Sophie’s Owner Maria Bows Out

The mere mention of the name ‘Sophie’s’ often attracts a nod of approval from many among Kampala’s elite.

It is something I have experienced for more than a decade since visits to health clubs became an important part of my life. From prominent lawyers to high-ranking civil servants to top business personalities, Sophie’s is popular as a place where people converge to relax or – some would say – feel at home.

Strategically located in the quiet environs of Kamwokya on Tufnell Drive, Sophie’s is best-known for its modern sauna, steam bath and massage facilities. Its restaurant also offers a unique menu of fresh food. Due to the high class of the service, Sophie’s prices are comparatively high and the clientele is mostly wealthy even though there are no limitations on access and admission.

Sophie’s has been around since 1996 yet ironically, it is not a mainstream hangout for Kampala’s wannabes. Behind the success of Sophie’s is Mariam Nakyanzi, the brains behind the venture who oversaw a major transformation from a small downtown stop-over into one of the leading spots for relaxation.

Unfortunately, Maria, as she was popularly known, succumbed to dementia on November 11, aged 58. Nakyanzi’s demise passed off quietly but it has been met with a great deal of grief and agony among Sophie’s clients, many of whom had become acquainted with the venue as their second home.

“I knew Maria right from 1996 and have been her client for all this time,” says tycoon Apollo Nyegamehe, commonly known as Aponye. “She started with a small sauna on Kampala road but grew her business to become the most-sought-after for people that wanted to relax without worrying about the surroundings.”

Aponye’s eulogy is just one of the many I found when patrons converged for a vigil at the venue on November 12. At the time of her death, Maria was a hugely-influential figure but always focused on improving her business on top of anything else. Her career could make a classic rags-to-riches soap opera.

For someone who started as a midwife at St Francis hospital, Nsambya in the 1980s, Maria’s dream was to serve others. According to Sophie Nassuna, Maria’s only daughter, her mother was a good-hearted person who loved to help underprivileged people – and this pushed her to join the health sector.

She would win a nursing scholarship to Denmark but in the mid-1990s, she moved to business and started operating a shop in Kikuubo, dealing in all types of merchandise.

Sophie’s sauna:

The entrepreneurship in Maria brought her close to all sorts of businesspeople but she was always intrigued by uniqueness. A close friend, Christine Nkutu, wife of former minister in the 1970s Shaban Nkutu, opened Maria’s eyes into the world of wellness. Christine ran a health club Sophie’s Sauna along Kampala road.

It was the first of its kind in the city centre in an era when only a handful knew what it meant to be in a sauna. At the time, there were only two popular saunas, KK in Ntinda and BMK health club at Hotel Africana. Christine would later move on into other businesses but she encouraged Maria to have a go into health club services.

Maria, who at the time owned a restaurant at Kitintale, took the gamble and started Sophie’s Sauna at Kamwokya in 1996. Interestingly, both women had daughters called Sophie. So, Maria effortlessly adopted the name for her new venture.

“She always had a keen eye on customer care and always created something new,” recalls Aponye.

Apart from the sauna, steam bath and massage parlour, Maria set up a restaurant which served exclusively un-fried African food now popularly known as ‘boil.’

It was a risky step at the time, but one that paid off handsomely and attracted health-conscious people that had started feeling guilty whenever they read newspaper stories about the dangers of fried foods. Business picked up. But Maria’s learning curve never stopped and she was always on the lookout for anything trendy.

She frequently visited other health clubs and restaurants and used their weaknesses to strengthen her Sophie’s. And that is how I came to meet Maria, about six years ago, at the Millennium hotel sauna. I used to hear about Sophie’s but could not imagine she was the owner. Her down-to-earth personality blended well with other patrons but, most importantly, offered her first-hand tips on how to improve her business.

I recently asked her why she left her own sauna to pay money to a rival. Her answer: “I always want to broaden my head and see what they do better than me.”

That was Maria, always eager to learn and ensuring she was on top of her game. She probably knew every client’s needs and never shied away from personally serving them. Once in a while, she would surprise us with special cut-offs, gifts and year-end parties. You never find the same thing for months.

Once you went to Sophie’s for the first time, you always became a member of an exclusive group of people. The place is addictive and she really made us seem like one big family. On any given day, Sophie’s can be mistaken for a top-level meeting hub, going by the number of 4X4s in the parking lot.

There is a high chance of meeting former ISO chief Dr Amos Mukumbi, Brig Taban Binyende, former State House Comptroller Richard Muhinda, and Kampala businessmen Apollo Aponye and Moses Kalungi, among others.

“Maria was a very understanding person with high degree of confidentiality she had the knack to know each and every customer,” says Stephen Peter Babiha, one of the clients.

Despite Maria’s success, she never pampered any of the four children she raised as a single mother and ensured they went through the trials and tribulations she overcame.

“She made us work like other employees,” says Isaac Kyagaba, a lawyer and the deceased’s last born. “In fact, she was paying us salaries.”

Another son, Adam Kasozi, adds: “If you admired something from a friend, mum would tell you straight in your face that ‘work for it!'”.

But Nassuna, the eldest child, evokes sweet memories: “She was hard on us but a very social person – and took even our friends like her own children.”

This was confirmed by Brenda Karungi, the manager: “We were not employees but children and we have been addressing her as mummy.”

After grooming her children into business-oriented individuals, Maria left them to run the show, as she concentrated on her other business interests in Denmark, her second residence.

Final battle:

Maria’s life started deteriorating early this year. She partially lost her memory. The handicap didn’t seem to bother her seriously and, according to Isaac: “Mum always wanted to be on my wedding on February 21, 2015.”

However, her condition deteriorated this month and she passed away at Mildmay hospital last week. As I reflect on her career, I cannot help but feel saddened at the demise of an enterprising woman who never blew her trumpet, but whose trumpet sounds loudest in the minds of those who got to know Maria and her Sophie’s.

Mariam Nakyanzi Fact File:

She was born on April 27, 1956

She was born to Yusuf Kapasi and Hawa Nyamiza of Kaberebere, Isingiro district.

She was a midwife-cum-businesswoman.

Started Sophie’s Sauna in 1996.

She got married to Hajji Naddumba Lubega.

She is survived by four children Sophie Nassuna, Adam Kasozi, Mustafa Bombo and Isaac Newton Kyagaba.

She died on November 11, 2014 and was buried November 12, 2014 at Kabasanda, Butambala district.

Source : The Observer

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