After the concluding session at the 2017 International Assembly, all African DGEs and other leaders were assembled in the suite of RI President Nominee Sam Owori. I was one of few privileged non-Africans in the crowded room; when I commented on the privilege of being there even though not born African, Sam said, “Raja, you are more African than many”, having been regarded as a family of Africans.
Sam’s words echo in my ears even now… in his address to the gathering he said, “Raja is my mentor, my guide, my brother — I am glad he will be by my side.” My dear Sam, if you can still hear me, I am still there but you left me and I miss you terribly. Why me alone, the Rotarians of Africa and the whole Rotary world are missing you.
I first met Sam in 1990 in Dallas, Texas at the International Assembly. He was a Training Leader and I was RI President Nominee. Such an irony that in Dallas he got the news of being confirmed RI President for 2018–19 on October 1, 2016, and in the same city he breathed his last on July 13, 2017 and departed to his Heavenly Abode.
As RI President and subsequently, I met Sam from time to time but he was then fairly active in his profession being the top knowledgeable and experienced banker in Uganda. However, in 1998, when Usha and I initiated the very first medical mission, which was to Uganda, Sam took time to be with us as much as he could.
Later, at such missions and more so at the African Institutes, we became close friends, sharing our Rotary philosophy, thoughts and ideas. ROTA — Reaching Out to Africa — became yet another platform where I got a glimpse of his vision of Africa based on the strength of membership, Rotary’s values and self-dependence as a prerequisite of interdependence. He always spoke softly but what he spoke thundered and people listened.
Sam was on the threshold of becoming our world leader — Rotary’s 108th President — and the more we heard him, the more we recognised the conviction of that man whose smile was infectious, humility disarming and the courage to follow his conviction unlimited.
He gave the message as President Nominee which was stunning and carried his forthright approach. This is what he said: “We became Rotarians because we were carefully selected on the basis of the values we subscribe to. Rotary defines for us a wonderful value proposition. We started as a fellowship organisation and today we are also a service organisation and that is the spring board to make an impact in our drive to serve humanity. Our world is upside down; we live in a world where greed has gone through the roof.”
“In a world where the honest are called fools and crooks are called smart. Where patience is considered obsolete and a weakness. Where young people are in a hurry to get rich overnight by hook or crook. Where protector becomes the persecutor and where leaders are insensitive to positive criticisms, where the values of freedom and globalisation are twisted to undermine our cherished values.”
“This may sound like a naive lamentation, except that the list is actually longer and you can all add to it. Albert Einstein once said, ‘We live in a dangerous world not because of the evil that people do but because of the men or good people who look on and do nothing.’ Confucius said, ‘To know what is right and not do it is the worst cowardice.’ This is where we Rotarians and our Four-Way Test comes in.”
His legacy is to create happiness for the world that seeks happiness.
To Sam, ethics and values were the fundamental pillars of Rotary. His own life was nurtured under his parents from where he got the DNA of high values and high standards in business and profession and he made these the philosophy of his own life. He used to say that you cannot just be ethical in business and profession without being correct in your own personal life.
Talking about his childhood, Sam had once said, “Our father was an unrepentant disciplinarian who insisted that we, his children, as everyone else, had to earn everything in life and not expect to gain anything without sweat. Although he was a man of means, he ensured that we grew up as part of the community in which we lived”.
Sam joined Rotary in 1978 which was a tough time for Rotary. It was 1971–79, the barbarous period of Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda, when attending Rotary meetings was dangerous as the clubs were almost a banned group. But Sam was fearless.
He joined the club on the persuasion of his friends and recognised the strength of friendship and work his club was doing although he saw how his friends just disappeared, some picked up by the secret police as soon as they left the club.
What attracted him were the remarkable service projects that he saw such as a young Ugandan girl Margaret Rose’s entire face chewed by a hyena being reconstructed and restored with the help of Rotarians from Australia. I met Margaret at an RI Convention. The other project that touched Sam’s heart and converted him into a lifelong Rotarian was the Gift of Life project through which three Ugandan children underwent heart surgery in the US.
I have known the couple; they were most loving people, loving each other and together loving others. In Bangkok I once saw Sam, who was then an RI Director, pushing the wheel chair of Norah who had a fractured leg.
I remarked that he could get help to do that and he replied: “Norah always looks after me and this is the little caring that I can personally do for her”. They often used to talk about their three sons and grandchildren. Very devout Christians, believing in the goodness of religion, they lived in a joint family, as many of us do in India.
Uganda had the practice of bride price to be paid by bridegroom. When Sam and Norah, who were in school together and fell in love, wanted to get married, all that Norah’s mother, a staunch Christian, asked for was for Sam to take care of her daughter and give her a good marriage. These are the values that the couple inherited from their parents and passed it on to their children.
Sam Owori was exceptionally educated, knowledgeable having varied expertise with international flavour. With a degree in management from Harvard, he was fully conversant with the labour laws and had in-depth theoretical and practical knowledge of banking and finance.
A consummate professional and a gentleman of international repute, this towering small-statured man managed to swim against the currents, above the crest, and maintained an impeccably clean record of integrity in a country that had become inundated with corruption. No wonder that the Government of Uganda is paying formal tribute to this great son of the country.
Sam was an enlightened person, and an incorrigible optimist, and one who saw goodness in others and believed in extending himself in help and service. He was a good Rotarian — a good human being.
The first President of Rotary International from Africa was Jonnathan Majiyagbe, who despite many challenges led the Rotary world with the theme, “Lend A Hand” remarkably.
Sam Owori would have been the second RI President from Africa; an invaluable gift of Africa to Rotary. Now he has been Rotary’s gift to God and has left with us the gift of his legacy. And his legacy is “to create happiness for the world that seeks happiness.”
(The writer is a past RI President)