Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tales of Idi Amin's chief cook

Today, it's exactly five years since His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular, died in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. We revisit the life and times of this dangerous and murderously unstable, and some say misunderstood, individual. Today, we meet a man who served as head cook for President Idi Amin and says there was nothing strange in the late president’s refrigerator, and that the former head of state never ate human parts...

"To my shock and disbelief, mean faced soldiers stormed my house one fateful night, yanked me from my terrified family and frog matched me to a waiting vehicle even as my wife screamed frantically. I was under arrest for planning to kill the President." - Otonde Odera

Days to the 1978 Entebbe raid audaciously played by the Israelis in Uganda, field marshal Idi Amin Dada — then a raw dictator, life president and the self-styled commander of the British Empire (CBE) had literally dispatched his official cook to the gallows. Crime? Veiled rumours that the cook, a Kenyan, had designs to kill him.

Otonde Odera, now aged 73, struggles to hold back tears as he recalls the four nights of terror he spent gawping at death in the drab and bedimmed Nagulu police station cells outside Kampala. "To my shock and disbelief, mean faced soldiers stormed my house one fateful night, yanked me from my terrified family and frog matched me to a waiting vehicle even as my wife screamed frantically. I was under arrest for planning to kill the President," they croaked.

"After a hellish drive to the unknown, I was tossed like something unwanted into a dark cell milling with people waiting to die for various cooked up offences against the state. The killers, all towering brutes drawn from Amin’s Kakwa tribe used bludgeons and machetes to finish off the hapless prisoners who numbered in their hundreds. As the prisoners fell one after the other, the killers would say in Kiswahili: tangulia tutakutana kwa Mungu (go ahead, we shall meet in God’s dominion).

Otonde re-lives four nights of horror during which he waited for his turn to be culled out and hit on the nape of his neck to embrace his ancestors. "On the fourth night, I heard someone shout wapi Otonde (where is Otonde) and I mumbled the last prayers to my creator as my entire system went numb. With my eyes tightly closed for the anticipated final moment, I was suddenly grabbed and hustled into a waiting police 999 car that immediately sped away towards State House. I sat dazed, as though in a stupor. "My wife and children were there, waiting. She was apparently my saviour, having cried all along that I was innocent and could not harm the president I so dearly loved. We were put into a lorry and driven to the Kenya/Uganda border at Busia. The air of freedom flowed into my lungs immediately I was safely on Kenyan soil and all the way to Asembo, my rural home.

Otonde says he had thoroughly enjoyed his work under Idi Amin until some envious people poisoned the President’s mind with lies that he intended to kill him. "He trusted me to cook for him after the ouster of Dr Milton Obote for whom I had cooked since 1962," says Otonde. An eerie smile plays on his face as he says "Amin was a better boss – warm to his employees and generous with his money. Obote was reserved and mean," he concludes, an air of finality accompanying his words. As though reading the question popping on my mind, Otonde adds: "Amin ate normal food and preferred pilau–rice cooked with spices in a style popular with Muslims. He relished Islamic food.

Tickled, I blurt out: "You mean, his refrigerator contained only ordinary foods? No human liver, spleen or heads as is generally rumoured?

Otonde smothers my curiosity with a crackling laugh. "Take it from me that Amin was never a cannibal. I took care of his kitchen and refrigerator for years. There was nothing strange. May be, people thought he ate human parts because of the many killings he ordered, including those of two of his wives, Norah and Kei. I have told you of my narrow escape. Not that he intended to eat me. He never ate human flesh. "It is also important to note that Amin was a practising Muslim and hence a teetotaler. He loved fun and relished dancing. He married his wife, Madina because of her dancing prowess.

