I am yet to meet someone full of delight and vigour as Mugabi Byenkya. Until he tells you about himself, you never realize anything as different. He does not come off as such. He comes off as a groomed gentleman proper in both dress and speech.
When he laughs, the walls obey and echo back the resounding voice. When he begins to speak, his voice shoots through to the skies. The microphone can as well take a bed rest. And you don’t want him to stop. He is the kind they say, ‘has a way with words’.
He knows how to keep you listening to him with your phone forgotten and hand relaxed with the writing abandoned should you be trying to write like myself when you meet him.
The day we met was not our first yet in its own right it was. It was the first time we sat down on a one on one. To listen to him answer a few of my questions. Before, I had seen him perform at poetry nights we attended together. Him on the platform and I in the audience.
My first encounter with the story of his life was through his first book DEAR PHILOMENA, a book he tells me he wrote for the people like him. He wrote it to remind himself and other people like him that it was okay and that they were not the only ones. The book is a suggestion on how to handle people who have had a stroke.
The story in the book points to the 2014 events and before, a series that might have come to an end. Usually, books are written in celebration of the events of the past, things which happen in the chase of life. They are seasons which come and go. What is left untold at times is the fact for cases like Mugabi’s, such experiences are but a continuous daily experience of in his life. You go to bed with another plan only to wake up and the body dictates otherwise. The week before we met, Mugabi was meant to be a guest performer at the recently concluded African Writers Conference in Kampala. However, he was unable to. Just a night to the event, out of mixed emotions, he got a number of seizures which held him back for the next eight days. These are things that one never gets used to.
Mugabi is not the kind to go round collecting baskets of pity of themselves. Instead he tells me of how privileged he has been in life to know and do the things he does. Growing up in the home of hardworking parents, Byenkya and his siblings grew up seeing the amount of hard work that their parents put into their work.
They worked off themselves to afford them (their children) a life they were unable to have. This motivation planted a seed of hard work in Byenkya’s life. He promised himself to work harder for the generations after him to be better than him. It is that same drive that occupied him on his sick bed struggling to write his debut novel at a time his hand could only support him to write for 15 minutes and have seizures for the next 3-4 other days.
That same motivation has seen him visit 42 cities between USA, Canada, Rwanda and Uganda where he has stood on over 80 stages performing and reading out poetry as he shares the story of his life since 2016.
While at the university of Michigan as a graduate student, Mugabi suffered two strokes in two weeks one Saturday after another both happening in December 2014. Being at university, he stayed away from his family. He did not have the immediate support any patient of that kind of manner should be accorded. His sister had to fly over to Michigan to be with him for some time. However, because she needed to go back to work, she could only stay for so long. He asked for some time off as he sought treatment. It was at this time that he joined his sister in Florida.
The university granted him 3 semesters as he sought treatment. He realised he could handle the school no more no longer. His body was not in position to go back to doing the routine life that is required of a student. On a second thought, he realized that he was not about going back to work in any work space to put to practice his skills as an environmentalist. His body had dictated otherwise, he needed an enabling environment to work, he discontinued the course thereafter and concentrated on writing DEAR PHILOMENA for the whole of 2015 releasing it in 2016.
Today the copy has sold over 1000 copies across the world yet more stories of him are yet to be told. Working on the tours has been one of the enriching experiences that Mugabi writes home about. He got the chance to be himself and do the things he believes he was created to do.
As a stroke survivor, he has come to learn that there is a lot of awareness to be made on what stroke is and how dangerous it can be to someone. The first time he got a stroke, he was a 9 year old boy. It left the left hemisphere of his brain paralyzed. His mother was told, he would not live to see his tenth birthday. He lived.
When he got the two other strokes in 2014, the same thing was said that he would not live to see the skyline of 2015. He lived.
He took to writing to tell the world about the possibility of making it through at time one has been declared unable to. He took to writing because he was ashamed of looking at the effects of stroke as something that was curtailing him from growth. And there were other people also stroke victims, and he thought he needed to speak for them at least.
“I have a platform, I’m going to use it.” Indeed he is. He has come to the conclusion that one is more than their disabilities. You can be differently abled but still achieve what you have set to do. His book has spoken to a number of people who write back to him with positive feedback of how they were transformed. Today, he is working on his second writing project.
Every time they told him he was supposed to die, he lived and that gives him a better resolve to live on and live longer.
Mugabi lives between Kampala and Toronto.