Sunday, May 31, 2015

2001 Elections - The Fear Factor

On the 19th day of February 2001, I sat staring at my computer monitor wondering whether I had heard right or whether a Radio Simba journalist was playing tricks on my exhausted mind. I thought I heard that Major Okwir Rabwoni a star campaigner on the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force had crossed to the Museveni camp.  I gathered my wits about me and called Okwir's cell phone.  He responded but sounded distant and tense as he told me to hold on.  When he returned to the line he was still whispering and he told me that he was at the Nile Hotel where he was conferring with General David Tinyefuza but he also said that I should not worry and he would soon come and explain everything that had happened.  I wondered what he would say because by that time there were radio announcements calling on youth from different parts of Uganda to go for a meeting at Ranch-on-the -Lake where Maj. Okwir Rabwoni was scheduled to address them on the merits of the Museveni's candidacy.  I turned off the phone and sat there unwilling to believe what I was hearing and then there was a knock on my kitchen door but it was only Grace, one of our more active fund raisers.  One look at her distressed face told me that the news I just heard on Radio Simba was true.  She was beside herself at Okwir for abandoning ship when we needed all hands on board.  We stared at each other in disbelief and then spontaneously started cursing Okwir for being such a turn coat.  Then came another knock on the kitchen door, I opened it expecting to see another campaigner coming to share the same disheartening news but lo and behold, there stood Maj. Okwir Rabwoni and his beautiful wife Solange.

Okwir was clearly in a panic.  He explained that he had been coerced into making the statements that had been aired on radio and he had used the first opportunity to escape from the close watch of David Tinyefuza to come and explain what was happening.  He said the meeting at Ranch-on-the-Lake was arranged by Amelia Kyambadde the President's Assistant but he had no intention of addressing it.  He was frightened for his life and kept saying 'You have no idea, what these people are capable of.' He had attempted to call the US Embassy but as luck would have it they were closed for a holiday, it must have been Martin Luther King Day in the US.  Okwir was so insecure that he wanted to hand himself over to the Americans so that they might assist him to leave the country.  This was clearly not a case of paranoia, he was visibly shaken, so we decided to drive to US Ambassador's residence, which was handily close in Kololo. We were there in minutes, Okwir kept ducking his head afraid to be recognized by anyone.  We arrived safely at the Ambassador's residence and rang the bell at the gate but they would not let us in.  We were told to wait for a US security officer outside the gate while Okwir kept his head low in the vehicle.  After what seemed like a lifetime a US security vehicle arrived at the gate and we explained Okwir's predicament.  They whisked Okwir to another residence nearby and took him inside for an interview which lasted well over two hours.  Grace, Solange and I sat in the car outside waiting impatiently. 

When he returned from the interview, a crest-fallen Okwir informed us that US Embassy could not assist him to leave Uganda and his best option was to find his way across the border into Kenya and hand himself over to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.  We went back to my apartment and pondered the meaning of these developments.  What were we to do with Okwir, he was now a fugitive and his fear was so tangible and contagious. 

We called Kizza Besigye who was on his way returning from rallies in Western Uganda. He advised us to proceed to his residence and wait for him there.  The level of fear, suspicion and paranoia at this time of the campaign was so high we were not sure whom to believe anymore.  We listened to news on the radio as commentators reacted to Rabwoni's decision to return to the Movement and there he was seated in the car headed to the home of the opposition candidate.  At Kizza Beigye's resident in Luzira, Okwir pulled out a pistol and handed it to a soldier at the quarter guard.  Now we knew that Okwir had previously been stripped of his pistol by the military at a rally in Kabale so the fact that he had his pistol again made us nervous. 

In the evening we were joined by the candidate and his entourage, I had tipped Andrew Mwenda at the Monitor that Okwir had not crossed to the Movement and asked him to come to Luzira to take pictures of Kizza Besigye with Okwir Rabwoni to disprove the 'rumor' of his returning to the Movement.  The impact the following day was a dramatic victory for us as the New Vision, a government run newspaper, published a lead story of Okwir's desertion while the independent daily run a front page story accompanied by a photo of Okwir and Besigye in which Okwir denied that he had abandoned the EKBTF.  The repercussions would be far reaching, especially for Maj. Okwir Rabwoni.

At 50 I know that the there are times when the character of a person is tested by the circumstances of the day and it becomes difficult to estimate their commitment to a cause. Time alone will sieve out those who had a calling and belief in the mission from those who were flirting with it.

 — feeling surprised.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Activism - Taking the Plunge

That afternoon I was introduced to Kizza Besigye's Task Force in November 2000, we got down to work and our first order of business was to draft a response to a missive that President Museveni had released in the media in response to Kizza Besigye's decision to run for the presidency.  We were at once surprised and disappointed that the President had responded in a very personal tirade that left him open to our stinging response.  He was like a boxer who throws his best punch with the confidence that his opponent will be knocked out and does not anticipate what he would do if the opponent took the blow standing.  We stood around Winnie in their little study room in Luzira and framed a response to the missive.  We got into the technicalities of the 'individual merit' of candidates and whether there was internal democracy in the 'all-inclusive' monoculture of Movement system of governance. Everyone chipped in and each response was followed with hoots of laughter. There was complete disbelief in the room that the President had made himself such an open target.  We tore his missive apart while enjoying some good wine and glasses of beer.  All went well for me until Beti Kamya turned to me and asked if I could participate in the Capital Gang Radio Talk show the next Saturday to represent our position.

I was a total mess.  What was our position? Who were we?  I stopped her right there and asked her to think of finding someone with a little more political weight that myself, an unknown activist.  Who would take me seriously?  Was she serious, this was me Anne, I liked to have a good time, swig some beer, have a good laugh and the reason that I had recently taken up independent consulting instead of getting a regular job was because no one could fire me even if I was asking for it!  I was my own boss.  Oh please! So I left Luzira feeling less than honorable.  I was elated that I had participated in something meaningful and did not care that we might have only a limited impact on the political scene.  It was enough that we could create the space to publicly express an alternate view to the monolithic rhetoric that was churned by what was effectively a one party state. When I got home, I called my friends and family to tell them about my encounter with Kizza Besigye and Winnie and I got mixed reactions.  Some were clearly proud of my association with a budding opposition others thought I was getting involved in personal battles that were of no concern to anyone but the principal players.  

About a week later I went shopping with my mother at the new Shop Rite supermarket located at the busiest intersection leading into Kampala city.  In 2000, the main road into the city from Entebbe International Airport was a narrow two-way traffic corridor that was joined at Kibuye round-about by two more busy routes from the Natete and Makindye towns.  On a busy morning the short distance from Kibuye to the clock tower could be a nightmare from which there was no escape since there was no detouring out of the corridor until one reached the clock tower.  Congestion increased as motorists from Katwe, Nsambya, and Nakivubo joined the drive into the city center at the Tower and after a driver navigated their way to the next roundabout they approached the chaotic scenes of the main Kampala taxi park where drivers and pedestrians made their own traffic rules.  Woe to the driver who was not quick to learn the rules that changed every hour.  In 2000 the roads were dusty and there were potholes lying in wait to trip even the most experienced driver.  It was in the midst of this chaos that a South African supermarket had opened its doors to the general public.  The novelty of a modern supermarket with imported foodstuffs and a well equipped and well supplied butchery was enough to draw us out of upscale quiet suburbs to mingle with shoppers who had discovered the joy of shopping with a cart around the long straight corridors of a mega super market.  

