If anyone wants a slice of the intimate life of the Museveni family, his wife’s autobiography delivers it
I have spent eight months trying to shape my views on Mrs. Janet Museveni’s autobiography, My Life’s Journey. An autobiography is an attempt to tell others that: “This is who I am” or “This is how I see myself” and “This is how I want you to see me.” So it is an intimate self examination. Then of course, the challenge is how much to reveal about oneself – your triumphs and setbacks, aspirations and frustrations. In My Life’s Journey, I felt Mrs. Museveni did this with much greater success than most people would.
Mrs. Museveni’s autobiography is the opposite of Yoweri Museveni’s Sowing the Mustard Seed. Her husband’s autobiography is almost entirely about his political life; Mrs. Museveni’s is more about the family – the mundane and ordinary things that make life. The two met as kids studying in adjacent primary schools. Their courtship begins by a chance meeting in the parking lot of Hilton Hotel in Nairobi on Christmas day, 1972. They get married in London and Museveni is initially denied entry into England on the eve of their wedding. When they settle in exile in Dar Es Salam, a friend called Oyaka drives them to their first apartment because they did not have a car. A neighbour – a Scandinavian lady – drives them to hospital at 4am to deliver their first born, Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
In this intimate tale of trials and tribulations, triumphs and frustrations, Mrs. Museveni is open and candid about their personal circumstances. She writes about days when they lived in a small hotel room, unable to pay bills; how they shifted into an apartment without curtains or electricity; and the moments when she worried about their next meal. She once travels from Dar Es Salam to Nairobi looking for a job to supplement their family income. She is full of gratitude to friends and family who helped them when they needed it most.
The story also reveals Yoweri Museveni, the person. Mrs. Msueveni describes the young Museveni: “He dressed very badly, always wearing mismatched shirts, trousers and boots. He was prone to wear red undershirts and then cover them with another coloured short-sleeved shirt, khaki trousers and black boots with colourful socks. Even though his dress was horrendous, he was always very clean which he still is to this day.”
When she begins her courtship with Museveni, Janet Kataha had just lost her mother, after also losing her only brother four years earlier. “I felt alone in the world and I did not know what to believe in any more,” she writes in what I felt was a revealing testimony. “When Yoweri entered my life he had such a calm certainty of character, as if there was a secret he was not telling… Yoweri has always possessed that quality, a steadfast indefatigable character. No matter what came against him, he would stay standing. He seemed so sure of his purpose and direction that nothing could bother him.”
Mrs. Museveni often lived in the homes of her relatives; some lived in her home. In My Life’s Journey, she is full of praise for her relatives and friends; tales of affection and generosity. Many people who have lived with relatives tell of abuse and mistreatment. One may suspect there must have been such moments and feelings in her experience with relatives too. Yet there is not a single criticism of those who opened their homes for her to live in. Why does she ignore them? What does this reveal about her character? This positive attitude goes to her assessment of all the friends and people she has lived or worked with.
There are episodes in the book where Mrs. Museveni reveals what she never intended – like her chance encounter with President Idi Amin in a restaurant in Masaka. She was having lunch with a friend when Amin walks in for lunch too – unannounced. He sits on a table a few feet from them. The young Janet Kataha walks over to him and introduces herself. Amin extends his hand and greets her too. Her commentary about Amin in regard to this incident is inconsistent with the ordinary lifestyle of this dictator. She proceeds to say that greeting Amin posed a danger to her.
Throughout most of the book, Museveni’s political struggles keep him away from his family. For example, in May 1978, he travels to Mozambique to join FRONASA recruits for training a day after his wife has given birth to their third child, Patience. This becomes worse when he is in the bushes of Luwero and the family are living as exiles in Sweden. Indeed, when Museveni went to visit his family in Sweden in 1985, their first daughter Natasha opened the door and immediately ran back into the house saying: “Mummy, there is a man at the door who says he is my father…”
The book makes intriguing comments on the failures of Uganda without the author making clear who she is blaming them on. For example, she criticises the Uganda education system for being outdated and concerned with topics irrelevant to Uganda’s needs. When she went to campaign for Parliament she realised that politicians win elections by bribing voters. When she became State Minister for Karamoja, she found that government has been pumping money into the region without anything to show for it. Her comments on the state of our healthcare system are as critical as those any opposition politician would make. And yet she still believes that her husband’s administration has been a very successful one.
And then one has to worry about Mrs. Museveni the politician for she couches her politics in the language of religion. For instance, her decision to run for parliament itself, she tells us, was an instruction from God. Then one has to ask themselves: If the first lady’s views in politics are guided by divine intervention, how can we mere mortals disagree with her? Would disagreement tantamount to opposing the almighty? In spite of these questions, My Life’s Journey is a must-read for anyone desirous to know the personal experiences of the Museveni’s and perhaps how those experiences have shaped their view of Uganda and its politics.