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Amelia Kyambadde: wild girl fighting for underprivileged

Minister Amelia Kyambadde

Amelia Kyambadde is Mawokota North MP and minister for Trade and Industry. Formerly the principal private secretary to the president, Kyambadde talked to Capital FM’s Simon Kasyate on Desert Island Discs about her other unknown side.

In a two-part series, we bring you the life story of a woman once considered one of the most powerful Ugandans. First, who is Amelia Kyambadde?

Amelia Kyambadde, good evening and welcome to the show!

Good evening, Simon!

Here at Desert Island Discs, we set out to know you outside your official life. I will call you Amelia, not this honourable thing

It is okay, that is who I am.

We know you as a no-nonsense principal private secretary to the president, now a politician, an MP and minister for trade, and everything serious; we have not had an opportunity to know you as Amelia. Who is Amelia?

My name is Amelia Anne Kyambadde. I am a mother of seven, a grandmother of five.

Let’s start from where it all started: when were you born, where and by who?

I was born on June 30, 1955. My father was Serwano Kityaba Kulubya; he was studying in England as a lawyer, may his soul rest in peace. My mother is Mary Kafureka, she is still alive. These two got together when they were very young; and I was born. But they didn’t get married; they went their ways.

I was born in England and I lived there until after about five years. So, I came to Uganda in 1960. My father actually lived with me all those years because my mother had moved on.

I was more of a father’s girl. When we got back, my father was posted as a magistrate in Fort Portal and I had to live with my grandmother. She was called Mrs Serwano Kulubya.

I get confused with the Kulubya name. I know a prominent John Senseko Kulubya, what is your relationship?

John Senseko is my father’s brother, young brother. But the Serwano I lived with was the first black mayor of Kampala. He was a minister of finance in Buganda government.

So, I lived in a political family.  My father eventually became the chief registrar of the High court and we moved to Nakasero. I moved in with him; he got married to a Mutooro lady called Marjorie Barya. As a child, there was a bit of aristocracy, overprotection, and provision of everything. I had everything as a child. But after some time, they took me to a boarding school at Gayaza.

Because you were getting out of hand?

Well, my father thought he needed a firmer hand on me, you know I had this mixture of British… So, he wanted me to be a pure, pure Ugandan. He took me to Gayaza Junior School and I thought it was very cruel for him to have done that.

I thought my father had confined me to a prison. I complained and cried; during the first few days, it was a nightmare. Waking up, collecting water, no toilet, you know. I was used to the toilet; I used to get somebody to escort me to the latrine. I thought I would fall in there!

Did you for a moment think your father hated you?

Yes. I kept telling him, why, why are you doing this to me? But he used to come every Sunday and he would bring a lot of grub. I would look forward to that. But with time, as I moved from P1, P2, I started looking at issues from different perspectives. It was an eye-opener; I am now happy my father took me there.

Did you make any friends at Gayaza?

Lots of friends. Some you may know. There is Florence Masembe, she is married to a pediatrician in town called Dr Kasirye; there is Juliet Kunya, she is in South Africa, Dorah Mukasa, sister to Hope Mukasa.

What I discovered in that new environment is that there were kids who did not have the advantages that I had. Kids would come to school without anything. Their parents would just sell coffee and say, go and study. So, these kids would come without a mattress, sleep on the Banco; no towel, no nothing. I started giving out all that I had to them; because I knew I would replenish my stock.

Usually kids of your type are selfish; they are the “my” type, always saying my basin, my towel, my sugar! You must have been special!

Nooo. That is when I discovered that there were two worlds, that of the underprivileged and that of the privileged. I became passionate about it, talking to these kids, asking them about their families, about their lives. It transformed my life. Those seven years I spent are actually reflected in the actions that I am taking now, reflected in the life that I have led.

Looking back, I thank my dad. I would give away everything and my father and mom would get angry in the beginning. But they got used to it and they said: ‘She is strange. She is like that.’

I hope you also had siblings? Didn’t you play with them when you came for holidays?

Yes, I had siblings but remember they were much, much younger. The next one to me, Fiona, she is a pharmacist and lives in America, there was a gap of about six, seven years.

I was a bit lonely because you couldn’t play with them. But now remember I had matured with this exposure at school. From P7, my father took me to Sacred Heart in Gulu.

That is a killer, please chose your first song.

My first song will be Killing Me Softly.

Why?

I feel like people don’t know much about me. And when I listen to this song, I feel like this person is killing this lady with a song but this person doesn’t know the impact…so, most people do not understand me. People have different perceptions about me. So, you find that …

But you are in politics where even those that understand you chose not to understand you because you don’t agree in opinion…

They are going to ‘kill’ me, sometimes I expect people I have been with to understand me but I realize they don’t!
 

