Obituary: Five years with Pius Opae

Pius Opae Papa in his golden days at The Standard

As the norm was before global warming set in, rain would fall in Mukono unannounced. At Uganda Christian University (UCU), registration for new entrants was then being done under tents in the new stadium. I was fully registered by 10am of November 4, 2010 and so was he but the van meant to transport the fresh fish (us) to the hostel allocated to us, Joyka, was yet to show up.

The rain persisted, the tents filled up and together with our suit cases, we stood still, clueless about what time the shuttle would arrive, where the hostel was, where we could get a drink, but nonetheless we waited in the soaked stadium.

Realising that my neighbour had similar characteristics as I: puzzled, confused, hungry and angry, I walked over to him, extended my arm as if to shake his hand. “Alex Taremwa,” I said.

He obliged and shook my hand firmly saying “I’m Opae, Opae Papa,”he added as if to reaffirm his position.

After a few minutes of exchanging small talk, we realised we were not only waiting for the same shuttle to the same hostel, we had also been admitted to do the same course, Mass Communication.

We proceeded to get the same hostel room and that would remain so until 2013 when we graduated. Even now that we had grown to stay in different apartments, we found each other in the same house most of the time.

Marshal (a nickname I gave him after he continuously wore his checked shirt with a U.S. Marshal label) and I took a brief encounter in a congested, soaked stadium and made a great friendship, later a brotherhood out of it.

We were so compatible and predicable that we would arrive at the same career choices. We both joined as reporters for the Daily Monitor from Tororo and Mbarara, respectively, before joining The Observer , where I wrote for a couple of weeks before quitting due to double loyalties.

He was a magnanimous person who would sacrifice his last penny to help someone expecting nothing back.

Opae and Alex Taremwa (the writer) in 2013.

His attitude towards work was as aggressive and indestructible as it was towards his books. Opae never, at any moment, handed in an assignment late both at work and school. His editors and lecturers can attest to that.

He trusted my instinct more than he trusted me as a person. I remember in early 2014 after being invited for a job interview at UCU, he asked me to take him through a mimic interview session to gauge if he was ready. “Tell me what your instinct tells you,” he demanded. “Will I get this job?” Yes, I nodded.

He got the job as a news editor at The Standard , the university’s community newspaper, a position he used to raise and inspire a number of student writers, through guidance and mentorship, a goal we had set ourselves, if we ever got editorial positions.

Opae will be remembered in and out of his friend zone as someone who walked where there was no path but left a trail for most to follow.

His passion for journalism, his wisdom and logical reasoning, his laughter, warm embrace and his undisputed pursuit for the truth, professionally and personally, will always set him apart.

He always spoke blatantly, honestly and intellectually, a trait most who didn’t know him well mistook for arrogance.

He liked to shave his head bare. I know this because we had the same barber. We were ‘thick as thieves.’

He preferred that we take regular walks and always spare 30 minutes daily for our meditation. We were not Hindu but meditation was the best stress therapy we used.

We confided in each other for advice and always relied on each other’s counsel, which explains why he came to me recently to help him decide on where he would pursue a Master’s from a plan he wanted to execute next year. He said the world is drastically changing and soon enough, a Bachelor’s would be overtaken by events.

Final three months 

His last 100 days were spent selectively with me. He picked a few essentials from his apartment and moved to my place

These three months were the highlights of our friendship.

He opened up about

himself. He told me his dad had passed on when he was six months old and introduced me to his mother Eunice, and brother Azalia who is yet to complete O-level.

As my response to this gesture, we agreed he would travel with me to Kazo, Kiruhura District, where he was to meet my parents and celebrate Christmas with us. He died the same day we were supposed to travel.

Opae made a lot of friends across all demographics, most of whom became mutual in the long run. Obel Oscar, a former classmate described his death as a loss to the country, a view that was shared by Jeremiah Guma and James Kato, who frequented our hostel room for daily debates. They referred to him as ‘Timothy Kalyegira’ and me as ‘Andrew Mwenda’, because despite our close relationship, we hardly agreed on anything, especially politically.

Connie Musisi, UCU’s Career Development and Placement officer, knew him as a hero who never diverged from the truth even in the face of threats and constant provocations. Juma Seyyid, the manager of Rock Mambo FM in Tororo, where Opae trained and presented a sports show, said he had a bright future.

About an hour before his demise, Opae strolled by this radio station where he had a lengthy chat with his former colleagues before jumping on a boda boda that caused his death.

Most people, including myself, first treated the news of his death with denial, the first stage of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ The five stages of Grief. I couldn’t believe that someone so full of life and joy, who carried himself carefully with an aura of a philosopher would die that young at 28, with his entire future ahead of him, without a child in his name.

Even as I responded to the numerous calls, texts, Whatsapp messages, I left a room of suspense with the hope that maybe someone will tell me, “Hey, it’s not him.” I couldn’t stand the reality that I was never going to see him again.


The text message 

On November 23, 2015 at 11:54pm, Opae had sent me the most emotional message I had ever read. He was then on a field trip assignment with the agriculture-focused NGO known as Agriculture Business Initiative Trust (ABi). They had checked into a hotel in Kasese town after a long day.

The text he sent read: “Alex, if I have ever wronged you forgive me, I do the same. Our friendship is stronger, we are more than brothers.” 

I didn’t know how to reply his text. It was oozing with emotion, love and more love so I decided to sleep over it. After two minutes, he called and demanded to know if I had received his message. Yes, I replied before asking if all was well and why the message tone was sentimental.

He told me we had to be ready for anything, arguing that we lived in an anything-can- happen environment and that is why he wanted me to know how he truly felt about me. I told him the feeling was mutual and asked him to rest.

Opae passed on exactly 30 days after he had sent me the message. Was this his way of saying goodbye? Did he have a premonition he was going to die one month later? All I know is that he will always have a special place in my heart.

We had more joy in his last days than I might ever grab in a lifetime. And I hope that one day, when it’s my turn to go, he is the first person I meet at Heaven’s Gate when I open my eyes. I hope to meet my friend and shake his hand.