The life of a Ugandan refugee, who overcame blindness to earn a university degree and become a talented musician and useful citizen, was celebrated at a memorial in the city recently.
King Achilla Orru Apaa-Idomo, who entertained thousands of commuters daily at the Bloor and Yonge subway station with his thumb piano, died last February in his Scarborough home. The 53-year-old, who had high blood pressure and diabetes, succumbed to heart disease.
Close friend Davies Bagambiire, a Toronto lawyer and Ugandan immigrant, called police after not hearing from Apaa-Idomo for nearly three weeks.
“He was a great man and an African and Canadian giant,” Bagambiire said in the eulogy at Wexford United Church.
The two met in Nova Scotia in 1990 when Apaa-Idomo was a full-time student at Dalhousie University. He arrived in Canada a year earlier after spending four years in a Kenyan refugee camp. A church group sponsored him to come to Canada.
“The story is that when Achilla mentioned to his sponsors that he wanted to go to university, he was not taken seriously,” said Bagambiire, who was practicing law in Nova Scotia at the time. “After all, he was a blind man and those who sponsored him from the refugee camp in Kenya had other ideas for him.”
Apaa-Idomo, who was blinded at age six after a bout of measles, graduated from Dalhousie’s international development program and considered pursuing law. Prior to coming to Canada, he spent two years in an Indian post-secondary institution on a scholarship.
“I have no doubt he would have excelled as a lawyer if he had the financial resources,” said Bagambiire. “He was someone who was very driven…He knew what he wanted and he wanted what he knew. He also did what he wanted very well.”
Despite his heavy workload in university, Apaa-Idomo started a band – Baana Afrique – in his sophomore year. The musical outfit performed at the Roy Thomson Hall, the CBC’s Glen Gould Studio, Harbourfront and at the international youth celebrations for the 2003 Papal visit. In January 2008, he was featured as the Soloist of the Year with the Royal Dutch Wind Ensemble at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw that’s considered one of the world’s finest concert halls.
Apaa-Idomo came to Toronto from Halifax in 1992.
“Achilla knew that if you wanted to make it big in the world of music, Toronto was the place to be,” Bagambiire said. “He had outgrown Halifax.”
A Juno Award nominee, Apaa-Idomo was the recipient of a 2008 New Pioneer Award that recognizes outstanding immigrants and refugees, a Black Cultural Arts Ontario Certificate of Achievement, an Ontario Arts Council fellowship to conduct music research and a Canadian Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences grant.
He’s survived by his wife of nine years – Ugandan grade school teacher Rose Orru — who was granted landed immigrant status on her arrival in Canada two weeks ago to attend her husband’s funeral, and their three young children.
Apaa-Idomo also leaves behind a 17-year-old son – he came from Dartmouth for the funeral – from a previous relationship.