Reverend’s Daughter Finds Her Calling in Activism [interview]

She is a lawyer, poet, feminist, activist and yes, a beloved of God – that’s how she describes herself as per the Twitter handle Mrs Jacqueline Asiimwe-Mwesige was recently a guest on Capital radio’s Desert Island Discs programme, hosted by Simon Kasyate.

From your profile on your Twitter handle and you have an interesting bag of descriptions but who exactly are you?

I am a creative person that’s why I call myself a poet. The poetry comes out as a result of feeling something differently. I write really powerful and wonderful poems. I am a very passionate aocate for women and women’s rights and anything womanly.

When, where you were born… ?

I am the first-born child of Reverend and Mrs Mugarura Mutana, popularly known as Uncle Ben, and my mother, [popularly] Auntie Joy of Makerere University, now retired in Wakiso. We stayed quite a few years in Namirembe – Mengo and grew up there. As a little child, my parents tell me, I was an entertainer.

We went briefly as a family to Canada those days when the Church still had money and they used to send priests for further studies in Canada and we followed. We were there for about five years, so I missed most of the turmoil years of Uganda. We went in the late 70s and came back in 81.

I was taken to do an interview in Buganda Road primary school and I flanked it because of their system. We were learning simple multiplication and here I was in primary 5 and I knew nothing about anything apart from English, which was easy since it was the language of instruction.

They just had pity and took me in so I did my painful two and half years in Buganda road. In P7, I think they figured by mocks that I wasn’t doing well so, my parents decided I should repeat P7 in Mengo primary school.

And how did you take that?

I sort of knew I wasn’t confident in myself… So, they decided I repeat, and then I was a star. I was beating everyone else. That was good for me in the sense that I had started doubting myself yet I knew I was a bright kid while I was in Canada.

I was always the first and then I come to Uganda and I am always at the bottom of the class. I sat P7 and was among the best in Mengo with aggregate 10. Whether you have a 4 or 10 either way you will make it in life.

Is that what you tell your children, fast forward?

We have actually deliberately taken our children to schools where the grading is different yes they do test exams but they don’t have that pressure of you’re the first or the last is not on you as a child.

You are more than just your test results. You are a full human being you have talents, skills and they keep changing. We hope we are providing them with the atmosphere where they can be what they really want to be. Did your parents understand the kind of pressure you were going through while you were in school?

That time we used to stay with some cousins of mine and they really helped me with my homework, unlike my siblings who were younger so they could match up to the education system. Sometimes I looked like the daftest older sister because everyone was doing well.

What kind of childhood did you have at home with regard to moral inculcation?

My parents were very strict, my mother especially. My father as a youth worker travelled a lot. So, mum was at the dominant parent home and being the first born all the strictness downloads on you.

Our house was always full of visitors sometimes we didn’t sleep in our beds but it was always nice having people around. My dad started a choir at Namirembe called AYF (Anglican youth fellowship) and they used to come practise at home the whole weekend from Friday to Sunday. We had to prepare for them. Once in a while the girls helped, though it was hard to ask boys to do anything. It was basically a musical home, a home of laughter despite the strictness. How many siblings were you?

I am the first born among five I have two sisters and two brothers.

From Mengo…

I went to Gayaza High School and it was a lovely experience. It was my first experience away from home on my own. So day one they welcome us, lay for us our beds and the next day the room leader is like: ‘Excuse! your bed is not laid.’ I remember missing home very much especially on my first day, I cried myself to sleep.

Then I got into the flow and if I could redo life, I would surely re do the six years of Gayaza. It was spacious we were few the teachers were really few it was lovely. I wasn’t too good at maths so, I basically endured it up to S4.

At this point in life do you have an idea what you intend to be in future?

Actually when I was still in P7 in Mengo, they brought a guest speaker who used to work in one remand home. When I was growing up I was quite stubborn, so my parents always threatened to send me to Kampiringisa. So, he came and talked us about the children he was working with and I thought to myself I can do this, I think I should be a lawyer.

Fast-forward, when I was in S3, while we were seated on the table, my mother suddenly asked me what I want to be. So looking around, I gave them what I thought was the politically-right answer. Because my sister who followed me was a scientist and I thought they loved her more since she used to do better than me in school, I said I wanted to be a doctor because I thought it would please them.

The dream of the seed that was planted in P7 never left as I passed S4 and went to HSC. I did History, Economics and Literature and I just settled in my heart that: ‘I want to do law let me be a lawyer’. The confusion was I used to write very well and during my S5, the journalism course was established at Makerere so I thought to myself: ‘what do I do?’ until I [settled for] law, my first love.

