Recovering from a major burn can be tough, emotionally. For 24-year-old Aisha Nabukeera, deep scars are still visible on her fingers and neck but she uses confident body language, smiles and makes eye contact.
Almost 14 years ago, Nabukeera was allegedly burnt by her stepmother on the night of February 6, 2006 in Masaka. In an interview last week, Nabukeera says though she is seen as shy, accepting her current looks has made her feel better, writes Yudaya Nangonzi.
“When I speak, people can’t believe it’s the Aisha they saw on WBS television crying many years ago with wounds on my fingers, neck, and chest. I am a big girl now who speaks with confidence,” Nabukeera says. “Honestly, those pictures were so horrible.”
A week ago, Nabukeera returned from a one-week training in South Africa after being selected among the 12 beneficiaries for the Thomson Reuters Generation Africa programme funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
This is her first trip abroad. “It was my first time on a plane at 24 years!” she bursts into laughter. “But I liked every bit of the journey and South Africa treated me nicely.”
As part of the three-year programme – for starters – she has been equipped with communication techniques, public speaking and presentation skills, effective use of social media and handling the media, among others.
This is thanks to her guardian she fondly calls “Uncle” Frank Gashumba, a businessman, who tipped her on the opportunity around February this year.
“I was at home and my uncle [Gashumba] sent me an email with a link. He told me to follow it up after recommending me,” she says.
At the time, Thomson Reuters was looking for inspirational stories from 12 talented young Africans who are ready to become advocacy champions for global development issues.
Generation Africa “aims to help young Africans whose personal experiences have shaped their determination to help others facing challenges across the continent to tell their stories globally”.
“It was tough to put things together in the shortest time,” she admits. In the first phase, she had 13 tasks to fill including writing her story in not more than 150 words and uploading images relating to her story.
After one month, she had almost given up but later received an email notifying her about being selected for phone call and video interviews.
“The questions were not tough, at least. They wanted me to explain more about myself,” she says. “After that, they also asked me for a two-minute video recording about my story and what I am doing now.”
This is one part that challenged her. With the help of her sister, they did four trials to perfect the two minutes. The duo started with five minutes, then three and two minutes on the last shot indicating her name, country, what happened and what she’s doing now.
“Can you imagine that they sent me the email in the morning but wanted everything submitted by midday on the same day? We first fidgeted but on the third trial, I said to myself; Aisha, you can make it in two minutes and I did it,” says the soft-spoken founder of the Aisha Nabukeera Foundation that advocates children’s rights and assists survivors.
Another month later, the good news found her at her mother’s home in Maya along Masaka road that she had been selected among the 12 finalists. The news came with a fully-paid-for trip for the media training in South Africa.
Nabukeera was selected with four other Ugandans to complete the 12 pioneer beneficiaries for the three-year Generation Africa programme. Uganda got the highest number of beneficiaries at four. It is followed by Tanzania and Nigeria with two participants each while Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Sierra Leone have one participant each.
The Ugandan beneficiaries are Aisha Nabukeera, Lakor Louis, Marot Touloung and Patrick Karekezi. Touloung and Karekezi are South Sudanese and Rwandese refugees respectively staying in Uganda.
Others are Natasha Mhone from Malawi, Tawanda Rugunga (Zimbabwe), Aminata Kamara (Sierra Leone), Joseph Idda and Chrispinus Mbuma (Tanzania), Racheal Ouko (Kenya) and Abimbola Onaoluwa and Eno-obong Okpo from Nigeria.
For eligibility, each had to be fluent enough in English with a compelling personal story relating to health, development and poverty reduction. The story had to illustrate a challenge faced by others living in Africa and willingness of one to share details of their story with the public.
While in South Africa, Nabukeera says all beneficiaries shared unique stories but Kamaras’, and that of Karekezi, caught her attention most.
She explains that Kamara from Sierra Leone lost her mother, a health worker, to Ebola while Karekezi grew up from a wealthy family but the 1994 Rwanda conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi tore his family apart.
