"The herds boy"
John Patrick Amama Mbabazi is the thirteenth child born to Canon Kezekiah Bagwowabo and his wife Peresi Nyinakabaka. The family lived in a village called Cocezo (pronounced ‘chochezo’) in present day Rukiga (pronounced ‘ruchiga’) County. ‘Mbabazi’ was the name his mother gave him, meaning “the mercy of God”. Peresi was often fond of telling the story about the genesis of his name.
The story went something like this: “Mbabazi came along when I no longer wished to bear children because I had lost so many at birth or in infancy.” Peresi was a God fearing lady, soft spoken and tended to keep her thoughts to herself. “The burden of raising twelve children, not to mention two stillborn babies and a child that died in infancy, weighed heavily on me.
One day while I was ploughing in the fields of Mutaaba Mountain, I got a revelation from God that I would conceive and bear another son and that my prayers to Him to relieve me of the wretched life I was living would be answered. At that time, my prayer to God was that I might be esteemed by society and have lighter burden to carry.” In those days, women in Kigezi would wake up before dawn to go out and work in the fields. Work would continue until midday when the heat from the sun got too unbearable for the women to continue. Instead, they would return to their homes and take care of all household chores including grinding millet or sorghum, cooking and whatever else needed to be done.
“As a result of what I perceived to be very difficult circumstances, I protested vehemently when I got the revelation,” Peresi said. “Banish the thought of another child! I would often tell God in prayer.” However, “shortly after the revelation, I found that I was with child and when I gave birth to him on 16th Day of January, 1949, I asked my husband if I could call him “Mbabazi” because God had shown us mercy,” she would narrate.
When the time came for Peresi to give birth, Kezekiah took his wife to the medical dispensary built by the colonial government. At that time, the colonial government had built a dispensary for each county in Kigezi district. The one for Rukiga County was at Mparo, more than fifteen kilometres and a number of valleys from Cocezo and, therefore, far from reach. Once labour began, Kezekiah knew it would be prudent to carry his wife as early as circumstances would allow since the journey to the dispensary was long and tenuous. Thankfully, since he had been very instrumental in establishing the early missionary church, Kezekiah was confident he could count on the support of the local network of parishioners. Together, they carried Peresi on a rudimentary stretcher of brackets and mats that had been put together by some members of the community. This contraption acted as the ambulance.
It was into this era that Amama made his entrance. Life in Cocezo was idyllic but structured in part because of Kezekiah’s church discipline. The Canon had been one of the first Bakiga to join the church missionaries when they came to Kigezi in 1914. His faith had caused him to migrate to wherever the church needed to set up roots so his family would move right along with him.
In 1947, having retired from the church’s service and become a trader, Kezekiah bought his first piece of land in Cocezo and set about building the family house. Apart from trading, he was also an owner of livestock. Kezekiah ranched just as his father Kamugasha had done. He reared goats which he traded as far as Kampala and Katwe in Toro.The house the Canon built was therefore traditional but in that day and age, it was still a vast departure from the common building style because of the many rooms built to accommodate his large family.
The house sub-structure was made of rattan poles rooted into the earth for strength. The walls were then intricately interwoven by rattan ropes to hold the whole structure together. Onto these interwoven rattans, a mud mix was applied and cow dung was added into it to create a plaster almost as strong as cement. Finally a dried grass thatched roof was placed at the top. For beds, the Kezekiah family slept on mats and brackets made out of rattan ropes. By 1952, Kezekiah’s trading business was expanding. Often, he would travel to Katwe (in the kingdom of Toro), sharing the back of a lorry with the goats he was selling. When he could not afford to use the transport system, he made the journey by foot.
The long journey to Kampala was made in a similar fashion on the back of a lorry, with Kezekiah standing through the whole journey to and fro. In Kampala, Kezekiah often added the sale of Black Wattle bark locally called ‘buricoti’ to his inventory. The harsh journey notwithstanding, his fathers’ sojourns to Kampala were an event the family longed for. Mbabazi most certainly longed for his fathers’ return because every time he came back, he brought with him bread, jam and rice.
During this period (1952), Kezekiah introduced the family to wooden beds with ropes intertwined across the center. Mbabazi, though a toddler, preferred to sleep on a mat on the floor. His children were certainly not deprived. Theirs was a simple life sufficing without surplus. The clothes donned in the day were worn to sleep while the same fire used to keep warm in the Kabale cold was used for cooking.
A popular staple in their household was empengyere which is a mixture of maize and beans. According to folk stories, it was first eaten by the Bakiga during the drought season many hundreds of years ago. All families had silos where they stored their maize and beans after the harvest. Families often ate from the fresh foods, preserving the other food in the silos for the dry seasons. This process of preserving foods would affect the cooking time, so it became prudent to cook the beans and maize kernels together so that the waste on firewood was reduced. This is how empengyere became a Kikiga staple during the seasons when there was no fresh food.
In the mornings they drank enkombe (warm millet porridge), though during the day the preferred drink was a cold sorghum porridge brewed locally. Sometimes honey was added to the brew and it was called ‘enturire’. If allowed to sit and brew for a few days, this mixture would turn from a non-alcoholic drink to a very potent drink.
The people of Kigezi were very simple peasants. They had a healthy selection of vegetarian food consisting of sorghum, sweet potato (ebitakuri), pumpkin (amozi/ ebihwanya), wild Irish potato (emonde) cow peas (amasaza), pumpkin leaves, entuutu (goose berries), among others.
Children, like women, were expected to start their chores at the crack of dawn. When Mbabazi was five years old, he too joined the working members of the family and started the day by looking after the goats.This is how he became a young goat herder. At seven years of age, he graduated to cattle keeping, so a typical morning for Mbabazi’s involved fortifying his stomach with a cup of bushera or enkombe then going out to look after the cows and goats.
His elder sister Juliet would join him in locating the most suitable pastures. Since their home was in the valley surrounded by mountains, (the Cocezo Mountains are about 7000 to 9000 feet above sea level) the valleys were filled with fog for most of the morning only breaking into sunshine after noon. Mbabazi and Juliet would stay in mountain pastures for the whole day. In the evening, upon return, they would fill what one would today consider a masons pan with water and wash their feet. It is this daily routine of cattle herding that Mbabazi enjoyed the most, so much so that he resisted education when his elder brother Enoch first suggested it to him.
After a hard day’s work, the young Mbabazi would often sit by his father’s side and listen to him tell stories about the old days and the new visitors who had changed the lifestyle of the Bakiga. Kezekiah would tell his son that it would not be long before he would come to see it and experience it for himself. In Mbabazi’s mind, there could be nothing more to see. He had seen his calling or so he thought, and that was to look after his father’s cattle.
It wouldn’t be long before Enoch would come to take him out of the world that he loved and cherished the most.