What was the craziest thing you did during your 20s? Do you remember? For Bridget Nanyonjo, now, 46, the most foolish act in her early 20s was smoking. This was in the late 1990s.
The first time she smoked was during a night out with friends at a hangout in Kabalagala, a Kampala suburb. That night, she remembers arriving at a bar and two of her friends were smoking cigarettes. Although Nanyonjo turned down their offer to take a puff with them by opting to order for a soda, the friends persisted until she gave in.
“I remember one of them handing me a cigarette stick. I then lit it and started to take a puff from it,” she recalls, adding, “I was lured into the habit because of peer pressure.”
Being her first time, Nanyonjo got a little overwhelmed and seemed to choke. By the time she lit her second cigarette, the coughing had subsided. That night, she smoked two and a half cigarettes.
That night marked the start of Nanyonjo’s smoking journey. Nanyonjo was in her early 20s, and smoked a maximum of two cigarettes daily.
Settling into marriage
In 2000, Nanyonjo got married.
“I quit smoking before getting married out of respect for my husband. I did not want to carry any unhealthy habits into my matrimonial home,” she says.
The couple had a son (now 19 years old) and a daughter (16 years old). The family was, however, hit with a tragedy when their breadwinner passed on in 2007. Nanyonjo prefers not to delve into details of the incident, but she says after his death, life became very stressful.
“I got depressed after my husband’s death. I was really sad and worried about a number of things, including the welfare of my children,” she explains.
Nanyonjo resumed smoking.
“I thought perhaps smoking would help me relax as well as distract me from my worries,” she says.
In 2008, Nanyonjo smoked every day.
“I smoked a maximum of two packets, a day, and sometimes even more,” she says.
She would wake up on an empty stomach to a cigarette and smoke at least a packet. Once it finished, she would pick another, and another, and another one until she got tired. Nanyonjo would then go to bed, take a nap and resume smoking later. In the process, she lost a lot of weight.
“I became skinny because I was only smoking and literally, not eating anything,” she recollects.
Over time, Nanyonjo’s children were affected.
“My children hated me because of my habit. I remember the times they would beg me to stop smoking after reasoning that I was endangering my health and theirs because they would often involuntarily inhale the fumes,” she says.
“Instead, I would get defensive and respond by saying that if they don’t want to inhale any fumes, then, they should keep their distance from me. And that’s what they did. They kept their distance out of fear of provoking their breadwinner.”
Eventually, the family bond got so weak to the extent that the children were taken to boarding school.
“My children had to go to boarding school because I was not giving them enough attention,” she says.
In order to meet the daily needs of the family, Nanyonjo did contracting stints such as working as a researcher. But, whenever, she was paid, she would use part of her earnings to feed her addiction.
“For example, I preferred buying cigarettes to bread or sugar,” she says.
This meant that her children sometimes had to forego certain necessities.
Sometimes, Nanyonjo lost the job contracts after organisations discovered her addiction. Besides, she also lost close friends.
“My friends could not take it anymore. I was a nuisance with the cigarette often in my mouth,” she ralates.
With time, Nanyonjo became isolated and fed her addiction more.
Over time, the mother of two began suffering a number of health effects.
“It was mostly cough that affected me,” she says.
And because she hardly ate, Nanyonjo also lost much weight as well. She also had bad breath.
“My breath was always terrible, and, I even realised that people did not want to get close to me,” she says.
To deal with the issue at hand, Nanyonjo carried sweets or chewing gum to “sweeten” her breath before talking to anyone.
Over time, Nanyonjo was not only smoking but drinking as well. A combination of mostly, spirits and other types of alcohol.
One late night in 2015, after a smoking and drinking spree, she stopped a random boda boda. Nanyonjo who was leaving Bwaise, a Kampala suburb, instructed the rider to take her to Bulenga, another Kampala outskirt.
As they embarked on their journey through the Northern Bypass, Nanyonjo noticed an oncoming car. She got scared thinking it was going to knock them down,
“In my unstable mind, I remember shouting at the boda boda rider that he was going to get us knocked. I then repeatedly tapped him hard on his back in an attempt to make him get off the road, but, in so doing, we both fell off the motorcycle into a trench. I sustained minor injuries. Sadly, he died on the spot,” she says.
The accident happened towards Christmas day. Good Samaritans took Nanyonjo to one of the clinics in Bulenga before she was transferred to Mengo Hospital and eventually to Mulago hospital.
“Although I had minor external injuries, it was later discovered that I had suffered internal bleeding. They admitted me,” she says.
Nanyonjo stayed in Mulago hospital until the beginning of 2016. But it was a difficult time for her as she constantly blamed herself for the death of the boda boda rider.
“It is something that still haunts me to date. I keep thinking that I caused his death,” she says.
After she was discharged in January 2016, she went to live with her mother in Kyaggwe, Mukono District.
“This arrangement was so that my mother would take care of me after the accident,” she says.
Meanwhile, her children were temporarily taken to stay with one of her brothers until Nanyonjo’s full recovery.
As she recovered, Nanyonjo vowed never to smoke or drink again.
“That accident was a wake-up call and a second-chance from God,” she says, adding, “It would have been so selfish of me to go back to my old habits.”
Her journey to recovery included ditching the smokers and making more friends who were non-smokers.Instead of going to bars she opted to attend more church activities.
Once she had fully recovered, Nanyonjo and her children returned to their home. She apologised to them promising to never smoke or drink again.
“I am happy they forgave me. Today, we are close. My daughter keeps teasing me that at least now, I have put on some weight, unlike in the past,” she says bursting into a laugh.
Nanyonjo has never smoked or taken anything alcoholic from the time of the accident.
Today, she is involved in community sensitisation programmes where she often shares her experience with women by enlightening them on the dangers of smoking.
“I go to different local communities, share my story and urge women not to smoke or drink as these habits have a devastating effect on life,” she says.
Nanyonjo also frequently encourages her children to talk to their peers, to stay away from bad peers especially those that engage in various harmful behaviour and habits.
The 46-year-old sells and distributes fruits to different offices.
Her advice to women who are going through difficult times is to find more suitable ways of dealing with their issues rather than engaging in unhealthy habits such as smoking.
“When you have a problem, confide in a trusted party rather drown your sorrow in smoking. The habit will not take your problems away but it will make them worse,” she concludes.
Pius Suuna, an advocate for tobacco control in Uganda Health Communication Alliance (UHCA), says addiction cases continue to rise in a country such as Uganda because of limited sensitisation and implementation of the legal provisions of the Tobacco Control Act 2015. The Act demands the control for the consumption of tobacco and its products, protecting the environment from the effects of tobacco production, promoting research surveillance and exchange of information on tobacco control. This includes insulating tobacco control policies, laws and programmes from interference by the tobacco industry and most importantly, fulfilling Uganda’s obligation and commitment as a party to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHOFCTC) and to provide for other related matters.