By Carol Natukunda
In the defunct Nakawa-Naguru housing estate in Kampala, was a public bathroom. It was as smelly as it was messy. This bathroom was home to Daisy Hope Ejang.
“I was born in this bathroom,” Ejang laughs.
From the way she casually talks about it, you would think that her mother went into labour while she was taking a shower at her home. But as she reveals in a laid back tone, it was nothing more than a ghetto bathroom.
“During the day, we had nowhere to stay. In the evening, mother cleaned up the cubicle and we slept. We would wake up very early the following day to clear up the place before people came to shower,” Ejang says.
Although she smiles all through the interview, it is evident from the shots we took of her that her eyes were teary.
It was a tough life
The last born in a family of eight, Ejang knew as early as four-yearsold that she must not question anything. She never dared ask why, unlike other children in the neighborhood, they slept in a bathroom.
Or why she did not have extra clothing, or why they had breakfast on verandas or under a tree shade. In her young curious mind, Ejang could tell that her mother, Hellen Akello, was always struggling. “I cannot even say she had a specific job. She was a hustler,” Ejang says.
Breakfast was nothing but a tasteless cup of black tea. “Mother would say: ‘close your eyes and pray. The first thing I would pray for was sugar.
I would envision God spilling sugar into my tea, but when I got down to drinking it, it would be the same tasteless tea. Mum would buy about four pancakes which we shared among eight of us,” Ejang recalls, adding that many times, her mother would move up and about searching for food or vegetables to put the next meal on the table.
Soon, children in the neighbourhood started referring to them as “the poor family”.
Ejang would never understand why her father was not present to help them out. Even now as she recounts, she wonders whether this “so-called dad”, is alive or if he ever thought about them.
“My father, whoever he is, has never been part of my life,” Ejang says. She says at one time, she tried bringing up the subject, but her mother brushed her off lightly.
“Unfortunately, she died before she could tell me of his whereabouts,” Ejang says. Her mother died after a short illness in 2008. A postmortem report later revealed that she had succumbed to diabetes. “This was shocking to us, I guess it was her time to go,” Ejang says.
At the time of her mother’s death, Ejang was in her second term of her S.4 at City High School. Compassion International paid most of her school fees. After the funeral, Ejang’s siblings quickly disintegrated.
Some of her elder sisters got married while the boys went out to face the world on their own. Ejang remained alone — in the bathroom. “I was so scared,” she says, shaking her head, “Although we did not have a roof over our heads, it was always comforting having a mother around us.
Somehow, she kept us together despite the hardships,” she adds.
Ejang knew the best way to survive would be doing what her mother did: Stay put in the bathroom; use the bathroom for shelter later in the night; wake up early enough and prepare for school. She had only a few beddings which she would leave on the neighbours’ veranda.
Sometimes, she slept hungry. Ejang would wake up in the middle of the night, afraid for her life. This was a congested housing estate where illicit drugs and sexual abuse were the order of the day. She later decided to go and sleep in a nearby church.
A young Ejang with Compassion Children
Sometimes, she would wake up in the morning and find money from good Samaritans by her side, enough to buy her next meal.
“When the pastor noticed there was a girl sleeping there, he called me to his house. I later discovered that he had 14 other children he was looking after. I stayed there for seven months until S5 when my pastor left for Dubai,” Ejang narrates.
“I had nowhere to go, so I went back to the bathroom.”
By now, she says she was more hardened to face the world.
“I could have chosen to be a prostitute in order to earn a living, but I decided that since Compassion International was meeting some of my school needs, I would focus on my education and do a couple of odd jobs to support myself. There was nothing wrong with sleeping in the bathroom,” she says, leaning back in her seat
In 2011, during her S6 vacation, the unbelievable happened. Her home — the bathroom — was demolished together with other houses in the Nakawa-Naguru housing estate. That morning, she stood on the debris and cried.
“This was too much. I had not seen this coming,” Ejang recalls.
But the writing had been on the wall for long. It is just that as a young, depressed girl, she had been too locked up in her own world to care about anything.
