By Francis Kagolo
SHE wept. Wept again, and finally collapsed into coma. For the next six hours Grace Nanyonga lay in a clinic, unconscious. She wanted to be lain to the grave with her dad on this pale afternoon of November 8, 1997. Life would never be the same again, she thought, and yet she was determined to twist the hands of fate and live the life she was being denied.
Before his demise, her father had hawked womenâ€™s outfits; the mother peddled yellow banana juice and pancakes, to educate her and support the family.
But hers would take the faith of a gentile: she was only 12, yet she had six siblings to take care of. Fate had already taken her mother away from the home in a divorce. It also clawed deeper, when it blew out the only flicker of hope Nanyonga and her six siblings had in their mother.
From hawking roasted cassava and sugarcanes, to lacking a shelter, and to smoking fish to pay her tuition in Makerere University where other girls led luxurious lives, Nanyonga has endured the intolerable plight.
â€œMy father did not fall sick,â€ she recalls. â€œHe left home when he was well, and when he returned he entered his bed, but woke up snoring at 4:20pm.â€ Nanyonga rushed to get her father drinking water, only to find him down. â€œWe never had a car to drive him to the clinic,â€ she narrates. â€œWe borrowed a bicycle from a neighbor, but all in vain. A week later, our mother also died.â€ It was just two weeks to her Primary Leaving Exams ), and Nanyonga believed that her education and her siblingsâ€™ future depended on her sweat.
Picking up the pieces
Nanyonga thought the world hated her, so she put up a self-fight. â€œI sent both my elder and young brothers (Robert and Michael) to work in a stone quarry, which was near home.â€
They did not earn much from the quarry, but she managed to get some from roasting chicken. â€œI began roasting chicken in Senior One. I would attend school during the day and then roast chicken in the evening up to midnight,â€ Nanyonga says. She bought each chicken at sh3,000 from the suburbs of Kampala, sell three every evening, and earn sh15,000 in profits a day. From the meager earnings, Nanyonga sponsored her secondary education up to Senior Three, she fed her siblings, bought them clothes, and footed their medical bills as well.
But the business also bestowed on her the name â€œChicken-girlâ€ at Our Lady Consolata SS Kireka, where she was a prefect. â€œIt was abusive and a bit disturbing but I ignored the insults. I knew my afflictions, and I had to fight my way out,â€ she says. Her fortune came with Lucky Dubeâ€™s well-attended musical show at Namboole stadium in 1998. â€œThat night I sold more chicken and made profits of sh60,000,â€ Nanyonga says.
But as business improved, the drunkards also tortured her increasingly. While roasting chicken, the drunken would pull her skirts down and giggle. Yet the assaults would not put her off.
Upon reading her emotional story in a local newspaper, Ruth Kavuma, the then chairperson of the Female for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), a local NGO, in 2001 gave Nanyonga a bursary. At Our Lady of Good Counsel SS Gayaza, she sat the Uganda Certificate of Education exams and for the first time she stopped worrying about school fees.
But being away from her siblings, and now that their mud-and-wattle house had collapsed, overwhelmed her. She spent days sickly, and the school nurse wouldnâ€™t identify the disease. The head teacher thought Nanyonga was pregnant, so she tasked her to explain who, where and how she conceived. But the insult felt good, some one cared. More followed, and Nanyonga, wounded and confused as was, became more courageous. The head teacher later turned friendly and started giving her money for her siblings.
But as she thought life had stabilised, their elder stepbrother seized the only plot they had inherited in Mbuya, built on it a house and boys quarters for rent. She and her siblings separated, one went to Mukono Childrenâ€™s home, and another became a shamberboy in Mbuya, earning accommodation as salary. Nanyonga took refuge at Kavumaâ€™s home in Kalangala.
Her livelihood seemed to move forth, and then backwards, with little progress. Indeed, after senior six, the FAWE bursary ended, and she had missed a university government sponsorship. But amidst anxiety, Nanyonga returned to Kavuma, who welcomed her again, taught her how to smoke fish, and with the sh150,000 capital she gave her, fish smoking turned into Nanyongaâ€™s lifetime business. â€œI used to sell fish during the day, and attend lectures in the evening,â€ she says. With the daily profits of sh40,000, Nanyonga ably paid the sh500,000 tuition per semester during her two-year-course in Makerere University.
Before she would graduate, in 2006, Nanyonga was employed as Information Officer at the Traditional and Modern Heath Practitioners Together Against Aids (THETA), a Kampala NGO.
Her fish enterprise, Grana Supplies, earns her about sh50,000 in profits a day, besides employing a number of women in Mukono. She had difficulty transporting the fish, but now she owns a Toyota Carib and a house.
The former â€˜Chicken girlâ€™ has now earned respect, and the UIA executive director Maggie Kigozi recognises her as Ugandaâ€™s flourishing female entrepreneur. Nanyonga is today a walking inspirational book, her story alone inspires the troubled. At secondary schools and international conferences, she is invited to teach entrepreneurship skills.
During the Commonwealth Business Womenâ€™s Network meeting at Munyonyo in 2007, only women who had built from scratch and had succeeded, were picked to present papers, and the former â€˜chicken girlâ€™ made it to the list. During the Commonwealth First Ladiesâ€™ meeting at Golf Course Hotel in the same year, Nanyonga also attended. At Golf Course, Government invited this â€˜young female entrepreneurâ€™ to exhibit her smoked fish. â€œIt was great, President Yoweri Museveni and the first ladies commended my work,â€ Nanyonga, says.
Her big heart
Until she brought back all her siblings together, Nanyonga would not settle. In 2005, hers was among the 50 needy families that benefited from the Stanbic Bankâ€™s Habitat for Humanity project in Mukono. Habitat built them a home, but the house was not free per se. Nanyonga participated in its construction, bought the sand, stones, and bricks, fetched the water, and fed the workers.
Then she was tasked to pay mortgage fee of sh2.5m in 10 years, a debt she is nearly completing. After getting a home, Nanyongaâ€™s openhandedness also took her to Kiwumu village in Wakiso, three other children her mom had mothered after devorcing their father, had been abandoned there . Nanyonga picked up the children and is taking care of them. She has taken back her siblings to school, three of them in secondary, one in Primary, while the rest are now employed.
â€œHave a plan in life, else life will plan for you,â€ is her success principle, and advice to fellow women.
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Orphaned at 12, Nanyonga now a walking inspiration