Plays Killing Me Softly, by Roberta Flack.

You go to Sacred Heart in Gulu, what had you done to your dad?

First of all, it was one of the best schools in the system. It was run by Italian nuns. Then there was this fear of the Amin’s government. My father thought that I was very beautiful.

He thought, or he knew?

He thought. He used to say this is Elizabeth Bagaya II.

I am sure your dad had an incredible sense of taste...

So, he feared that being Amin’s time, I would be one of his victims. You know that time girls were abducted, harassed. So, he thought I wasn’t safe. After P7, I wanted to go to Aga Khan because everyone was talking about Aga Khan. They had even given me a place.

Strangely, you didn’t think of Gayaza High!

I didn’t think about Gayaza High; I though boarding schools were too harsh.

But now your father did not only take you to a boarding school, but took you 400km away!

You know!! It was a good environment, though. Beautiful school! He drove me. I had never seen Uganda. I enjoyed that ride. We passed through Jinja, we spent a nigh there.

We would drink, enjoy the hotel. We went through Mbale and eventually got there. At that school, there was this girl, very kind, she is still my best friend; she is called Zipora Mugoya (Mrs Mayanja). Her father was a district education officer there. She walked up to me, with another girl called Joy Kanyike. You could see it was a cosmopolitan place. There were Indians, Goans, it was a beautiful school.

So, as I was walking out of the office with the headmistress, these girls walked up to me to take my stuff to the dormitory; and the dormitories were much better than Gayaza Junior. Beautiful food, you know people eating spaghetti, cheese and all these…
They welcomed me. They were very nice. I went to the dormitories, modern toilets; I was impressed. That is how I started life at Sacred Heart, S1 S2, S3, S4.

At this point, did you have an indication of what you wanted to be in the future?

I just studied. But Gayaza had left an impact on me. So, I kept looking at the neighborhood. I would go to the neighborhood, especially on Sundays, we would be allowed to go out. And I could see a lot of poverty and suffering. These touched my heart and I said: ‘how can there be such a difference between the privileged and the underprivileged?’

Actually I made a vow when I was in primary. I said I would work to narrow the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged. 

We shall later know how successful you have been on that. But besides academics, there should have been co-curricular activities. Did you play any sport?

Yes, first of all I was involved in clubs. I was the president of the geography and history clubs. I have been quite good in arts subjects. I was the president of English; I was the best student in English.

But most of all, drama. You see me here but ask those people, I joke, I make fun, ask her. That is the side people don’t see of me, I like humour.  I always used to play the drunkard. But I don’t drink. One time the headmistress told me, ‘I am getting worried about you.

Why do you play the role of a drunkard all the time?’ But because my father used to drink and he had all these friends around him; I knew their mannerism. (But my father was not a drunkard!) I was very good at that. I mastered that.

Now you were becoming an adolescent, admiring the opposite sex. Did that put you in any trouble with your dad?

I remember we used to have social outings. There was a school called Sir Samuel Baker and another called Layibi [St Joseph’s College]. Sir Samuel had the most handsome young men.

According to you or..?

It was a social perception. Layibi, they were villagish. Sir Samuel Baker were the ones who came, you know, polished. So, we would go for these official outings, dance and get collected back to school. Then they would start writing letters to us: ‘you are the most beautiful, you know!...’

And you believed them?

At that time of course you believed them, but you had to be careful. We were quite well-behaved. When I compare ourselves to the girls of these years, we were well-behaved.

After S4, I went to S5 and S6. This time I told my father I have to come back to the city. I went to Aga Khan. I don’t know, but I had this fantasy about Aga Khan. I think I wanted a day school so badly.

Before you tell us about Aga Khan, let’s play your next song.

I will go for Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye.

What kind of memories does it bring?

We had groups, young ladies. So, we would have fun; go to parties, and hang out.

Did you ever do this after sunset?

Sometimes we would sneak off. One time I was caught red-handed climbing through the window.  My father was furious. It was only around 8 o’clock. It wasn’t good. My dad just looked at me. I was stuck, whether to go back or to enter. I said sorry dad and he just said, just get in, get in, get in, quickly.

I was carrying my shoes. Getting in was very difficult; I don’t know how I used to manoeuvre it. You know I was wearing these Maxis. During Amin’s time, there were these Maxi dresses, tight at the bottom. So, I had held it up. When I saw him, I had to let it go; but one leg was in and another out.

Plays Let’s Get It On, by Marvin Gaye.

What kind of people did you find at Aga Khan?

Ohhh!!! Crazy! I was the head girl; but I was the maddest. I was the favorite of the headmaster and the management. They just liked me, maybe because of the way I carried myself. I was quite popular.

