Uganda seems a country under some sort of ominous spell that it is easier for citizens to die than live. And it doesn’t matter whether one is affluent or deprived.
In Karamoja, in the country’s arid north-east, residents are dropping dead because they have no food to eat. While in the towns and the capital, Kampala, the affluent die early due to unhealthy eating.
Put another way, the rich and poor ironically die of common cause – food; too little or too much of it.
It is the bad lifestyle, according to President Museveni’s diagnosis, prematurely terminating lives of several thousands of Ugandans. Besides, rarely do the citizens visit the doctor just for general medical checkup unless ill.
Investing assiduously in personal health and hygiene has kept the President strong at work and hardly falling sick.
The government is yet to conduct specific research to examine the toll of non-communicable diseases, also referred to as ‘lifestyle diseases’, according to Dr Gerald Mutungi the commissioner for NCDs in the Ministry of Health.
According to him, data filed from individual health facilities including Mulago National Referral Hospital already show a spike in incidences of previously infrequent conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiac arrest, cancer, asthma and other chronic respiratory infections.
“These are diseases of lifestyle; eating fatty foods, living sedentary life, the doctor said. “These diseases usually don’t present early symptoms; the symptoms in most cases show when it is too late.”
And persons aged 40 years and above are at higher risk, which is why once-a-year medical screening and at least 30-minute daily physical exercise is highly recommended.
NCD victims often collapse or suffer stroke unexpectedly
The World Health Organisation’s 2010 Global Status Report on non-communicable diseases, the latest such comprehensive study, says NCDs in 2008 killed 36 million people worldwide, with majority victims being persons below 60 years and theoretically within the most productive phase of their lives.
“The magnitude of these diseases continues to rise, especially in low-and middle-income countries,” the report notes.
NCDs killed more than 1.6 million Ugandans in 2008, with more men than women dying, according to the Non-Communicable Diseases Country Profiles 2011.
And its two leading causes, according to experts, were behaviour-related: excessive smoking and inactivity. Other predisposing factors include high alcohol intake, insufficient physical exercise and unhealthy diet, leading to obesity (which stood at 4.3% in Uganda), high blood pressure, raised cholesterol and blood sugar level in the body.
President Museveni has lately adopted a combative campaign on healthy living, with the central plank of his message being on dieting and physical exercise.
For instance, at former Disaster minister Stephen Mallinga’s burial, the President chided political leaders he said were increasingly dying at younger age due to preventable diseases. Conformists accused him of speaking disrespectfully of the dead he said had failed to exercise and fed badly until death.
Yet this was not the President’s first verbal assault on the subject. During the national prayers at Kololo in March for late Eria Kategaya, he jolted mourners by proclaiming that the former deputy premier succumbed to thrombosis (blood clot) due to a sedentary lifestyle of sitting for long in meetings or on planes to solve “other people’s problems”.
Inactivity, he argued, was a risk in itself and silent death warrant. In the largely-religious Uganda, death at whatever age and manner is God’s call. Museveni at the Kololo speech took issue with clerics for trumpeting such divinely supplication, and wondered if God did not want Europeans, Japanese and Americans – who enjoy a longer life span – in heaven!
State House courtiers say the President employs this tactic to preach about healthy living at funerals because he wants Ugandans to see first-hand a dead body as danger sign of not taking heed.
And the point he wants citizens to absorb is that his government stopped extra-judicial killings by past regimes and it is unacceptable for citizens to now turn to kill themselves through reckless behaviour, a trend some analysts flag as the downside of prosperity and intellectual globalisation.
“If Ugandans, individually and or collectively, could add hygiene, nutrition and personal discipline (for example, avoiding umalaya (prostitution), alcohol, smoking and obesity), Mr Museveni said during this year’s state-of-the-nation address on June 6, “the total disease burden eliminated would amount to 80 per cent.”
Museveni feeding habits
So how does the head-of-state, officially aged 69, practice what he preaches?
“I don’t eat fish because I call it snake, I don’t eat chicken because I think if you eat chicken you will be unstable, I don’t eat pigs, I don’t eat very many of those things which you people eat,” he told the BBC’s Stephen Sackur during a Hard Talk programme.
These are too many tempting delicacies to sacrifice. And is Museveni a vegetarian to forego them?
State House officials were reluctant to discuss the President’s feeding habits which they consider a “private matter”, according to spokesperson Tamale Mirundi.
He could only confirm that Mr Museveni travels with a personal chef, including on overseas trips, because he is particular about what he eats and how the meal is prepared.
According to journalist and media entrepreneur Andrew Mwenda, who says he has dined with the President on several occasions, Mr Museveni’s heaviest meal is breakfast and he loves African or organic foods. Millet is his favourite for porridge and bread for full meal.
His breakfast menu comprises milk tea, bananas and fruit salads and he enjoys vegetable sandwiches too. These foodstuffs, according to nutritionists, are low-cholesterol, rich in vitamins and other nutrients that boost body immunity, including reducing growth of cancer cells.
“The President is careful on what he eats; he rarely has lunch but takes tea often. He takes light dinner, sometimes of two steamed bananas. He loves vegetables including spinach, nakati, dodo and broccoli, Mr Mwenda told this newspaper. “The way he arranges his food on the plate is clearly of different and balanced diet.”
The chicken question
Besides matooke, Museveni takes rice and either boiled sweet or Irish potatoes served with beef, groundnut stew with vegetables as a constant.
Other accounts also contradict the president’s public version that he does not eat birds because he is said to taste chicken, although occasionally. Comrades of the NRA guerilla war that brought Museveni to power in 1986 have randomly said chicken was among delicacies in the bush reserved for the Military High Command that he chaired, much to the chagrin of other rebel fighters who griped about the discriminatory class system.
