By the time you read this, you will have probably read much of what several people have written about Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa; about who he was, and what he was capable of doing. It is those same things that made him, if I may, popular; and that drew you towards him.
It is, therefore, rather complex, puzzling and mysterious for me to paint a picture of the life of a man who spent his life painting pictures, one who did not proceed with any piece of writing because, he said to me, he treated it like a painting and did not want to mess up with its composition. He was one who respected every stroke of the brush he made while in the process.
It would, therefore, be a disastrous risk to make a mess of any reflections of a life well painted. It is a daunting task. A scary one. I do not know where to begin or where to end. I will run on and on, because, as Joel taught me, I should never leave anything unfinished.
In my case, I have after days of contemplation and pushing through so much pain on the realization of the impact of the loss, and the imagination of a world without Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa – chosen to remember and celebrate him from two perspectives; as a patient and as a partner; and then from the two, draw lessons which can help inspire us to follow in his lead and be better.
Of Pain, And The Endurance Of It
Joel was a man whose endurance had been tested, tried and found to be as tight as a drum. His life was one of pain, immense pain, whether he was alright or not so. When he was alright, he was worrying. When he was low, he was frightening. On both occasions, he kept cheerful when we talked, and was always hopeful of better days. The bright moments he shared with us could be interpreted as the only alternative he had away from his pain. We are only blessed that he shared that alternative with us.
To me, Joel had traversed the cliché that is the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, but he had done it all backward. On realization that his illness – sickle cell anaemia – was terminal, he accepted his fate and lived with the knowledge that it would hurt and that it would, after all the challenges that there are, be the end of his life’s journey.
However, before that, he was also well aware that he had things to achieve, and the ability to achieve them, and that it was all up to him to do so.
When his caretaker, Aunt Monica, his Mother, Mrs. Nyanzi Deborah, and all the people with whom I visited him in hospital were concerned about his dehydration, his weight loss, his poor appetite and more, his mind was always set on returning to the swing of things, to work, to deliver on promises he had made, to have the meetings he had missed, and to beat the deadlines he had set even when it was those same things that brought both him and us back to his sick bed.
To him, and us, his passing on would be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness was a process. And he went through his process, rather quite fearlessly. On Tuesday, February 13, 2018, we laid Joel to rest in his final resting place in Mityana, Uganda, and in doing so, put an end to a life of immeasurable pain.
Of Pain, And The Zeal To Deal With It
Joel was not the easiest of patients to take care of. He scared some of us. I, for one, am not a person who pays attention to sleeping, feeding, eating and resting but seeing Joel choose only a bottle of juice over water or food had me saying things like; “Joel, when it comes to food, eat like you are taking medicine.” I really wanted him to get better, stronger, and healthier. On days when Joel’s situation deteriorated, and his Mother’s blood pressure rose, I was on the hunt for obushera – refreshing millet floor porridge – for its nutritious value. His medicine, I noticed, overwhelmed him. Our kashera could have helped him take in the nutrients he needed to reduce his dizziness. Tusiime Samson and I were considering options for a bone marrow transplant, even when Joel had assured me that he was past the age when he could be eligible for one.
Even in all this effort to get him better, Joel did not mind much about our options. He had already stared pain in the face and, unbeknownst to us, probably said to it; “You cannot touch me, I will beat you however much you try me.”
He, thus, did not want to be felt pity for. He, intriguingly, never gave people enough reasons to feel sad for him, which was admirable. I remember a moment in early 2017; January 2017, after visiting him and realizing that he was not at all well, I returned to his hospital room with the good friend that is Crystal Butungi Rutangye, one of the many I had invited to visit him. It was not her first time to visit/see him in a hospital. He never wanted her to visit in a hospital, she noted. I am not sure – of course, but I was probably right when I told Crystal that Joel did not want us to see him in his moments of weakness.
I feel terrible knowing that for all the times he was in and out of hospital, I was there, be it on a weekdays or weekends, but I was not there on this one day that happened to be his last there. I feel horrible knowing that while he was on his hospital bed, fighting his last fight, I was, in tandem, leaving him messages that he is yet to receive, that he will never receive.
I told Joel whenever he told me that he was too sick to be seen, that he should not tell me that nonsense again for I was going to see him whether he wanted or did not.
I wish that I could rewind the hands of time, so that he could receive my texts, and respond to them with four little words; I am in hospital, the same words he always needed to say for me go share in his company.