“His [Karekezis’] dad was arrested and convicted that he had a hand in it. Life toughened to a poor family and Karekezi got kwashiorkor as his mother struggled to raise him. When his dad got out of jail, he got an accident and died. He was adopted by his uncle with whom they stay now in Uganda,” Nabukeera says.
For now, Nabukeera can’t tell her next destination but “the programme officers will keep us updated on anything.” She declined to delve much into the monetary benefits of the project but says: “It’s a good platform and I am happy with it. I am really not complaining because it’s worth my long wait to share my story”.
According to Thomson Reuters, now that the one-week training is complete, the 12 participants will be paired with a mentor to help build on what they have learned in training, offer advice on media-related issues and work on individual areas of development.
“They will then be given the opportunity to share their stories in a global arena,” reads the website.
I AM PROUD OF HER, SAYS GASHUMBA
While Gashumba’s role stopped at sending her a link to apply for the programme, he remains proud of the lady Nabukeera has grown into.
“To me, when something positive comes out of your son or daughter, you thank God for it because every parent would like to see their children excel,” Gashumba says.
“The most crucial thing for me is that I told her to follow up on the link and she did it. Today, young people are told to do certain things and they do the opposite. Aisha did the right thing and good enough, they picked up her story.”
He poses questions: “Are our children doing the right things on social media? Why is it that one belongs to 25 WhatsApp groups but has no job? You know every bar, launch, concert and socialite in town but can’t do something for yourself online. ”
He says such programmes like Generation Africa and scholarships are online but unfortunately, the youth in Uganda follow blogs without serious content that can empower their lives.
According to Gashumba, “Social media is like Lake Victoria; You go there to fish, there’s fish for you, you go there to swim there’s water for you and when you go there drunk, you will drown in the lake.”
He prides in being a conservative person that as much as he loves children, his word is the law for as long as one stays under his roof. And, Nabukeera was not spared of this.
“I told Aisha that as long as you still live in my house, there’s no democracy as long as I pay your fees, medical insurance and dress you up, among others. If Aisha was poorly-raised and pregnant or married off by now, would she have qualified for this great opportunity?” he asks.
ROAD TO JUSTICE
As the saying goes, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ is the best description for Nabukeera’s 2006 ordeal. She commends Gashumba because “for every good thing that has happened to me, he is the reason. He’s one person with a kind heart. He took me in when no one knew me.”
She blames weak laws on protecting children and government officials for failing to give her justice after she got burnt.
“I didn’t get justice but it does not mean another child should be deprived of the same. Government needs to work on stricter laws to protect children,” Nabukeera says. “My stepmother is now a free person because investigations got stuck somewhere. Uncle Frank tried to follow up but was frustrated! When Kale Kayihura was IGP, he tried to order to fresh investigations but everything didn’t take shape.”
She relates her story to that of a one Annet Namata who was recently held by police in Mukono for forcefully feeding her teenage stepdaughter on food mixed with menstrual blood. Although Namata pleaded guilty and asked for forgiveness, Nabukeera believes the stepdaughter is likely not to get justice.
Meanwhile, Gashumba told The Observer that police mismanaged Nabukeera’s case from the first day and he doesn’t intend to follow it up anymore.
“That case was closed long ago… All the vital evidence that was needed on the file was not there. Then, I remember meeting the then DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] Richard Butera and he told me: “Mr Gashumba, from my eyes and experience, I can tell this girl was brutally burnt. It’s true. Unfortunately, the evidence that I need to prosecute that woman is not on file.” It’s like you knowing that Gashumba broke into your house but there’s no evidence.”
He adds that the most important thing is that Nabukeera is alive.
“As long as I am still alive, I will give her the guidance that she needs and never to give up on people that supported her. Gashumba was the face but behind me were people sending in their support,” he says adding that she will be travelling globally and regionally to expose domestic violence in homes with her story.
He leaves a message for Nabukeera. “Aisha, you are a very shy girl but I know you will ably speak about injustices in our homes. With this new project, the moment you do anything silly, you will be embarrassing yourself!”