Monday February 24 2014

Margaret Wairimu Kamya: How I became a Muganda

Beti Kamya’s mother, Margaret, left her home in Nakuru, Kenya, to settle in Kampala with her Ugandan husband and raise a family.

Beti Kamya’s mother, Margaret, left her home in Nakuru, Kenya, to settle in Kampala with her Ugandan husband and raise a family. Photos by dominic bukenya 

By Christine W. Wanjala

I know it is sometimes mere courtesy to tell a woman they do not look their age. But in reference to Margaret Kamya, it is nothing but the truth. The woman who comes out to meet us walking briskly across the compound does not look a day over 60. She has heard it before and valiantly defends her age. “I got married in 1953 and I was 20 then,” she shares.
We then sit down to hear her story, and it is quite a story.

Today it may not be unusual to see people marry across tribes and even national borders. The intercontinental marriage is all the rage. In the 1950s, however, it was a different story, in some places the cross-cultural cross-border marriage was virtually unheard off. This did not deter Margaret Wairimu Kamya from following her Prince from her home in Kenya to Uganda, where she set up a home and eventually became a Muganda. As she celebrated her 80th birthday she also shared her story, an 80-year-journey.

Settling into a new culture
At the start of this journey, she was a Kikuyu, that was all she knew until the age of 20. Today, she is a Muganda who proudly declares she is of the Nsenene clan.
Settling into a different culture having been born and raised Kikuyu albeit by very Christian parents was not a walk in the park. The journey was replete with mistakes and learning experiences. One incident sends her into fits of laughter.

“We were at my in-law’s place. I did not know women according to traditional Ganda culture, which was still very strong in the 60s, did not eat chicken. My husband, who, so far, had been telling me the social faux pas I was likely to fall in did not mention it either. In retrospect I now know it was intentional. He was given chicken to share out, and after giving each of the men around the table he passed me a large piece, which I graciously accepted. The stir it caused! No one could believe I was sitting there comfortably eating the chicken with the men. Children who were outside crowded at the door to watch me eat,” she narrates.

Her story begins in Bondeni in Nakuru, Kenya, where she was baptised and where she lived with her parents and siblings. “I am the eldest of 16 siblings,” she says.
Many girls did not make it to school those days but Kamya did because her father was a teacher and a Christian. But not beyond Primary Five.

“My father asked me to understand because he had many children to look after, so I dropped out and started working at the nearby clinic,” she says. That was short-lived as she got an opportunity to go study midwifery in Mombasa. She did not finish the three-year course and was back in Nakuru after one and a half years. “I think I was not passing my classes,” she says.

Luckily, that was a different time, when even those who did not complete training could still practise as what was called a local midwife. So at 19, Margaret was a local nurse living at home with her parents and helping with the raising of her siblings.

It was around this time that she met George Kamya who had come to Nakuru to work as an accountant. “He used to come to church and we would exchange casual greetings,” Kamya, who states she was not thinking about marriage at all, let alone to this young man from Uganda, says.

He, on the other hand, was smitten by the tall beautiful girl and went through a mutual friend, another Ugandan woman called Harriet Kawalya Kaggwa, to reach the object of his affection.

Margaret grew to like him and when he made his intention to marry her clear, she was only too pleased to tell her parents. But there was the matter of his “non-Kikuyuness” so to speak.

It did not go unnoticed by her wider family and other people who heard of the budding relationship. She explains how this was a big thing in the speech that was read on her 80th birthday celebrations on December 21, last year.

“It was a big thing for my people, most of who wouldn’t hear of it. Someone ‘discovered’ that my husband-to-be was a Muganda from Uganda and that they eat people and mice. There were so many stories of the weird things the Baganda do, among them that every first born of every woman is eaten in a tribal ritual...” the speech read in part.

If Margaret’s mother and grandmother had any reservations at the time, they did not voice them. “They had seen him at church and they liked him,” she says. Her father was a little harder to win over. He was worried that George was already married or was not a baptised and confirmed Christian like he professed to be. “He took some time to accept him because he wanted to confirm his Christianity so he wrote to the priest in George’s parish in Mbarara to ask if they knew him,” shares Margaret. The response was that he was indeed known by the priest as a confirmed unmarried Christian and her father gave his blessing.

Her mother-in-law to be also came to see the girl her son wanted to marry. “We were a large family and many of us were girls so we filed past, greeting them until I came and George pointed at me,” says Margaret detailing the beginning of a fast friendship that lasted till the death of her mother-in-law but also of the path towards a marriage.

Starting a family
The two got married in Nakuru in the very church Margaret had been baptised and where they had met. She had done what many before her had not done, married a Muganda.
The adjustment to her new culture was postponed for a decade during which the couple stayed in Kenya.

During that time, she had had seven children, and enjoyed an idyllic life with her husband.
“He opened the world for me, took me for my first dance party, bought my first watch, dressed me so well that I was once written about in Tazama, the only Kiswahili newspaper in Kenya then, as the best dressed lady in Nakuru Town. I was so confident that with George looking after me, nothing could harm me,” is how she described those years in her birthday speech.

In 1963, Kamya packed up his then pregnant wife and seven children to Uganda. For him it was time to return home. “We thought it was time our children grew up in their country,” says Margaret. Though she had visited Uganda two years after the wedding, this was the life-changing move. She describes it like this in the speech: “My life made a somersault from being, thinking, talking, dressing and eating like a Kikuyu to becoming a Muganda in dress, manner and food. In every aspect.”

“We first set up in a rented house; this one here was finished in 1967,” she says referring to the large airy house in whose sitting room this interview took place. By then, George had joined the army as an accountant. Margaret has fond memories of Kamya who worked for three governments, Obote I, Amin and Obote II, a remarkable feat in that tumultuous time in Uganda’s history.

“He was not very interested in politics,” says Margaret. Still he fled to Kenya during Obote II and stayed away for eight years. Margaret, in that time, was raising her family while also working at Mengo Hospital as a student’s warden. “I retired in 1974,” she says.

Religious woman
Just a little way from her house in Nateete is the church which she has attended for more than 40 years. Here, she devoted years as a Sunday school teacher as well as an active member of the Mothers Union. “When we arrived, my first question was where the church was,” she reminisces. This church is now her second family, and though she retired from the official positions, she still plays a mentorship role.


When George Kamya succumbed to diabetes in 1993, Margaret found herself faced by another adjustment, a life without her dear George. “It was an extremely difficult time. My children were all grown up. I immersed myself in church work,” she shares. But even with that to occupy her she was still deeply affected.

Nothing saddens a parent more than outliving their children. And you can see it on Margaret’s face when she talks about the deaths of her two sons, Samsoni and Andrew Kamya, in separate accidents years apart.

But her life has also seen gains in the way of sons and daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great grandchildren. “I have family all over. My six living children have given me 15 grandchildren and those have made me a great-grandmother of seven,” she says proudly

Pictures of her relatives both from Kenya and in Uganda, both departed and alive, from both sides of the border, look down from the walls of her house and she takes time to point them out – her father and mother with her siblings, her son Sam, her husband, her cousin J.M Kariuki, a young Kenyan politician who was assassinated in 1975, her first born daughter Getrude, her most well-known child, former presidential candidate Beti Olive Kamya, flanked by her other siblings, her grandchildren and great grandchildren at various milestones of life.

These are mementoes in black and white, a few coloured, all trying their best to capture what and who mattered in the life of an 80-year-old Margaret’s life.