But it was Obote whom Otonde served longest. "He was a bachelor when he took me as a cook. Another of his employees, a Mr Joseph Odongo who hailed from Gem in Siaya District and had liked my cooking skills introduced me to him. "His wife, Miria came to his life after I had been with him for a while. I was his cook when, with Amin’s help, he successfully flushed the Kabaka, Sir Edward Mutesa out of Mengo and into exile and declared himself President of the Republic of Uganda. My fortunes changed with the revolution. A sleek Mercedes Benz car was immediately assigned to me as the President’s cook.

Question: "How did Miria’s arrival impact on your job as Obote’s trusted head cook?

Otonde, with a wry grin: "She was jittery about Obote’s liking for me, fearing that it would interfere with her sphere of influence. She actually attempted to have me shoved aside for a person of her choice, but Obote learnt about her machinations and foiled the attempt. I remained pretty secure in my position.

Otonde who had combined his cooking with driving, managed to secure a job with Kenya’s National Housing Corporation (NHC) after he was thrown out by Amin. "After a stint without a job, I was hired to drive then NHC managing Director Mr Samuel Ayany. But, as fate would have it, Obote returned to power in 1980 following the brief reigns of Yusuf Lule, Godfrey Binaisa and Paul Muwanga. No sooner was he at State House than he sent word that he wanted me back. "The person assigned to look for me was Luke Obok, then a close aide to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. I could not resist the offer, but my wife had no guts to return to Uganda after the Amin ordeal. I left her behind as I went to resume my job at State House. "It was during this second Obote sovereignty that Otonde won the admiration of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere with his cooking wizardry. "Nyerere was so impressed with the cuisine I had prepared that he asked his host (Obote) to let him have me prepare his meals in Dar es Salaam. Obote could not let go of me."

Otonde says Obote liked traditional foods from his Langi community such as a traditional vegetable called malakwon prepared with mashed groundnuts. He also savoured roast chicken. After Obote’s second ouster, Otonde cooked for General Tito Okelo during his fleeting stay at State House. Yoweri Museveni likewise took him on board as head cook when he emerged from the bush to assume the presidency that he clings on to this day. "I cooked for President Moi on his first official visit to Uganda as Museveni’s guest. That was to be my last job at State House because, after a sleepless night of duty at the State House kitchen, I was abruptly ordered to hand over to a Ugandan cook and return to Kenya before I could serve out the sumptuous meal to President Moi.

To his consternation, he was thrown out like a simple criminal, without terminal benefits. On Museveni’s unexplained whim, all his 23 years of service went down the drain as he lurched into a life of abject poverty. "Today I look at myself, and wonder if I am the same man who cooked food that left all East African Presidents including Jomo Kenyatta licking their chops," he rues.

In a futile bid to claim his terminal benefits, he wrote to the controller of State House Entebbe on February 22, 1993 thus: "I was in service of your State House catering department in the period between 1962 and 1986 during which I served in different capacities, rising to the position of head cook by the time I left. Unfortunately, my services were unceremoniously terminated. Please assist me to get my terminal benefits.”

The hand written letter provoked no feedback. As he sank deeper into the quagmire of poverty, Otonde who still has children in school took up a driving job with the Power of Jesus Around the World Church of Bishop Washington Ogonyo Ngede in Kisumu. Today, he drives the Anglican Bishop Mwai Abiero of Maseno South Diocese in Kisumu.

Born in 1936 in Asembo, Siaya District (now in Bondo), Otonde never received any formal education. After stints as a musician (playing the traditional one stringed orutu) and a fisherman in Kenya and Tanzania, Otonde who had natural cooking instincts landed a job as toto jikoni (kitchen boy) with a Catholic clergy man called Father Robertson. That accorded him the opportunity to learn about cooking.

He first went to Uganda in 1955 to live with a cousin while shopping around for greener pastures and secured a job as a waiter at Uganda Club where his cousin, Sylvester Omolo Odera worked. Later, a white man he had met at Uganda Club employed him as a cook in Entebbe from where he sprung to State House when Obote asked his worker Mr Joseph Odongo who knew Otonde to get him a trustworthy and skilled cook.

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