This week we celebrate the birthday of a great woman whose immense wisdom and experience, intellectual curiosity and analytical mind invariably add to a visitor’s education.
To spend an afternoon with Mrs. Rhoda Nakibuuka Kalema, who was born at Mengo Hospital on May 10, 1929, is to be in the presence of woman of class and grace, one whose story is a combination of fortune and tragedy, of triumph and extraordinary resilience.
As the conversation proceeds, with remembered details of her life as a student at Gayaza High School and King’s College, Budo, Mrs. Kalema gets up to retrieve an old letter, a newspaper cutting, a report or other document that she has filed with a librarian’s precision.
When we turn to Uganda’s post-independence years, she excuses herself to go to a room in her house where an envelope containing old photographs, newspaper cuttings or minutes of a meeting are kept. Not that she needs the documents to remember a lot of the key events to which she has been witness for more than eight decades.
Her encyclopedic mind pours out priceless information and anecdotes with the ease and eloquence of one who has kept one’s brain finely tuned through regular reading, writing and other intellectual pursuits.
We shall not pre-empt Mrs. Kalema’s story, for she has written an autobiography that will be published as part of her birthday celebration. Based on the bits of her fascinating story that she has shared with me, I expect her book to be an important addition to my library.
That she is one of a small handful of Ugandans of her generation who have written their stories makes her contribution especially gratifying.
Suffice to say that Rhoda, the daughter of Owekitiibwa Martin Luther Nsibirwa, Katikkiro (Prime Minister) of Buganda (1929-41 and 1945) and Ms. Veronica Namudu, has carried her father’s baton with great care and faithfulness.
In a tribute on the 70th anniversary of her father’s assassination at Namirembe Cathedral on September 5, 1945, Mrs. Kalema listed his core values as loyalty and service, absolute honesty, respect for others, hard work, love of education and devotion to God. She might as well have been describing herself, for those are some of her many positive attributes.
Rhoda grew up in a large polygamous family. She was the thirteenth of Mr. Nsibirwa’s twenty five children that he had with his seven wives. Today, she is the oldest surviving Nsibirwa, and the leader of a family that has produced outstanding achievers, leaders and solid contributors to humanity.
A very large family, such as hers, was a natural academy for learning the virtues of sharing, mutual respect and support, the give-and-take for maintaining peace and harmony, and the acquisition of skills for conflict resolution.
A pioneer beneficiary of advanced education for girls, Rhoda’s academic journey through Gayaza High School, King’s College, Budo and Edinburgh University prepared her for a life of service, mentorship and scholarship. One of her proud achievements was becoming the first Ugandan girl to take a commercial course and to touch a typewriter. That was in 1945.
She pursued her regular working career – as a secretary/bursar at Gayaza High School, as a woman activist and as a businesswoman – with the passion and efficiency that she applied to every other engagement she undertook.
Her active political career – as a member of Uganda’s National Consultative Council, then the National Resistance Council, the Constituent Assembly and cabinet minister – was impactful and earned her deep respect by colleagues of both genders. She successfully encouraged and mentored many young women to enter politics and compete with men.
However, it is as a daughter, wife and mother that Mrs. Kalema has faced her greatest challenges and triumphs. And it is her resilience against extraordinary adversity that I find to be most inspiring.
When her father, the Katikkiro of Buganda, was assassinated in 1945, Rhoda was only 16 years old. His violent and sudden death must have been an exceptionally traumatic experience, with the potential to turn his young daughter into a bitter person.
Instead she became a rock of the family and a selfless servant of all. In our conversations, I have never heard Rhoda speak bitterly about those who killed her father. (Mr. Nsibirwa was killed because of his support for the sale of land to enable physical expansion of Makerere College, the predecessor of the great university.)
As a wife, Rhoda was a solid and loving partner of William Wilberforce Kalema, a Makerere graduate teacher at Budo, whom she married on February 11, 1950. The happy marriage would come to a sudden and devastating end on January 20, 1972, when Mr. Kalema, a former minister in the Obote I government, “disappeared.” He was among the first prominent Ugandans to be killed during the regime of Gen. Idi Amin Dada.
So, Mrs. Kalema became a widow at age 42, left to endure the pain of loss and the challenges of single-motherhood in an environment of deep fear and great uncertainty.
It is a mark of her great fortitude that she successfully raised her children – Elizabeth, William, Peter, Apollo, Veronica and Gladys – during a period of personal darkness and pain.
As though her husband’s death was not painful enough, Mrs. Kalema endured arrest and incarceration on three occasions – 1979, 1981 and 1983 – because of her presumed political disagreement with the rulers of the day. She then endured – perhaps the worst pain of all – the loss of her daughter Elizabeth Nakalema and two sons – Peter and Apollo.
However, these tragedies and deep disappointments did not rob her of the faith in God, the hope of a better future and the love of country that she had imbibed at her father’s feet and her beloved husband’s side.
When my wife and I visited Rhoda Kalema on Saturday February 10, we saw and heard a woman driven by a purposeful mission that she was still pursuing with passion and energy as she prepared to enter her nineties.
We praise God for the blessings that He has showered upon her and continue to pray for her good health and many years of service to the Lord who has been very faithful to her.