Six years in Gayaza looking at today’s education and the kind of education you got, can we say you had an all-round education?

At Gayaza, there were all those things we did after class. I was in the choir I used to act I was always one of the lead actors. There were sports to do there was a library sometimes I wonder how many schools have libraries today.

How were you able to balance all these things?

Every day was apportioned different activities, Gayaza was such a structured place and you would choose what to do some people would just rest after school.

There were some elements called socials where you hosted or you were hosted by students from boys’ schools. Did you ever go for these?

We usually went we never hosted especially for the years that I was there. I went but I couldn’t tell my parents. Those days we used to borrow each other’s dresses. In S4, I remember borrowing a dress from Maureen Bushuyu who now is in the US. In S6, I don’t remember.

We went to SMACK [St Mary’s College Kisubi] in my S4 and in S5. In S6, we went to [King’s College] Budo. The interesting thing is that many of those we danced with are still my friends up to today.

Bang… you are at the university this is freedom more than you had ever witnessed. How much did that curiosity get you out of your comfort zone?

Well, for me by the time I got to campus, my father was chaplain. While in my vac we had no house help so I did all the housework and by the time I was in my first year, my mum expected me to continue. She thought I should just go after class, prepare dinner and I go.

So, you didn’t join any hall of residence?

I did. I was in Africa hall and we were living near Lumumba. When we went to campus the only clear message was: do not embarrass your father. So, I always made sure that in everything I did I gave glory to him. I noticed in my second term that my grades were not actually good.

So, I asked my mother to allow me stay at the university and discuss. I joined a discussion group where Godber [Tumushabe] was and that’s how we became friends. We were classmates and I aligned with them because I thought they were doing really well.

Do you actually speak your mother tongue?

I try, because I really loved my maternal grandparents and I stayed with them at some point when I was little. When we went to Canada I lost the language when we came back I tried to learn it for them so that I could communicate with them since they only knew Rukiga. My grandmother always joked that she missed school on the day they taught English.

When I left campus, I was working with Fida, so I had to learn Luganda because most of the clients only spoke Luganda. At Campus I was still the strict, straight girl I would go home, go to church and to my hall of residence then I would go to read. Sometimes I ventured into the guild canteen and they were playing very unchristian music and someone told my parents and they confronted me.

You are now leaving university and you are living a very cautious life and it’s then that people realise that they can love and be loved did you experience this kind of emotions?

I had friends who are male but my parents always stressed that we first finish school. My first boyfriend was in my third year of campus but it didn’t last too long. He was also a preacher’s kid. In matters of the heart I was really raw.

In LDC, I had a very big crush on one of our class mates, and because I wasn’t schooled in the right way, I went and told him and found out that he had a girlfriend and it broke my heart.

How did you handle this whole disappointment?

It was hard, but then I remembered what my parents always said – “school first” and “don’t let boys confuse you”. So, trying to get over that took some time and the girl he liked was also a class mate and that was always there in my face and now we are actually friends. It was an interesting phase in life.

So, you are out of law school, go back to Fida…

Unfortunately every time I applied for a job at Fida, I failed the interview and that was shocking. So, I kept thinking ‘what ain’t I doing right?’ Just before we completed LDC, there is a gentleman, a senior lawyer who had chambers in Mbarara and was looking for someone who could manage his Mbarara office.

For some reason he approached me and I was agreeable. I wanted to get away from home. I told my parents I had actually got a job and when I told them it was in Mbarara they refused. Their argument I was not going to get opportunities for higher education, etc and my dad faithfully walked with me to all offices to get for me a job and that didn’t work. I kept volunteering at Fida.

I saw lots of clients, but the whole experience was as confusing as it was intriguing. My parents had a good marriage, but I saw on a daily [experience] people whose relationships were not working. Fathers who you had to pull out his teeth for him to look after his own children and the like.

I worked in Fida at a time when you dropped the name Fida and everyone shook. We had that respect it was more about bringing the fear of the law than enabling and we have learnt along the way that it’s so much more.

So, now we know that you’re married, how did it come to play?

After I left Fida, I went to ACFODE as their legal officer. Then I went to UWONET (Uganda Women’s Network) as their aocacy officer, then I left for the US to do my masters. But in between there, I got engaged, engaged properly. He came home. We had a whole ceremony. He was a Muganda.

But in between there unfortunately, he was imprisoned because he had stolen some money. So by the time I left for my masters degree, we figured it wasn’t going to work so, we broke off the engagement.so my going away was also therapy so I can heal and get on with my life.

