Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Plastic pen and wet paper: My tribute to James Mulwana

As it happens when a man of such stature in our society dies, we are wont to use words like “icon”, “genius”, “great”, “pillar” and those glowing terms. While deaths and funerals are sad events, they are occasions where our hypocrisies are on a grand display. However, in case of Prof James Mulwana, there is a description that I have hardly heard in eulogies of other ‘big men’, that is humility.
And this time, unlike other funerals I have attended, it seemed to be the common description used by whoever got chance to say something about Mulwana. It was easy to see that they meant it.

I had always heard and read of James Mulwana in connection with manufacturing, industry and big business. So, you may understand why the first time I saw him in person was quite underwhelming for me. It was way back in late 2006 when Makerere University decided to award honorary professorships to a few prominent citizens in recognition of their contribution to society.

He was one of those recognised that December morning more than six years ago. I was then a public relations officer at the university; that is how I came to attend this ‘star studded’ affair. I think it was best move Makerere University made with its initiative to link academics, research and industry.

I don’t remember what Prof Mulwana said in the speech upon receiving this honour. But what I remember is that he did not take it as a crowning moment like many ‘big men’ in our society would take it. He gladly and humbly (oh, that word, I am trying to avoid it but with Mulwana you cannot) received the title and was focused on the ‘what next?’ How can this be used to advance the cause of the university in a mutually beneficial way.

The ‘what next?’ came after that. I, together with a Students’ Guild minister, worked on getting him (going through the relevant channels, definitely) to come for a students’ exhibition where a number of innovations were on display. Then, we run into ‘roadblocks’ in trying to get in touch with him. Some of those officials whom we had to go through to reach him, in not so subtle ways, discouraged us from even thinking that he would honour the invite and come to the event.

Eventually, someone advised us that the best way to get him in person (among the many places, we could reach him) was the office he used as Honorary Consul of Thailand. Indeed, we met him there and he said “Yes” straight away.

On the appointed day, he arrived at Freedom Square on time and he was led on a tour of the different stalls. Two things happened here that showed me why he was such a great entrepreneur.

First, when he was presented with the visitor’s book, he refused to sign it with the pen he had been given. Instead, from the breast pocket of his suit, he pulled out a Nice pen and used that.

The second was when, while on the tour of the exhibition, he met this young student making various products from waste paper, which was very available at the university, using rudimentary means: a bucket, water, ash and a sieve. He was so impressed that he gave this young man Shs500,000 (about $200) on the spot to further his innovation. On top of that, Mulwana gave him an appointment to meet him and they discuss ways of how he can be supported in this.

I clearly understood the second incident, he had a keen business sense and he clearly saw the opportunity ahead of this young man if he could be guided in the right direction. But on the first one, I was lost. So, after officiating at the closing ceremony of the exhibition, as he was going back to his car, I approached him and asked him about his refusal to use the other pen.

He asked me: “Where is the other pen made?” “I don’t know, probably India,” I replied. He said, “Imagine if we used our own products, how far we would be?” With that, he got the pen from his pocket and gave it to me.

Indeed, if we all used Nice pens, he would make much more money. But more importantly, by us using those plastic pens, we would help support an industrial base upon which our economy would grow, and all the benefits that would accrue to our country and its people.

While there was a self interest in using that plastic pen, there was a selflessness in supporting that student to turn wet paper into a variety of products.