In a word, Rose Nanyonga Clarke can best be described as flamboyant. Wide welcoming smile, the bubbly personality as she laughs at even the miserable tales of her life as I’m to later find out and even her multi-coloured exotic maxi is all colourful. If I didn’t know any better the first time I met her, I would have thought “of course, why not?” She is after all Robbie and Ian Clarke’s adopted daughter, pursuing her PhD at Yale University in USA, and does not surely lack anything.
When I meet her, however, I already know her story in bits. It is the Monday after the weekend Nanyonga and her friends do a walk in campaign against child sacrifice. It is a campaign organised and initiated by Nanyonga herself to, she says, “protect children against the child sacrifice I endured.”
Yes, child sacrifice and witchcraft are phenomena this woman is well aware of. They comprise much of the puzzles that make up this flamboyant soul. “Most people associate child sacrifice with only the fatality cases of maimed and killed children. There are a lot of children who have been sacrificed to witchcraft, alive, and I was one of those children,” she says, seriously, pain evident in her eyes.
Before she was a Clarke, Nanyonga belonged to a polygamous family in Bamunanika, Luweero District. Now, Nanyonga’s were fairly exposed parents, with the mother a nursing aide and the father a clinical officer with the White Fathers. Despite that, they were a couple, and consequently a family, one of many in that village, engrailed in the hopelessness, fear and desperation that the world of witches and portions wield. Long before their daughter Nanyonga was born, she was chosen to be special in that realm.
“My mother went to consult witch doctors after she’d had about four boys and no girls, wondering whether she would ever have one. They told her she would indeed have a girl and that that girl would be special,” recounts Nanyonga. And so it was that from her earliest days on this earth, from as far back as she can recall, Nanyonga was set on a journey of preparation into her role as an important person. These preparations included frequent visits to the shrine, the details of which the only things that fade her smile and bring tears to her eyes. “There are things that happened to me in those shrines before I was even 10 that I have never had the guts to disclose to anyone,” she says, eyes glazing over.
“I was made to kill animals for sacrifice, and sit in consultation sessions because people truly believed the gods would speak through me. There were times I was just required to sit in those shrines in specific positions for long periods of time and others when my father left me at the witch doctors’ for days. They were all scary brain-washing experiences, done in the dark, where you could not know what or who touched you,” she explains.
Nanyonga recalls that when she fell sick even as a baby, she was taken to the witch doctor, not the hospital.
The girl with the charms and talismans
Witchcraft was no strange practice in her village yet Nanyonga’s position still stood out. “I was a highly protected child by my family because they believed I was important. I had to wear so many charms on my body and would disappear for rituals to shrines. So, unlike most families, my involvement in witchcraft was no secret,” she says, laughing out loud. This both made it awkward with fellow children, and made her life difficult as she lived by many dos and don’ts.
“There were things on my body that were to never fall off so I played carefully. There were strict regulations regarding my diet and my whole life operations,” she says, “But my childhood was a life of a very important person, trained to carry the family’s responsibilities, keep ill at bay, and make life generally better. I was sort of resigned to it all and by eight, this life had become second nature.” She sums up her primary school experience as a nightmare, revealing that most of her playtime was spent keeping to herself in the latrines.
The family was so strict about keeping her safe and they did their best as they knew how. “I honestly believe that my parents thought it was the only way to keep me alive by obeying the witch doctor’s instructions about my life. We were all so scared of going off track, convinced I would pay the price with my life, so we went along with it all,” reasons Nanyonga.
Through all this, Nanyonga recalls that she was both scared and uncomfortable. Yet she endured it until she was 17, when she mustered the guts to walk away. At a Christian rally, Nanyonga says she had listened to the Christians from Kampala and it had for the first time given her the idea of escaping the life she was bound into then. “For two years, I went to the shrine and continued with the rituals that had then become second nature, but also attended service at church,” she says.
Then she decided she had to choose a faith. “I was lucky I chose Christianity,” she says. So one day, when she was to host one of those traditional ceremonies, she stayed behind at the church for fellowship and revealed to the Christians that she had chosen Christianity. When her father dragged her from the church, she assured him she did not want to be party to witchcraft anymore. For that, he locked her up in a ginnery for days, apparently to give her time to think about her decision. “During this time, family members convinced me I could do both if I wanted and not abandon my calling. But I had made up my mind, even though I was sure I would die for disobeying the gods,” she recounts of the difficult days she spent locked up.
When her father fetched her to a family gathering at her uncle’s in Bamunanika Trading Centre, she still stood by her decision. “And right there, my father publicly disowned me and ordered me to leave. In a daze, I walked towards the path that led to the well, without any idea where I was going,” she says.
About 52km later, Nanyonga ended up at Robbie and Ian Clarke’s Kiwoko Hospital, where she had been told there were opportunities to be trained as a health worker. “That became a pivotal change in my life and Kiwoko Hospital my healing place as I threw myself in my work as a nurse,” she says.
Today, Nanyonga says she is, in many ways, still a work in progress, still healing, pursuing her PhD, as well as awaiting Mr Right. “I have to find one who will be able to accept all this,” she says, laughing and admitting that healing has been a slow and steady process but she is getting there.
Most importantly, for her, was the apology from her father on his death bed. “My mother died in 1982 and my dad in 2005. He told me he was sorry and for me that changed everything. At least he recognised that I had been wronged and it made everything better. It became another pivotal incident for me. The other relationships with my family members are a work in progress,” she says.
Through hard work and discipline, Nanyonga has over the years managed to secure herself scholarships for higher education and a loving family in the Clarkes. She fled at 17, a senior four dropout without much of a future to look to. Yet today she is at Yale University in USA studying for her PhD. If that is not defying the odds, I do not know what is.
Rose’s journey, Nanyonga’s campaign to end child sacrifice
“In 2005 when I was working at IMC, an employee’s child was kidnapped in relation to ritualistic child sacrifice. In 2009, in Colorado, I casually reminisced my 52km walk to freedom to my friends and wondered what it would feel like to walk that distance again. When I returned, there was another kidnapping, again involving someone I knew. I thought that was my reason to speak out, and my experience gave me legitimacy to speak out on the issue.
So in 2009, with a few of my friends we retraced that same walk, and though it was familiar, it wasn’t as eerie as it was those years back. Even the skulls and skeletons were not there this time. This year we did it in Kampala and we plan to do it every year. Rose’s Journey is targeted at specific perceptions and behavior change. It is a call to collectively end child sacrifice. A call for all Ugandans to be involved and conscious of the issues surrounding child sacrifice and witchcraft. We could alos like to engage policy makers in this fight. We are for instance soliciting 1m signatures to beseech government to draft appropriate laws to facilitate the prosecution of those involved in witchcraft-related crimes.”