He doesn’t seem to notice the people eying him up and down or if he does, it doesn’t bother him. He presses on displaying his school ID then launching into a powerful accapella while his arms and upper body move to a beat that everyone else can’t hear.
In an immaculate blue shirt, dark green trousers and polished black shoes, Sseruwagi doesn’t look like your average 22-year-old. But neither does he look like a street singer, or a boy who has faced more hardship in his young life than most people have in a lifetime. He looks jovial and speaks with an energy characteristic of a public speaker.
“Sometimes people think I am a politician, other times a pastor,” he says. Though his colleagues at school call him ‘Pastor,’ the Seventh Day Adventist is none of those things. “I sing to raise my tuition,” Sseruwagi, who also works at a spare parts shop in Kisekka Market, repeats the very line he used earlier on his audience.
The second year mass communication student and aspiring journalist walks in town and surrounding centres around Kampala armed with only his voice and a burning desire to complete his education. “I give people a sample and if the like it they will reach in their pockets,” says Sseruwagi who sings mostly gospel songs that he composes himself.
The mathematics of how he manages to cover his Shs1million per semester tuition, Shs100,000 house rent, living expenses and supporting his two siblings from singing is baffling to say the least.
“I make about Shs30,000 on a good day,” he says. But then this amount is not constant since he has to put in at least three days in school and an additional two at the spare parts shop.
“Mr Kibirige, who owns the shop, lets me work for two days then pays me Shs15,000 for each,” he explains. Along with that Sseruwagi says he makes money from singing at various events as a result of the marketing he does when he sings in public.
“I leave my business card and tell people I am available for hire at functions like graduations and parties,” he says. His fee is about Shs100,000 to Shs250,000 may sound a little meager for the average performing artiste but for this boy hungry to achieve his dreams, it is like winning the lottery every time it happens.
I also saved up enough to make a CD of my music and I sell those at about Shs5,000 each,” he adds. The CD is a seven-song album that he launched at his old school, Light Educational Centre in Nansana. “I saved up to be able to launch it and some well wishers helped me along because I saw it as an investment in the future,”
His is a complicated balancing act of seeking reinvesting and deliberate calculation and hard work to make sure he stays in school. It is just as well that these are lessons he learnt early in life, when his subsistence farmer parents could not afford to pay his school fees past P7.
Realising he was talented, and with a deep desire to complete his education, Sseruwagi says he just went to the streets singing and raising cash to push him through school. “Sometimes well-wishers would chip in and clear part of my school fees. Other times I would get sponsors,” he says.
Sseruwagi is the sixth of eight children. His longest benefactor gave him a half bursary from Senior Three through to Senior Six. “He died just when I was about to join university,” says Sseruwagi with a faraway look in his eyes.
The death of his sponsor slowed him down for a while but it wasn’t long before he was up and about trying to raise fees for his university. I have always wanted to do journalism, and I am determined to see to it that I get there” he talks of determination with passion, saying it is the thing that drives him and gives him hope.
Good days, bad days
“I believe for one to be successful, they have to be very courageous,” he says, waxing almost emotional in saying those words. He reserves all his energy and passion to achieving his dreams first shelving even relationships for the future. “I know I will meet the right girl, a real beauty, but now is not the time for that,” he says when I prod further.
On his experience on the job Sseruwagi says there are good days and bad days as there are kind people and hostile people. “Of any number of people I approach, seventy per cent will listen, but I am also usually ready for the thirty per cent who will not be so receptive,” says Sseruwagi. “Sometimes people will not let you express yourself,” he continues, saying some may respond with verbal attacks.
But even the most unprovoked attack does not deter him. “What matters to me is my goal. I focus on that,” he says. Being misunderstood is everyday fare for him, at least when he goes out to sing with some calling him a beggar, a thief, a mad man and a man on drugs. None of these labels bother him as he casually says he has heard them so many times, he is immune.
His voice drops an octave lower when I ask him about the worst of his experiences on the street and though he keeps talking he seems to be fighting emotion. He particularly recalls an experience where a man he approached in town turned out to a UPDF soldier and asked him to identify himself.
Even when he presented his ID and admission letter, the man accused Sseruwagi of being a fraud and asked him for a license. “When I didn’t have one he threatened to take me to CPS,” he narrates. The soldier who Sseruwagi thinks was doing all that for the benefit of the lady whose company he was in later let him go but not before warning him that if he found him again he would make good his threat. However much that incident shook him, it did not daunt his spirit. “I became more determined,” he says.
Sseruwagi says he has seen several of his friends drop out of school due to lack of fees and is willing to do anything to make sure he doesn’t become just another statistic. “I am going to graduate in 2014,” he says with a smile, already seeing the end of the rainbow he has so labored to reach.
Sseruwagi can not stop talking of his love for his school Kampala University, and it is easy to see why. Here he is loved and accepted, the golden boy everyone loves. At this lakeside campus, he has made a name for himself as a singer, a reporter for the Nkoba za Mbogo, a Buganda youth association and as a member of the prestigious student’s guild as MP of social sciences.
It is also here that he felt the real appreciation of his talent as a composer and not just pity after he composed a song in praise of the school. The Vice Chancellor, Professor Badru Kateregga, was so impressed he gave Sseruwagi a 30 per cent school fees waiver.