Sometimes dieting is a function of culture, medical advice, religious beliefs, availability and affordability, and much less about bad behaviour, making choice a luxury in seasons of plenty.
In January, 2012, South Africa’s News24 online publication reported that aides picked grilled chicken from a Nandos fast-food outlet and Museveni munched it for dinner after he and five other visiting African presidents were starved at a mismanaged African National Congress (ANC)’s centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein. Ugandan officials never disputed that report, also published by Ugandan media.
Eating caked cow blood, milk
So, have abundance, health reasons and exposure altered the President’s dieting preferences? Yes, perhaps.
Growing up as a child, a younger Museveni like other family members fed exclusively on cattle products; mainly milk --- fresh milk, soured milk, and, once in a while, a kind of thick cream variety called eshabwe which they ate with steamed bananas.
In his autobiography, Sowing the Mustard Seed, the President, who belongs to the cattle-keeping Banyankore people of western Uganda, writes: “We also ate cattle blood – we would bleed the cattle and bake the blood into a type of cake. In my culture at the time, eating non-cattle food was considered shameful. Sometimes you could eat solid food, but you would have to wait until it was out of your system before you were allowed to drink milk again.”
According to Museveni, his father Amos Kaguta who passed on in February, at 96, went to his grave without “ever eating fish or chicken in any shape or form”.
It’s some of these father’s traits the president inherited but he also picked from his late mother Esteri Kokundeka, a born-again Anglican, the virtue of being a teetotaler. He neither smokes nor drinks alcohol, according to his former spokesperson and current Gender minister Karooro Okurut.
Preparing millet porridge in US
She spoke of Museveni’s penchant for steamed vegetables and millet, recalling once while on a visit to Washington D.C., they carried millet flour on the plane and the President ordered millet porridge prepared for their hosts.
“He told them millet is nutritious, Ms Okurut recollects, “The Americans tasted the porridge and were very impressed.”
Mzee Boniface Byanyima, in whose household Uganda’s future leader lived as a teenager, said he has no memory of Museveni’s favourite dishes or what foods he disliked.
He said: “What I can remember [is] he liked eating, he could eat all that was served on his plate; he was not selective …”
Today’s Museveni has morphed, even in appetite. He takes small food portions, skips lunch, drinks more water and milk tea sweetened with either honey or sugar to recharge during the day and ensures he takes light dinner before 7pm so there is sufficient digestion before he goes to bed, which usually is after chairing several meeting lasting deep into the night.
As a State House insider, Ms Okurut said she knew the President worked out at the gym regularly to keep in great physical stead. Once on a visit to Arua, he got to the ground and did push-ups at Arua Public Primary school to show he still had stamina to lead Uganda and dispel the misnomer by his political opponents that aging had enervated him. To keep fit, Museveni also takes regular long walks and even personally uproots feeding grass for his cattle while on his upcountry Kisozi and Rwakitura ranches, according to people close to him.
He is fastidious and near perfectionist on matters hygiene, and a health freak too. The President washes his hands multiple times each day, avoids unnecessary handshakes, has serviette by his side to regularly wipe mouth or hand if not to blow out his nose; and, consults the doctor at the slightest health unease.
While returning from Juba in 2005 where he had gone to pay homage to fallen pioneer South Sudan President John Garang, Museveni on arrival in Arua town pulled out through his open-roof car but declined to shake hand with scrambling urban dwellers, saying he had been briefed there was cholera outbreak in the municipality at the time.
He has severally been photographed shaking hand with guest especially at night while his palm is shelved in dark gloves in a country without winter weather conditions. This newspaper was told the wife, Janet, is his only barber while an elderly lady from Ruhinda in the new Mitooma district prepares millet porridge for him.
These cautious actions and feeding on organic food have made him healthier and more energetic than would a workaholic sexagenarian, mesmerising younger aides.
“When we go up-country and sometimes have to move uphill, and whereas most of us in our 20s and thirties are panting, the President takes longer strides and we have to run to catch up with him, says Sarah Kagingo, the special presidential assistant for Communications. “I think it has everything to do with what he eats and things he avoids because they are detrimental to his health.”
Besides health benefits of organic foods, the president invoked his feeding ways to argue that the 2011 inflation that provoked street demonstrations shaking his power grip would not have squeezed urban dwellers as much had they relied on old-style foods.
“For me, I only eat traditional food. I don’t change,” he said when he launched his wife Janet Kataha’s book, My Life’s Journey. “When you have problems of imported food, for me am not bothered...I am not concerned because all the food am eating is local.”
Mr Museveni’s 1990s break with tradition and open talk about HIV, which was killing many Ugandans in communities that associated the disease with witchcraft, helped significantly reduce public stigma and drove down prevalence.
Is his piercing tactic of chiding public officials over unhealthy dieting the magic bullet to salvage the country’s middle-class more prone to catching non-communicable diseases? Time will be the referee.
How Museveni feeds:
Fruit salads, cow milk (both fresh/semi-processed), millet bread and millet porridge (most times), steamed bananas (mostly 2 pieces at dinner), rice, lots of vegetables (dodo, spinach, broccoli and Nakati), beef, chicken (occasionally), boiled sweet and Irish potatoes.
Other health habits:
• Breakfast is his heaviest meal, takes tea/milk regularly, mostly skips or takes light lunch and lighter dinner (of plenty vegetables)
• Works out in gym regularly
• Walks a lot, especially while on farm in Kisozi & Rwakitura
• Travels with own chef, including abroad, where he is known to preach the value of consuming organic foods
• Washes hand regularly
• Always has serviette to wipe mouth or hand or blow out nose
• Avoids unnecessary handshake
Additional reporting by Felix Basiime