Many people who know my sister Barbara Allimadi who passed away on Monday night in Uganda will remember her as a tireless and fearless fighter for justice, human rights, and democracy. She’s being referred to as a “lioness” by many of her colleagues in the struggle on social media postings.
Many will recall the many marches and protests she led in Kampala against militarism and police brutality and how, at her own expense, she often purchased food and delivered them to those who’d been wrongfully incarcerated by the regime. My sister gained wide notice when she led a protest against police brutality after Ingrid Turinawe, a prominent leader in the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) opposition party was violently assaulted in broad daylight. Policemen arresting her, grabbed her by her breast while she was seated in her car behind the wheels, and tried to pull her out.
Barbara and a group of young women held a protest outside police headquarters. They opened their shirts, exposing their bras, symbolically denouncing the desecration of womanhood. They demanded action by Gen. Kale Kayihura, the notorious former police commander. Barbara later became an activist with the FDC party.
When Mugisha Muntu, formerly of the FDC, launched the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT), Barbara joined. She became the party’s spokesperson for International and Diaspora affairs. Barbara was totally committed to the total liberation of Uganda and Africa from authoritarianism, neocolonialism, and all their attendant crimes. She envisioned a Uganda whose resources would be used to create products, jobs, wealth and prosperity, for Ugandans, not foreign powers.
Barbara studied engineering in the U.K., and operated businesses for a few years. Recently, she’d become more interested in history and economics, earning a Masters degree in human rights at Makerere University. I had encouraged her to pursue a doctoral degree. We often bounced ideas off each other. She insisted that I share with her materials I assigned to my students at John Jay College here in New York City. As a result, she’d started reading more deeply the works of Kwame Nkrumah, Anta Diop, John Henrik Clarke, Thomas Sankara, Steve Biko, Walter Rodney, and Samir Amin.
Last week, Barbara told me that she’d just read, once again, the introduction to Nkrumah’s “Neocolonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism,” where Nkrumah lays out his thesis that so long as Africa remains divided the outside powers will continue to exploit the continent’s resources. “Our people need to know more of our history,” she said.
Many people know Barbara the public figure. I, of course, being 10 years her senior, had the advantage of placing her on my laps and teaching her how to read. She was brilliant; here’s one story that offers some insight. It was during the 1970s, when Barbara was around three years old, and my family was living in exile from Gen. Idi Amin’s regime in Tanzania.
We were reading one of her favorite books when something puzzling happened. When I opened a certain page, the words she uttered didn’t match the words on the page. Then I noticed that two pages had stuck together; we’d skipped the page Barbara was meant to be reading. Could it be that she’d memorized that page? When I flipped randomly to another page without following the sequence, she struggled. I realized that the child had memorized the material contained in the entire book—and all the other books—based on the sequence of the pages.
So, we went back to the basics and studied our alphabets; soon, she could read any book.
Due to Uganda’s turbulent politics, our family was scattered around the world. The last time I actually saw my sister in the flesh was in October, 2007, in London, when our beloved mother, Alice Lamunu Allimadi lost her battle with cancer. Our father, Erifasi Otema Allimadi, former prime minister, had joined the ancestors earlier, in 2001.
After our parents were deceased, Barbara returned to Uganda. She was in business for a few years. But beyond just making profit she wanted a higher calling and so she followed in our father’s footsteps and entered politics. Like him, Barbara too was a Pan-African and a nationalist. She loved Ugandans, regardless of what part of the country they came from, what God they prayed to, or the political party they followed. She had magnetic charisma, beauty, intelligence, and a great sense of humor. She could engage with all.
The struggle against authoritarianism can be lonely. It can take its toll on everyone, physically, and emotionally. Barbara remained hopeful because she could not bear living in a Uganda that she knew could be a much better country. She inspired the youth, and was inspired by them.
She also knew that there were very many more comrades in the struggle. She once told me that when she was arrested multiple times for leading protests against the regime, sometimes the officers bundling her into police vehicles would say “Sister, we are with you, we are just doing our job.” She had frank conversations with some ministers, one of whom told her, he supported the struggle. Then he asked, “But who will take care of my family if something happened to me?”
This is not the correct question; such individuals must ask: “What will become of Uganda if we do nothing?” These silent Ugandans must make their voices heard. Barbara was dedicated to creating a Uganda where political disagreements did not mean that the party in power had to drive opponents into exile, jail them, or eliminate them. In recent months, as a member of the ANT, she’d been reaching out to Ugandans of all political affiliations in diaspora. Political differences pale in comparison to the common desire to create a Uganda where the constitution is supreme.
My sister was a unique and beautiful asset to Uganda. She had contributed much to making ours a better country. She still had much to offer. You can imagine the shock and pain our family felt when we were informed that Barbara was found, lying on the living room floor of her house outside Kampala, dead on Monday night. I had just communicated with her at 10:40 AM on Sunday. Her last earthly message to me read, “I hope you’re having a blessed Sunday. Mine is fine…” How can it be that a few hours later she was gone?
To all of Barbara’s friends, people who loved her, people who were inspired by her, people who worked with her in the trenches to create a better Uganda—the best tribute would be to ensure that all her sacrifice for the struggle was not in vain. We must march those extra miles and create a new Uganda.
Barbara did not live to see that day. We owe it to her to make sure that day arrives.
We might close by paraphrasing Dr. King who famously said: “…I’ve seen the promised land…I may not get there with you…we as a people will get to the promised land.”
Barbara, Rest In Peace with our beloved parents and other ancestors.
Until we meet again, dear sister, we love you. Aluta continua!