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Legacy of resilience: A Black History Month reflection

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In a heartfelt reflection for Black History Month, CPCS senior consultant Sandra Serumaga-Zake pays homage to her Ugandan father’s perseverance.

Like many other second-generation immigrants, I draw inspiration from my father’s demonstrated resilience and willingness to flee his home, which was on the brink of civil war, to build a new life in a country facing its own adversity in the early 1980s.

My father

My father started his early career in post-colonial Uganda in the 1970s. When asked about fleeing his home, in Luwero, Uganda, to eventually settle in Apartheid, South Africa, he often recounts the stories that plagued Uganda at the time. This was long after the 1960s which are often referred to as “the golden age” of Uganda. In the 1970s there were stories of murders and rumors of intended murder, cruel acts of violence, guerilla fighters lurking in bushes, and government foot soldiers hunting down so-called traitors or treasonous informants that worked for the government.

Much like other locals that lived in Luwero, my father would periodically hide in the forest or as he says it, “the bush”, to avoid official government soldiers that would invade the district looking for people to arrest.

Civil war

Uganda achieved independence from British Colonial Rule in 1962, and the civil war that led to the ascension of President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni lasted from 1981 to 1986.

The “Uganda Bush War” (also referred to as the “Luwero Triangle War”) stemmed from the handover of political rule from the British government to a “pseudo” unified state that had the Buganda king, Kabaka Sir Edward Frederick Mutesa II, as president and Mr. Milton Obote as Prime Minister.

The Independence Constitution, negotiated in London prior to independence, granted full federal status to Buganda and a semi-federal relationship to the other kingdoms. And so, Buganda, a kingdom ruled by Kabaka Mutesa II, was considered superior to other regions within the country.

Since Uganda has a long-standing tradition of local nationalism, which manifested through the presence of different kingdoms, territories, and districts, Kabaka Mutesa II was not seen as a president for all. At the time of independence, Uganda consisted of the kingdoms of Buganda, Ankole, Bunyoro and Toro; the territory of Busoga; and the districts of Acholi, Bugisu, Bukedi, Karamoja, Kigezi, Lango, Madi, Sebei, Teso and West Nile.

Following the assassination of Kabaka Mutesa II, several Ugandan presidents attempted to unify the country, all of whom failed. This eventually led to the conflict mentioned above.

Journey across borders

My father vividly remembers the last day he spent in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. Leading up to that day, government officials followed him, claiming that he, a government employee at the time, sympathized with the National Resistance Army based in the Luwero Triangle.

After being informed of his intended capture, he decided to leave the country without informing anyone. He made it to the Ugandan border, and when he finally jumped onto the bus that would cross into Kenya, he saw a person peeking into the window of that same bus to confirm whether he had boarded it. He escaped successfully.

Instilling the importance of education  

Since settling in South Africa almost 40 years ago, my father got married, had a family, and went on to become an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa. He continues to teach and run a research consultancy on the topics he enjoys including Statistics and Econometrics. The love of his home country, family, and a love for education are the values he continues to hold dear and that he has instilled within me.  

Throughout his career, he’s travelled globally and attended conferences at some of the best institutions in the world. On one such occasion, he travelled to Oxford, Oxfordshire to attend a conference as a young researcher. He often jokes that when he stepped onto the University of Oxford’s campus, he whispered under his breath that one of his children would study at that institution. In October 2021, that wish was granted when I enrolled to pursue my doctorate in water infrastructure finance. I only learned of this wish after enrollment.

Lasting influence

As a young black woman reflecting on the importance of this month, I think of my father and the resilience he depicted in starting a new life away from his beloved country, as well as the many men and women of his generation that served as forerunners to enable me and those like me to live a life of endless possibilities.

In this stirring narrative, Sandra Serumaga-Zake invites readers to contemplate the resilience that echoes through generations, reminding us all that each journey is etched into the rich tapestry of Black History.

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