The Sunday Uganda Airline flight UR202 to Jomo Kenyatta Airport was a rare one, pumped up with emotions from the cabin to the cockpit, interrupted by tears and feelings of sympathy, and climaxed by a symbolic show of unity.
The whole show, a teary affair, a biological romantic story, a whole nostalgic event was created by one Henry Mutebe, who had gathered all his savings over time to splash them on his village-bred guardian Wilson Dhabangi aged 74.
Dhabangi picked interest in Mutebe after the death of his father in 1996. While he did not contribute financially to the education of Mutebe, Dhabangi symbolic for his monopoly in tattered clothes then, his inability to afford more than one shirt in ages and his signature battered bicycle as his only source of wealth, fixed himself voluntarily as a father figure to Mutebe despite not having an ounce of blood relationship to the toddler.
Mutebe himself was a primary school student, unable to decipher the harsh situation that life had tossed him into, let alone understand that their mother had now to juggle being a provider and keeper in the eternal absence of their father.
Mutebe narrates that at such a time, “my mother had to work double to sustain us. Sometimes she spent weeks away from home. To be sure that I was getting a good education, she decided to take me to Namalemba Boarding Primary school- then a very powerful school along Tirinyi-Mbale road in Eastern Uganda. Unfortunately, many times, she never had the opportunity to come visit me.”
“In 1997, in our village, there was an old man called Wilson Dhabangi who used to ride a bicycle Boda Boda (bicycle that carries passengers for pay- it is now long gone as motorbikes have taken over that space). He was about 50 years old. He looked frail and beaten by the thorns of village life. But to earn a living, he had clung to riding a bicycle for a living. He was visibly weak but spiritually strong.”
It is no secret that Dhabangi just like many other people at his age in the times did not know how to read or write but he kept one prized trait that is the rarest to find in men until today- TRUST.
As such Mutebe narrates that Dhabangi was the most preferred courier that the villagers ever laid sight on and he never ran out of errands.
“His job was riding the bike to ferry passengers for a little fee. Sometimes he worked for free. He was simply a good man,” Mutebe narrates.
“One day this man learned that my mother had been away for too long…and yet I was at school. He decided to come and visit me. We were not related…but he was and is a good man. The first Sunday, he visited me became the beginning of many more visits that stretched over three years.”
“He was old, wore worn-out slippers, had no shoes, and wore the same shirt. All the children at school knew him as my father. Some children would bully me that ‘your father is old and rides a bicycle.’ When someone wanted to pick on me, that was the line. I was that kid from a poor family who is visited by an old man wearing tired slippers, an old torn shirt, and an old bicycle.”
Dhabangi did not stop visiting and he was there each and every Sunday come rain and sunshine or even both at the same time.
“Sometimes he carried a half kilo of ground nuts prepared by his wife, other days he simply came to talk to me. One day he brought a tin-filled black tea.”
According to Mutebe, the distance between school and Dhabangi’s humble home of abode was at least three hours by bicycle and one had to ride through a hurdle of broken culverts, impassable stretches of the road, steep parts of it and whatever, but Dhabangi armed with only his bicycle and a mysterious interest to be a father figure to this child unknown to him, braved it all, and ensured he never missed one moment.
“One-time water almost took him. He was saved by some boys who were fishing,” Mutebe narrates.
“Wilson (Dhabangi) did not get a formal education- He got a better education- Life education. Every time he came to school, he would always advise me to ‘read hard’ and not ‘eat the seed.’ I remember in 1997, he told me that if I don’t read hard, I would end up like him and suffer,” he adds.
According to Mutebe, in the talks they later had while they sat on the sidelines with their gnuts, Dhabangi kept encouraging him to read hard so he can be able to fly in the sky aboard air buses and test success with the stars up there.
“He said if I succeeded, then even people like him who never got an education would perhaps have an opportunity to fly. For whatever reason, he always emphasized the issue of flying.”
Dhabangi loses sight
For a man who never lost sight of his foster child, it was unfortunate that Dhabangi would later lose his natural sight.
It took the intervention of good Samaritans who were able to turn his misfortunes around through surgery and grant him another opportunity to see his goodness through Mutebe.
And indeed in 1999, a surgery was successful and he regained his sight.