"It is just like being in South Africa," my mother remarked, "or Tesco's in London."  "Is this not the development that Ugandans wanted?" My mother had clearly bought into the spin of those who never paused to acknowledge that the average Ugandan would never set foot inside Shop Rite because they simply could never afford the items on sale inside the supermarket.  Shop Rite was for people like me who escaped the trap of poverty because we grew up at a time when hardworking parents could rely on government to admit deserving students to its higher institutions of learning.  An education system based on merit meant that a peasant's daughter could stay in the same dormitory with a Minister's daughter and compete for scholarships to the national University.  We took it for granted that a good education would lead to a good job to pay for the finer things in life.  No one ever thought that a time would come when sending your child to school was not the same thing as getting them a good education.  Somewhere along the way we exchanged education quality for quantity and generations of Ugandan students whose parents could not afford private schools would never get the opportunities of my generation. It never crossed my mother's mind that November morning that we were among a small elite minority of the Ugandan population who cared for well stocked supermarkets packed with their favorite delicacies.

I ran into an activist as I roamed the wide shopping rows at Shop Rite.  We had last met at Besigye's home and she seemed happy to see me.  When she told me the campaign was looking for someone to join the host of the Capital Gang show to speak on behalf of the campaign for the presidency, I decided to take the plunge.  If this team thought I was a good enough spokesperson for the candidate then I could use the position to get a few things off my chest.  The show was hosted by upwardly mobile journalist Robert Kabushenga who still claimed a neutral role in the upcoming campaign.  This would not be the first time that I was interacting with the media, after all I had been a government spokesperson for a controversial policy of privatization through which government had disposed of national enterprises to the private sector.  The difference between advocating an unpopular government policy and supporting an opposition candidate for a presidential elections was not apparent to me as I climbed the narrow stairs that led to the studio of Capital FM in Kamwokya on a mild and sunny Saturday afternoon in November 2000.  I would answer the questions put to me as honestly as I could and then rush over to my friends flat in Wandegeya for a postmortem of my performance and a cold beer.  The level of my ignorance about what I was about to do and the consequences that would follow bordered on extremely naive.

I knew Robert Kabushenga as an upwardly mobile professional in my age bracket that lived in Kampala.  Kampala was a small town and the people you had not met in person you still knew by reputation.  The studio was a deceptively small private space where I felt safe sharing my thoughts with a familiar face.  It was easy to forget that there were thousands of people out there listening to every word that I said so I opened up to Robert Kabushenga and answered his questions as though we were speaking alone. I was his only guest that day and we touched on issues related to corruption, political intolerance and nepotism. 

I left the studio feeling a whole lot lighter after I had laid out my issues as I saw them at the time.  Looking back they seem to have been very narrow issues that led me to the opposition.  One would have liked to think that I had greater concerns but that really was the gist of my concern.  The increasing disparities between the highest and lowest incomes of Ugandans, the emergence of a group of government officials who dipped their sticky hands into public coffers without fear of prosecution.  The untempered greed of those who openly amassed wealth using their government connections.  I had worked on government's privatisation program and it struck me as grossly unfair that only a limited number of people seemed to have benefited from the sale of national assets.  And because I had been a spokesperson for the privatisation unit of the Ministry of Finance I spent the next few years trying to explain that this position did not make me complicit in any shady deals that were struck between politicians and privatization officials.  The underhanded deals that may have taken place were well above my pay grade and I only had the thankless task of defending them after they leaked to the public. 

When I left Capital FM, I headed directly to Enid and Jimmy's apartment over in Makerere looking forward to the usual laughter and merriment of a night out with my girlfriends.  Instead I found my small circle of friends in a rather pensive mood.  'Do you know what you are getting yourself into?'  During the interview with Robert Kabushenga he had pointedly asked me which candidate I would be voting for and I had evaded the question by stating that I would vote for the best candidate, but my accompanying remarks had been interpreted to mean that I was not going to support the incumbent.  It was my friends' feedback and the reaction of people after the Capital Gang show that sealed my decision: I now knew that I had a responsibility to support Kizza Besigye's Task Force. 

Up to that point I had been flirting with the Task Force. I knew many people that were quietly grumbling about corruption, injustice and inequity but there also seemed to be an unspoken agreement, a conspiracy of silence against publicly opposing the status quo.  It seemed pretty obvious to me then that if we did not take these private conversations into the public sphere to debate them exhaustively and rally support against abuse of power, then nothing would change.  The status quo would remain intact to the detriment of the people whose voices were not being heard. 

I did not seek to become the conscience of the middle class and I never sought justification for our collective negligence.  There were no grand visions and agendas when I took the plunge into opposing the government.  I was pushed by the willful blindness of the elite and a strong belief that there ought to be alternative views to those with power. I was pulled by the availability of a platform however temporary to express myself.  The campaign had now become a struggle for my right to associate, to be heard, to make a difference in people's lives. What had started as an opportunity to shed light on issues that had been nagging at the back of my mind became a mission.   

This realization did not happen in a dramatic 'Saul to Paul' moment. In fact, I did not for a moment think that the mission I had embraced required me to leave my comfort zone.  All that was required, I thought, was an extension of myself beyond the consulting work that I was doing; to put some arguments on paper and share them with the public through the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force.  I did not think this extra assignment would interfere with my daily socializing rituals, instead I saw an opportunity to get serious with the people I socialized with.  Many of them shared my disgust at the increasing corruption and abuse of public office.  We all knew that the government was sworn into office following the sacrifice of many young crusaders of democracy and good governance, and surely we had a responsibility to check the emerging trends of bad governance.  It all seemed so obvious, but how wrong I was, how naive indeed.  I completely underestimated the impact that 15 years in power and I overestimated our ability to make a difference in a few months.

At 50 I know that joining the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force was a major turning point in my life and today am grateful for that platform which gave me an opportunity to meaningfully participate in Ugandan public life.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Becoming an Activist