The Government had issued several warnings to the tenants in the estates to vacate and pave way for redevelopment. The estates, which occupied 66 hectares, had 1,750 dilapidated housing units. About 1,000 families were believed to be living in the estate, which was established by the colonial administration for low income earners in the 1950s.
The developer, Opec Prime Properties, a member of the UK Comer Group, was stacked by the Government to start by constructing 1,747 flats in order to resettle the former tenants of the two estates within the first four years of the project.
The entire project is underway and will be implemented in a period of 10 years. Once the project is complete, the former tenants will be given priority to buy the flats at a subsidised price.
But for the ‘nameless and faceless’ people like Ejang, the demolition of the estates was the end of the story. They had to start from scratch. Ejang had to think hard and fast. She had already been singing with the choir at Mavuno Church at the Oasis Mall in Kampala.
Her vocals were strong. The pastor, Brian Minge and his wife liked her, but she never, at any one time told them about her background.
“I would sleep outside the church but Minge had no idea. Sometimes he would ask me “Where do you stay?” and I would dodge the question.
One day, when I opened up, he rented for me a motel and supported me. That is how I survived,” Ejang says.
Being one of the choir members with the strongest vocals in the church, Ejang became a favourite of most of the church. The choir, also known as Band Aroma, later rented a house for rehearsals and soon they were doing commercial gigs weekly at public functions and occasions.
“I was earning sh100,000 every month and this was enough to keep me going,” she laughs heartily.
“The good thing is I enjoyed and loved singing and I knew that since I could not afford to go on with school, I could concentrate on my talent and sing for the Lord. He had brought me this far!” Ejang says.
Joining Tusker Project Fame
In 2012, Ejang decided to look for her Compassion International sponsors. She learnt that there was a white man, Donald Lupel, who had been directly sponsoring her.
She was amazed that this man had sponsored her education for the past 15 years, when he did not even know her.
“I went online and looked for him. My search came up with several names but I decided to write to all of them, giving my details. If it was junk they would ignore. Fortunately, the right Donald Lupel replied and his family was all eager to get in touch with me.”
In March last year, Ejang’s sponsor came to Uganda and that was the first time the two met face to face.
They talked about her singing career prospects and how she could get exposure. That is when I talked to him about the Tusker Project Fame (TPF) singing competition.
“Two years before, I had wanted to participate, but I was still underage. Secondly I did not know how I would be judged. I am born again and this was a ‘nonspiritual’ competition,” Ejang says.
But both her sponsor and her church as well as band members did not see any problem with it. She successfully went through the auditions in Kampala and Nairobi. That is how she finally made it to the 17 top contestants in the TPF Season Six competition.
The voice to beat
Most music critics agreed that last year’s competition had the most talented singers in East Africa. In the house, the other contestants began to describe her as the girl with the “voice to beat.”
She set the bar really high one evening when she performed a song titled Price Tag by Jessie J, just hours after she had lost her voice. A visibly dazed TPF judge, Juliana, could not believe that Ejang had lost her voiced.
“I had been down for the entire week and I was even put on drip. But they told me this was a competition. I had to either perform or be put on probation. I am glad I did it well.” she says.
Although she did wonders, she completely freaked out the day all the housemates were put on probation. “It was my first time on probation. It turned out that was the day I had not perfomed well and I was scared. But I was grateful I met my fans and I got to know what was expected of me.”
She describes her time in the TPF academy as tough.
“We had to learn all the songs we performed between Monday and Friday, so that they were ready for the weekend. There was no time to relax.”
And yet, the simple pleasures stand out.
“Voice Coach Kavutha was like a mother to me and Edu, the dance master, was just like a big bro to us. The housemates were friendly but my favourite was Sitenda and Fess, aka President.”
Speaking of Fess, are they in a relationship?
“He is just a friend. I am single,” she laughs.
Ejang came third best in the competition. She was able to record a song and was also given a health insurance package for one year. TPF also gave her the exposure.
Some of her siblings, with whom she had lost touch, were now boasting about their baby sister. Ejang says she hopes to enroll for a degree in mass communication, once she has enough savings.
Her singing is paying off. For the first time in her life, she has been able to rent a modest place in Naalya. “I can now show my friends where I live,” she says, “It is not like that bathroom.”