Sunday April 18 2010

The Nambooze most people don’t know


The woman who rose from obscurity to become one of Uganda’s most influential politicians, is a mother to 25 children and a very religious person. Lulu Jemimah & Mike Ssegawa find out more about this determined woman

You only need to go to Mukono to know how important Nambooze is. Even children, as young as four years of age, can direct you to her home. The boda boda man at Mukono taxi park charges only Shs1,000 to Nambooze’s residence at the hill, about three kilometres out of the town. Shs1,000 only, because on this day, it has rained and given that the road to Nambooze’s is slippery, one would expect a higher fee but the cyclist says, he charges that much for “Nambooze’s visitor”.
In that short journey he tells of how the outspoken Mukono raised politician knows every boda boda man in town by name.

On arrival at Nambooze’s home, she comes out and greets the boda boda man.
“Hey Sematiko, thanks for bringing my visitor,” she says as they engage in small talk.

Nambooze has been dubbed the ‘iron lady’, madam teacher, voice for Buganda and an activist. She is also known as the trouble maker occasionally mentioned in the President’s speeches.

Considering all this therefore, one of the biggest things that will surprise you about her is the size and number of teddy bears in the living room of her home. There is no doubt whose side she is on, going by the three pictures of the Buganda king on display and the fact that everything from the draperies to the decoration in the middle of the room seems predominantly of the Democratic Party colours, green and white.

She has a whispered conversation with a boy in his early 20s whom she later introduces as Peter her son. When asked if he is hers biologically she defensively asks what that means.

“Can I ask you something,” she says forgetting who is interviewing who. “When a hen lays chicks and goes away and another hen sits on them to hatch, who then would be the biological mother?”

Nambooze has 25 children and insists that they are all hers. She states that being a mother is more than just giving birth in a labour ward and makes it clear that in her house, there is no questioning whether she is the ‘real’ mother to any of them.

“All these are my children. They are Bakirekes, our family name, after my husband. Some of them hail from Ankole and others Busoga, Teso…name it, but here, we are a family,” she states.

As we chat, Jane Frances Mulungi, two, Nambooze’s youngest daughter, comes into the sitting room. She wants her mother’s attention. Nambooze talks to her for about three minutes. And later, convinces her to play with her big brother, Joshua Mwesigwa who is busy riding a bicycle.

“Because of politics, I have little time with my children. So when I am around, I can leave anything to talk to them.” Among Nambooze’s 25 children, some have completed university and high school. Julius Mutamba, graduated in Mass Communications at Kampala International University, while Peter Njuba finished his Public Health course at Makerere University Medical School a couple of years ago.

Geoffrey Kiramizi, a Fine Art graduate of Michael Angelo School of Fine Art in Kisubi, now doubles as her driver and Rachael Nambi, a law graduate was married off last Christmas season. Nambooze says she has another bunch of three S.6 leavers who will soon join Florence Nannozi, who is studying Counselling and Guidance, in university.

Nambooze has three biological children in Valeria Tendo, eight, Joshua Mwesigwa, five, and Jane Frances Mulungi. But she says, everyone in her home has an equal stake. Nambooze’s biological children have all been in jail, either when their mother was pregnant or when she was breastfeeding them.

“I try to make up for the time I am not with them. Like when I have an appointment with anyone outside their office, I move out with one of them. Sometimes I am with them in the studio when I am doing my radio show,” she says.
Like most mothers, Nambooze makes sacrifices to provide a decent living for all her children. She says like any average family, they also struggle to keep everyone in school.

She talks about how she opted to drop out of her Law course at Makerere University to keep the rest of the children in school. “Sometimes we have to take a loan at the beginning of the year of not less than Shs3m.”
Now she is a student of Democracy and Development at Nkozi University. “This is what is going to make us the Bakirekes,” she says. “We are diversifying in various study disciplines to be of various use to this country.”

When asked how she shelters, dresses, feeds, and educates all these children, she replies, “Here, no one owns anything. We don’t have ‘this thing belongs to so and so’. Not even my bedroom is locked, even if I am going away,” she says. “We have nothing like this is my cup or plate, etc…We only have girls’ and boys’ bedrooms. But no one can say ‘This is my bed’. Everyone uses something as we come.”