In October 2001, Uganda was preparing for general elections which I had ignored as best as I could but we were bombarded with news, jokes and political debates by the media. One day on my way to work I listened to a defensive Winnie Byanyima on what she thought of the role of First Lady. Her husband Dr. Kizza Besigye had recently announced his intention to run for the office of the President and the announcement stirred a lot of speculation, gossip, and even some genuine interest in the possibility of a government insider breaking ranks and running against the incumbent President. Winnie Byanyima was a solid politician in her own right and in her response she played down the rather docile title of First Lady. Speculation on Winnie's role was fuelled by the well known fact that she had dated the incumbent President in the early days of his regime. The fact that she was now married to the man who intended to run for the Presidency was the stuff that Hollywood movies were made of. It threatened to turn our campaign into a riveting romantic drama and drown out the serious issues that we were raising about Ugandan democracy, nationwide peace and equitable participation in the economy and politics of the country.
I therefore approached Besigye's residence in Luzira with preconceived ideas that had been shaped by the conversations that were taking place in the public media and in bars where every patron is an expert at politics and has the rhetoric to match. The fact that I had been invited by the candidate's brother in law did not raise my expectations of a campaign based on national issues. I struggled with the possibility that I may be getting drawn into a personal rather than a national agenda. Sitting around the coffee table in the living room was the small group of people who would be at the core of drafting and implementing a strategy and recruiting support for a candidate who was to oust a well established president in a general elections to be held in about 4 months time. I knew a few of them like, Winnie's elder sister well known business woman and socialite in Kampala. Kenneth an outspoken lawyer formerly associated with the Uganda People's Congress. I also met Beti Kamya for the first time that day in early November of 2000 and I was struck by her complete confidence in the venture at hand. I knew nothing about where she worked or where she came from to be part of this small group of campaigners but she seemed to fit in easily. Her husband Spencer Turwomwe was with her. All I knew of Spencer at the time was what I heard when he participated in political debates on the radio. He was among the first people on the airwaves who openly called for change. The government had already started a smear campaign against Spencer to diminish his credibility and so I heard that he had stolen a few boxes of soap before leaving the army. When I met Spencer in person, I wondered what type of soap it was that he was alleged to have stolen. I did not know it then but before long my own character would be torn apart with our detractors taking a bit of truth, embellishing it and making it headlines in scandal after scandal until no one knew what to believe about any of anymore.
My first word to Kizza Besigye was 'Congratulations', as he extended his hand in greeting in his living room. He was on his way to a Capital FM Radio talk show to introduce his candidacy which was the hottest news during that period. He laughed his hearty response and left for the show. I was congratulating him for standing up to challenge the path on which the government had turned in the last few years. We did not want to be associated with the government's diversion from principles of good governance. We had reached the end of the road with the Movement and needed to stand aside and point at what was going wrong. Kizza Besigye opened a path for us to take that action.
I would later learn that I owed my presence in that room to an article I had written a few weeks before, warning the government that it was getting tainted by corruption and nepotism and therefore asking why as a cadre of the Movement I should vote for it’s candidate in 2001. It was an article that I had written at the spur of a moment in reaction to some new outrage by government officials which went unpunished. I felt concerned enough to pen an article that caught the attention of Kizza Besigye and his budding electoral Task Force.
So there we were gathered around a coffee table in Luzira a small group that seemed to have picked a very big mission. To challenge Yoweri Kaguta Museveni for the Presidency of the Republic of Uganda in the 2001 elections. It was a jovial group too. There were a lot of jokes and teasing going on. We did not even have a position document to go by on that day, just a strong belief that we were doing the right thing. If anyone even thought that we were positioned to win the election that day, they did not share their optimism with me. I felt that we were simply gathered there to start chipping away at this huge problem, but even then I had no clue of the Pandora's box that we had just opened or the consequences of our actions. I believe that it took a certain level of political naivete to walk into a situation like the one we walked into and stay the course. In hindsight I truly doubt that even Kizza Besigye anticipated the forces that would be unleashed to quell our small group of optimists. He obviously knew better than most of us what he was getting into but I doubt that he could have appreciated fully the sentiments that we were about to release and the long term impact of his move on Uganda’s political history.
At 50 I know that hindsight has given me 20/20 vision on the consequences of political activism in a typical opposition organization in Africa, yet even with this clear vision I am certain that if we had to do it all again, I would still find myself seated with that same small group of enthusiasts 14 years ago.

 feeling optimistic

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Baby Mama

'Mommy are you going to have another baby?' Hannah-Banana who is 15 loves being the baby among her siblings whom she frequently reminds were born in the 20th Century and are therefore ancient. Her obsession with being baby of the family perhaps blinds her to the fact that her mother is approaching 50 and chances of conceiving a child at my age are close to zero.

Yet that is not what fascinates me about Hannah's question. The more curious aspects for me are the implied, unspoken thoughts that go through the mind in order to frame this question. Hannah has been taught in class (and certainly at home;) about how babies are made. Yet even though I have taught them about the bees and the birds; am still surprised at my girls' open mindedness in the midst of my conservative African family and culture. The girls have grown up globally and had a chance to experience both conservative and liberal cultures and this has probably shaped their mindset

When I was growing up it was unheard of for a child to ask their mother a question that somehow implied that she was engaging in sexual activity. Even when both parents repaired nightly to a double bed in their master bedroom, we simply did not allow our minds to stray there. Older kids who witnessed their young mother's pregnancies, at times battled conflicting feelings. The biology class explained how conception occurred; but many kids preferred to carry on believing that their mother was a virgin.

If a woman was widowed early in life society expected her to continue grieving her spouse and to remain celibate until she died unless she remarried someone approved by the entire clan and the Church. So most widows were sentenced to a chaste life with perhaps some secret rendezvous that were never to be heard of.

Moreover, we were raised to know that the right path to child bearing was clearly marked with sign posts: studies first, then courtship, followed by marriage, pregnancy all leading to the final destination of childbirth. These steps were sacrosanct and rebellious girls who did not observe them would end up burning in the hottest corners of hell for disrupting the sequence.

So what makes me smile is that Hannah is not asking me 'Mommy are you going to get married again?' It pleases me to no end that she understands that having children and getting married are not correlated or sequential in a way that requires the latter to precede the former.
It brings me joy that she understands that my dating life was not buried with her father. Her innocent question implies that she accepts that am free not only to date again, but to engage in activity that might lead to someone usurping her coveted position of baby of the family.

When Hannah looks at me she does not see an over-the-hill, out of shape, retired rebel; she sees a woman who could still have a relationship that might bring home a baby to challenge her claim for my attention.

At 50 I know that some traditions can be dehumanizing and oppressive to women unless they are confronted, challenged and changed. So Hannah does not realize it but she has unknowingly planted an idea in this old rebellious mind!

feeling inspired

Having Babies

The day Hannah was born, I decided I was done with child birth. I wanted a millennium baby and she came in 20 days late but it was still January 2000 and it's easy to remember how old she is by looking at the calendar year and not having to do the math. Joannah had been born two and a half years earlier at Pretoria East Hospital in South Africa where I had the support of family. There are many reasons for enduring pain and none is as fulfilling as labor pain. If you survive the ordeal the prize is a wonderful new life but having suffered my first labor pain at age 19, alone in Nsambya Hospital, I was not prepared to go through it again without the help of family and science.

In 1997 I probably could have got an epidural administered at a hospital in Uganda but I never tried and instead I asked Aunt Hope and Uncle John to indulge me and host me through the birth of my second biological child and they kindly obliged. Uncle John, my father's only brother; had emigrated with his family to live in South Africa in the early 80s and we all knew that the best health care in Africa south of the Sahara was in South Africa; so when the time came to bring my second child into the world, I traveled to stay with family and wait. After weeks of baby shopping and prenatal classes, Joannah seemed reluctant to leave the womb so I turned to science and chose a date when I would being her into the world through inducing labor. Instead of the usual drama of being rushed to the labor ward in the throes of unspeakable pain, I packed my suitcase and checked in for the birth as though I were checking into a hotel. 
At the hospital, I got a fabulous room that looked more like a five-star hotel room than a hospital room; where labor was induced. I could not help comparing the service at this private hospital to the wards at Nsambya Hospital in Uganda where Lionel was born 12 years earlier. Nsambya hospital is affiliated to the Catholic Church and was a far better choice than the public hospital Mulago, yet it still lacked the amenities to make child birth the private and intimate experience that it ought to be. The nurses at Nsambya were kind but they still had to be paid a little extra for their kindness in 1985 when all health services in Uganda were in a terrible state. My memories of the place were so unpleasant and I thanked God in 1997 for the rare option of giving birth in the sterile and pristine environment of a private hospital in South Africa.

Nonetheless, the pain of labor is still as unforgiving in Pretoria as it is in Kampala. Moreover, I didn't know that once induced, Joannah would be in a rush to make her entry into the world. The contractions which in Lionel's case had been gradual now came at supersonic speed. I was quickly moved into the delivery room with waves of contractions tearing through my core. I had not come so far to suffer this horrible pain so I called the nurse and said I was ready for the epidural. I seem not to have done enough research because I did not know that it involved getting a long needle inserted in the space between the back vertebrae but any woman in labor will tell you that when a contraction tears through your body, a needle in your spine is as easy as a walk in the park.

