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Henry Barlow: The builder of the nation is gonePublish Date: Aug 23, 2006
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By Andrew Ndawula Kalema

HE was in great pain. He would not admit it though. Instead he would try to make fun of his situation. “They say I complain a lot, as if I enjoy it.” He would gruffly tell friends and relatives who came to visit him in Mulago Hospital, a conspiratorial smile briefly lighting up his pale face.

Even as his life slowly ebbed away, Henry Christopher Muwanga Barlow held fast onto his sharp sense of humour and quick wit.

The renowned Ugandan poet and former head of the civil service, passed away on Sunday morning, after a drawn-out battle with a broken hip that led to other complications, as a result of staying immobile for a long time.

While pointing at his wife Fayce, hovering by his bedside, he would tell visitors how he was looking forward to their 50th wedding anniversary, which was due September 1.

It is probably this show of confidence that gave people false hope. Most of them, including the widow, were caught offguard when he quietly slipped away.

Born on May 1, 1929, to John and Maliza Barlow, Henry Barlow went to King’s College Budo (1936-48) where he excelled in cricket and lawn tennis.

“He was an all rounder sports man,” recalls John Nagenda, the senior presidential adviser on the media, and Barlow’s close friend for over 50 years.

It was while at Budo that Barlow discovered poetry.

“One of my headmasters, Lord Hemingford, used to teach English. It was him who first interested me in poetry. He used to read to us English poems, the ones we could understand, and he presented them so well, with rhythm and rhyme,” said Barlow in an earlier interview with The New Vision.

He joined Makerere University College, (1949-53) where he graduated with a BA degree (London) He was among the 13 pioneer graduates to be awarded degrees. Before, the university used to award only diplomas.

He later did a diploma in agricultural economics at Oxford University at Balliol College (1959-60).

It was at Makerere that Henry met his future wife Fayce, a fellow student with whom he shared a passion for literature. They were married on September 1, 1956.

Estella Wandera, Henry’s daughter, also a published poet, recalls growing up in a family where literature was a staple.

“When we were young, both my parents were members of a literary and drama society called Ngoma Players. So, we went a lot to the National Theatre,” she reminisces.

Starting out as a cooperative officer in 1954, Barlow rapidly rose through the civil service ranks to become permanent secretary in 1963, a year after independence.

After working in several government ministries, he was seconded to the Lint Marketing Board as chairman and managing director. That was in January 1971, the same month Amin took over power.

As a non-partisan civil servant, Barlow did not immediately feel the need to flee into exile. Circumstances, however, forced him to change his mind in 1976, after a stint at the notorious Naguru “Public Safety Unit.”

“I was arrested by Amin’s famous spy Bob Astles, on allegations that I had been selling cotton to a British firm and paying the money into my foreign account. They shaved off my hair with a razorblade; others were shaved with broken bottles. I was made to lie down, and then they lashed me 50 times with a hippo-hide whip on my bare back.”

After two nights in jail, Barlow was released, with orders that he must immediately report back to office. “Friends advised me to run into exile, but I refused because I had done nothing wrong.”

All the same, he resigned from civil service and eventually moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to become the secretary general of the African Association for Public Administration and Management.

He only returned home in 1981, to rejoin the civil service as permanent secretary in the president’s office and head of the civil service.

“The public service was more or less destroyed by the Amin regime,” Wilson Okwenje, the former public service and cabinet affairs minister in Obote II government, described in a press interview last year the department Barlow was appointed to head. “Experienced people had fled the country and were in no hurry to return. Steps were taken to attract and fill top permanent secretary positions with highly qualified and experienced Ugandans. Accordingly, we appointed talented individuals such as Henry Barlow.”

Although he had applied for retirement in 1984, Henry was only able to retire from Civil Service in 1987. “Because I had suffered enough with politicians, I didn’t want to go immediately after Museveni came in (1986). They would say I was a saboteur. So I served for a year then retired in 1987.”

After his retirement, Barlow served as a member of the Zimbabwe Public Service Review Commission (1987-89). He also kept busy doing consultancy and charitable work, while at the same time pursuing his life passion — poetry.

Although he started writing in the mid 1940s, while a student at Budo, his collection of poems was first published in 2000, almost 55 years later! But even before they were published as a collection, Barlow’s poems, especially Building the Nation, were already popular with poetry lovers both in Uganda and abroad and they regularly appeared in literature journals and text books.

Based on his experience as a widely exposed socialite, a devoted family man, a lover of nature gifted with an inquisitive mind and a rare sense of humour; which at times could be mistaken for sarcasm, Barlow’s poems appeal to people from all walks of life.

In spite of his achievements, both as a public administrator and a writer, Barlow maintained a low profile, especially after retiring from civil service.

He kept out of politics, apart from 1994, when he stood for Constituent Assembly in Makindye East.

After the elections, he disappeared back in his den, to re-emerge in 2000 to promote his book.

“He evaded the limelight, and was self effacing, although he knew his true worth,” Nagenda describes him.

Since Barlow was not the lamenting type, very few people were aware of the great physical and emotional strain he and Fayce went through for more than two decades, while nursing their two children Fay and Chris, whose crippling childhood sickness confined them to the wheelchair for the bigger part of their lives. No wonder Barlow mentions them in several of his poems, and also includes them in his dedication.

Barlow was buried yesterday at Munyonyo Salaama after a memorial service at All Saints Cathedral, Nakasero at 10:00am. He is survived by a widow Fayce and three daughters; Maliza, Estella and Filipa.

Building the Nation

Today I did my share
In building the nation.

I drove a Permanent Secretary
To an important, urgent function;
In fact, to a luncheon at the Vic

The menu reflected its importance:
Cold bell beer with small talk,
Then fried chicken with niceties,
Wine to fill the hollowness of the laughs,
Ice cream to cover the stereotype jokes,

Coffee to keep the PS awake on the return journey.

I drove the Permanent Secretary back.
He yawned many times in back of the car

Then to keep awake, he suddenly asked,

Did you have any lunch friend?
I replied looking straight ahead
And secretly smiling at his belated concern

That I had not, but was slimming!

Upon which he said with seriousness

That amused more than annoyed me,

Mwananchi, I too had none!
I attended to matters of state.
Highly delicate diplomatic duties you know,

And friend, it goes against my grain,

Causes me stomach ulcers and wind.

Ah, he continued, yawning again,
The pains we suffer in building the nation!

So the PS had ulcers too!
My ulcers I think are equally painful
Only they are caused by hunger,
Not sumptuous lunches!

So two nation builders
Arrived home this evening
With terrible stomach pains
The result of building the nation
- Different ways.

From Building the Nation and Other Poems by Henry Barlow, Fountain Publishers, 2000

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