Updated by Faith Barbara Namagembe at 1803 EAT on Sunday 17th July 2022.
On July 10, renowned radio personality ALEX NDAWULA was finally laid to rest in Kyamaganda village, Nakateete parish in Lwengo district. He was 59.
A peerless radio star in his heyday, Alex’s death and send-off were in many ways an anti-climax of the boisterous life and career he lived. Through the eyes of some friends who attended his requiem mass at Lubaga cathedral and at the burial, they provide a tale of a flawed genius. In Kyamaganda village, Nakateete parish in Lwengo district, a number of villagers were stunned by the small entourage of mourners seeing off Alex.
They marvelled at his beautiful casket; the sleek 4X4s and the foreign accents of the few mourners who braved the journey. I could have counted all mourners in a minute. Some locals hardly knew anything about Ndawula.
At about 3pm, Ndawula’s body was lowered into the grave in a peaceful setting, calm and serene. This, in a way, was a contrast of the life he lived, full of life and making merry. In 1992 when FM radio came to Uganda, it marked the first time for many Ugandans to hear of Alex.
But to those who frequented hangouts of the affluent, he was already an established figure in Kampala’s social scene as a DJ. In the late eighties, Alex was credited for revolutionising club music by popularising 12-inch vinyl that provided better sound quality, especially in an enclosed place.
This would place him among the most sought-after DJs at the time. His first stint at Radio Sanyu in 1993 didn’t provide much buzz but a switch to Capital FM in 1994 helped to catapult him into a household name.
He had an authoritative voice and full of wit. Within a few years, he was, in a phrase himself coined, the Mega Master Mixer, and he lived it during his 24-year spell at Capital FM mostly through his Saturday night show, Dance Force.
For years, Alex, as most people called him, loomed large as a maverick FM presenter. He spoke with authority, loathed mediocrity and never shied away from an argument. Also in an era when most of his peers such as Rasta Rob MC, DJ Berry, and Shanks Vivie Dee chose to be known by their fancy names, Alex kept it real with his name.
Whenever he felt inspired, he would remind the listeners of how he was born in New York and even say aloud his full name of Alexander Michael Felix Mukonzi Ndawula. Many of today’s radio presenters are in their twenties and by the time they gained celeb status, both Alex’s fame and his health had been overshadowed by an uncountable number of whiskey glasses and its competitors.
In death, it has been widely debated that alcohol had led him to a slow death. Those who visited him during his last days at Nsambya hospital say he was insensible and speechless.
When I came in his hospital room to see him tethered to machines and drips, he opened his eyes and uttered what in all likelihood were his final two words: ‘Awful!” he said in a barely audible tone,” a friend at the burial who preferred anonymity, said.
Another friend noted that for about five years after his retirement from radio, Alex is also said to have suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure but he rarely divulged this, even to close associates, and preferred to battle it out himself in the hope he would make a full recovery.
Unfortunately, it is his love for the bottle that many associate him with in his last days. At the burial, there were many glowing eulogies about him but one thing that stood out is that Alex believed in himself a lot.
No matter the adversities he faced, Alex always stayed put to his beliefs. Many privately noted that he overstayed on radio and by the time he left, he had a lot to catch up with in ordinary life.
“Radio made him so famous that he didn’t know how to live a normal life without it because he had little to keep him busy,” said a friend.
“This could be the reason for the downward spiral of his health because he detached himself from the public and became introverted.”
In fact, it is argued that this could have fuelled the deterioration of his that followed.
“At one big binge night out at a nightclub he frequented, the emcee of the event announced to the crowd that the famous radio presenter Alex was in attendance. The bright lights at the stage waggled through the tables searching, settling finally on Alex, passed out face down,” he recalled.
Another long-time friend of his intimated that whiskey fuelled Alex’s creative energy and was ultimately destined to be destroyed.
“His Saturday night show used to be sponsored by a whiskey giant and offered him a full carton which he shared with friends. I still don’t understand why his bosses always allowed him to drink on air,” said another friend during the mass.
To him, the first sign of even an inkling of self-awareness by Alex that he had a drinking problem was in 1995. He showed me an undated 1999 letter Alex wrote to one of his bosses.
He was on a supposedly recuperative home leave and in the letter, he wrote: “I’m still unwell but I’m a lot better. For now, I mean no whiskey.”. “So, he was cognizant, but oblivious of his condition,” noted the friend.
Another friend recalled that Alex used to say he always felt alcohol was beneficial in influence, even useful, in comparison to drugs, which he hated. Anyone who listened to Dance Force over the years could easily picture the scenes of uncontrolled excitement in the studio. At times, his voice could get so slurred that the producer would play non-stop music mixes till the end of the show.
Looking back, one mourner at the burial blamed those around for abandoning their fiduciary duty by giving him the leeway to act as he wished.
“What I know is that he incurred many penalties at work to at best make him think of cutting back on his drinking,” said another friend.
Which leads to a fascinating thought: What if Alex was a teetotaller? His might have been an entirely different story. There is no guarantee that he would have even made it to 59 years but it seems far more likely that in later life, he would have been more concerned with practical realities than with inner thoughts and feelings.
But that is all vanity. The Alex who developed before a captivated, charmed radio audience was indeed flawed on many levels like any of us. Ugandans loved him anyway. People may have loved him more because was real.
Then and now, acknowledging that Alex had faults should not obscure the complete picture of an engaging, dynamic, memorable life full of accomplishment. He is perhaps the most influential radio personality of the FM era. Sadly, like for everyone, losses and devastating personal
failures were part of his story.
Happily, they were far from the whole story. And what a life he lived.