Minutes after it was administered, I got the most soothing sleeping sensation and momentarily forgot about the pain. But things did not all go as the obstetrician had planned and my blood pressure dropped to the floor. A flurry of activity followed as I felt myself slipping further and further into dreamland just barely conscience of what was happening around me. The medical crew got excited, my mother was alarmed then I remember them adjusting the hospital bed so that my feet were above my head and they stabilized me. I experienced the sensations of labor as though it were happening to a person outside of my body and carried on a conversation with my anxious mother who was cursing the demons out of all artificial methods of pain control. My honeymoon with the epidural ended abruptly after about two hours and the pain returned with a vengeance. I begged the nurse for a top up like a crazed drug addict but the little drama that had followed the first injection had them leaning towards the side of caution and she refused. Now, every mother who has gone through labor knows that contractions come in waves with the next one being many times harder than the last. So imagine coming from a blissful place to find yourself in advanced stages of labor without the build up!

The pain coursed through my body, attacking every possible nerve center that could feel pain and no one seemed to care that I had travelled a long distance and paid extra to avoid this very pain. I called on God and all my internal strength, having lost hope in anyone relieving me of this Cross, and in the mid-afternoon on 5 November 1997, I found even more strength in the reserves of my being to bring forth a beautiful baby girl.

So two and a half years later when Hannah was born, I had not bothered traveling to South Africa. My family there had traveled to Uganda for the millennium and I knew that the pain of labor would follow me anywhere. So I returned to Nsambya hospital which now had better services - not quite like the ones in Pretoria - but I knew that it did not matter how pretty the surroundings, labor was still going to hurt. Hannah weighed in at 4.5 kilograms and everyone wondered how I managed that without a C- Section. I wondered too, but I was sure after she was born that I was done with contributing to world population and was never going to venture again.

At 50 I know that am in the minority - those who have enjoyed adequate maternal health care in Africa; and not enough has been done to ensure that women survive, let alone enjoy, that special moment when they bring forth the wonderful gift of life.

Student Life in London

When you remember a place there are certain associations that you make and they are imprinted on your mind forever. They come to define the place and its people for ever and what is etched on my mind about the City of London is not Big Ben, Trafalgar Square or Buckingham Palace but rather it's numerous smoky pubs. In the 80s there were no rules that confined smoking to any particular place and it is difficult to imagine now that there are British Pubs that are not filled with cigarette smoke. In my student days everyone seemed to be carrying a pack of Benson & Hedges or Rothmans. Pubs were popular places to visit and the big nights for us Ugandan students were Wednesday at the Portlands Pub near the Great Portland Street Tube station and Fridays at Jools a pub near Edgware Road Station. There were other pubs at Charing Cross, Kings Cross, Paddington and Euston stations but Portlands and Jools were our favorites.

It was not by accident that we chose pubs closest to the Tube because the underground train, was the only transportation we could afford as international students so they were great meeting points when one wanted to avoid walking on rainy summer or spring days or cold autumn and winter days. On the days in between we did not totally abstain from the Heineken, Fosters and Stella Artois pints that were filled at the bar taps. We were hooked on beer from the barrel having only drank bottled beer in Uganda; and on week days we patronized the bars that were closest to the class that we were attending on a particular day.

The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE,) is part of a network of Colleges that make up the University of London and so depending on the subjects that you picked you might find yourself at any of the Colleges for a particular class. My Company Law and International Human Rights Law classes were at the LSE Campus on Houghton Street, across from the home of the British Broadcasting Corporation and on that little street that was more like a narrow alley; was The Three Tuns Pub, a little gem hidden away for students but open for all to enjoy the school's culture.
The law of Treaties and Insurance Law were taught either at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) or the close by Institute of Advanced Legal Studies between Euston and Russell Square Tube Stations. The Institute had a large library where we prepared for classes and did our research and in its basement was the jewel of all pubs, The Winnie Mandela pub, patronized by many African students who fancied themselves as future leaders of a free and liberated Azania. One could reach it without negotiating the unpredictable British weather and it was easily a favorite for an after class soirée .

On Friday and Saturday nights we danced in the basement at a place near Great Portland Street or if we felt inspired we took the train north to Finchley to dance at Les Elites night club. There was also a gem of a pub in Archway where two Ugandan friends lived. The pub at Archway had a liberal owner who understood that we still wanted him to pull pints after the call for 'Last Orders at the Bar' so he locked us in and allowed us to continue drinking illegally after 11pm until we run out of money or stamina. Sundays were a day for recovering from many hangovers and I don't remember ever finding my way to Church unless my mother was in town. I always wondered how she sniffed out her favorite Pentecostal churches, which unlike pubs were the hardest thing to find in London.

One freezing night we had Ugandan visitors from Paris and took them to the pub at Great Portland Street. When it was time to leave, late in the night or early in the morning if you like, (it was too late to catch a train;) we all tried to fit in the back of one black cab. There were about six of us and the cab driver told us firmly that he could only carry four passengers. We were inebriated and defiant and refused to get out so he simply drove us to a police station. Now being the outspoken law student among the lot, I thought I could challenge the law using that good old line - 'Are you arresting us because we are black?' And as usual my big mouth got me in trouble. I was whisked through the back door, into a police vehicle and taken to another police station leaving my friends picketing in the cold outside the first police station demanding my immediate release. The Police officers were very courteous and turned me loose in the wee hours of the morning.

When I arrived at our flat in Finsbury Park I found my exhausted friends worried but waiting faithfully and the party continued. This would not be my last brush with the law in London and usually each occasion followed many pints of beer and yes, there was a bit of profiling by the Police, like the time they thought we were breaking into our home because we were knocking at a window - instead of the door - but most times we were not blameless.

At 50 I know that I was not in London to deepen my understanding of the law. I was there to enjoy a new way of life that was not structured by any authority and I was very lucky to leave after a couple of years with a Postgraduate Diploma and Master of Laws degree.

 feeling drunk

Monday, May 25, 2015


The first time I was free to spend personal time as I pleased as an adult was when I was a student in London. I was 21 years old and my life had been managed by parents, school authorities and my first love. They decided when I could go out with my friends and when I could not, when to go for a dance, whom to go with, the time I should return. The freedom I enjoyed doing what I wanted to do rather than what others wanted me to do had to be stolen usually with dire consequences.

Christian Secondary Schools restricted us with rules based on values that were supposedly found in the Bible; managing our personal time strictly and never allowing us freedom to choose what we wanted to do, when we wanted to do it. We found ways of breaking the rules and escaping through the fenced school community to town just so that we could feel the adrenaline of taking the risk and celebrate our little adventure if we were not caught. It was on these escapades from Bweranyangi to Bushenyi town that I had met Lionel's father Charles, and fell in love. The supervised socials where teachers accompanied us to dances with boys at Ntare School and then sat there watching us like hawks to make sure the boys did not 'squeeze' us for too long, were extremely prohibitive. We sought out opportunities to socialize with the opposite sex without supervision and took enormous risks just to behave like normal teenagers.

