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).
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 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.