Asked how she maintains discipline, Nambooze mentions that there are prayer meetings led by her husband every day in their home. She doesn’t remember hitting any of her children and says the last three although still young can also tell when she is not happy with something they have done. She rewards good behaviour and talks frankly with her children but generally doesn’t have problems with them.

Are all of them behind her politically?
“One girl used to support Museveni; she has abandoned it since she is now working as my secretary in her vacation,” she says not making it clear if that was part of the job description. “Mwesigwa (one of the younger ones) is a Besigye man.”

What many people may not know Nambooze says, is that her husband is very political although he prefers to keep his views behind closed doors. They usually discuss ideas when together and she admits that without his support, she wouldn’t have been able to do half the things she has done. Together they agreed that only one of them should join politics actively while the other stayed home to look after their large family. “We now have a single hand feeding us all but someone has to look after the family.”

All the children take after their father’s quieter nature except Tendo who is always writing and scribbling notes. At this point, Nambooze seems lost in thought for a whole minute before coming back to the room and announcing that no one is allowed to speak English in their home. She herself doesn’t like the language and only speaks it when it is really necessary. She disagrees with parents who think making their children speak English makes them smarter. “In all our various languages and cultures we learn much more and have all the elements of discipline,” she explains leaning forward empathically, “What is the point of telling a child to kneel down and greet you in English when it is a local tradition?”

Who is Nambooze?
Nambooze describes herself “a survivor” and says she lives because of her strong belief in God. She attended Bishop Primary and Bishop Secondary school.
“I had both mum and dad, but I grew up an orphan. During Obote’s regimes, we once registered at school as orphans to benefit from free scholastic services for orphans. But my mother told us to withdraw the moment she learnt of it.”
She narrates how she vended banana leaves, pancakes, and polythene bags in Mukono town, to get school fees.

“At Bishop’s school, I had a canteen. I would leave the class 10 minutes earlier to sell snacks and I joined the class 10 minutes later. Luckily, I was a good student and the teachers knew what I was going through to be in school, so they let me be.”

During the 60s and 70s civil servants were usually transferred from one district to another and her father, Kayongo, a carpenter, was no exception. When he engaged in NRA rebel activities, he lost everything as Obote’s men destroyed his house and everything he had.

“I lost seven brothers during the war, I think I made more sacrifices as a child than many bush war heroes,” she quips laughing.
Her father had a reputation of starting a new family in every town he stayed. He now has seven and at any get-together they are identified as Kayongo’s children of Mukono, Mubende or whichever town they grew up. Her mother a postal officer had to shoulder the burden of looking after them until she was weak from a liver complication.

“I am the fifth born of my mother but I’m yet to determine which exact number among all my father’s children,” she says getting that far off look again. He currently lives at what he calls his ‘headquarters’ in Wakiso but is very proud of Nambooze of Mukono (there is another sister she shares the name with).
During her formative years, Nambooze stayed with her grandmother in Mukono.

“She was a talkative woman who loved her bottle,” Nambooze recalls of a woman whose influence she underscores. “I used to carry her luggage wherever she went, including the boozing places. The old woman had so many words that even now, I use some of her words. But, she sowed in me this seed, that I was as good as boys.”

“I wish you were a boy,” the old woman would tell her. “That’s when I started dressing in trousers to look like a boy. I only started appreciating and dressing like a woman much later. Now I even use being a woman as a weapon to subdue my male opponents.”

It was her grandmother who told her most of the biting satire, stories and proverbs that she uses during rallies and on the radio. Nambooze adds, “It was my grandmother who also taught me to love and fear God. At home, we went to church in turns. Those who were chosen were however required to return home and tell those who remained behind what the priest said.”

By her senior five she knew she couldn’t carry on with the trade of selling foodstuffs and was lucky when a friend and boss of her mother offered her a place in the Uganda Post and Telecommunication school. Although she trained as a postal officer, her passion was journalism which she couldn’t afford to study at the time.

Luck struck twice and she joined The Mirror, where she learnt journalism on the job. While there she was sent for short courses and it was during a World Bank journalism course that she perfected investigative journalism. She made friends with one of the facilitators and professors from Canada and after a debate they both agreed that Ugandans needed to specialise in a field so that they knew firsthand what they were reporting about. At the time she was a court reporter and decided to specialise in human rights.