At home the rules were not very different. Good discipline for a girl (and I grew up as the only girl with five male siblings;) meant helping out in the kitchen, attending church service, outings only under the supervision of trusted relatives and family friends during the day, in safe places like a swimming pool where everyone was easily observed. Most of my childhood memories are of games and parties with families in the neighborhood or relatives and many seemed to have the same discipline code but not necessarily as strict. I craved the teenage life that some girls spoke of at school. Going to parties and staying till late was unheard of in my home unless it was a birthday party where my parents knew the parents of the celebrant.

Without knowing it, the restrictions imposed by my parents were sowing seeds of rebellion. So when an opportunity presented itself we passed through windows and jumped gates to try and live the life we felt we were missing. I remember being caned after I went to a disco in broad daylight with Oscar Kihika; the guy next door. Now Oscar was not just the kid next door, he was like a brother to me, he was Emmanuel's best friend and we were distant relatives through marriage. We practically grew up in each other's homes in Nakasero. I played 'tip/pax,' football, hide and seek, hop-scotch and rounders; nearly every day with Oscar and his sisters Justina, Olive and Rose. He tried to teach me to play the piano but I was no good. I never needed an invitation to visit the Kihikas neither did they ever need permission to come over. So when Oscar and I went to Chez Joseph for a day time twirl in times when insecurity did not allow for night time dancing; I did not think much of it till I got home and found my Dad fuming. What my Dad failed to realize was that he made it my number one priority to get out of this strict environment. My understanding of freedom became a place or space where his rules could no longer restrict me.

So Charles who was older, had a car, which he allowed me to drive; seemed like my escape from this suffocating environment. By forbidding me to socialize even with my childhood friends after we became teenagers he drove me straight into Charles world, a result he did not intend and one am sure he regretted. I came to regret it too because by the time I got to Makerere where I would have enjoyed all the freedom that I missed in strict girl's boarding schools, I was already committed to one relationship, and soon enough, Charles stepped in right where my father left off, to restrict my newly found freedom. Fearing that I would meet someone new at Makerere, he acted quickly to get me locked-in. Next thing you knew was elopement, pregnancy and then Lionel. It was like stepping out of a frying pan into the fire. My life was over before it had begun and I started thinking of Charles as a parent because he made me feel like a child!

But am a free spirit, always have been, always will be. I broke free from Charles with the encouragement of my father who sent me to study a post graduate course in London months after I completed my first degree at Makerere. He wanted me as far away from Charles as possible and simply refused to acknowledge the existence of Lionel my baby, carrying on as though I were not a mother. I jumped at the chance of studying far away from both him and Charles, because my life as a young mother at 20 was as suffocating as that of a teenager in my parent's home. So off I went to LSE to study some more law, live on my own and interact with people my age without any restriction for the first time in my life. Party time, Nirvana!

At 50 I know that it was not easy raising me in my teenage years and I pray that the lessons from my teenage experiences will help me to guide my own kids through these very challenging years.

feeling determined

Getting Hitched

On 11 June 1994, John Bwomezi and I were married at an Episcopalian ceremony led by Father Brown at the United Nations inter-denominational Chapel in New York, across from the UN Headquarters. The wedding reception was held next door at the Hyatt which I now believe is a Millennium Hotel, followed by an after-party at Uganda House only meters away. We certainly did not need the stretch limousine that was hired for the event considering that I spent the night at the suite in Uganda House and all these places were in walking distance but I guess we considered it a part of the tradition. Like most major events in my life the occasion was not without its drama.
In my community marriage is an elaborate process with the wedding being just the grand finale. It starts with a visit by a mutual friend of both houses to the woman's family in a ground breaking ceremony, the first hurdle. The visitor is usually welcomed but could be humiliated and must therefore be a highly respected risk-taker with developed diplomatic skills to handle the many questions that will be asked about the potential groom, his family, his clan, his ancestors, their burial grounds and anything that may make him trip and pay a fine. The happy couple who may have already exchanged engagement rings in more fashionable style in a city far away, do not participate in this ceremony at all and are at the mercy of the 'Katerarume' which literally means, the one who clears the path filled with morning dew.

If the Katerarume is successful, the stage is set for the next round where the father and close uncles of the man visit again to agree on brideprice. They are likely to meet a larger crowd than when Katerarume first visited and this is a crowd of tough negotiators with experience in assigning material value to a woman. (Yes, I can imagine your judgmental sneers.) Many factors go into the valuation including a woman's looks, education, the family's social status and the estimated purse-size of the groom's family. With time, religion and external influence, negotiations have been watered down to make this a symbolic ceremony where a price is set but never paid, but in some cultures the groom's family must pay up with cows, goats, cash or whatever items a specific culture dictates.

Assuming things go well and the brideprice is settled, a date is set for the introduction ceremony where the future groom is officially introduced to the woman's family and formally handed his wife. In true African culture, the marriage takes place on this day. The woman finally participates and is escorted out of the house to be handed to her man and his family. It is also the occasion when the woman's family gives gifts to the couple for their new home. The deal is not quite done till the ceremony is over and should the groom's party arrive late or break any of the many obscure rules of this 'Kwanjula' as it is known in Luganda or 'Okuhingira' in Runyankore, there will be fines to pay and tempers to cool. Moreover, it requires one to keep up-to-date with the requirements as they have continued to change and turned the Kuhingira ceremony into an obscene spectacle in this rite of passage. What used to be a simple and dignified event has become an opportunity to flash wealth and compete with the 'Joneses.' So where parents used to send their daughters off with a cow and a few household items the tradition now has no bounds and I have heard of girls getting Hummers, Mercedes Benzes and fully furnished homes as Uganda's glitterati compete to impress their in-laws and everyone else.

Yet at age 17 I felt empowered enough to sabotage all these processes to marry the first man I fell in love with. And I almost succeeded but failed on a technicality. Just before my18th birthday, I informed my parents that I was ready to get hitched to Charles but my parents would not hear of it. My mother insisted that I was too young even after I reminded her that she had married my father when she was 18 herself! My father was determined that I complete my education and get a degree before marriage. And when I persisted he closed the subject by saying that as long as he lived I would never marry Charles! I was as determined and stubborn as he was so lines were drawn in the sand and battle grounds defined. I started the biggest rebellion of my life by suspending all the above requirements of marriage and eloping to marry Charles. He had quietly gone to the registrar's office in Bushenyi and alerted them of our intention to be registered in marriage as husband and wife. The small issue of my being a minor and unable to enter a binding contract of marriage until I turned 18 was resolved I imagine with a small bribe. He then picked me from Kampala and we went to the registry and signed some papers. I did not care that there was not a soul in my world that knew it, in my mind, I was 'married.'

Months later am sitting in a Family Law class, in an advanced stage of pregnancy; and it is time to look at Uganda's Marriage Act under which all legally recognized marriages are registered. Lo and behold, I discover that the ceremony in Bushenyi was null and void abinitio because it was performed before I had reached the age of consent and my parents had not given their consent as required by law! Not only was I not married, we had probably committed some kind of offense! So now the secret was sealed by illegality and fear. I told Charles that we were not actually married and he ignored me as he had lately started to do now that he had me in his home where he wanted me. Eventually, the relationship ended but neither of us ever bothered to go back to Bushenyi to officially withdraw or invalidate the paperwork. It seemed of no consequence until eleven years later on 9 June 1994, two days before my wedding to John Bwomezi in New York.

