A few metres from Nateete Junction, off Masaka Road in Nalukolongo, Rubaga Division is a seemingly deserted house enclosed in a perimeter wall. Behind the fence is an almost dead silence only interrupted by birds chirping and distant noise from trucks on the highway. This is Mapeera Bakateyamba’s Home where more than 90 people, mostly the disabled and elderly, converge to live again.
In the spacious well-manicured green lawn stands a monumental statue of Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga. At the corner of one of the blocks is room 37, William named after William Ssejjoba—who has occupied it for 31 years. Ssejjoba, now 62, came here on June 22, 1987, on his 31st birthday.
The William room
Inside the dimly lit room is a small two-seater sofa in front of a flat TV screen hanging on the wall.
In one corner stands an off-white bookshelf to which I point as I ask.
“Do you read all these books?” Looking into Ssejjoba’s bright bespectacled eyes.
“I read but not all of them. And, one over there…” he replies, as he points to the one titled The Diverted Hope. “I wrote it.” I discover that it chronicles his story since the accident that quashed his dreams
On that fateful day, February 14, 1978, you would expect lovers to be exchanging gifts and promises but it was not the case for Ssejjoba. Maybe because Valentine’s Day was not yet big business in Uganda. It was one of his worst days.
The previous night Ssejjoba had a nightmare. He did not want to go to work till his girlfriend began insulting him. He was unhappy about how she had wasted the only money he had intended for their week’s budget. She quarrelled, and reminded him of the many unfulfilled promises.
He opted to join his boss who had an appointment on Entebbe Road that evening. His girlfriend was unhappy. Ssejjoba had to force his way out. “She grasped both sides of the door frame and said she wasn’t going to let me pass…except after killing her,” reads his book in part.
Ssejjoba says he “easily but lovingly” lifted her from the doorway. And before he left, she said: “I curse you, go! I wish the car knocks you down and never come back here!”
It could have been a premonition he did not heed. Ssejjoba and his boss did not see the person they wanted to. On return, they stopped by Arizona, a nightclub near Kibuye Roundabout. They chatted as they sipped on soft drinks.
Soon a stranger walked in, straight to the counter where they were. He furiously asked in Swahili: “choo iko wapi?” (“where are the loos?”)
The bartender ignored him but Ssejjoba, who was here for his first time did the needful.
From there, things happened so fast: another man, who looked like a friend to the stranger joined in. The two dragged Ssejjoba and his boss to another club across the road.
The strangers said, this was appreciation for Ssejjoba’s hospitality. But the latter and his colleague wanted out. They had also began doubting the strangers’ motive. There was rampant kidnap of young men “who were accused of playing with girlfriends of people in power.”
Ssejjoba and his boss sneaked out. But like a warder watching prisoners, the strangers caught them. They dragged them into their Mercedes Benz, grilling them for suspicious behaviour.
One of the strangers started the car like a maniac, he knocked a few cars in the parking yard as he sped off. “It was enough for us to start praying for God’s protection,” Ssejjoba narrates.
He drove thrice at a terrible speed round the Kibuye Roundabout before taking the Nateete direction. The girls in the car screamed for help. Reaching Nateete, they narrowly survived a head-on collision. The crazy driver had to deal with an on coming cyclist and Land Rover. The cyclist wanted to dodge a pothole and the Land Rover to avoid the cyclist. The Mercedes Benz driver could only land between the Land Rover and an electric pole. They were safe but not for long.
A few metres after they restarted, a police patrol truck was chasing after them. Then a boy joined the road, as if from nowhere. Stranded in the middle of the road caught between two speeding vehicles from opposite ends. Ssejjoba says as the Mercedes driver used all his skills to scrape through, he braked hard, the vehicle skidded and overturned. Unfortunately, the driver flew through the window, the girls and Ssejjoba’s boss got minor injuries, the second stranger a fractured arm, the boy died instantly. And Ssejjoba, 21, injured his spinal cord, never to recover.
His life journey
First, he used a wheelchair but soon it was painful to use. Only his hands and head can move. The countless trips to hospital did not help matters. He is 62. He gave up or diverted his hope.
Born June 1956, Ssejjoba is the first born of 13 children. His poor family had high hopes in him.
“It remains a challenge because my siblings and my parents looked up to me to provide the best example in the family,” he says. Some of his siblings are doing well but without his input.