Dhabangi’s loss of insight was a wake-up call for Mutebe to start preparations to surprise the old man with his dream, although he was only a secondary school pupil with no surety of his next Shs100.
“For years, I have always felt a debt in my heart for the love this man gave me. I wanted to give him a surprise. For the last one year, I have been saving money to make this happen.”
“This week, I managed to get an air ticket for him and another special woman who helped us when our mother was away- her name is Rebecca. She literally would mother us…and has remained my mother’s best and most loyal friend.”
For a man of his type, of course, Dhabangi had never been to the airport, not even in his night dreams and the closest he had come to a plane was in 1974 when the chopper of President Idi Amin Dada landed kilometers from his village.
“So…I have been secretly planning a trip for these two people- Wilson and Rebecca to thank them. Yesterday, every piece fell into place and I managed to get them from the village without them knowing where we are going. I had succeeded in keeping my surprise until I realized there was no way a PCR test was going to be done without them asking. So, I finally broke the news. Wilson cried. My heart sunk,” Mutebe narrates.
“At his age, he had retired…lives a quiet life, and did not have much hope about anything. So, this came as a surprise. Today (Sunday) at 8 am, in what felt like a movie, we lifted off to Nairobi aboard Uganda airlines.”
Uganda Airlines staff provide the icing on the cake
Mutebe had expressed his interest to Uganda Airlines to help him make this trip memorable to Dhabangi and Rebecca and when the airline management chanced on the story, they were so elated to create a story that will forever be etched on the 74-year old’s heart.
A staff identified as Doreen Nambatya in an email reply to Mutebe signed out with a vow “we will ensure it is a memorable trip with us”.
“So…after all the passengers were seated and we are ready for takeoff, someone makes a special announcement. Uganda airlines said they want to celebrate Wilson Dhabangi and Rebecca for the good they have done. They tell us that Wilson, Rebecca, and I have been upgraded to Business Class and we should therefore shift and join the Business Class. I could not hide my excitement. I was so humbled. I helped my man Dhabangi Wilson get up, and led him to the Business class where we comfortably sat.”
“The pilot came over…thanked them…and said he had been inspired by their story. We set off for Nairobi. After we hit the skies, the Pilot again narrates my story with Wilson and Rebecca…and dedicates the flight to them. I can’t explain to you how overjoyed I was that Uganda airlines made this a special experience for me, Wilson and Rebecca.”
Just like a toddler, Dhabangi’s tongue was decorated with questions and he kept spitting out one after another, from why the plane was going up to what would be holding it up there.
Of course, for a man of his type, he was heavily challenged with technology, at the thought that he is in a big bus floating in the skies and looking at the world from God’s elevation angle.
When the questions were done temporarily, he switched into memories, and was clogged by the fulfillment of the idea that he indeed had made it in life, it was not the battered bicycle anymore, not the tatters of second-hand clothes and even though temporarily, the images in his mind drove him to tears.
“He cried at some moment…while also laughing. The reaction of the passengers was also humbling. When we landed at Jomo Kenyatta airport, many passengers were so very kind…they came and thanked the old man and Rebecca. They also commended me for not forgetting this man…I felt so humbled. How could I not?” Mutebe poses.
I have been on planes for some time…but I have not felt so happy as I was today. I remembered this man picking me from school on a bicycle…and children laughing at me because I was being taken back home by an old man riding a bicycle.
As I looked over the horizon, memories raced of this man…riding his old bicycle…visiting me…every Sunday…for three years. I remembered his old man’s shirt…his torn slippers and a tear slowly dropped down my cheek. More importantly, I saw the value of doing good…because you can never tell what may come back to you.
I have looked to this day for years…the day I would put this man and Rebecca (I call her Aunt Becca) in the sky…and fulfill my promise to them which I made when I was young. I told them that one day, we shall fly together in an airplane. I am glad that life has given me the blessing to achieve this dream.
We are spending the night in Nairobi- Kenya. Today he has been around parts of Nairobi, visited the giraffe center, Nairobi animal orphanage, and seen the environs of Nairobi. I would like to thank Uganda Airlines for making that flight special and sharing the story of the man with a big heart. That was service beyond all expectations. I am very proud of you.
To all the Wilsons and Rebecca’s of this world, thank you for giving us a hand…believing in us…and showing us unconditional love. God bless you.