Someone faxed the marriage certificate I signed in Bushenyi all those years ago to the Ambassador, my boss, in New York and outed my little secret. Dad and Mom were there as were a host of friends who had traveled from Uganda, Canada, and other states for the wedding. Luckily, I had told John about my elopement but imagine the surprise of everyone else when they learnt about my first void marriage! A flurry of legal activity now developed parallel to wedding arrangements as we tried to explain that the 'marriage certificate' was null and void. We had two days to complete this or else my wedding plans would go up in smoke and scandal but we eventually succeeded and on 11 June 1994, father walked me down the aisle and gave my hand to John in marriage.

I had missed all the pre-wedding ceremonies which happened far away in Uganda and without which my father and mother would not have come to New York. Now finally the day was here and while it was not an elopement this time round, it had all the drama required for a good comedy. At most weddings, when the question is asked if there is anyone who knows a reason why these two should not be married, there is just silence and the ceremony continues. My wedding video is a bit different because the dearly beloved who were gathered at that Chapel in New York turned to look around as though expecting someone to stand up and say something. We had two strong men stationed at the entrance of the chapel to keep out any suspicious characters but it turned out they were not needed. When the ceremony ended without incident, the palpable tension eased and the party started.

At 50 I know that I am fiercely independent and therefore take responsibility for the drama in my personal life. I have also learnt that there are instances where following tradition can protect you and your loved ones from distress down the road.

feeling naughty

The HIV/AIDS Pandemic

The scourge of HIV/AIDS came upon Uganda at a time when we were entering our most sexually active years and we were not ready.  Our society practiced a lot of sex behind closed doors but it was not a subject we discussed openly except perhaps in bars when we were inebriated enough to throw caution and modesty out the window.  Even then when we discussed sexual activity it was never about the many diseases it could cause but rather the many pleasures it could induce. It was unheard of to speak to your family about sex and in some extreme cases there were married couples who had sex regularly but never discussed it at all - if you can imagine that.

The dilemma now:  Here was an illness that you could not talk about without referring to sex in one form or another.  If the illness manifested itself, then the next order of the conversation was 'Who else do you think she/he was sleeping with.'  I think this was the proper beginning of 'outing' people in a very shameless way in Uganda.  Suddenly everyone was interested in who was sleeping with who and not for entertainment but for the purpose of checking if the network ended directly under your pillow.  Now you must understand that contracting HIV in the 80s and 90s was a death sentence. There were no ARVs to keep you around for a bit or help you manage the illness.  You were simply dead.  So unfortunately when the network ended under your pillow most people were not inclined to step up and own the virus.  These were the years that created heroes of men like Maj. Ruranga Rubaramira because he stepped up in front of cameras and microphones and said 'I am living positively.'

There were more cowards than Rurangas and then there were those who were just outrightly evil and decided that they would not go alone and must take as many others as they could.  So during the day everyone spoke of abstaining from sex but in the shadows men and women suspended reality and continued their multi-faced sex life, even when they knew they were infected.  Fear and shame nearly decimated a whole generation that had grown up in a quietly permissive sex culture.  The unspoken truth about sexual relations in some communities in Uganda can be summarized as: Anything goes as long as no one knows.'  HIV/AIDS apart from killing young productive people in my time also exposed bizarre sexual patterns in our communities.  And unlike Ebola which is easy to stop because victims are willing to tell how they got it, with HIV more than likely the only person the victim would blame for their ailment was the spouse.  So any other carriers went undetected.  The hypocrisy and pretentiousness of our two-faced culture came back to bite us.

People who died of AIDS were said to have died 'after a long illness' to protect their children, spouses, parents, and extended families from the stigma that came with contracting the disease.  Those who were well off left the country for medical exile to places where they could be treated but also to escape the stigma.  Those that stayed were hidden from sight until the 'long illness' had done its job.  The industry of 'Hope' survived, grew and got fattened off this misery.  People flocked in hundreds to witchcraft and to Church or both just in case the other did not work.  Pastors out did each other in 'curing' the illness though prayer. Churches mushroomed around the illness as did the shrines of medicine men; yet at the height of this crisis we buried someone we knew nearly every week.

As science fought back helped along by mavericks like Maj. Ruranga, society began to change but mostly in safe, superficial ways.  It became an ordinary event to watch a nurse on public television rolling a condom down a phallus shaped object.  No one giggled anymore as this was serious business upon which our very lives depended.  Eventually ARVs arrived on the scene and things stabilized , the death rate came down.  Ugandans fought the war against HIV/AIDS in their peculiar way and many survived but through it all, some Ugandan communities continued to avidly honor their sexually permissive culture.

At 50 I know that old habits die hard and it takes more than a pandemic of great proportions for ingrained behavior and culture to change.

 feeling concerned.

Friday, May 22, 2015

NRA Takes Kampala

Museveni's guerilla army, the National Resistance Army took Kampala in January 1986. At the time I was still banished from my childhood home following my father's displeasure over my pregancy. My son was 10 months old and Dad showed no signs of forgiving and forgetting.
My seventeen-year old brother Andrew, was a boarding student at Ntare School in western Uganda when the NRA rebels attacked from the Rwenzori mountains. He left school to join the rebels as did many of his school mates. The war had led to the closing of schools in the region and my friends at Makerere University who went to western Uganda towns for vacation in mid-1985 did not return until the war ended and a number of them joined rebel ranks. By and by we learnt that the road to the west had been cut off as rebels advanced towards Kampala from the Western Axis. Lionel's father Charles, had not returned home from a business trip to the region he was cut off. His buses no longer plied the route from the west to Kampala and one or two had been taken over by the rebels. I was stranded in Kampala without money coming in from the transport business so I turned to my mother for help.

The shop on Luwum Street was flourishing and father traveled to the UK with Emmanuel that month to shop for supplies. My mother was generous and I went home with enough supplies to see us through another week as I waited for Charles to return. He crossed to neighboring Rwanda in the south-west, took a plane to Nairobi where he planned to cross into Uganda from the East and return to Kampala. But before he could make it back to Uganda, the NRA abandoned peace talks in Nairobi and surged forward to take Kampala. Kampala was awash with rumors of an impending attack and gunfire rocked the city at night. 'Panda gari' operations had become a daily occurrence. A truck would appear and round up people suspected of being rebels and take them to unknown detention centers. Shops were looted in broad day light by gun wielding soldiers in army uniform.

Then one day while I was at Makerere attending classes, word reached us that crowds of people were running, pouring out of the city centre. I tried to make my way across town to reach Entebbe Road where I lived with my son but could not get through the heavy traffic. Taxis were racing frantically, everyone was looking for a way out of the city center. Thousands of people who were not lucky to board a taxi, truck or bus were running on foot in different directions. I drove up and down different streets trying to find a route home and when I failed, I retreated and drove to Nakasero where I found my mother crouched in her bedroom with my younger siblings trembling with fear. We thought the battle would subside and I would drive back to my child whom I left in the care of a very young nanny, but instead the battle was getting closer.

I was distraught, hysterical fearing for my son’s life but the battle for Kampala raged outside and my mother forbade me to leave the house. Instead she begged an Uncle who had joined us to hide from the madness on the streets to walk the ten miles to Najjanankumbi and bring back my baby and the nanny. He left his car behind and walked to Najjanankumbi but after hours of waiting I did not believe he was coming back so I got up and left in spite of my mother’s pleas. I joined the stream of people who were hurrying along Bombo Road towards town. There were no soldiers in sight and the gunfire sounded distant. Rumor had it that the rebels were heading to Entebbe to shut down the airport. There was no time to be afraid, I had to reach my son before nightfall and we would somehow make our way back to Nakasero the next day.

