By Robert Mugagga
The drum sergeant and Uganda band maestro “Okello” was successful in his career, partly because he was passionate about it.
The Late Venancio Okello was, until late 1990s, a household name throughout Uganda. Nursery school children would be heard singing songs praising him. The former Uganda police band drum major, who passed away in 2002, served both Kenya and Uganda diligently, something that provided him with an opportunity of meeting so many important people he had never dreamed of meeting.
The late Kenyan president, Jomo Kenyatta, for instance personally donated to him a walking stick in appreciation of his work in the Kenyan police band. Okello served for 16 years and 11 months as the band master of the Kenyan police band. During this period, he moved about a lot with Kenyatta to perform at many State House occasions.
During a particular cold period in Nairobi, the band would pitch tent with Kenyatta in Mombasa as the late president had a heart problem and during the cold period of the year he preferred staying in Mombasa with its hot and humid climate.
Okello had left Uganda for Kenya in November 1952 shortly after retiring from the Kings African Rifles (KAR). On leaving the KAR, he first returned to his home in Gulu. The same year, his long-time friend and music director in the army, George William Watch, was transferred to the Kenyan British Protectorate, where he joined the Kenyan police.
It was Watch that alerted the Kenyan government about the outstanding music qualities of Okello and advised that he be recruited. The Kenyan scouts later approached him in his home village of Bwobo, Nwoya County in Gulu. He was jobless and miserable.
The scouts found Okello at home but because he had not yet paid graduated tax, the visitors were mistaken for tax collectors and thus fooled that Okello had left for Kampala a day earlier. It was only after the Kenyan introduced themselves and presented a letter from George William Watch and the Kenyan government that Okello stepped forward.
He put on his worn-out sports jacket, one of the few possessions he treasured and together they headed to the Gombolola (Sub-County) chief. The chief was in a jovial mood and told Okello to get ready to go to Kenya where his services were greatly needed.
The Kenyan police band had just acquired new band instruments and badly needed the services of a highly skilled band leader. Okello, however set a condition for the Gombolola chief before he could set off. He demanded that he be paid his delayed army retirement package to enable him marry and build a house at home.
Within a day the Gombolola chief processed his papers and paid him his dues. However in 1952 with the Mau Mau uprising in high gear, Okello couldn’t risk taking his new wife along with him.
In Kenya, Okello’s music skills and his stylist marching with the drum stick quickly earned him popularity and within no time he was the talk of the land. He served diligently as a sergeant in the Kenya police and watched as the British Protectorate acquired independence in December 1963.
During the parade, then president Jomo Kenyatta whispered to Milton Obote who was seated near him, that Okello was a Ugandan. Obote was said to have been left speechless and could not believe what he had just heard. He summoned one of his ministers, Alex Ojera immediately and instructed him to arrange for a meeting with Okello at the end of the day’s celebrations.
Ojera happened to be Okello’s In-law; Okello’s younger brother, Noah Okello, was married to Ojera’s younger sister but after spending many years without seeing him he couldn’t recognise him. Ojera’s attempt to woo Okello back to Uganda however hit a dead end as the band maestro was not willing to leave Kenya.
It was five years later, in April 1968 that the Kenyan government finally bowed to pressure from Uganda and persuaded Okello to return home. He was one Friday morning summoned to the Internal Affairs office in Nairobi and told by an official, Tom Tony, that Uganda wanted him back badly and that the Kenyan government had been forced to let go of him. On the eve of his departure, a grand party was held in his honor and among those in attendance was then Kenyan vice president and minister of Internal affairs, Daniel Arap Moi.
Back in Uganda, Okello found a disorganised police band whose leader was immediately told to step aside and become his assistant. His first performance was on Labour Day observed in Mbale. The army band due to officiate at the occasion was at the eleventh hour told to step aside for the police band. Okello’s performance soon endeared him to the crowds and he became a household name throughout Uganda.
Okello was one of the very few police officers with a distinction of having served in all Ugandan governments. He played the same role in the Ugandan police band in Obote I, Idi Amin, Lule, Binaisa, Muwanga, Obote II, Lutwa and Museveni regimes.
In 1975 Amin sent Okello to study music and band administration in London’s Nella School of Music where he spent a year. During the early 1970s when Amin killed many Acholis and people from Lango in the army and police, Okello feared for his life and started spending nights away from Nsambya Barracks and would sneak back there early in the morning. When Amin heard about it, he immediately summoned Okello, assured him of his safety and in front of several top army officers declared: “Okello is our flower; whoever touches him must be sent to the firing squad.”
In 1976, Amin promoted Okello from sergeant to full lieutenant, after being thrilled watching him perform in Rukungiri during the Co-operatives Day celebrations. It was Obote who in 1984 promoted him to the rank of Assistant Superintendant of Police (ASP). Later Okello became the Director of Music in the Police Force.
When he retired from the Force in 1992, Museveni summoned him to State House, Entebbe to bid him farewell and personally gave him Shs2 million in appreciation for his services and authorised him to be given 50 bags of cement. During his almost 40 years of service, Okello is said to have tumbled and missed the drum major stick only once. It was in 1971 at Nakivubo stadium during a Nations Cup qualifier between the Cranes and Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) where the home side was trailing.
An Anglican born in the late 1920s to the late Kila Okello and Beatrice Akello, Samuel Okello had to change his name to Venancio Okello in order to gain admission into the highly regarded Roman Catholic managed secondary school at Layibi (now St. Joseph’s College). The college then didn’t admit non-Catholics. By A Web design Company
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