Of Pushing Through The Pain, Together
Due to recurring relapses, Joel’s visit to the hospital -Pearl Medical Centre in Kansanga, Kampala, the only hospital he had chosen because of its proximity to home, and because of the decent care they rendered him – I had become friends with some of his nurses – were frequent. His hospital bed was the battlefield on which we made decisions, plotted, made moves, and registered a few successes together.
On his bed – it is not that there were no chairs, but we got used to encroaching on his bed – we all agreed in our lament about hospitals, in general, especially those that pretended to care for sickle cell anaemia patients, like Nsambya and Mulago, which are failures to many who were there in the same boat and on the same ocean as Joel. He could not be served at the former, and he was ignored at the latter. He chose to be administered to at Pearl Medical Centre.
It was in the hospital that we talked a whole lot, as if we had never talked before and were now in a talking competition, about writing, editing, publishing, poetry, prose, art, events, people, girls, moments – isms, family, friends and, most importantly, God.
We, Crystal and I, encouraged him to write a book on more for, at the very least, the sake of immortality. I would keep reminding him, Crystal would help with the editing, and we would all work together in sourcing for a publisher that was good enough and willing to take on the mantle of publishing his works.
By April 2017, Joel mentioned to us that he had hard work he had either finished or was about to and whose manuscripts he was going to share with those concerned in September 2017. I was pleased, immensely, when he made Pumpkin Soup available to the public. It was the beginning of what would be glad tidings.
In the duration of two years of working together as colleagues at Turn The Page Africa, Joel had written, and we had published all his eleven book reviews and he had compered several book club meetings, #TTPBookMeet, which was a hash tag he came up with.
He was such a wonderful host that the conversations we had when we met never ended. On several occasions, we had to be chased out of our meeting places, like Kanjokya House, before we took them to other, more accommodating venues like Afri-Art Gallery or onto streets, and in parking lots, until our tongues were too heavy to talk any further.
Joel, The Colleague, And Spring Of Inspiration And Encouragement
Talking, however, was not enough. I involved myself in activities that I thought would be sending rays of hope and of positivity towards Joel. For example, when, as a marathon-tourist, I ran the Kabaka’s Birthday Run 2017, which was themed on the cause that was eliminating sickle cells, I dedicated it to him.
In my post-marathon, reflective blog, I noted, truly, thus;
My run and blog about this year’s Kabaka Birthday Run were/are both dedicated to Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa, a.k.a Nevender, a friend of mine who labours under the challenge of this terminal illness, one whom I have grown to call my brother. I pray for him and others like him every other day and hope that they get better. My love for them is timeless.
We were, later, disappointed that the hundreds of millions of shillings which were made by the organizing committee, headed by a one Mr. Kabushenga, did not do anything we could identify for the benefit of sicklers in Uganda. I remember a moment when Joel and I compared notes and argued with a boda boda guy who claimed that the money collected had been put to good use, a claim he posited because one of his relations had benefited from it. We are yet to see what it really did. I told Joel that all it was an opportunity for the organisers to get a handshake from the Kabaka (King).
Ma’ Man, My Hero!
In January 2017, Joel had spent the previous three months in and out hospital. I had spent the same period deeply depressed. I was totally dormant. I could not deliver on anything, no matter how much I tried. While seating beside him on his hospital bed, I told him about my failures, which provoked him to retort with the question; Why didn’t you tell me? I could have done that for you.
Coming from a person who had spent the same time in and out of hospital I was stunned. There sat a man who was at one of his lowest moments then, being offered help from a man who lay beside him for the reason of being in an even lower moment than the man who sat beside him. It was moments like that that made Joel my man, my hero.
He went on to applaud us (Turn The Page Africa) and to share his appreciation for our efforts. He said, and I paraphrase; the movement you are leading; literature, literature is growing again, like the way it used to be back in the day, because it had totally disappeared. I was and will be always be grateful for that comment (because I understand the nature of the industry that we operate in) and will always remember it as I work on bettering my best.
Joel and I were/are all about progress. We always talked about the next thing, and worked towards getting onto it. All our E-mails, texts, calls, tête-à-tête were characterized by messages laced with a sense of direction that was moving or going only forward and upwards. We did not have time for any other distractions. At another time, one that I recall, I said to him that “We have to move all the time “, and he responded by saying that “We shall”. Joel was my champion, our champion.
Joel and I were/are big dreamers. We had/have big dreams, at least within our shared literacy pursuits. He wanted to be published, and while he was disappointed that his work was rejected by a publisher in Kampala because it had a lot of death in it, we joined his guests of the day in laughing when I told them that my work was rejected by a publisher in Nairobi because it had a lot of love in it.