What drove you to become a head girl?

It was my popularity.

No political ambition.

No no no no. People just voted for me. And the head boy was very quiet. He was one of the Aseyas, from West Nile. And I was loud, my God. I was very active in all clubs, talking to everybody, cleaners, all people.

So, in S6, this gentleman comes into my life – Mr Kyambadde. One time, my cousin was going to America and going to America then was a big thing. You would hold a party. There was this party and I went with my cousins. We were dancing and when I turned, there was this handsome young man, tall.

He looked like Shaft. You know this guy who acted in a film called Shaft with an Afro. He was wearing a polo neck, black. I turned and I was like, uhh. Anyway, I pretended I hadn’t seen him. So, he walks over to me and he says he wants to dance with me.

Amelia Kyambadde representing Uganda at the OIC Agri-business Conference in Kampala recently

So, he didn’t miss a step, he came straight to you?

Well, I think he negotiated it. It could have taken him a while to get there. I don’t think it was as simple. So, he walks over to me and says ‘can we dance?’ And we danced. You know when I was with the girls, I was dancing so wildly.

Now I had to show that I was humble. I humbled myself. When we finished, we had to go to the airport.  So, he said I am offering you a ride, can we go together? Then I said I have to come with my cousins. He said no, you can come with your cousins.

I guess he had a VW Beetle.

Yeeah. How did you know?

What else would he have around that time?

He had a VW. And we squeezed into it. He must have been uncomfortable with it. He told me to sit in front. The other sat behind. We drove to the airport and he dropped us to our homes. I said, ohhh, a nice, fine gentleman. And that is how we started. He started picking me, going for lunch, dinner.

How were you able to communicate?

Now I was in S6 vacation.

When does he meet your dad?

When I realized I couldn’t do it at my dad’s place, I moved to my grandmother’s. My grandma liked him; so, he would pick me. But not late night, only during day. But one time he took me out for a disco, nightclub, and I really made a mess of myself.  When we got there, I had been talking to my friends and they said you can’t drink soda when you go on a date like that.

You have to show him that you know how to drink. When I got there, do you know what I did? I said whisky on the rocks. Because I had already had people around my father drinking whisky, I thought it was a simple drink. I had never taken whisky in my life. Didn’t I pass out? I passed out. (You know we always talk about it and we laugh).

I was wearing these high heels, these platforms which had layers. They had to carry me. I don’t even know how I ended up at his place. But my cousins stuck there also. They could not leave me behind. I got sick, sick, sick.

I had issues at home; I did not come back and he was the one who had taken me out. It was fire. It was a serious matter. The family had to get together. I could not explain that actually I was the one who got myself into mischief.

So, he took the blame for you?

He helped me. I got sick and I said God, I will never go back. This is very embarrassing. How could I make a fool of myself…?
But after S6, I said I didn’t want to go for university.

You were quite an opinionated young girl!

At that time, I had issues with my stepmother at home. I had started getting very uncomfortable and I felt I needed another life. I think it was the adolescence coming in. So, this man started proposing to me, imagine at 19! I was 18 going to 19.

My father said no, you can’t get married. Because I told him I wanted to get married. He told me let me take you to Nairobi and you do a secretarial course. So, he takes me to Nairobi to do a secretarial course. BUT, I was pregnant with my first daughter.

That is how now Mr Kaymbadde meets Mr Kulubya. And it was not very nice. I am pregnant and my dad comes to see me in Nairobi and I wear these buggy clothes. You know first pregnancy doesn’t show very much. It was very difficult for me to tell him, and I didn’t tell him. But it was growing. So, I said to Mr Kyambadde, you have to go and do it yourself.

So, he goes. It wasn’t nice, they almost killed him. He walks into his office and tells him that you know what, I have impregnated your daughter…. So, he told him the story, and how he was going to marry me. And dad said, don’t tell me that. I don’t want to know. He was not amused; he didn’t bless it in the beginning. So, my dad comes to Nairobi, looks me up.

So, he says, I want you to move on from here; I am going to take you to England but on condition that this man doesn’t see you again. He was also giving other conditions that I did not like; getting rid of… I said no, I am getting married. So, that is how we got married in 1976. We came back here, had a wedding in Namirembe, the reception was in Makerere and we had our first daughter…

From there we play your next song...
Lady in Red by Chris De Burgh.

When you made a mess of yourself with Mr Kyambadde, what colour were you wearing?

I was wearing trousers and a red top.

So, is that where you get the inspiration?

Yes, and he loved that song. I loved it too.

Plays Lady In Red.

To be continued..

TRANSCRIPT: JOSEPH KIMBOWA.

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