Alex Ndawula Defied the Rules, Touched Souls and Inspired Generations

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In Summary
  • At Naguru Hill-based Sanyu FM, the deceased, along with other notable figures such as Chris Ireland, challenged the broadcast status quo and symbolized the freeing up of the airwaves from the monopoly of state-owned Radio Uganda. Then, as new boys on the block, they offered Ugandans something different, more appealing, and exciting to consume.

On Monday, Alex Ndawula, the Doyen of private FM radio broadcasting in Uganda breathed his last at the age of 59, sending sorrow and invoking memories among colleagues and fans he hooked onto the FM radio dial for years.  

Ndawula, the wonderful character celebrated by people of several generations became a household name right from the early 1990s at the advent of private FM radio stations in Uganda. As a Dj with a special touch, Ndawula was headhunted by John Katto- one of the proprietors of radio Sanyu- who found him at Club Clouds.  

At the Naguru Hill-based Sanyu FM, the deceased, along with other notable figures such as Chris Irelands, challenged the broadcast status quo and symbolized the freeing up of the airwaves from the monopoly of state-owned Radio Uganda. Then, as new boys on the block, they offered Ugandans something different, more appealing, and exciting to consume.

Our reporter caught up with Martin Ssemakula, a retired producer who worked with Ndawula in his early days at Sanyu FM. Filled with grief, the heart-broken radio guru took off some time composing himself before he spoke describing the death of his old colleague in four words; The Legend has Fallen. 

Reminiscing about their old days, Semakula remarked that Ndawula was a unique character, maybe the only one in his league, who defied rules to broadcast his own style which kept listeners wanting for more and minted money for his bosses. 

Charles Onyango Obbo, a veteran journalist, had a similar description of the deceased veteran radio presenter. On his Twitter page, Obbo noted; “Alex was the original rule breaker and norm defier- and in the process, he changed radio in Uganda forever.”  

Ndawula was not merely defiant to the rules, he knew his game and his decisions on air coloured the show and attracted listeners. His style became popular, inspiring several radio stations in the City to start late-night dance shows playing music.  

Martin Ssemakula notes that Ndawula not only had a deep passion for his job but was knowledgeable about the music he played and the taste of his audience. Ssemakula says that with his good command of the English language and the ability to capture the attention of his listeners, Ndawula was designated for greatness in radio.   

But his rebel character coupled with other personal challenges couldn't permit Ndawula to stay long at Sanyu.    Because of his exceptional talent, Capital FM, which had equally just hit the radio waves under the stewardship of William Pike and Patrick Quarcoo with producers like Hube Gales employed him. He was to remain there until 2017.

Irene Ochwo, was the first person to co-present a show with Alex at Capital FM when the Kisementi based station introduced a breakfast duo. Ochwo, formerly a literature teacher at St Mary College Kisubi, describes the deceased as a brilliant person who knew his purpose.

Anne Lydia Ssekandi, the pioneer news anchor at capital FM describes Ndawula as the most naturally talented presenter in Uganda who lived to the fullest of his potential; The Greatest of All Times-GOAT!   

Ssekandi whose career path crossed with Ndawula at Capital where she found him every morning as she turned up to read the morning news bulletin notes that beyond passion, Ndawula was keen on quality and standard and always kept challenging himself, and those around him, to give out the best.

Disenchanted by what Sekandi describes as a fast-food culture that has been adopted by radio presenters that result in giving out half-baked products, Sekandi notes that the legendary presenter kept himself in the books, researching and reading about a vast of things which made him all around while at the microphone.

Ochwo also confirmed this, stating that before the internet, Ndawula could read a variety of journals, newspapers, and books to broaden his knowledge on many topics, which he utilized to improve his performance.  

His Saturday Dance Force presentation was not only full of music, but it also included knowledge about musicians, life, and trends, among other topics, which helped him connect with his audience.   

For example, Ochwo says that the deceased, via his entertaining and instructive performances, helped to halt the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Uganda when the then-obscure illness destroyed communities. According to Ochwo, this was another uncommon but bold step by Ndawula, given that openly addressing sex-related matters on the radio at the time seemed obscene. 

Ndawula's Achilles heel, despite his A-class abilities, was drinking and mood swings, and he was unapologetic about it. Several persons who worked and lived with him testified that he enjoyed drinking and, on occasion, smoking.

Christine Mawadri, Ndawula’s longest co-presenter, says Alex was a hardworking and committed person whose flaws seldom hampered his performance.  

Mawadri added that even when he was zonked or returned from clubs late, he was always available at the station an hour or so prior to the show which was scheduled at 6;00 a.m. But as nature could have it, Ndawula would often be found dosing as he waited to start the show.  

With a gentle chuckle, Mawadri recollected how on one occasion she had to jump-start the deceased with a slap after finding him dozing off seconds before their show went on air. Despite being a moody person, Mawadri said Ndawula turned looking at her in disbelief. The duo soon started the show as if nothing had happened. 

Charles Onyango Obbo also noted that Patrick Quarcoo, Ndawula’s former boss at the capital, once stated that sometimes they would drag Alex Ndawula from his bed when he was zonked out. “He'd be carried to the studio and put at the console and microphone – then you'd witness the most amazing transformation into a radio genius, and the adverts millions would roll in,” he wrote.  

Ochwo also attests to Ndawula's ability to move the show no matter how tired or sleepy he felt. That even when he was just woken up from slumber, he immediately started presenting, livelily engaging with listeners as though he had been sober for hours. 

Before Ndawula retired from Capital radio in 2017, he had served for over 20 years and yet was still popular and loved by the audience. This has left several people wondering how he managed to appeal to people of different generations and different classes. 

Robert Kabushega who first met Ndawula in a dance during his high school days in 1981, described Alex as an exceptionally talented person who mixed music to suit the tastes of both the old and young generation that tuned in to his show.   

Kabushenga, who hosted Twitter spaces on Tuesday to eulogise Ndawula shared that at some parties in town, Ndawula’s show was used to entertain attendants if organisers couldn’t afford to hire a DJ to play music.  

Alan Kasujja, a broadcast journalist with the BBC who formerly worked at the Kisementi based Capital said that Ndawula was probably the greatest, certainly the "realest" radio presenter, describing him as an icon, legend and a trailblazer!Kasujja pointed out that one of the things that kept Ndawula relevant over the years was his ability to adapt and learn how to use new technological tools.

Siima Kyakuhaire, a broadcast personality, notes that he never thought that he had arrived and never felt too good which propelled him to the top of the game throughout the years. She noted that many people at times lack this ability as they are affected by the "arrivalism" syndrome.

Ndawula was born in 1963 in the United States of America to May Frances Ndawula and the late Emmanuel Ndawula. His father died when he was eight years old, and his family moved to Uganda.  

He attended Nakasero Primary School and St. Mary's College Kisubi for secondary education. He returned to Nairobi's St. Mary's and subsequently to Namasagali. Caltec Academy was also his alma mater. He went on to National Business College in Nakawa (now MUBS) to study marketing.   

While at MUBS, he held his first job at Kiss Foto Lab where he was in charge of photography and engraving. He eventually went on to work as a freelance designer, specializing in graphics and letterheads. His acquaintances note that before joining Sanyu FM, he was the resident fine artist and DJ at a club on Nasser Road in Kampala.