Commonly known as Fatboy, radio personality James Onen recounts how he joined radio and his controversial stances on marriage and atheism, among others. He spoke to Carol Natukunda and Carol Kasujja
James Onen swears he will never marry. Not in a million years. Yet, he dreams of having children one day and only after he has found the right woman.
In Onen’s estimation, marriage is not practical.
“In the past, marriage worked because it was needed for survival. It was difficult for a woman to survive without a man and vice versa. Children were an input, economically.
But once the women became economically independent, they began to seek relationships out of excitement, not for the long term benefits. They can cope without men. Men too can easily look after themselves without a hustle,” he says.
He goes on: “Will I have children one day? Yes, when I find the right person and at the right time. Will I get married? No. I am immune to social pressure. Most people fear to be criticised but I do what I want with my life. I am able to lead my own path. ”
To his legion of fans, Onen’s views on marriage are as provoking as they are astonishing. Most of the people who have listened to him on his Sanyu FM Breakfast show have labelled him a radical.
Those who follow him on social media think he is crazy. For instance, on his 39th birthday, on June 19, Onen posted on his Facebook wall: “39: I sleep well knowing I have no responsibilities, no children, no wife.” As expected, he got all sorts of reactions.
Was he joking? Onen laughs, before re-affirming that he feels proud and lucky.
“I cannot condemn people who have children and other responsibilities because that is their choice. My life is my choice. I work hard for myself. Apart from my rent, when it is the end of the month, I am very satisfied that all that is left on my bank account is mine. No school fees, nothing,” he says, leaning back in his seat.
As the interview goes on, we suddenly realise that this 39-year-old, is simply being honest.
Perhaps his free-spiritedness is thanks to his upbringing. Born in 1975 to Ambassador Julius Onen (the Permanent Secretary in the tourism and industry) and Eunice (a retired secretary), Onen grew up in Tokyo, Japan, where his dad worked. He is the first born of five children — on his mother’s side, he is quick to add.
“For a man in Africa, you can never be sure how many children they have. He might have had a child in school, so I am my mother’s first born,” Onen jokes.
Growing up in Japan, Onen could speak Japanese. But his parents had to enroll him into an American school in Japan (1981-1986). “We were taught in English. In fact, when I joined school, I was speaking mainly Japanese and broken English. I had to first study language for a whole year,” he says.
Could his liberal stances on just about any issue that concerns society be due to his years in the American School?
In his own admission, however, he does not know a single word in his dad’s native language — Luo. He has great childhood memories of winter, travel, his little Japanese friends and his cousins.
Onen’s family eventually returned to Uganda when he was 10 years old. He went to Kampala Parents School from 1986 to 1988, and later Kings College Budo for his O and A Levels (1989-1995).
Contrary to common perceptions, Onen does not rub it in your face that he is a Budonian as many former students of that school do.
“I do not subscribe to that stuff. You have ministers, rich men all making sure that they take their kids to Budo. It is like a conclave of the upper class.”
In 1995, Onen was admitted to Barkatullah University in India for a bachelor’s degree in Commerce. He returned in 1998 after graduation to look for a job.
As he narrates, you cannot help envisioning him as a mean-faced accountant. Maybe he would be working at a big audit firm, wearing suits and holding huge files of balance sheets if he had stayed on course. So why did he join the radio industry? Did he hate maths?
“It is boring,” Onen laughs.
It turns out that after searching for a job in vain, Onen set out to start a video library which also doubled as a bar.
“It was a kafunda bar. And I was living behind that bar, which was in Bukoto. One night, as I was listening to the radio, I thought the DJ really sounded horrible. I wondered how he could even have a job. I thought to myself: “I can do a better job. My business was not doing well. I owed my landlord sh1m in rent, so I was desperate to find a way of paying it off.”
The next day, Onen walked up to Naguru, where Sanyu Radio was located at that time.
“I told the station manager that I was interested in working for the radio station. I did a voice test and was invited to do training.”
Later that year, 1999, Onen started as a presenter of the afternoon show — a job he did so well one would never think he was a commerce graduate. He feels it is about flexibility and passion.
