You know him as the outspoken politician, Budadiri West Member of Parliament, the Leader of Opposition, and a force to reckon with in political circles. But who is Nandala Mafabi when he is not all these things? We sought out the man himself to establish this question.
“I love to eat matooke with meat or mushrooms. I have relatives who collect and send the mushrooms over. I am a simple guy really,” says Mafabi when I ask him to tell me about himself.
Certainly not the answer I was expecting but it is a start and we have still not gotten into the interview proper. Nandala is perched on an ottoman in what appears to be his second living room where he has just led me and my team. We found him just finishing up his lunch, a late one since it is almost 4pm and which he had gamely asked us to try. Incidentally, it is his beloved mushrooms and matooke.
Clad in a white shirt and grey pants, Mafabi is the very picture of ease. His usually intense look on TV and other platforms is replaced by a genial expression. In fact, if his face was not that recognisable as it is today, Mafabi would pass for any other man, relaxing at home on Sunday evening. Never mind that he has worked much of the day, only to drive home and find several callers all seeking his audience besides us. He will create time for everyone of them.
“I am a people person; my home is a people place and that is just my life. At my home in the village, we cook food like it is a school because people just keep coming,” he shares. The love of people, he says, is deep in his blood and is one of the fundamental values he seeks to inculcate in his five children. I teach them that they must respect mankind, other things are secondary really,” says the father of five.
When a teenage boy saunters into the room, Mafabi lights up and reaches for him. “This is my boy. I am going to circumcise him come 15th. You should come see,” he says playfully smacking the boy, who has just greeted us politely, on the back. The invite is to witness the Bugisu rite of passage. I note that that is the second invite to do something in the space of 15 minutes.
He looks serious as he tells of what he does that is not active politics, which is mainly charity work under Nandala Foundation which sees disadvantaged children taken to school. He also puts to use his accountancy skills (he is a certified public accountant) to good use by doing financial work for churches and mosques pro bono.
“The word gets around that I do these things and even if I may need a team to assist me, I always ensure a personal touch,” he says.
“My grandfather was a businessman and a coffee farmer. He had a lot of coffee and upon his death, I inherited it,” says Mafabi, the first born of nine children. He does not attach much value to material wealth.
“I am rich at heart,” he says, when I ask whether he considers himself a rich man. I know not to fight for everything, things like land and property, when the only thing you are sure of is six foot by three by four,” he says cryptically.
A tough childhood
One thing comes out during our interview; Mafabi is a good story teller. When he starts on a story, he sits back and engages us, and laughs raucously if the story is funny and most of them are. But besides entertaining us, we see glimpses of his character in those formative years, how he was always headstrong, the very thing that would see him grow up to be is a challenger of systems and of course, a formidable politician. Like the one of how he ended up staying in Uganda to be raised by his grandfather while his family were in exile in Kenya during President Idi Amin’s regime
“We were at the water fountain at the school where we had been enrolled when this Indian boy spat on me. I beat him up and obviously got into trouble,” he says. When the then 10-year-old Mafabi learnt that part of the disciplinary measure involved bringing his parents, he refused.
“Instead, I insisted I wanted to come back to Uganda and was sent back to Busamaga where I stayed with my grandfather. From that tender age I became his accountant,” narrates Mafabi who then went to Mbale SS and Busoga College, Mwiri, for his secondary education, and later he joined Makerere University.
A cheeky husband
His wife Florence, walks into the room, good-naturedly protesting about being put in “these press things”, when Stephen, our photographer, prepares to take her picture. Meanwhile, another side of her husband (yes, they just keep coming) emerges. Mafabi the charmer/ adoring husband who won’t hesitate to throw compliments like, “You are beautiful” and “You look cute” as he when his wife frets about not being camera ready.
They are in their 18th year of marriage and look every bit the happy couple. She matches his playful jibes with her own witty remarks, and then they both crack up. They met in Makerere University, he was studying a BSc in Statistics, and she was reading for her Bachelors of Education, but, it was their love for sport that actually brought them together.
“I used to play volleyball, basketball, and a little bit of hockey. He used play tennis. After the games, we would ‘chill’ in the Guild Canteen and one thing led to another,” she says, somewhat bashfully before falling into an exchange on which halls they were at in the university.
“You know African men,” continues Florence who is back to her narration after settling the hall matter. “He pulled an African proposal one day. You know, the one that goes, ‘I really need to meet your parents,’” she says and bursts out laughing.
She describes him as the same humble loving, nice man, the qualities that attracted her to him in the first place.
So did she have inkling as to his ideas of going into politics? “Not at all. When he told me, I wasn’t ready for it, but I had made a commitment so I let him have his shot and see how it went,” she says.
A qualified teacher, lawyer and with a Master’s in Public Administration, Florence is not short of directions to steer her career. But she spends most of her time raising their two boys and three girls and running the family business.
Mafabi’s typical day begins early. “By six, I am in my suit. I, then, read the newspapers online and reply my mails. I head for my private office at 6:30am, then proceed to Parliament. I always leave at around 8pm and head straight home most times,” Mafabi, a teetotaller says.
“No gym, no social engagements for the most part, meetings if any maybe, but I even hold them at home , so I don’t stay out late much,” he adds.
“God just made me healthy,” he says, when I wonder how he keeps trim without frequenting the gym and inadvertently opening the topic of faith. What are his affiliations?
A man with spiritual bearings
“I was raised in the Church of Uganda and go to St Luke’s Ntinda or the one back in the village at Busamaga. But, I also go to any church, I even go to mosques,” he says adding that he also prays to God from his house.
For a man who calls himself a “villager”, he says the people in Busamaga are not awed by him because they recognise him as their fellow villager.
Mafabi has warmed up to today’s newfangled media. He is active on social media. But when it comes to recreation, he is a traditional person.
“I do not watch films and the only TV I watch is news. I read magazines like The Economist, Time and Newsweek but I also read books,” he says, then adds after a momentary pause, “Oh, and I listen to church music. I love classical church music.”
The only other thing that he does to relax is play tennis, “but only when I am out of the country and I am done with whatever business took me there. Otherwise, I never seem to find the time” he says.
He has since learnt that missing out on certain things comes with territory. “I miss visiting people, I miss the village. The children wouldn’t complain if they saw more of me. Imagine, I have only been to my daughter’s school twice!” he says. Mafabi can only really relax if he leaves the country where he tries as much as possible to go with his family.
“It is our only actual family time,” he tells me.
It’s no secret politicians who didn’t already have the skill, quickly learnt to think on their feet and come up with the most convincing of answers at a moment’s notice. And Mafabi, who has made 12 years in active politics, can hold his own. His response to how he would like to be remembered is impressively short and to the point. “As a man who fought for the common man. I have lived my full life, I have had my share. I have no regrets,” says Mafabi.
As he sees us to the gate past the other people waiting for him, I cannot resist asking what has helped him through the low points, when what he went after does not quite work out.
“I go re-energise myself to get over that low end. Something great is always around the corner,” he says. And there we have it, the last thing that I learn of Mafabi at least for that day. He is an optimist, an optimist with a spirit that would be hard to daunt.