Women of the liberation struggle

Friday January 24 2014

I was born a natural fighter never believing in oppression. During the Milton Obote 11 regime, three of my children were killed by government soldiers,


Tomorrow will mark 28 years since the National Resistance Army (NRA), marched onto Kampala on January 26, 1986. Two women who were hands-on in the war, illustrate with their experiences the role played by women in the struggle.


Capt Oliver Zizinga, 78

I was born a natural fighter never believing in oppression. During the Milton Obote 11 regime, three of my children were killed by government soldiers, and I promised to support any person who came out to fight Obote. When Museveni promised to go to the bush if the elections were rigged, I was more than ready to join him.
I got into the system at first as a mobiliser, also doing clandestine work. When I came to Kampala, my husband asked me to choose between living in the bush or staying away from the rebels. I chose the bush because I would have been hunted by the government as well as the rebels since I knew their secrets.

Safeguarding the leader’s welfare
By late 1981, we were only three women on the National Resistance council; Gertrude Njuba, the late Joy Mirembe, and myself. Joy died in 1982 while giving birth, leaving just the two of us. As a member of the NRC, I had no specified roles besides sitting in the NRC meeting and deliberating on issues.
The two of us were put in charge of Museveni’s welfare and there was word in the enemy camp that, “Wherever you saw two women, there you would find Museveni, so, just hit that place hard”. Much as we never went to the battlefield, the two of us ensured the leader of the struggle was safe and healthy.
In 1982, the structure was formalised. Museveni, who had by then been nicknamed Chairman High Command (CHC), got a chief bodyguard, and his chief cook was Lusigazi. Gertrude and I were to supervise issues pertaining to the CHC’s welfare. The day we witnessed his cook dip a finger in his tea to check the temperature and serve him half-cooked tea, we requested to personally prepare his meals.

I survived the firing squad thrice
There was an incident when a leaf of mujaja (basil) was left in the only kettle we had and appeared in CHC’s cup. He had been warned by his auntie who was in the bush that he could be bewitched through mujaja. Coincidentally, he fell sick after that cup of milk, complaining of “something walking along his spine”.
We were thought to have been a threat to his life and we were threatened to be put on firing squad. When Dr Bata examined him, however, he said he was suffering from an amoebiasis. I remember taking turns with Gertrude to stay awake at night to ensure he took his medication and got well. This would be one of the three times I survived a firing squad during that war. From then on, we ate the same food we prepared for him from the same plate, including his chief bodyguard.

Life in the bush
Our meal conprised four banana fingers, one for each of us, and a piece of meat the size of a fist. This was for both lunch and supper. I would cut each banana finger and piece of meat into two to have a piece for lunch and another for supper. We were not the only women in the struggle.

The other women
There were other women like Proscovia Nalweyiso, now a brigadier, who started out as a mobiliser looking for food. She scouted routes for the rebels to ensure there were no enemies. When she joined the bush full time, she became the head of the first female military camp.

There were other female colleagues who have now passed on like Naduli and Night in the military wing and many others whose names I do not recall.
Maria Bata was part of the medical team, among whom was one popularly known as Mukyala Kawempe who helped raise Gen Tumwine’s son while in the bush. There was an old woman called Malita a traditional healer, and some Catholic nuns. I don’t know whether they are still alive.

I served in the first NRM Parliament for nine years until 1995 when a new Constitution was promulgated. I bowed out and passed the baton on to
others . I’m contented with what God has given me, I do not need to shout to get what God has not planned for me. What I wanted in the beginning I have achieved.

Earning her pips
One day when the rebellion had just started in our village in Gombe, my children came at around 10am saying thieves had attacked the village. We picked stones and hid in a bush near the house. We threw stones at the house, and drove the thieves away. Word spread to the rebels that I had single-handedly driven thieves out of my neighbourhood and that is how I gained popularity with the rebels (NRA).
Eventually, I was summoned by Museveni for the first time at the Mondlane camp where he told me, “You don’t know me but I have heard about you, I want you to be part of my delegation going to meet Kayira”. That is how I joined the struggle as a senior officer and member of the NRC, then the rebel Parliament.

Capt Gertrude Njuba
When I joined the struggle, I was under the supervision of Matayo Kyaligonza, now Uganda’s High Commissioner to Burundi. I started out as a courier within Buganda region based in Kampala. Besides taking information to and from the bush, I was responsible for recruiting government deserters into our camp. For those who deserted with guns, I had to find a way of ensuring that those guns got to the bush.


I was responsible for publishing the letter declaring war against the Obote government in 1981, and distributing it to different embassies in Uganda and other strategic locations. Because of the sensitivity of the letter, I used a cyclostyler to publish it.
When panda gari started in Kampala, I was asked not to come back to Kampala by the Chairman of The High Command for my safety. That was how I changed from being a courier to Personal Assistant to the Chairman High Command.

My duties in the bush
I was responsible for ensuring that his food, water and anything he ate was safe. There had been a rumour that Obote had sent people to infiltrate our camp and poison him. I was also responsible for the struggle’s little finances and all the documentation until 1984 when I went out of the country on other assignments. Nairobi became my base as I took on the role of a mobiliser, spreading word of the struggle among Ugandans in the diaspora and other nationals we thought could be of help to us.

I also solicited for arms, guns and ammunition since in the bush, the guns were not enough for the trained men we had. The chairman sent me out to deliver letters to Samora Machel of Mozambique, to Kenya, Tanzania Sweden, Denmark, England among other countries, soliciting support for the struggle.

Hardships in the bush
Bush life was not easy. Many times, men had to raid hospitals and health centres, not necessarily for medicine but to get cotton wool for us for that time of the month. At some point, nature seemed to accept that we could not meet the needs of a normal life and the system blacked out, only to get back to normal when we left the bush, without any medical intervention.

Remembering fellow women in arms
One of the instrumental women in the struggle was Joy Mirembe. She had been involved with armed struggle since the FRONASA days. She was the one who took on the new women and inducted them into bush life. Other women specialised in finding herbs used to treat wounds which were the biggest problem.

They also knew herbs for different ailments like malaria, headache, stomachache among others. This being Africa, there was also a group of women that specialised in healing spiritual afflictions whenever our boys complained of being disturbed by spirits.

Women like Dora Kutesa led the mission which rescued now General Salim Saleh from prison. Proscovia Nalweyiso, now a brigadier, left her teaching job and joined in active military. Captain Oliver Zizinga was another great woman, some of whose children were killed during the struggle. I worked with her as the most senior women in the bush. Winnie Byanyima joined the struggle at the point of the peace talks in Nairobi as part of our delegation, where she was appointed to take minutes of the deliberations.

Some of the women who were actively involved the NRA bush war. Winnie Byanyima, and Brigadier Proscovia Nalweyiso, who headed the first NRA female battalion in the bush.

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