Joel wanted to be the biggest, best known reviewer of books in Africa. I had started on my nascent idea and dream of being the biggest, best known distributor of books in Africa. We gave him the sign-in credentials to the backend of our website, ttpafrica.com, and our social media accounts so that he could enjoy himself while he did what he loved, while I tried to grow the business prong of the company.
Whenever a new book was made available, especially a work of prose, he was the first person to get a review copy, while Raymond Lule, a gentleman we both respected and talked about as gifted when we recommended him to Crystal, got his share of works of poetry. When he got people inquiring about the availability of books, he shared their contacts with me, and asked me to take care of them.
We would meet, together with other like-minded, and other interested persons to have conversations on books in #TTPBookMeet, the book club meetings. We sure did enjoy every moment we shared.
Of Joel’s Work Ethic
Joel was gifted with a quality that is rather quite rare in these parts, that of work ethic. Whatever it is that he set his sight on or mind to, he did, irrespective of the challenges along his path. You could say that he was bullish or aggressive about his methods of work, but it was all for good. I still do not understand where he found the time or the guts, but he always delivered, and well. He worked so hard, and he complimented his efforts with attention to detail.
I once spent a moment with him at the Pearl Guide offices when Malcolm Bigyemano and I had gone there for a meeting, and observing him perfecting a flyer for an upcoming alcohol related event. I could not understand why he concentrated on it so much yet he did not even drink alcohol. That was Joel for you. He, also, made my life easier whenever he left it up to me to post his reviews. I did not have to edit them. My proof reading was only for purposes of doing my due diligence.
It was by his works that he was known. It was his works that helped him open the windows that he needed to connect to and preach tot both the physical and the virtual worlds, those both here and away.
I have told people who had never met him, and those who did not know him, like Hannah Onoguwe in Yenagoa, Nigeria, Usher Komugisha in Casabalanca, Morocco, Kasichana Riziki Mumba in Nairobi, Kenya, Timothy Kaboya in Kigali, Rwanda, Nimrod Muhumuza in Pretoria, South Africa, and Timothy Masiko in Nottingham, to mention but a few, that I do not know how to respond to their condolence messages, or how to console them but that they can find comfort in keeping the memories they have of him close to heart, and remember him by reading and appreciating every simple message that Joel left us.
It was through his works that Joel left his mark upon every one of us. I have grown to learn and accept that no matter who you are and/or how old you are, God takes us, any and/or every one of us when he is satisfied that we have given or shared with the world (however small or big that world is) whatever small or big things that he put us on earth for.
I am confident and will find consolation in knowing that Joel left his mark upon many, and that through his work, his name will not be forgotten. Like Chuma Nwokolo, the author of, inter alia, The Extinction Of Menai, (and one whose work Joel loved and last reviewed) tweeted when he borrowed from the aforementioned title; Joel might be gone, but he is not extinct. God does not take you away until you left your mark.
Of A World Without Joel
I am yet to conceive what a world without Joel looks and feels like, I have failed to imagine it. I do not want to. I do not want to live in a world less cheerful, less comforting, less knowledgeable, less positive, less engaging, less colourful, and less of the virtues and beliefs Joel upheld.
In losing Joel, we have lost a champion for many of us, young and/or old and an angel who walked amongst us. As day comes, and night falls, for the rest of our lives, we will all miss him.
I will forever be glad and satisfied that I met, and worked with and shared a couple of years with Joel, and that nothing kept us at bay whether he was not feeling well or when he was better.
It has been said that I have a big, accommodating heart, but it does not in any way compare to Joel’s. Joel introduced me to, or rather connected me with people I did not know, people that I would have missed, people that, looking back, are now what I consider pieces of the Joel Jigsaw Puzzle, one that is incomplete because he was the first and last piece. I will take it upon myself to stay connected with them and always appreciate them while we remember and celebrate Joel’s life. Certainly, it was not for nothing.
Dude, these might not be the right kind of words to say in this country of ours, but, just like I told you several times before; I love(d) you. Our love is, like I wrote to you, timeless.
May your beautiful soul rest in eternal peace, Ma’ Man!
This writing, by Alexander Twinokwesiga, appears here because Turn The Page Africa would not be much, and would be without much to celebrate if it was not for the contribution of Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa. We are and will forever be sincerely grateful for his efforts, advice, and company.