Ssejjoba’s family could not fund his education and he dropped out after Primary Seven. He did tailoring, using his mother’s sewing machine. “I had grown up seeing my mother make different [clothing] designs. So it was easy for me to learn,” he relates.
Working with his uncle, the 15-year-old then did not receive any pay but this did not stop him from dreaming big. By early 1970s Ssejjoba had got a tailoring job in one of the stores in Mengo.
“I worked on a number of remarkable outfits expanding my clientele, something that earned me my boss’ trust.” When the store shifted to Kampala Road, Ssejjoba met many famous people such as Gen Mustafa Adrisi [Amin’s vice president]. “I made his wife’s wedding gown,” he recalls. “He was so happy and gave us recommendation letters to buy cars at government subsidised prices.” Still harbouring an academic dream, Ssejjoba with two friends hired a private tutor.
Life seemed fine for the young man and one of his clients, a wife of an ambassador, had introduced him to a study opportunity in one of the European countries [details withheld], before everything turned upside down.
After the accident Ssejjoba was rushed to Mulago hospital, unconscious.
He says he did not suffer serious visible injuries such as fractures. He thought the few bruises would not keep him long in hospital since he had to process his travel documents. However, results read otherwise. His condition was worse than he expected and before the doctors revealed the scan results Ssejjoba was taken through a counselling session to prepare him for the sad news.
“The X-ray showed that my spinal cord was injured on the upper backbone between the fourth and fifth vertebrae; meaning my lower body including the four limbs could not respond to any commands from the central nervous system,” he explains.
Still, the doctors did not tell him that his condition would be permanent and he hoped to leave soon. Soon Ssejjoba could not hold things firmly. He had lost his sense of touch until many years later when Karyn, a counsellor whom he speaks fondly of, trained him how to use his paralysed fingers to hold light items such as pencils to sketch images and press the keyboard.
The two men who led Ssejjoba into this accident were junior army officers. The Mercedes Benz belonged to their boss, a senior army officer. Ssejjoba wanted justice. But while in hospital some people threatened him against incriminating soldiers. They told him to alter all the truths: saying he and his boss had asked for a “lift”, that the soldiers’ girlfriends were Ssejjoba’s and his boss’, etc. Even some lawyers who pretended to help him sue for the mess, were simply conmen. They extorted money from him and, never did the work.
A home away from home
During the NRA guerrilla war (1980-86) Ssejjoba stayed indoors. No one could risk to take him outside. Shortly after the war, his cousins hid him in Kasenge, Wakiso. Wheeling the chair on the muddy and bumpy roads, Ssejjoba suffered even more pain.
Under worse conditions Ssejjoba only accessed medication at Mulago Hospital as a refugee. Soon, everyone was leaving home for a new life. Ssejjoba’s aging mother could not cater for him.
Nine years after the accident, with the help of a friend, after filling in a number of admission forms, on June 22, 1987 Ssejjoba joined Mapeera Bakateyamba’s Home, a place he has called home since.
He, like many others over the years, is catered for by the Good Samaritan Sisters. They bathe him, feed him, do his laundry, turn him in his bed twice or thrice a day, everything. This home was founded by Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga in 1978—coincidentally the same year Ssejjoba suffered the accident—to provide shelter, health care to mostly those injured during the war that ousted Idi Amin. The Cardinal also founded the Good Samaritan Sisters, a congregation that specifically looks after the needy.
While Ssejjoba was still adjusting to the trauma of never walking again, with the help of loved ones around, tragedy struck again. In 1994, his daughter died mysteriously at the age of 16.
“It was such a trying moment. I felt forsaken,” he says with a frown. His only child, was born a few months after the accident. She would be 40 now.
After decades of disability, Ssejjoba tried writing. On the headboard, are electrical switches which power his laptop. With his stiff right thumb and the back of his index finger he types letter by letter. He has documented his story in the 188-page book titled The Diverted Hope. For lack of editors, the book is not well chaptered but it flows chronologically. Copies are sold to visitors at the home’s reception.
Ssejjoba still endures irritating occurrences. “I always feel a burning sensation in every inch of my body even if the caretaker turns me thrice a day or more,’’ he narrates.
Nightmares of the fateful accident recur. The involuntary muscular contractions are another cause of discomfort.