Uganda’s educated elite have constructed an image of the majority of our fellow citizens. They call them “ordinary” people, to distinguish them from themselves - the extraordinary ones - the people who happily eat up the lion’s portion of the country’s resources – be they natural or borrowed.
We have had occasion to share the exploits of the self-absorbed elite – the ones who insist on doing everything in style, including being sick in style and dying in style. You know, the ones who long for VIP funerals, as though such “honours” make them less dead than their forebears whose lifeless bodies were wrapped in mats or bark cloths and placed in simple holes in the ground devoid of fancy tiles or bricks.
These educated elite, among them the so-called VIPs (very important persons) and VVIPS (very, very important persons), are burdened with a royal intolerance for the slightest discomfort and an extraordinary dose of the entitlement mentality. They suck the marrow out of a tired land whose burden is carried by the peasants, they who have built the country since the advent of British colonialism.
The peasants form the bulk of the so-called “ordinary” folk: Small scale farmers, fishermen, shepherds and herdsmen whose incredibly rich food graces the elite’s tables; stone splitters, crafts makers, bush-tamers, charcoal manufactures, brewers, house servants, repositories of our stories and literature and myriad other occupations that sustain the country.
There is nothing ordinary about them, for they are the producers and nurturers of the people who are transforming the country and engaging the world well beyond Uganda’s borders. They are the real VVIPs, for without them, Uganda as I knew it in my childhood would have been a sad and miserable place.
One of these VVIPs, Omukaikuru Faisi Bugarukaine muka Nyangayoona, an extraordinary woman of grace, talent, industry and triumph, died on Saturday, February 16, at the age of 103 years. Hers was a long and consequential journey that, like millions of fellow citizens, she walked on the periphery of a world that she supported with her wisdom, hands and sweat, a world that hardly reciprocated her generosity.
Born in Bukinda, Kigezi in 1916, Bugarukaine witnessed the transition from independent clan-based communities to a foreign model of social and political organisation. It was a time of resistance and turmoil.
Muhuumuza, the warrior queen from Rwanda who had waged a war of resistance against the British, had recently been exiled to Kampala. Umwami Nyindo of Bufumbira had rebelled and joined Umwami Musinga of Rwanda. Omukama Katuregye of Abakongwe had been killed while in revolt, and the great Ntokibiri was in rebellion. (The latter was betrayed and killed in 1919.)
Notwithstanding the turmoil and forced change in her environment, Bugarukaine was raised in an authentically Kikiga home. She almost certainly wore enkanda (a very stylish lady’s dress made of pure leather) along with enshamaaza and emisindo, types of metal bangles (enyerere) that enhanced her physical appearance. She dated and married Erinesti Nyangayoona, a fine gentleman from Mparo, Rukiga, with whom she started a family and established themselves among the most admired and respected couples in the area.
My earliest recollection is that of a very kind woman who seemed to till her farm daily, from dawn to dusk, but always cheerful and energetic. Her home, just the other side of our community well, was a welcoming place where my brothers and I were frequent visitors, attracted by the fresh fruit and other delicacies that she happily shared with us. How she was able to take care of her large family is a question that is unanswerable, not even by the women who have done these miraculous things and lived long enough to tell their stories. One pregnancy sups energy, blood and emotions from a woman. Breastfeeding and nursing an infant and toddler is a sleep-depriving commitment that a rural African mother cannot escape. Truly childbirth is a joyful deathtrap for the African woman.
Bugarukaine had six biological daughters – Kyenserikora, Tibaribo, Beinomugisha, Tumwebaze, Tusiime and Sanyu. She had three biological sons – Tibeesigwa, Kwatiraaho and Bitwiromunda. One marvels at her triumph over the ravages of biology and time. Like millions of other African women who have had multiple births, often in rapid succession, Bugarukaine was a great exemplar of extraordinary strength, patience and self-sacrifice. She, like millions of rural women, mothered her progeny and others, even as she fulfilled the traditional duties of a woman. Hers was voluntary hard labour, in a culture that did not allow women maternity leave of absence from work. She soldiered on, producing the crops that made her family self-sufficient, and contributing to the food markets that ensured meals on the tables of the privileged members of society. She was one of the millions of anonymous peasants who supported the Ugandan economy without recognition or fair remuneration.
Notwithstanding her challenges, Bugarukaine, who became a widow at a relatively young age, successfully raised her family. However, her limited land holdings and the disabling effects of old age forced her to migrate to Rwoho in Rwampara, Nkore, where her son Tibeesigwa and her daughter Tibaribo had already settled and become very successfully farmers.
In January 2018, my wife and I, together with our friend Turyaheebwa, were honoured to visit Bugarukaine and her family in Rwoho. The centenarian’s gait had markedly slowed and her fading strength was evident. However, her warmth, her smile and her intellect were very much intact. Her memory of events and names enabled us to catch up on a time that we had shared.
Bugarukaine, the peasant farmer from Mparo, must have been proud to know that one of her grandsons, Dr Alex Ariho, the chief executive officer of the Accra-based African Agribusiness Incubators Network, had followed in her footsteps. Her baton continues to be passed on to strangers from lands she never imagined, in the hope that younger women who continue to be the major producers of Africa’s agricultural wealth, will receive a fairer remuneration than she did.
Bugurukaine, who was buried in Rwoho on Monday, February 18, is survived by seven children, 48 (out of 53) grandchildren, 136 great grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren. She is now with the ancestors, her beautiful smile and voice a welcome addition to the heavenly choir. She looks back at her century plus with the blessed assurance of one who was not ordinary at all, one who has left a great legacy.