We celebrated a landmark birthday of a special lady this past weekend. Rhoda Nakibuuka Kalema, who was born at Mengo Hospital on May 10, 1929, turned 90 on Friday, joining a very small club of 17 million nonagenarians out of the World’s population of 7.7 billion. In Uganda, where only 2.49 per cent of the population is aged 65 and above, to live to age 90 is a very rare achievement.
Happily, Ms Kalema crosses this milestone with an intact mind and a busy agenda that includes serious literally projects. In a phone conversation on Saturday, May 11, Ms Kalema shared with me that having completed her autobiography, which is ready for publishing, she is embarking on writing the biography of William Wilberforce Kalema, her late husband, who served as a Cabinet minister in Uganda’s first post-independence government.
Her birthday celebration, organised jointly by her family and the Bible Society of Uganda, included a thanksgiving service at St Stephen’s Church of Uganda at Kisugu, Kampala. This was a very special partnership that reflected her tireless commitment to the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As I wrote in this column a year ago, Ms Kalema’s is a great story of fortune and tragedy, of extraordinary resilience and triumph. The oldest surviving child of Owekitiibwa Martin Luther Nsibirwa, Katikkiro (prime minister) of Buganda (1929-41 and 1945) and Ms Veronica Namudu, Ms Kalema’s first encounter with profound loss was her father’s assassination at Namirembe Cathedral on September 5, 1945.
She was a 16-year-old teenager, whose world was suddenly ripped apart by parochial people, deprived of a father whose core values she would later summarise as “loyalty and service, absolute honesty, respect for others, hard work, love of education and devotion to God.” (Nsibirwa, a progressive leader, was murdered because he supported the sale of land to enable physical expansion of Makerere College.)
Ms Kalema was the 13th of Nsibirwa’s 25 children that he had with his seven wives. A graduate of Gayaza High School, King’s College, Budo and Edinburgh University, her career has included working as a secretary/bursar at Gayaza High School, a member of Uganda’s National Consultative Council, then the National Resistance Council, the Constituent Assembly, cabinet minister in the Uganda Government and a farmer
However, it is in her role as a wife and mother that Ms Kalema excelled under the most difficult circumstances. As a wife, Rhoda was a solid and loving partner of Kalema, a teacher at Budo, whom she married on February 11, 1950. The happy marriage would come to a sudden and devastating end on January 20, 1972, when Kalema “disappeared.” He was among the first prominent Ugandans to be killed during the regime of Gen Idi Amin Dada.
To be a widow at 42, in a terrifyingly hostile environment, required an extraordinary strength of character to endure the pain of loss and the challenges of single-motherhood. Her children – Elizabeth, William, Peter, Apollo, Veronica and Gladys – were still young and at school.
Death and disappearances of relatives, friends and her husband’s political colleagues kept the wounds of loss very fresh throughout the 1970s.
The economic hardships, military turmoil and “liberation” wars disrupted whatever stability she managed to fashion under the circumstances. She endured arrest and incarceration on three occasions – 1979, 1981 and 1983 – because of her presumed political disagreement with the rulers of the day.
However, the worst pain she endured after her husband’s premature death was the loss of her daughter Elizabeth Nakalema and two sons – Peter and Apollo. It is a mark of her deep faith in God and great strength of character, that Ms Kalema triumphed over these immense losses and challenges, and forged ahead to live a life of honour, service and great dignity.
When my wife and I visited her last year, we talked about her impending entry into another decade of her amazing life. “Will I get there?” she asked as she chuckled at the prospect. I saw no reason why not and told her as much.
With her positive attitude, her intellectual curiosity, her constant exercising of her brilliant mind and, above all, by God’s Grace, we believe that Ms Kalema will get to the beautiful age of 100, still leading, guiding and inspiring.
To Ms Kalema, a Christian woman of deep faith, my birthday gift to her is a passage from Isaiah 40: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
May the Lord preserve us in good health so that we live to celebrate Ms Kalema’s centenary!