“My Life’s Journey”, the recent memoir published by First Lady Janet Museveni, has caused a buzz because of its frank descriptions of her and her family’s struggle to the top.
Timothy Kalyegira reviews the book
First Lady Janet Museveni had her memoirs published in June.
Titled My Life’s Journey, it is a look back at her life, much of it spent at the centre of the political upheaval in Uganda since the 1970s. Her book comes 14 years after President Museveni’s memoirs, Sowing the Mustard Seed, published in January 1997.
What is striking about My Life’s Journey is the similarity between it and Yoweri Museveni’s 1997 memoirs.
Janet Museveni’s book is marred by excessive lecturing and pontificating. Valuable space that could have been used to describe her school days or, for example, places of public interest where she worked like East African Airways and Mulago Hospital, she spends explaining Biblical verses in the affected spiritual tone typical of “born again” Christians.
The first two chapters of My Life’s Journey describe an idyllic life in rural Ankole in western Uganda, focusing on the centrality of cattle in the predominantly nomadic culture of the time. The Kataaha family is immersed in the Evangelical Protestant faith.
Had she not been the First Lady, little of Museveni’s early years would have been of interest to the general public. Tens of thousands of other Ugandan families had a similar upbringing.
But now that she is the First Lady, historians and journalists might find interesting the family relationships that the author mentions, especially in chapter two.
These family and social relations are important in understanding Uganda after 1986 because many of them or their children would come to hold prominent jobs in the Museveni government.
When she describes the social life at the time of her teens and early 20s, Janet Museveni mentions dancing as the favourite pastime of her late brother Henry Kainerugaba and his friends. What she does not mention is that she too was also an avid dancer.
There are a few glimpses into life in Uganda in the 1970s that are of historical interest. After the 1979 Tanzania-Uganda war, the author describes returning to “Kampala, the beautiful city that I had left now completely shattered and brought to its knees” (p. 99).
This confirms a fact of what many people know: that Kampala, the now dysfunctional Ugandan capital, had been a beautiful city all through the 1970s and it was that war that first tarnished it.
Because Ugandan hospitals in 1979 and 1980 “were so bad” (p. 101), Janet Museveni arranged to have her last born child, Diana, delivered in a hospital in Britain in June 1980. This is the foreshadow of what in the 2000s seemed to have become a standard Museveni family practice: with Ugandan hospitals still so bad, the solution is not to repair these hospitals but to fly the expectant first-family mother to Europe or Kenya to deliver the baby.
Unwittingly, the author sheds some light on the UNLF strongman and later Vice President Paulo Muwanga. Not sure how to go about flying to London to give birth to Diana, Mrs. Museveni approached Muwanga, who “actually sponsored my travel to England for the delivery of our last born” (p.102).
According to NRM and NRA belief and legend, Paulo Muwanga was a power-thirsty, somewhat evil politician who wielded power during the post-Amin era and part of the reason they “went to the bush” was to fight evil men such as Muwanga.
We now learn from Janet Museveni that Muwanga was actually sympathetic and helpful to the Museveni family.
However, having acknowledged Muwanga’s financing of her trip to the United Kingdom to deliver her baby, on the next two pages the author forgets and returns to the NRM doctrine of Muwanga as a schemer who in 1980 rigged the general election in favour of the UPC government.
Apparently, Muwanga is a gentleman when he assists the Museveni family but when he announces election results they don’t like, he becomes a villain of Ugandan history.
Describing their life in exile in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in the 1970s, Janet Museveni describes Col. Tito Okello, who would later become the Ugandan army commander and military head of state. Okello and his wife Jennifer liked the Museveni family. Jennifer Okello “became like a mother to me” and “loved our little children and offered to baby-sit for me whenever I needed to go out” (p.94).
She adds that “Mzee Tito used to pronounce our son’s name as ‘Muogi’ (Muhoozi) and it was very endearing to my husband” (p.95).
Given this glimpse into the sincerity of the Okellos in their relationship with the Musevenis, it becomes even more eye-opening to hear President Museveni at a public address in 1993 at Kololo Airstrip lump Gen. Tito Okello together with Museveni’s predecessors as one of the “past leaders” who destroyed Uganda, advising Ugandans never again to entrust their precious pearls with “swine”.
For good measure, seven years earlier in 1986, Museveni’s NRA had battled to overthrow Okello’s regime, accusing it of atrocities against civilians.
Janet Museveni describes her enrolment in a nursing course in Kampala in 1965 and states that “The management of [Mulago] hospital was very good and Makerere Medical School was the centre of excellence in East Africa” (p.44).
Describing Entebbe International Airport as it was in 1966 when she became a ground stewardess with the East African Airways, Janet Museveni notes that “Entebbe, although small airport, was quite international, and numerous airlines had routes through it…In fact, there were more airlines that had routes through Entebbe than today.” (p. 46).
In mid 1971, a few months after the military coup, she describes a chance encounter with the new military head of state, Gen. Idi Amin. While seated with a friend at the government-owned Tropic Inn Hotel in Masaka town, Janet Kataaha witnessed commotion, with soldiers entering the hotel.
Suddenly, in walked a giant of a man. “He sat a few feet from our table. He had not even noticed us until I naively went to introduce myself to him.” (p.51).
That was indeed Idi Amin, informal as always, with no airs except for his fondness for dramatizing his life. However, the spin Janet Museveni now gives of that encounter with Amin is of a young girl naively greeting a dangerous man and she retroactively revises her impression of Amin by stating that “as he turned to look at us, I felt a shiver run down my spine and an intangible sense of foreboding. I could not put my finger on it, but there was something fearful in the way he looked at us.”
Since she is the person who met Amin, we can give Janet Museveni the benefit of the doubt, but doubts will persist over this. In mid 1971, Amin was a hero to most Ugandans from Buganda, especially those in Kampala and Masaka town where she met him. The impression she gives in this account is of an Amin who walked into the Tropic Inn Hotel with his bodyguards, and the place became tense, with waiters and guests whispering.
With the facts of history that are well-known from the time, it is more likely that Amin was greeted with ululations, the onlookers stopping just short of carrying him shoulder-high and he more likely spoke Luganda with them than greet them with the single Kiswahili word “Habari” that Janet Museveni mentions.
Even the way Amin sits a few feet away from Janet Kataaha and her American friend and the casual way this young woman stands up to go and greet the head of state, tells us a good deal about who Amin actually was and suggests that the shiver down her spine Janet Museveni now mentions needs to be taken with some scepticism.
The episodes listed above — Janet Museveni’s meeting with Amin; her description of Tito Okello and his wife’s warm friendship and hospitality; Paulo Muwanga’s sponsoring of the trip to London to deliver her daughter Diana; her recollection of the Uganda of the 1960s and 1970s, with a clean Kampala, a Mulago Hospital at its best, with an Entebbe airport attracting more flights then than it does today in the 21st century — are the most important sections of her autobiography.
The author inadvertently does what her husband and several other NRM leaders have done in writing their life stories: acknowledges that the “dark days” of Idi Amin and Milton Obote were actually some of Uganda’s better days.
It raises, once again, the question of exactly what it is that Yoweri Museveni was fighting for all those years.