She is helped from the back court of her house and into the sitting room. While someone holds her hand and shoulder, she firmly holds onto an old Bible, with some dog ears, grey edges and coloured pages which become more visible as she is carefully helped to slowly sit down.
Grey-haired Mary Kigongo Nambooze Ssengendo is not as frail as 100-year-old men and women come. She will use any opportunity to tell you about God, who she says continues to bless her abundantly.
Kigongo lives to share the joys of old age, seeing her grandchildren grow being one of many. She turned a century old on August 20, and one of the celebrations was at Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Church, in Najjanankumbi on Entebbe Road, where she prays.
She was presented with a plaque by the church, in recognition of her service. As the cameramen took photos during the celebrations, she reached out, from her wheelchair, to carry her grandchildren, taking moments to close her eyes and pray for them.
Her spirituality must be something of no surprise to the congregation and no longer raises eyebrows. Our official meeting is at the home of her eldest daughter, Mary Kuteesa, off Salaama Road, where she is spending her evening years.
Herself a nurse, she must have inspired her daughter into the same profession. Kuteesa is tending to the garden when I arrive at her home and she arrives minutes later when her mother is teaching me about Sabbath as acknowledged in her faith.
“Oh mother!” Kuteesa sighs, requesting her mother to take a break so we can exchange courtesies. Kuteesa narrates that when everyone has left home to engage in the day’s schedules, she prays for them, midmorning, afternoon and in the evening.
“She used to be a good singer who sang church hymns but because of age, her voice is not as sweet and clear as it used to be, but she tries. However, the lord has been kind to keep her brain as sharp as that of younger people. She remembers facts from her youth,” Paddy Wamala, one of her grandsons says.
As he explains, Kigongo cuts him short to share with me a tale from her childhood, when her mother introduced her to chores such as digging and preparation of a garden, cooking, which in turn opened her eyes to responsibility. The tale is emphatic that her memory is still sharp.
On Sundays, with her parents, they would walk from home in Najjanankumbi to Namirembe Cathedral for prayers. The dedication to prayer seems to have started back then.
“Each of us, as children, was given a Bible by our parents. At home they would teach us how to read the Bible and help us interpret it,” Nambooze recounts. The stories in the Bible fascinated her as much as grew they her spirituality.
As a pupil at Gayaza Junior School, her tutors were amazed at her keenness to Bible studies as well as in helping peers when it came to co-curricular activities.
“My mother was very strict. I remember her caning me once for failing to prepare Luwombo the way she had taught me. From then on, I was keener on every step and in everything that I was taught,” she recalls.
These traits remained part of her life even when she joined Gayaza High School, a school that modelled her and laid a foundation for her to join the medical world as a nurse.
Love of her life
During practical study at Mulago National Referral Hospital, Nambooze impressed one of her lecturers, Samwiri Wamala, with her academic excellence. Her character melted his heart.
Wamala did not restrain from confessing his love to her and she did not resist the power of his love. The two got married and started a family. The main fruits of their matrimonial union were eight children; Mary Kuteesa, Eva Nalumba, Ssempala Ssengendo, Nantaba Ssengendo, Dr Ssalongo Ssengendo, Musa Bagenda, Apollo Ssengendo and Zawedde Ssengendo, the last two now deceased. She lost her two children during the 1979 war that got President Idi Amin toppled from power.
Matters of her faith
Slightly earlier on, in the late 1960s, Nambooze converted from being Anglican to a Seventh Day Adventist. This did not go down well with her husband who subsequently chased Nambooze from their marital home. She was disappointed but not deterred. “I knew I had made a good decision in becoming an Advent and I was ready to worship and pray as such. He became unhappy that I was dedicating so much time to prayer,” Kigongo recollects. When I asked her what motivated and drove her into the faith, she reaches for her Bible, and reads from Exodus 20:8-11. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
This concretised her journey into the new faith realm. Her husband moved on and so did she. Each of them had a role in raising their children. Out of love, she kept praying for him and their children. To this day, she continues to hold family, her church and certainly herself in prayer.
“Growing to celebrate 100 years is something I do not take for granted. I’m grateful to God and I keep thanking him,” Kigongo says holding her Bible to her chest.
Her secret menu to longevity
Besides prayer though, Nambooze shares more of what has enabled her live a long life.
“I’m purely a vegetarian. I have not taken meat in much of my life. I generally don’t have a good appeite. I’m more inclined to taking fluids and drinks than eating solid food. I like my oats porridge a lot,” the 100-year-old says.
Her caretaker, her daughter, collaborates this, adding that she likes some soda too, once in a while. If she is to eat something, she enjoys matooke, rice, posho served with either groundnut sauce or beans.
In her younger years, Nambooze was keen on exercising, much of it unintentional. She would walk long distances, most times to church and other times to dig as she prepared the garden, perhaps growing beans or groundnuts.
Some of her travels have been relaxing, like when she was flown to Sweden where she is also a citizen. Her daughter, Naluyimba, lives in Sweden. Living there, for a while, earned her citizenship but her heart and life has been in Uganda where she has touched lived too.
In the church where she has prayed for 60 years, she has supported causes. She has met parentless children who she has supported in school. Her family, which traces its lineage among royals, has offered land on which a church sits in Ndeeba.
Nambooze is such a modest person that she will not mention all this to me but say that she is passionate to advance the causes of the church and those who she is blessed to meet. I learn about her helping hand to the less fortunate and to the church from those who have grown around her.
Last wise words
In her last message before we part ways, she implores those in power to leave exemplary legacies from which the young generation cane learn and better itself. And while those in power work on a good legacy, she also appeals to them to give way to others to leave.