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Legendary comedian goes blind

By Vision Reporter

Added 26th April 2010 03:00 AM

CALL him an animator, a clown, anything, but that is what catapulted him to fame. He treated us to rib-cracking jokes and imitated some of Africa’s greatest people. For many years, he earned a living from the exploit of mimicking people.

CALL him an animator, a clown, anything, but that is what catapulted him to fame. He treated us to rib-cracking jokes and imitated some of Africa’s greatest people. For many years, he earned a living from the exploit of mimicking people.

By Arthur Baguma

CALL him an animator, a clown, anything, but that is what catapulted him to fame. He treated us to rib-cracking jokes and imitated some of Africa’s greatest people. For many years, he earned a living from the exploit of mimicking people. But today you will, perhaps, not notice the comic and jolly face when you chance upon one of Africa’s most celebrated comedian, Ben Phiri.

The man who used to enjoy every bit of attention because of his ability to mimic people’s voices with precision, is weighed down by ill-health.

The clock is ticking so fast that if no urgent intervention is made, Phiri might permanently lose his sight sooner than later.

Dressed in a casual multi-coloured kitenge shirt and a pair of trousers, the towering Phiri walks with his head slightly tilted. His big eyes are covered by a pair of spectacles. But through the crystal clear lenses, a circular cloud can be seen covering the retina of his right eye.

All his actions and physical appearance are a complete contrast of the man who brought laughter on every one’s face, including the battle-hardened generals like President Yoweri Museveni.

Phiri arrived in Uganda last week seeking to meet his friend and role model President Museveni. Medical reports from Dr. Mark Deist, of Sand Hurst Eye Care Centre, South Africa — where Phiri was referred for an operation — show that he needs a cornea transplant at a cost of 80,600 rands (about sh22.5m).

What worries Phiri most is that he did not see this coming. After he had undergone a similar surgery which left him penniless on top of selling his property to meet the medical bills, a transplant is what he least expected.

Phiri suffered a serious kidney and liver malfunctioning which was not detected early enough. His health progressively deteriorated without doctors knowing what the problem was.

In 2006, he was diagnosed and treated but the problem had already caused him an eye damage which doctors call retinal detachment. Retinal detachment is a disorder of the eye in which the retina peels away from its underlying layer of support tissue. Initial detachment may be localised, but without immediate treatment the entire retina may detach, leading to vision loss and blindness.

Indeed in 2007, this condition left Phiri blind. Dr. Mwala of Lusaka Eye Hospital referred him to Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre for specialised surgery.

Apart from a referral letter, Phiri had no money for treatment and air ticket. He sold his deep freezer, a refrigerator, a 21-inch TV set and a home theatre music system to raise money for treatment.

After the surgery at Kirimanjaro he was able to regain 45% of his sight. However, after he left hospital, his right eye started losing vision again. When he went back, he was told the cornea of his eye was damaged and required a transplant.

As if he had signed a pact with bad luck, soon after receiving the heart-wrecking news, Phiri also lost his mother. According to his culture, as a first born son in his family, HE could not travel far until after a period of one year after his mother’s death, making him endure with the eye problem.

Why is he in Uganda?
Phiri is a Zambian who, by virtue of his citizenship, qualifies to benefit from the Zambian health care system. So why is he running to Uganda?

“It is true the government of Zambia has a programme through the health ministry to evaluate cases that require special medical treatment abroad,” Phiri explains.

However, he says this applies to cases considered to be life-threatening. “In my case I may lose both eyes but this does not mean I will die the following day. My case is not an emergency, according to the law. That is why I am trying to work on it through friends.

“I would like to make a passionate appeal to President Yoweri Museveni, the person I so much admire, in his personal capacity to help me undergo this operation. I sold all my household items to clear my medical bills of my initial treatment, and used the little money I was left with to give my mother a befitting send-off,” Phiri says.

The 45-year-old rose to fame in 2001. The comedian excited the crowd during President Yoweri Museveni’s swearing-in ceremony at Kololo Airstrip. He also used to mimic Anna Bozello, a former BBC Kampala correspondent and Nelson Mandela.

“I started imitating people’s voices at the age of eight. I mimicked our parish priest and a school messenger so perfectly, all my friends enjoyed it. That is when I knew that I had a special talent,” Phiri says in a low tone uncharacteristic of his hey days when he was on top of the game.

Phiri might have started by mimicking a local priest but the high moment came during the World Tourism Day celebrations in 1989. The towering comedian was seated among the guests at the Lusaka Inter-continental Hotel when he was asked to step forward and imitate the voice of the then president, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, who was the chief guest.

For some time Phiri remained a small-time comedian entertaining guests at weddings and graduation parties. It was at one such function that he met someone who connected him to President Museveni, the man he had longed to meet.

He eventually met President Museveni at State House in Nakasero in June 1996. His love for Museveni made him name his 14-year-old second born Museveni. The boy is now in S.5 and he has always been the best in class.

While the popularity still lasted, Phiri was contented that mimicking voices had enabled him dine and wine with many African leaders. He has also performed at the Support the Child Dinner in Gaborone, Botswana in 1999.

A few months earlier he had mimicked Museveni’s and Mandela’s voices on the Today in Africa programme on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

His dream was to set up an academy of comedians in Uganda but this is yet to come through almost 10 years since he hatched the plan.

“I have initiated a lot of development projects in my area, like a health centre at Simecha village to cater for a population of about 15,000 people,” Phiri explains.

And as a mark of honour to Museveni, this health centre was named Yoweri Museveni. “In respect and recognition of the immense, individual contributions that President Museveni has made, I decided to name the health centre after him.

Phiri is married with three children including a set of twins.

Fact File
1964: Born at Nyimba Hospital, Eastern Zambia. Phiri is the first born in a family of 10

He went to St Francis Primary School for primary education

Joined Msoro and Chizongwe SS for secondary education

Obtained a diploma in marketing from the Zambia Institute of Technology

1993: worked as an advertising and sales promotion assistant for the Zambia Industrial and Mining Corporation (ZIMCO)

2001: contested for the Kasenengwa parliamentary seat but lost

Although a registered member of the United National Independence Party (UNIP), Phiri intends to stand again in next years elections for the same post

Legendary comedian goes blind

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