The professor offered to pay for her tuition at LDC where she got a first class in her diploma. She abandoned her Bachelor’s in Law degree at Makerere University just one year in, after joining elective politics. It was this and the fact that her friend and now lawyer Elias Lukwago was always frustrated with human rights law. He would set someone free only to have them re-arrested. She laughs and jokes that having to cram all the notes also had something to do with her decision to quit. “I don’t even know my own number plate.”

It’s no doubt that she gets her political background from her parents. Her father joined politics in the 80s and her mother was the LC by the time she died in 2000. Nambooze doesn’t remember if she was for Museveni since there was no multi party system then. What she does know and has been told is that she took her mother’s vocal personality.

When probed about Museveni she insists that there was a time when she was one of his biggest supporters despite their current rivaling relationship. Even when she was working to support herself, she spent money on his speeches and books which were on sale at the time. She believes that between 1986 and 1995 he was the president of the people until he lost his way and her along with it.
She has come a long way since but claims she is still the girl that went to Bishop Schools and sold things in the market.

She has been blamed for being a purist and unbending when it comes to democracy however unattainable. In her defence, the reason she probably gets in trouble is because she always says what she feels without considering the consequences first. She has made her fair share of enemies but believes strongly that more friends have come out of her honesty.

Nambooze’s devotion to her tribe and king has been read as tribalist but she maintains that it is just love and loyalty. She points out that her large family has some children who are Bateeso, Basoga and Banyankole making her anything but tribalist.

A pleasant surprise was how devoted she is to her Catholic religion. While she wonders what keeps other politicians going; it is God she has relied on all these years. In the very ‘dangerous’ field she treads, it is He who she turned to every time things got heated but especially when she was driven to western Uganda and detained for allegedly starting the September riots.

What she is most grateful to God for however, is her husband who she has been with since their days in Bishop Secondary School. You should see Nambooze narrating how she met Henry Mukasa Bakireke! She whispers when she mentions how early she met him and jokes that she doesn’t want her children to find out how young they were.

Talk about opposites’ getting attracted to each other. Mr Bakireke is a quiet man. He won’t step on anyone toes. In Nambooze admission, “He’s everyone’s favourite.”

She explains that all the children run to him first when they have any issues. Not because he is the one who is always with them, but because he is humane, approachable and simple.

She explains that what binds them together is “We almost shared the same experiences as children and we are both fascinated by children.” He also on many occasions wakes up in the middle of the night to pray and intercede for her.
And she emphasizes his selflessness, as “Before we bought the second car, he walked to his work place, while he let me drive to my businesses,” she adds.
During our interview, Mr Bakireke only appears when he comes to remind the household that it was time for night prayers.

Nambooze says religion is at the heart of our family. “Prayers are compulsory. When Mr Bakireke announces it’s time for prayer, all of us leave whatever we are doing and go for prayers.”

With a broad smile on her face, she talks about how they met. “We met in school way back in 1985 when we were Senior Three students at Bishop’s School in Mukono,” she says. They married in 2002 at St Peter’s Church, Nsambya, 13 years after they first met.

“The 13 years didn’t pass without challenges,” she adds. “At one time, we lost each other. But we agreed not to discuss this period.” Nambooze says the four to five years they did not see each other was due to immaturity. But they realised later that they were meant for each other.

“Since we came together, I don’t want to think of a situation that could separate us again,” she says. Nambooze says she has little time to waste on herself. When she is not with politicians in her locality, she is with her family at home. She says would like to take her family out once every month, but she adjusts that programme according to the circumstances of the time.
“On Christmas for example, it is me who prepares meals, she says. So my family is my most immediate friends.”

Nambooze says she has few women friends. “I don’t know, but I find it easy to associate with men.” She mentions Kampala Central MP Erias Lukwago, East African newspaper reporter, Michael Wakabi, veteran journalist Haruna Kanaabi and President Museveni’s spokesman, Tamale Mirundi, as people she knows as her friends.

“But Tamale is distant these days since he went to state house. But I still regard him as my friend.” By this point her house was filled with visitors who keep coughing indiscreetly for her attention and we have to stop the interview there.

Among these is her campaign manager who she has to touch base with. Later she calls and apologises for the interruption, a reminder that she never takes the support she gets from anyone for granted.