satisfaction in pleasure, beauty and personal relationships (finite objects and finite persons) is incapable of fulfilling or satisfying him (read them). He argues that, ‘This sense of longing points to its origin and its fulfilment in God himself.’ ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God’ (Psalm 42:1).’ Sam believed in Jesus Christ, more than anyone (or thing) and, I find comfort in the idea that he has met his Maker.
Whatever our beliefs, death should remind us to live purpose driven lives. Sam’s memories linger in my mind, they are further amplified whenever I see our Whatsapp chat threads and the pictures in my phone photo gallery. Yet somehow, I have to live with this reality. The hardest part about grieving is acceptance. There is an inevitability of leaving places, losing loved ones. This should remind us to make our moments alive, count.
With love and remembrance.