Luckily before I reached Kampala Road in the center of town, I met my Uncle carrying my baby on his shoulders and dragging the young nanny behind him. They had packed a few things which the nanny was carrying in a small bundle. I turned round and hurried back with them to stay with my mother and siblings as we prepared for the coming onslaught.
We did not sleep the night of 24 January 1986; as guns blazed and Museveni's National Resistance Army overrun government strongholds in Kampala City.

At 50 I now laugh at myself for running to my parent’s home in Nakasero which was down the road from the residence of General Tito Okello, then President of Uganda. State House was an obvious target for the approaching rebels.

feeling shocked

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Journey of Exile

I left Uganda on August 6 2001. My nineteen months old baby Hannah was sleeping in her cot when I picked up my bags and headed to the airport knowing it would be a long time before I held her in my arms again. Her older sister Joannah would turn three in November while I was on my way to political asylum in the USA. As soon as I arrived in the United States on an H1B visa in February 2002, I started plotting means of bringing them to join me in the United States. When I left Uganda I was in a highly charged and defiant mood, angry at what I perceived to be a great injustice of violent and highly irregular national elections. My attitude was negative and aggressive and it came through in every interaction I had. I had not stopped to think how leaving the country stealthily and launching a transnational campaign against a government might impact on my family and whether indeed it might mean not seeing my children for a very long time. Their father John; a military officer and I were separated before I joined opposition activism, nonetheless he took time to visit me in Kololo and warn me that the consequences of my outspoken activism would have adverse consequences for him personally and the family. I ignored him.

The morning after I left Uganda the girls’ nanny called John and told him I had left and he needed to come and take the children into his care. My separation from John had been a bitter one but despite our political differences, irreconcilable domestic arguments and hot tempers, I had never doubted John’s love for his daughters. Now settled in Washington D.C, I applied for dependent visas and the US Embassy in Kampala would only grant them with the written consent of their father. He gave his reluctant consent and on May 15 2002, I went to Dulles Airport to pick my two daughters who were accompanied by my mother. I had not seen them in nine months and it was a tearful occasion, made even more poignant when my baby girl called me ‘Auntie.’ Hannah-Banana could not remember her mother.

Two short months after my mother and daughters arrived in D.C. I was out of a job and had lost my H1B status. My brother Andrew had moved to live in the USA from Britain in September 2001. He worked as a radio frequency engineer for Motorola and lived in Florida. Andrew opened his home for us and we moved in to wait for the long immigration process that would give me employment authorization. My mother tagged along and remained with us for a while before returning to Uganda. I lived with my daughters at Andrew’s house for a year before being granted asylum and getting that all-important employment authorization card.

Now that I could return to Washington to take up my Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) the full impact of being a single mother in the US hit home like a rock. After my brother dropped us outside the airport at Fort Lauderdale we were on our own. So as the summer of 2003 drew to a close I moved into an apartment community in White Oaks, a woody suburb of Silver Springs, Maryland. Hannah was all of 3 years old and I pushed her in a stroller with 5 year Joannah tagging along with the three or four large bags that were our worldly possessions. We moved into an empty apartment and our first purchase was a queen size air mattress which we shared that first night. Sabiti a family friend who had helped us find the apartment was a pillar of support in the nightmare that followed as I tried to juggle lining up for food stamps, shopping for groceries, cooking dinner, enrolling Joannah in the nearest public school and finding day care that would be safe for Hannah once I started on my Fellowship.

Many times I sat in crowded rooms waiting for a social worker to explain my next course of action in building the American dream. I wondered how I had gotten to this new low in life. I reflected on the great irony of completing education at some of the best Universities in Uganda and England only to realize that nothing prepared me for a world where degrees would not get me what I needed in life. A good education in Africa and Europe does not prepare you to find a suitable baby sitter in Maryland and if you mention to a social worker that you went to LSE for your Master of Laws degree they stare blankly at you and ask ‘where is that?’ I had tried to get our loyal nanny in Uganda to come along with the children but the US Embassy in Kampala had denied her a visa. I realized that until they came to the USA I knew next to nothing about my babies. Hannah spoke her baby words in Runyankore with a thick ‘Kiga’ accent because the nanny was a Mukiga. At times I had no clue what she was saying and I relied on Joannah to interpret her demands for milk and for attention.

Until I lived with them alone, I never knew how difficult it was to raise toddlers and preschoolers. In Uganda, the nanny was assisted by a crew of relatives who passed through the home on visits. The girls always came to me after they were bathed and properly dressed and I cooed and cuddled them without thinking of the work that went into making them look cute and ready for bed. I marveled now at the great gift of a society that raised children communally. I considered the irony that in the developed world where women were vocal and fought so hard for their rights they found it next to impossible to have children and a career concurrently because the system was run in such an anti-family manner. I longed for Uganda and all the neighbors and villagers whom my kids still called ‘Uncle’ and ‘Auntie.’

At 50 I know that we still have many advantages from communal living and community support but I will always be thankful that America gave me the fortituous opportuntunity to bond with my daughters in a very special way.

feeling special

Death in the Family

The spare hospital furnishings in the private room where my brother Emmanuel died were a luxury in comparison to the general wards at Mulago national referral hospital in Kampala, where hapless patients lay waiting for treatment. When I had stripped my mind of all the memories of his death, it was the stench of the hospital that remained. Nauseating smells that made me think of untreated wounds oozing with blood and pus; unwashed linen soaked in urine. The toilets could be accurately located from the overwhelming odor of the urinals and bowls that had not been flushed for days. My brother refused to use them and for as long as his strength matched his pride, he asked someone to drive him the short distance to our home in Nakasero so that he could use the clean toilet there. Soon he was too weak to move from his bed and suffered the humiliation of using the bed pan.

I had not noticed how thin he was until he extended his bony hand in greeting. His large eyes now seemed to be popping out of his skull. His fair skin seemed translucent and even more delicate than that of my baby, Lionel. Emmanuel had always been of slight build and his weight loss had not been noticeable until he was skin and bones. He was a twenty-two year old medical student with one year left to complete his degree and become a doctor like Uncle John, my paternal Uncle whom he resembled physically and aspired to imitate in everything. Now here he was lying as a patient in the hospital where he normally wore a white gown and followed doctors around learning and preparing to become one. They did not seem to know what ailed him and my father grew impatient with this diagnosis and that misdiagnosis as his son withered and writhed in pain.

One day my father slapped a nurse in frustration and was promptly arrested and walked to the nearby Wandegeya police station. He had been trying to evacuate Emmanuel to a hospital in London but the doctors said he was too weak to travel. The medicines that were needed were in short supply and everyone was getting desperate. When my father was jailed it seemed like a bad omen. I rushed home to tell my mother what had happened. She had left his bedside for lunch before returning to him and had missed the slapping incident. When I hurried in breathless, she thought my brother was dead and the news of my father being in jail was a relief, a minor nuisance. She would not be bothered with the details of father’s jailing and after telling me to tell his lawyer, Uncle Yusuf Kagumire, what had happened, she rushed back to sit by my brother’s death bed.

He deteriorated so fast and in one week the drip bottles that were emptied into his body through his wiry arm had no impact on his condition. The pain was too much, could they not at least have controlled the pain, I wondered?

At about 1:00 am in the night I heard the familiar honk of my father’s Peugeot pick-up truck at the gate and I knew at once that Emmanuel was dead. My brother Andrew who had recently returned from fighting a war alongside Museveni’s guerillas; walked in and confirmed the news of Emmanuel’s death. Now that he had died they seemed sure of his ailment- Hepatitis B. It didn't matter anymore.

