Elly Rwakoma, the Photographer of Three Ugandan Presidentsdies at 83

Mr Elly Rwakoma, the photographer of three former Ugandan presidents is dead. Photo | Courtesy

KAMPALA: Veteran cameraman Elly Rwakoma, the photographer of three former Ugandan presidents is dead. According to his family, he breathed his last on the night of June 24 after suffering from diabetes.

Born in 1938, Teacher Rwakoma of the Baitira clan and a businessman of his time was a photographer for presidents Dr Apollo Milton Obote, Idi Amin Dada, and Godfrey Binaisa.

Throughout his life the enthusiastic social worker and photographer worked for the media industry, made school photographs, ran a studio, and documented his family extensively.

His associates say “he found preference in portraits of women and children. He was not afraid of trying out things.”

Mr Rwakoma’s photography thrilled his family, friends, and sections of Ugandans.

Early life
According to his book, All the Tricks, Mr Rwakoma started school in 1950 aged 12. He had been herding cattle for a long time.

After finishing P5 class, Mr Rwakoma lacked school fees for further studies and decided to move to Kampala- where he worked as a casual labourer for three months.

He used his earnings to buy a camera before returning to his home village in Bwera, Igara East, Bushenyi District to start making money from photography.  This, he says, “later enabled him to go back to school and complete primary level.”

He then joined Bishop Stuart College for a teaching course which he did while multi-tasking the lucrative photography business that helped him pay tuition and also afford luxuries like a watch and white stockings.

Between 1962-63, Mr Rwakoma being a community development assistant with a teaching background mobilized several youths and adults and taught them how to read and write. He was in 1964 posted to Jinja as an in-charge for Busoga District.

He was later seconded to lead Young Men Christian Association (YMCA) where he became an understudy of the then Director, Mr Moses Perry.

 There, he did photography for side income and leisure. He liked photographing portraits of children and parties. Through networking, he joined the political arena.

Through this networks, he was incorporated into President Milton Obote’s team because of his swift character and good work.

“Whenever Mr Obote came to visit the area, I would take his pictures. I would produce prints for the government workers and they would take the albums to Obote. Whenever he wanted to visit places, I would be called upon because my work was quick and good,” Mr Rwakoma writes in his book.

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At the time, he was working with a team of six photographers with cameras producing black and white pictures.
In 1968, Mr Rwakooma got a scholarship to study social work and social administration at Rochester University, United States of America. While in the US, he did a correspondence course at the New York School of Photography.

He was in the United States for two years and after returning to Uganda, he resigned from his job at YMCA to do photography as a business in Jinja town.

Fall out with President Idi Amin
After President Idi Amin took over power and expelled the Asians in 1972, many businesses were mismanaged and everything became expensive subjecting Mr Rwakoma to dependency on photography as his retail business was not sustainable. A few years later, Amin asked his team to look for Rwakoma and incorporate him in his media team saying his was good at photography.

Midway Amin’s regime, Mr Rwakoma was forced into exile in Nairobi, Kenya- for fear of his life. He was accused of taking Mr Amin’s ‘swimming photo’ and selling it to international media.

The photo was satirically captioned asking whether Amin was swimming or sinking in the water and in turn prompted a hunt for Mr Rwakoma by Amin’s close aides.

Upon reaching Nairobi, he started doing mobile photography but was maliced by local photographers, who reported to authorities that he was not licensed to do business. He was then arrested and jailed for three days.

After his time in jail, Mr Rwakoma started using his car as a taxi but he did not make it since he spent much money bribing police officers to be allowed to operate in Kenya.
In 1979, Mr Rwakoma returned from exile and resumed works as President Godfrey Binaisa’s photographer.

 One day, Rwakoma had gone to photograph a political rally for Mr Binaisa where current President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was also in attendance. There was an attempted assassination of Mr Binaisa. About thirty people were killed on the scene, but local media did not print his photos because they never wanted the story to run and be publicised.

Several days later, Mr Binaisa was toppled and Rwakoma quietly retired into farming until he breathed his last on Thursday.

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Family man
According to the deceased’s wife, Ms Stella Rwakoma: “He was a family man who cared so much for everyone. Through his photography, he ensured that his family never lacked memories about the past.”

Mr Rwakoma’s son, Mr Eria Kukundakwe says their father was a man of love and he liked making peace with everyone.

“Our father was a friend to many and he could host people from both within Uganda and abroad. He always told us that there is nothing wrong in doing good,” he said.

Mr Rwakoma is survived by 12 children and two wives.

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