What you need to know:
- We used to drink water from the same ponds my grandfather’s cows drank from, but I don’t remember falling sick over this. I feared lightning when it was raining, I still do, but that didn’t stop me from walking in the rain to school.
I was totally in shock in my first year in England when I found out that there were people born here that were not taking the advantages the country has to offer. Instead, they were deep into drugs, stealing liquor bottles from supermarkets, kids shouting at their parents, and all kinds of stuff.
In the corner of Uganda in a village called Kisega in Kayunga District where I was partly raised, the notion of ‘quality of life’ seemed almost mythological.
This wasn’t just subsistence living; it was an existence dictated by raw survival, painted with the broad brushstrokes of repetition—same sun, same muddy roads, same struggle, day after day.
The primary school journey felt like an odyssey each day, I had a couple of school uniforms made of polyester to use for a week, but I had no shoes for most of my primary education.
We walked for about a mile to Kamuli UMEA primary school every day, all in a quest for education. The school hasn’t changed much up to now. There was no electricity in school then as is the case in most villages in the area now. Its main hall is almost falling apart and needs anybody’s help now.
Discipline was high in the school, and no excuse was good enough, and so, when you came late to school, you would get caned by “ prefects”. I sometimes got away with being late because my eldest brother was among the prefects; so, he would let me go unpunished. His best friend then, Moses Kawulukusi, was the head prefect, and I was just starting primary school.
To avoid going late to school, some kids left early, which meant no breakfast, and neither did they take any to school. They would have to wait for the arduous journey back home late in the afternoon or evening to eat something. Some school neighbours used to sell pancakes and sugarcane but one needed money from parents to buy them, but most kids couldn’t afford them.
My grandfather used to work as one of the “managing directors” at a coffee processing factory nearby. He had arranged for us to have lunch with the factory workers. So, every lunchtime we travelled from school to Nakatundu where the factory was located, and then went back to school again for afternoon classes.
The meals were mainly posho and beans. We did all kinds of odd jobs both at home and school, all kinds of play, swam in all kinds of water, drank all kinds of water, ate a lot of fruits and vegetables, subjected our bodies to harsh weather, and didn’t even fall sick.
We used to drink water from the same ponds my grandfather’s cows drank from, but I don’t remember falling sick over this. I feared lightning when it was raining, I still do, but that didn’t stop me from walking in the rain to school.
I didn’t need a gym to carve my six-pack; hard work at my grandfather’s farm moulded me into a sculpture of resilience.
Yet amid all these challenges, there’s a striking paradox: the villagers, my people, exuded an inexplicable happiness. Maybe it’s the beauty of not knowing any different, of finding joy in the simplest things. Ignorance, perhaps, serves as a cushion against the harsh realities— if you don’t know better how could you worry about doing better?
We had large extended families at home. A lot of relatives lived with us, and that’s how I first built my social network. That’s why I know a lot of people from both my grandparents’ sides because they lived with us.
Most people shared beds and bedrooms – I, however, didn’t share a bed till I got married. Everyone had their own plate and it was where food was served –we used to eat together as a family at home and that included all the farm workers. We could pray together, too.
We used to play football almost every weekend against boys in nearby villages of Kizawula and Kikwanya. The Bagisu annual cultural festival called “ Embalu” was a form of entertainment for everyone. We made our own toys out of plastics or banana fibres.
I stopped smoking as soon as I started because an elderly neighbour threatened to beat me up and report me to my grandfather. I later learned in class that it causes cancer, and that was scary enough.
We lived and toiled the land we grew up on, and our taste for food was enhanced - today we are generally healthier than an average Westerner. Most African men and women here in the UK look younger than their age. They grew up eating organic foods.
Today, you might mistake me for someone who’s always been cradled in comfort. But every facet of my being has been shaped by those early years of unrelenting struggle at Kisega. Most Africans hold almost a similar story.
Perseverance was instilled in us; we survived yesterday and look forward to tomorrow. Most Ugandans are polite and humble - a stiff cane made sure of that.
Life has taught me that no story is set in stone. Change, as daunting as it might seem, is only a decision away. We learnt to read and write because our parents said this is “the key to success.”
Coincidentally, my grandfather, Hajji Hassan Kibirige, died this week in November 2015, and I always miss him. Amen to all of you and be blessed.
Abbey Kibirige Semuwemba, UK