My first reaction was relief. The pain had to end somehow and if death freed him from that excruciating pain then death was the better option. It took a while to register that I would not be seeing him again, that he would be sealed in a coffin, interred in the ground and that my brother was gone for good. Even when I went to the mortuary to view his body, I felt nothing. He lay on the mortuary floor at the medical school, not the regular mortuary where other dead people were taken at the rear end of the hospital. I was angered that they would place his body on the floor while a dead Frenchman, killed by unknown gunmen the night before; lay on the only gurney in the room. Was there no end to the inferiority complex that plagued Africans? Even in death they were discriminating against their own. My misdirected anger enabled me to look at my brother’s body without feeling.
They had opened his head and stitched it back together again. I saw the crude stitches on his forehead and wondered whether they had not killed him again by doing that. Now he was surely dead. Later I learnt that they had also opened his chest and abdomen but I never saw those stitches because someone had dressed him up before I arrived. He was an organs donor and the mortician had handed over the parts that the medical school needed and left us this shell to bury.

I recalled a conversation we had a while back. We were having lunch at home when he started talking about his anatomy class. He complained that he had been given the cadaver of a very old man to dissect and he could not find the old man’s veins. I was nauseated and fled the dining table fighting the urge to vomit and he grinned mischievously knowing he had scored one against me. He could not have imagined that he would be at the other end of a dissecting knife in a few months.

For as long as I could remember I was afraid of death. I feared that it would hurt so much and then it would be dark, cold and lonely. My fears had always been in direct contradiction of my mother’s hopes of passage to a beautiful place where the streets are paved in gold and angels sing sweet melodies in God’s praise. Heaven was both mystical and mythical when I was 20. I wanted so much to believe in heaven when my brother died but I was not sure. One of Emmanuel’s atheist friends assured me that his body would rot and be recycled into the earth by worms. He told me not to fantasize about life after death because there was none. I did not know whether to hate him for painting such a lurid picture of death when my brother was fresh in the grave or whether to thank him for dispelling my fantasies.

When death finally knocked on our door that 23rd day of March in 1986, I was numb with shock and pain but I do not recall being afraid. The fear that I had lived with through his illness that he might die, the cold sweats at night all disappeared in the bustle of funeral arrangements. After the burial when mourners left the graveside, the fear returned. A fresh new fear of not knowing what could happen tomorrow. And with the fear came a terrible sense of loss, a pain so deep it was indescribable. I could not find words to describe it but easily recognized it in my mother’s eyes and my father’s stoop.

At 50 I know that death is a rite of passage as inevitable as birth itself yet it still breaks my heart when 30 years on another family loses a loved one in the same hospital for lack of medicine and equipment that is easily accessible in countries right next door.

feeling heartbroken

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Letter to my teen daughters - about love...

1. There are many kinds of love and it is important to distinguish them and know the kind of love you may be feeling at any one time. They are different even though they may all lead to a very nice, warm feeling of contentment; their consequences are not always the same.
2. There is the love of God which religion makes compulsory but my prayer is that you may come to love God and know His love voluntarily, through building your own understanding and through the depth of your own spirituality. I strongly believe that no one can teach you God - you need to find Him yourself and you will experience a deep respectful and awesome love like no other. That love is all enduring and never changing. You can depend on it entirely.
3. The love of a father and mother is perhaps only next to God's in its purity and totality. It pains me that you have not known your father's love for as many years as I have known mine. Good parents treat you like princesses and see the best in you all through your life from the day you are born. They know you very well and remember your innocence as a child and to them you will always be the personification of their own love. You can trust the love of a parent to remain strong throughout your life but remember that unlike God, parents are human and their love comes with all their human failings and frailties.
4. The love for friends ranges from deep to superficial and sometimes you may not think of it as love at all. But remember that each time a friend picks you up when you are down they are showing you love. Learn to recognize those random acts of kindness and to return them because you will one day need some affectionate and thoughtful loving person to hold you steady in the changing fortunes of time.
5. The love for material things is at best superficial. When you say you love those shoes or that watch, think also of other verbs that you could have used to describe them - nice shoes, pretty watch; and know that they are inanimate objects incapable of loving you back. No matter how many things you 'love' and collect through your life, you will never feel the warmth of love from any of them and if you do not learn this early on you will wonder why you still feel empty inside even when you own so many things that you 'love.'
6. Cupid's love! I saved the best for last because I know this is the one you want to hear about. You probably think am too old fashioned to know anything about Cupid's love, huh? Do you know how long Cupid's been around? Think about that! I have accumulated more experience on the subject than the years the two of you have lived - put together. This love is perhaps the most heady of all, most deeply felt and most frightening because it leaves us vulnerable to another human being. It can be very passionate and make us compulsive making us believe that the subject of our feelings has super-human powers to make us happy or unhappy. It is so powerful that we are compelled to believe that there are no words that can express it fully and we feel the need to express it physically through many enjoyable acts of love. It can be the most rewarding and fulfilling if it is returned respectfully. It is also a love that bares your heart and soul and if the other person does not feel the same way that you do or has ulterior motives and recognizes your vulnerability, the consequences can be really hurtful and leave you wounded for a very long time, even for life, if you do not allow yourself to heal. Have no fear that you will be too old to love because Cupid is always at work and even your old mom may surprise you.

At 50 I know you can count on God's love and my love. My prayer is that you never let one bad experience blind you to the fact that you are the most lovable creatures and if someone fails to recognize that then it is not your fault.

— feeling in love

Monday, May 18, 2015


My daughters just do not understand my taste in music but I have been here long enough to know that their kids will probably say the same thing about their music - I listened to my mom's pop in the 70s long enough to know. She loved Miriam Makeba and Tabu Ley Rochereau and to her credit they were Maestros of their time. I have fond memories of listening to their songs played back on Uganda Television (UTV) from concerts that my parents attended. But later they dropped this pop culture and fell in love with 'Songs of Praise,' leaving me and my siblings on our own to discover what pop was 'on the knob.' I have not had conversations with them about their favorite musicians of that time because I know what answer they might give.

But I remember the wide array of tunes that were played in my childhood home from Congolese classics, to Peterson Mutebi, Jimmy Katumba and the Ebonies and the songs in the Sound of Music. My father probably thought the family oriented songs in the 'Sound of Music' were the safest music to counter my late brother's love for Reggae. Emmanuel who lived a very short 22 years had a thing for Bob Marley and introduced him into our home with a vengeance. We hopped to the popular 'No woman, No Cry' with the same veracity that my mom sang her Hymns. Torn between choosing which was more popular we often leaned towards my brother who was younger and more hip.

One day we had a party in the house at Nakasero and thought for once our Dad was the coolest dude on the block. The kids from around Nakasero congregated in our dining room and we jumped away to 'Redemption Song' and other Marley revolutionary songs until we broke my father's patience. He came out of his bedroom in pyjamas and nightgown to ask 'Which of your parents would tolerate this in their house at this time?' It was close to midnight and he had a point but it put a dumper on things and everyone scattered. Darn it! In one minute our Dad transformed from being the coolest Dad on the block for hosting this teenagers party to being the guy who chased our friends out when we were having the time of our life! We pulled apart the music system, put the dining table and chairs back in place and then headed to bed wondering how the neighborhood kids would treat us the next morning.

At 50 I know that balancing the image of 'Cool Mom' and 'Sensible Mom' can be quite challenging!

feeling cool