Not the same old song.

Everything you need to know about the life of a mukaka (grandmother) in Uganda is written on this woman’s beautiful face.

Margaret is 64 years old and lives in Nyaka in the Kanungu District of far southwestern Uganda. She and her husband David had their first child in 1963, when Margaret was 16, and their 12th child in 1989.

During that time, Margaret & David lived under the iron-fisted, savage regime of Idi Amin, who comes from the North (there’s a lot of conflict & envy between people of the North and people of the South). Although Nyaka is far from the governmental seat of power (an 8- hour car ride on a good day), Amin’s rule brought starvation, suffering and conflict to every part of the country – and an estimated 300,000 Ugandans were murdered. After Idi Amin was driven from power (and given refuge and solace in Saudi Arabia), Uganda fell under the “democratic” rule of Yoweri Museveni, who is from the South and been supported by the USA for the last 25 years.

Museveni has done some good things and some bad things for Uganda – he stabilized the domestic economy and kicked out the Lord’s Resistance Army, but somehow failed over 20 years to catch its leader, Joseph Kony, or stop the abduction of some 56,000 child soldiers from towns in the North. The government is wracked with corruption, and elections have been “indecisive,” to say the least. But Museveni’s response to the AIDS crisis was swift and effective: in the 1980s, Uganda’s infection rate was over 30% of the population, while today it is about 6%.

Unfortunately, that success came too late for two of Margaret’s children: her son and daughter died 12 years ago and 7 years ago, leaving behind 5 children, including one just 3 months old. Like many of the estimated 1.2 million AIDS orphans in Uganda – these five children are being raised by their elderly, frail and struggling mukakas (and grandfathers, as David wanted to be sure we added).

Another Nyaka mukaka...

Often these grandparents can barely scrape together the resources to feed their grandchildren, much less send them to school. Although primary school in Uganda is technically free, it costs about $250/year for each child for uniforms, books and school fees. And in Nyaka, life with 5 young children means constant cleaning, gardening, cooking, laundry, hauling water, finding and chopping firewood, and tending animals – even when the children get old enough to help.

”It takes a long time to go to bed,” Margaret says simply – echoing a reality shared by women across the planet.

Margaret & David's pretty homestead.

Margaret has a strong husband, cows, goats, and land – but still they cannot afford to send this second round of children all the way through secondary school. Luckily, 3 of the children are going to Nyaka AIDS Orphans School and will be sent on scholarship to secondary school and hopefully college. Margaret’s other two grandchildren will have to leave school at age 13 and become herders or domestic workers in other people’s homes.

Margaret shakes her head in resignation and says, “We just can not do any more work. We are tired.”

Women like Margaret are the reason that Nyaka’s founder, Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, started the Grannies Program – giving 6,280 elderly women in the district a way to get small loans, work cooperatively, and earn income. Every year, mukakas raising orphans in Nyaka are given a free garden hoe, free seeds donated by Seed International, helped to build pit latrines, and given clothing, bedding, and an aluminum roof that will not leak. In addition, the grannies are encouraged to make beautiful baskets and jars that are sold in Kampala and the USA, and to pool their funds to lend to each other in case of an emergency.

When you look at the strength, suffering and sadness etched in the lines of Margaret’s face, the most remarkable thing is how quickly she will break into a brilliant smile, grasp your arm, and thank you profusely for coming to hear her story. She claps her hands together and leans back in delight when I show her my photo of her and her husband. Nevertheless, she still obsesses about  Jennifer whisking her away from her hard provincial life and begs her to “take me with you to Kampala!” Yet somehow, it’s impossible to think of Margaret anywhere but in beautiful, difficult Nyaka.

“Tell your people thank you so much for helping the mukakas!” she makes me promise.

Nyaka mukakas.

I promise.

12 thoughts on “Not the same old song.

  1. Dear Betty,

    Another amazing post – and such beautiful pictures ! Just donated to the grannies – thanks also for providing the guidance and the way to help. Take care.

  2. Thank you for providing the historical context for this story as well as enough detail to bring it to life. Connecting individual stories to the horrific numbers involved in conflicts bring us face to face with our own humanity. Beautiful cause, beautiful story, Betty.

    • Chris, coming from a wonderful writer like yourself, I am really happy that you liked my stories of my time in Africa! Can’t believe we were there at the same time, and Judy Clement has told me of your important work over there in Lesotho and other countries, bringing books and hope to the children through African Library Project !!

  3. Hi Betty. Really enjoyed meeting you and talking with you in Nyaka. Great blog about the grannies. You are such a wonderful writer. You nicely captured the plight of rural Uganda. I spent my last 4 days in Northern Uganda which is only now starting to recover from the reign of terror for 20 years by the LRA. I visited many widows which they call their gannies. The north-south tribal prejudice in the government is very much on display in the neglected north. Keep up the good work. John Brewster

    • Hi John!! Oh, I was wondering how you fared in the North after the blissful time we all had in Nyaka! I had the opportunity to meet with Jane Ekayru who was featured in the film Children of War that we saw at night in Nyaka — and she has started an organization to help the returned women who were captured as sex slaves when they were mere girls, and now have children fathered by the rebels. She also talked about the resentment in the North of the government and feeling neglected and overlooked — it’s such a sad, sad story! Anyhow … was lovely to meet and work with you and I hope we’ll all get together in Nyaka again sometime — that was TOO fun and wonderful!!!

  4. What an amazing story and amazing trip. Thanks so much for sharing these personal stories and making these horrors too real to ignore. I’ve already been a supporter of this organization, but you are reminding at the holiday time that I can do more.

    • Meg, I know you’ve been a supporter of Nyaka through Lucy Steinitz, and it was YOU that introduced me to Jackson & the school, so the thanks are entirely mine!
      It is a hard, hard life for so many of the grannies in the village — but they are so appreciative for the help they are being given, it’s a joy to be involved in it in however small a way … thanks a million for your giving!!

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