Rhoda Kalema: Defying the odds

Saturday April 21 2012

Rhoda Nsibirwa Kalema got an education, married at 21

Rhoda Nsibirwa Kalema got an education, married at 21 

By Brian Magoba

Born at a time when girls were nurtured for marriage and the kitchen and therefore were not thought to need an education, Rhoda Nsibirwa Kalema got an education, married at 21, older than the average 18 years of marriage for a girl at the time, and grew to become a prisoner of conscience as she concurrently opposed different political rules openly, writes Brian Magoba

In Dreams from My Father, US President Barrack Obama recounts how, on a childhood visit to Kenya, he was both shocked and impressed by how much more significant it is in Africa to have a surname that carries favour or, even better, influence that gets results without need of more credentials.

A name with weight
Not one, but two of Ms Rhoda Nakibuuka Nsibirwa Kalema’s names carry considerable weight, lent them by a combination of factors that only started with being born into a family with an already-established name. Other factors include surviving several fire-and-brimstone tests from her life in politics, and inspirational heroics that have given her near-iconic status in our nation’s pantheon of people whose life stories inspire generations beyond their own.

Born 1929 into a polygamous family setting-a father, several wives and 24 children between them- ordinarily, neither she nor her family would have bothered much with educating the girls. The popular thinking then was that education transformed good girls into mule-headed, high-heel types who would disregard custom and marry late (any age over 18) and dare to talk back to men.

Breaking the rules
Against this background, Kalema married Nathan William Kalema (RIP) when she was 21, was a pioneer member of the Women’s Movement in Uganda with its mission of challenging all stereotypes against women. She is also remembered for locking horns with Paulo Muwanga (RIP) when she challenged his methods as Minister of Internal Affairs and Chairman of the Military Commission.

All this might have elicited “I told you so’s” from critics of girl’s education,who must also have granted her grudging admiration when she became a junior minister of Culture and Community Development in ex-President Godfrey Binaisa’s (RIP) regime. They probably even were converted to “See where education gets you!”, when she was one of the two women on the National Consultative Council, which functioned as an intermediate Parliament, following the overthrow of ex-President Idi Amin Dada (RIP) in 1979.

Paradoxically though, the dream began with her father who ensured all his children, wives and relatives received some of the formal education he never got. A cynic then would have thought he did it only because uneducated relatives would dishonor his other tag, Katikkiro (Prime Minister) of Buganda kingdom. But taking eight-year old Rhoda and her sister Sarah to King’s College Buddo was only natural for a man who had taught himself to read and write English. She did not disappoint his optimism in transferring her from Gayaza Junior school where she had started her primary education, once emerging best of the six girls in her primary six class.

Fate paves way for her ordained role
She returned to Gayaza High School as Secretary and Bursar, before heading back to King’s College Budo, this time as the wife of teacher, William Kalema, who she married in 1950. For five years it looked like she had settled into the stereotype role of the 1950s educated wife. But fate intervened when, in 1953, the British government awarded her husabnd a scholarship to University of Edinburgh. She joined him in 1955, and then found her true calling doing a course in Social Work and Social Administration at New Battle Abbey, an Adult Education College near Edinburgh, for one year.

While there, her interest in politics shuffled between nonchalant affiliation with the UPC in 1961, and semi-retirement when Amin ousted President Milton Obote on January 25, 1971, before crystallising into a passion that would intersect her desire to help people with a seemingly star-crossed ordination as daughter of a Prime Minister and wife of a minister.

Her zeal extended to joining the Uganda Patriotic Movement, an action that brought with it at least three documented arrests and imprisonments in Luzira on account of purported participation in activities deemed subversive to the various governments that tested her mettle. Amin’s dreaded State Research Bureau arrested her on January 23, 1979, and again under Obote on February 21, 1981, and then on February 4, 1983, in incidences that made “Are you Rhoda Kalema?” the opening line in tension-fraught episodes that usually saw her on a prison bus.

She recounts some of these harrowing experiences in her book A Rising Tide; Ugandan Women’s Struggle for a Public Voice (1940-2000). On at least two of those occasions, face value and name recognition made her prison stint less uncomfortable than standard practice. A warder identified her and smuggled necessities to her. Someone else recognised her on a prisons bus when it stuck at a junction as she was being transferred from Katabi barracks to Luzira Maximum Security Prison, contacted her family and helped set moving the events leading to her release.

An agent of social change for women
This tumultuous period was followed by some of the hard-earned rewards in form of different political posts, for her unwavering commitment. By this time, her role as a social-change agent for women’s issues had crystallised into associating her name with what could be called an early form of feminism.

Her smaller victories in this regard included hauling herself from semi-retirement to participate in politics with the motive of bettering life for her countrymen. In the larger scheme of things, she was responsible for the Kalema Commission’s Report on the laws of Marriage, Divorce and Inheritance.

It tasked the government to address issues of dignity and women’s rights, a struggle continued by recent efforts like the Women’s Rights Bill. Truly, one of those people whom the country has benefited from.

• A junior minister of Culture and Community Development in Binaisa’s (RIP) regime.
• One of the two women on the National Consultative Council after amin’s reign in 1971
• Deputy Minister for Public Service from 1989 to 1991
• National Resistance Council representative for Kiboga District, . Member of the Constituent Assembly,
• Label of “Mother of Parliament” for being part of the National Consultative Council, which functioned as the reformed Parliament that Amin had dissolved during his reign.