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Amidst Impossible Odds, Opio Still Dreams to Become a Celebrated Sculptor

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

You could have seen the Mahogany sculpture depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at Our Lady of Africa Mbuya Catholic Church. Did you know that it is the most enormous wooden crucifix of Jesus in Africa weighing up to 2,000KGs, and only the second in the world after the Cross in the Woods Shrine in Michigan? You could have also heard about or already know Mr. Loti Patrick, the sculptor behind that gigantic and monumental masterpiece of a sculpture. But you definitely have never heard about Opio Walter, a protégée of Loti’s who worked and executed most of the projects with him.

After completing his secondary school education at Comboni College, Lira, Opio couldn’t join any college of higher education. Instead, he left his village in Okwongo and went to Bugambe Tea Estates in Hoima in search of greener pastures. But the grass wasn’t as green prompting Mr. Opio to head, first to Kakira and later to Lugazi to lend his labor planting and tending to sugar cane. But still, the tea and sugar plantations could not offer both financial incentives and creative sparks to Opio’s wondering mind. “How about I try working at a rose farm? Maybe the scent and the beauty of the red roses would heal my pain and make me find more meaning in life”, Opio pondered. This is how Opio found himself tending to roses at Rosebud, a rose farm and a leading exporter of roses in Uganda located in Namulanda, Entebbe Road.

Whilst still working at Rosebud, Opio rented a one-roomed house in Kisubi. The house was close to Mr. Loti’s home and workshop. For four years, Opio watched Mr. Loti’s work with admiration. This admiration led Opio to request an apprenticeship placement at Loti’s workshop, to which he accepted. “I sand-papered the sculptors with deep love and passion” Opio recollected. “That alone added significant value to my life” he reechoed. Among others, Loti also entrusted Opio to look for trees to be felled for making sculptors, in addition to passing to him the timeless skills and art of wood carving. He became part of Loti’s family, not only in the sculptural sense!

Opio (in the middle) with part of Loti's family.

But most importantly, Loti invested in Opio’s ‘formal’ education. As a part-time gig, Loti also taught at Michelangelo College of Creative Arts. Through his connection, Opio was able to sit for exams without attending regular and formal classes earning him a professional certification in Art and Design, specializing in sculpture. For over two decades, Opio was Loti’s right-hand associate working with him on hundreds of projects across East and Central Africa.

But being uprooted from his home and family back in Otuke created a deep void in Opio’s life that needed to be filled. And so, Opio found an escape route in alcohol. “I drank and drank and drank, but still Loti tolerated me because despite being a drunkard, I was still a great sculptor”, Opio said with sadness that could be felt in his shaky voice. When COVID-19, struck, Opio had become so sick and weak. Alcohol had taken a toll. It was Opio’s time to pay!

He developed a strong cough and couldn’t breathe properly. Unfortunately, he took a long to have it tested – all compounded by the travel difficulties brought about by the lockdown and ban on public transportation. When he finally had the cough tested, it wasn’t just Tuberculosis. It had become a chronic TB. He was put on medication. The drugs were strong and weakened him further. He even developed hearing difficulties. Opio was no longer productive in Kampala. And with the COVID-19 lockdown situation, it was only wise that he returns home to Otuke, which he had abandoned for over twenty years. Maybe the Luo saying, popularized by Okot P’Bitek that the roots of the pumpkin plant from the old home must never be uprooted is right.

At home in Otuke, still sick, weak, and emaciated Opio couldn’t part ways with alcohol. He continued with his old drinking ways, worsened by the company of his newfound friends of village drunkards. Nonetheless, Opio continued sculpting. He had brought with him some wood carving tools from Loti’s workshop, and could still by the roadside atop Okwongo Dam curving beautiful art pieces. Whilst still artistic, his creations still lacked finesse probably due to ill health or the improvised tools he was using to create.

Fascinated by Opio’s creations, I got close to him. Close enough to become a confidante. He speaks flawless English, is very mentally astute, and is quite philosophical – the kind of company I actually miss while here in Okere. I brought him to Okere City to work on our signage. Since we needed the signage very quickly, we even offered him accommodation. But just after two days, I couldn’t tolerate Opio anymore. He drank all the time and pissed on the beddings. Completing a small plate of food seemed like the biggest job he’d ever done. It was a big relief to let him go after two days, upon excellent execution of the assignment given to him. I couldn’t tolerate Mr. Opio for two days. But Mr. Loti tolerated him for twenty years. He must be a patient man. After all, patience is a virtue in abundance among sculptors. Imagine, Michelangelo spent five years sculpting The Pieta, one of the most magnificent sculptures of all time.

When Opio kept drinking and drinking, not eating well, and failing to consistently follow his medical treatment regimen, a disaster struck. One night, Opio drank himself unconscious. He was hospitalized at the Okwongo Health Centre III for one month and the medical team warned him the next incident won’t be being unconscious. It would be death. Thereafter, he near-stopped drinking, only stealthily doing it once in a while. And then one day, his hut got burnt, according to him, by jealous relatives who do not wish him well. The hut-burning incident made him completely denounce alcohol.

“What if I was drunk, alone in that hurt when it was gutted by fire,” Opio asked. “I would definitely be a dead man now”, he imagined pointing at the darkly-marked mud-and-wattle wall that now stands in ruins, a reminder to Opio that the burnt sculptures in the hut could be his scorched lifeless body. It’s now two months and Opio has never taken a sip of mogo-amoga, a traditional gin once his favorite. Even TB had never threatened Opio the way fire did. Our ancestors must have been wiser when they warned us never to play with fire.

Opio at his burnt house

Thus far, it seems as if the current state of sobriety Opio has attained is giving him a renewed outlook on life. “What if I drunkenness ended my life without the world knowing my name as a sculptor? What if this chronic TB takes my life without my village appreciating my art? These are questions Opio is grappling with. And Okere City is making a small effort to pick him up and walk the journey with him. Since he’s homeless owing to the inferno that gutted his hut, he’s now accommodated at Okere City, with a guaranteed nutritious meal. Our nurse is also offering appropriate medical care and ensuring proper checkups and monitoring of his otherwise fragile health situation. We have also offered him an employment service as our resident sculptor.

Our first project is the Kwan (education) sculpture which shall be installed in the center of the village to remind the villagers of the glaring relevance of education. One of the striking compositions of the sculpture is three birds, each holding pens on their beaks and soaring up in the sky. “Education is freedom”, Opio mussed. “And if mere birds want to learn so as to be free, humans too must make learning and investing in education a life-long quest for freedom” he quipped.

“I want to be here at Okere City to teach and make my community appreciate and love my art whilst at the same time recovering and redeeming myself,” Opio reflectively said. We hope, we shall help to facilitate Mr. Opio’s journey to recovery and redemption, whilst supporting him to teach our community and create art that inspires positive change for generations.

Snippets of Opio's current projects at Okere City

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