“The radio industry is full of people who do different jobs. You do not need to study broadcasting to be a good presenter. Seanice enrolled for mass communication when she was already a presenter. Crystal started working while in her S6 vacation. Alex Ndawula (Capital FM) was a club guy. Dr. Mitch is a vet by profession, but look at how well they have performed,” he explains.
The nickname FatBoy
Between 2001 to 2004, Onen had a short stint with VR Promotions agency and the then Monitor FM, before making a comeback as Sanyu FM breakfast show presenter.
“When I returned to Sanyu, people said I had put on weight and was considerably bigger than I was before I left. They started teasing me and Seanice brought the joke (Fat Boy) on air,” Onen says with a broad smile. It has since stuck and transformed into F-Bizzy.
The nature of his job
On a recent Facebook post, Onen said his demanding job which requires him to wake up at 4:00am is the reason he has not had children. “I think I exaggerated a little bit,” Onen says laughing hard. He, however, admits that the job has had an impact on his social life.
“My hours are crazy. I have been going to work at 4:00am since 2004. I do not stay up late. And I spend a lot of time reading and researching so that my show is great,” he says.
Maybe he could date someone at work during the day, we suggest to him. “Those things are tricky,” he laughs, again. Still, there are immeasurable pleasures.
“It is not a 9:00am to 5:00pm job. When most of you are starting your work, my day has ended and I can do something else. Sometimes, I pass by offices to visit my friends with office jobs for a quick chat over coffee,” he says.
In his free time, you are likely to find him on the Internet playing video games or simply watching cartoons.
On being an atheist
Onen’s peculiarity is not just about marriage. He is a self-claimed atheist in a country teeming with millions of believers. He does not believe in religion, yet he has a Christian name (James).
“A name is just a name. I have kept it for the same reason that the days of the week were named after the gods,” he says and goes on to explain that Sunday is Sun’s day, Monday — Moon’s day, Tuesday — Tiu’s day, Wednesday — Woden’s day, Thursday — Thor's day, Friday is Freya’s day while Saturday was named for Saturn.
“All those things are gods. So a name is just a name.”
He also questions why Christians celebrate Christmas every of December 25, yet it is not even in the Bible. “December 25, in the Roman culture, was associated with the birth of a certain god.”
He insists that anywhere in the world, his views are not peculiar.
“If you make your research, you will find that atheism has a following in some countries. It might look like an anomaly here, but I believe with the Internet, that is changing as people get more exposed,” Onen says.
Life as a celebrity
As one the most famous radio personalities in Uganda, Onen is paying the price of fame. Not only is he judged by his bachelorhood status, but he also has no privacy.
“Recently, I lit a candle at my house and I got a Whatsapp message from someone asking me what the occasion was. I do not even know the number. I like to use public transportation, but every time I do, people want to know why. But there are good moments too. Like the girls being all over you,” he jokes.
Having presented alongside Melanie Kaita, Allan Kasujja and Seanice Kacungira, who have since moved on, you would think that Onen is static. He does not see this as a problem. In fact, he says with more radio stations coming up, it becomes difficult for people to keep track of their favourite presenters.
“People think you have to constantly keep moving. Everybody keeps telling you to do other things. But most of the great radio Disc Jokers (DJs) in the developed world are over 50 years old. In a saturated market, you need brand recognition,” Onen says.
So even if a few years down the road people call him expired, Onen will still be on top of his game.
“We are now competing with the social media. We presenters used to entertain people, but they are now entertaining themselves. I continue to find ways to be relevant,” he says, adding that he plans to create a platform where people will talk about the media and changing trends.
Marriage and kids
At this point, our chat shifts back to marriage and kids. Onen feels that increasingly, children are becoming an expensive venture.
“Some people tend to view children as a status symbol or accessory and obligation. But for all the money you invest in your children, there is no return. Mothers do not even have the time to look after their children because they are working. You find a three-year-old in a boarding nursery school with the housemaid virtually keeping the home.”
“It is not that the men are failing to adjust to today’s career and emancipated woman. Marriage is not suitable anymore. Hire a housemaid to do the cleaning and cooking. An educated woman is only good to hang out with. Marriage does not benefit men anymore. Whatever benefit is there, it is not worth it,” he concludes.
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