I was reading my email and then I came across the fact that a colleague of ours named Peter had passed away. I wrote back and said so sorry that Peter has passed away but the Peter I had in mind was not the same person. So, at some point I was given the contact of a Peter who I was working with.

I called him to commiserate because the person who died, we had worked on memoranda for political parties together. Peter said, ‘No I’m not the one, this is who I am’. Anyway, we got talking and he was also at the time in the US studying his PhD.

I was in Washington, he was in Indiana and one thing led to another, we fell in love and it has been thirteen years this year. Some days are hard, that’s what I’ve learnt. You have to be committed.

At what point do you get married? How are you confidently able to say, this is the guy to marry at that point in life?

I think at that point I wasn’t necessarilly concerned about what he did or didn’t have. I had fallen in love, so that was settled. And in fact when we did get married in the US, I then went to live with him and he was staying with his housemate, so we were three in the house. He had saved up and bought a car.

Peter used to come home every summer holiday and go home to meet my father. He said the look my father gave him could melt the gest iron. You don’t know this young gentleman. I had told him but maybe he didn’t know if I was serious. He went and talked to my dad, but we decided that, no, we’ll still get married.

My dad went to see an elder, a reverend, and told him of the situation. The reverend told him, let the children marry. Unfortunately, they could not attend the wedding but my dad sent his speech which was read by my sister.

However, his older sister, my senga and my cousin were living in the US at the time. So we had family, we had cousins we had Peter’s friends, the likes of Dismas Nkunda, Florence Baingana. We tried to gather as many of the Ugandans that were our friends.

Thirteen years down the road, how many children now?

There are two, the oldest is 12 and the youngest is 10. Parenting… share with us some tips of how you do it…

I’ve loved mothering my children they are just a blessing. I haven’t had really many challenges. The one thing that I did, growing up, because I was first born, my parents were learning on the job and those days children were beaten. So of course you grow in that mode.

When my children were young, we took them to a school where, as a rule, they do not beat their children. So there is once when I smacked my son at him and he told on me at school so when I went to pick him up, the headmistress called me aside and said, here we do not beat the children so we want there to be consistency.

But I asked: ‘Did he tell you why I beat him? He disrespected the house help and I told him to respect his elders’. Then at some point I was going to slap the older one and he sort of cringed and I told myself, I don’t want my children to grow up in fear of me. From that day, I stopped beating the children.

Peter also doesn’t beat children. It doesn’t mean you don’t punish them. I also learnt from what my parents did because the most effective punishment is when my parents withdrew something I really like. When you withdraw privileges because they’ve done something wrong. But also to discuss what they have done wrong.

How about the issue of balance of family?

When we first got married, Peter [Dr Mwesige, former executive editor of the Daily Monitor and now head of the African Centre for Media Excellence] was still completing his PhD. So, we had our children I came back and he stayed to complete his PhD.

I was lucky to work in an institution that respected the fact that I had children, I was able to bring them to office and they stay around and I breastfeed them. My parents were still in Makerere so I could just drop them off. If I had to travel, I was able to travel with my cousin who looked after my children when I was away.

I tried to treat my house help well so I could be sure she is also treating my children well. I tried as much when I was away to stay in touch with my children, I call them when they are back from school.

Peter loves them to death but I think sometimes men need to participate in what we do, because I’m always the one who has taken them to school and when I’m not around, Peter has to do it and because he is not a morning person, I know it is a labour of love. We’ve been able to manage I certainly travel more than Peter does.

He has a group of friends who along the way all got wives and children. What I love about that group is such family. We celebrate each other’s birthdays. Every year we do what we call a family day out. It started as one day but now is a whole weekend where we are just together, all of us.

The men started from that group what they call the My Uganda Forum they do investment together they are each other’s keepers. And as wives, we also started our own group. So we have talks, we have parenting talks, we celebrate each other’s birthdays [and] we invest together. They are in each other’s lives all the time.

Tell us about your public life as an activist and the Black Monday movement where you are a ‘poster child’.

Black Monday, for me, represents a movement for people to act. People always ask, ‘what can we do?’ We’ve broken it down for you: Just wear black on Monday. We need to show anger. We can’t let impunity go unchecked.

We can’t live like these figures don’t matter to us. And the media has been good in reeling off, almost on a daily basis, how much has been stolen. So the media has done their part.

You are a lawyer and you share a bed with a journalist. What conversations go on behind the closed doors?

Peter and I agree, actually, on most things and we are never too far in terms of the way we think about our country, the issues our country is going through. The thing he is always pushing me about is how we are presenting our message [Black Monday].

If you were stuck on a desert island and you could take one item, what would you take?

A book.

Source : The Observer

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