From a distance, one can see the rooftops of the houses in her compound in Karubuga village, Rubaare Sub-county in Ntungamo District.
It is through security checks and counter checks, that one enters the compound. The nice looking houses flank the well kempt driveway to the main house and it is hard to differentiate which is the best of all.
It takes patience, to meet Constance Kabonero, the owner of this villa.
Enjoying a treat of tea, fruits and bread, every guest has to wait for some time. Gladly, the compound creates a conducive ambiance.
Seated in her living room, Kabonero speaks with some discomfort, listens hard and makes few movements that come with old age. At 82, her physical strength is expected to have waned, but she looks relatively energetic although she complains of general body weaknesses.
The vast seating room looks like the lobby of a big hotel with a large television screen, antique furniture and pictures that adorn the walls, conjuring an image of a successful life.
During her early years, Kabonero took up many roles as a midwife, housewife, mother, entrepreneur, political mediator and church leader. She believes that where she has failed, her three children have found success for her. Richard Kabonero, Bob Kabonero and Susan Muhwezi have indeed become renowned in business and entrepreneurship, farming, politics and diplomacy.
Susan, the first born, married to Maj. Gen. Jim Muhwezi, is currently a presidential advisor. Richard is Ugandan’s ambassador to Rwanda. Prior to that, he worked in Uganda’s High Commission in the United States.
The youngest, Bob synonymous with Kampala Casino, is an entrepreneur in the leisure and hospitality industry among other string of businesses.
“My husband and I gave birth to only three children; we wanted a number of children we would ably educate with the little assets of land and cattle that we owned,” Kabonero says, as if to explain why she had only three children in an age where having many was the norm.
A chanced early life
Born in 1930 to Irene Kibarigasha and a father she knows little about, she got a chance to go to school at the age of 16, unlike girls of her age in her village who were forced into marriage then.
In a pastoralist family like the one she was born into, girls of 14-16 years of age would be married off early by the family or given the responsibility of doing household chores like making ghee and cleaning the homestead.
But her family was different; it had a strong Christian foundation, no wonder she got saved early, a thing she says helped her through her entire life and to date plays a major part in her life.
She went to Kitunga Primary School, Ntungamo in 1946 for her primary education and later to Bweranyangi Junior in Bushenyi from 1950 to 1952.
It is in Bweranyangi, that she cemented her Christian life.
She was later to be enrolled to Mengo Hospital where she studied and completed her nursing and midwifery course.
A calling in midwifery
She was first deployed to work in Buganda health centres. A young and eager Kabonero settled in despite the different cultural environment. As her career progressed, she worked in a number of health centres, especially missionary founded maternity centres including Mukono Maternity Centre, Bamunanika, Rutete, Mengo Hospital, Kapeka and Bulemezi. Midwifery, she believes, was her calling from God, for she wished to save many womens’ lives.
Despite her passion, she left active service when she got married. Although she is not comfortable about talking about her late husband, Dr Kosia Kabonero, a veterinary doctor then working in Rujumbura (Current day Rukungiri District) who passed on in 1995, her face lights up as she reveals a few details. She describes him as “a very committed man who worked hard for his family to have all that a family needs.”
“My husband studied and worked in Bukiga. Much of his life was like that of the Bakiga, so we grew up following kikiga principles of hard work and commitment. He studied at Kigezi High School and worked in Rujumbura, so our culture was diverse,” she says.
Leaning on her faith
Although she speaks with uneasiness, she is a good listener, I discover as we progress with the interview. She takes her time to respond to my questions, but manages to answer without asking me to repeat the question despite the fact that her hearing was partly damaged due to her diabetic condition.
In the late 1980s, Kabonero was recognised as a lay Canon in the diocese of West Ankole, the highest rank of a lay person under the Anglican Church. A church near her home, built with the help of her son Bob, is a symbol of her commitment to her faith.
However, the humble canon says, “It’s the church that builds me, not me building the church. It’s what has brought me to what I am today; and there is nothing I can give to the church equal to what it gives me.”
Perhaps this humility, besides her determination to succeed at what she sets her mind too, is what has set her apart in the community where she is respected even in the political circles.
A peace maker
To Ntungamo, she is an arbitrator in political misunderstandings, a role that has several times made her confront the “dirty politics” in the district.
In 1999, she mediated in political differences among Rushenyi politicians after the death of the then member of parliament John Kazoora.
Charles Rubahama, his son, had wanted to replace him. He contested with Rukutana Mwesigwa, then a controversial figure in Ntungamo politics.
She also intervened in the 1996 political standoff between her brother John Wycliffe Karazarwe and David Buriku who were both vying for the LC5 seat, a contest had almost turned bloody.
“The boy (Rubahama) wanted to contest because his father had died; I called him and told him that Rushenyi was not a hereditary seat, we counselled him and the matter was settled,” she says.
Though she has been a mediator in political matters she says politics leave people divided. “Leaders, whether LC or MPs want votes, but they leave us divided, why should I belong to any of the political lines? Why should God’s people be divided in following others, that I am for so and so,” she notes.
Business and philanthropy
Her prowess in business like all her other roles, has endeared her in her community. Last year, she was recognised as an inspirational entrepreneur by the Ugandan Youth during the National Youth Day cerebrations held on August 12, in Kabale District.
“Youth came here and I told them about what I was doing, they asked me to attend the event in Kabale, but I was not well and could not travel there, fortunately, they recognised my work and gave me a certificate. At my age, that was a very important thing, sometimes you do not know the impact you are making until you are recognised,” she says.
With her family, she owns a farm of about 16 square miles with dairy cattle, banana plantation and other agricultural enterprises.
She has 66 full time labourers whom she identifies by their names and those of their wives. Most of the labourers have wives at the farm and she pays school fees for all their children.
She also manages estates and rental houses both in Kampala and Ntungamo, and on behalf of her sons, manages local investments including a local radio station Radio Ankole which she and Bob co-own with Minister Mwesigwa Rukutana.