IN June 2003, Aidat Nabukalu took a journey from her childhood home in Jinja to Tororo where she lived with a friendâ€™s family for one and half years. That journey was to draw her as far away as possible from the pain and void her motherâ€™s death had created.
While there, her pain didnâ€™t only melt away, her life dramatically turned when she embarked on another journey, a daring voyage that perhaps none her kind, world over, had ever dreamt of taking â€” competing in Beauty Pageants as a deaf person. That journey spurred her to national celebrity status as Ugandaâ€™s second most beautiful girl.
Recently, I met with the 19-year-old beauty. Together, we took a journey down memory lane. We traversed two places she calls home, relatives and friends who stood by her during trying times.
I find her watching an action packed Indian movie showing on a television fixed up on a wall at the Miss Uganda offices on Kampala road. She is prettier in person than in pictures.
The manner of our interview is peculiar. She speaks with her hands and Helen Nambuusi, her interpreter, vocally conveys her message.
Her hands cut through the air like an artist sketching away on an invisible painting board. She moulds visible words and figures. Soon, I begin to hear her soundless voice instead of Nambuusiâ€™s.
She is soft-spoken, genial and confident. She wears a remarkable smile that is a permanent virtue on her face. Yet behind her exuberant faÃ§ade, lays a moving story. When she was born, she stepped into a pitiless World, where she says her own dad condemned her for being deaf.
â€œWhen I was just learning how to walk, my mother separated with my dad because I was deaf,â€ she says. â€œShe left the home with my elder brother, Nasser and I and remarried.â€
Aisha Nalubanga, her mother, and Umar, her stepfather, had three children (Mariam Nalubanga, Hafsa Nalubanga and Akrum Magambo) who live with Hajjati Nyende, her late motherâ€™s sister.
â€œI grew up knowing him (Umar) as my dad. I only used to hear about my biological dad,â€ she says.
The death of Umar, in 2001, sent the family heaving through a rocky path.
â€œWe never went hungry but always reported late to school and lacked enough requirements,â€ says Aidat, whose mother ran a kiosk.
â€œIt was hard but we co-owned this grocery shop and each of us did something to earn a living,â€ says Nyende.
In fact, after seven years of hardship in Ngora Primary School for the deaf, Aidat spent one year at home because there was no money. However, Regina Bintu, a mother to Aidatâ€™s long time friend in Ngora (Mercy Ritah) sought her sponsorship in Lillian Foundation. She joined Namirembe Vocational Institute for a three-year tailoring course.
Her mother got her a job in Nytil after graduating. In June 2003, her mother passed away. She slumped into a depression that prompted her to resign from work and travelled to Tororo. She lived with the family of her long time primary school friend, Annet Akoiroit, who is also deaf.
â€œI was missing my mother very much. I wanted to get away from the pain.â€
It is a bright morning when we meet Akoiroitâ€™s mother (Catherine Etoori) at the Resident District Commissionerâ€™s Office in Tororo. She is a friendly lady who speaks with a lot of spirit.
â€œI had last seen Aidat when my daughter and her separated after P7. But two and half years later, when she came to me, she looked very sad. She told me that she had lost her mother,â€ says Etoori who has five deaf children out of eight. â€œI welcomed her, asked her to be strong and not give up because that is what the world is like.â€
Etoori got Aidat some things to keep her busy. She worked in Rock Super Market for two weeks and later joined Tororo Deaf Association. But she spent most of her time at Agururu Primary School and Unit for special needs education, teaching sign language to the deaf children in lower class. During her free time, she watched Nigerian movies.
But her turning point came when Rebecca Akiryat, Miss Tororo 2001 and a finalist for Miss Uganda that same year, asked Aidat to join Miss Tororo Beauty pageant.
â€œI suspected the organisers would not easily accept her to join but I had to work hard. Actually most organisers discouraged it but she was eventually accepted. I wanted to make a statement. So I took her through catwalk drills, likely questions and how to answer,â€ says Akiryat.
Her foster mother was always in support. â€œMy friends and I encouraged her to join the contests because she is a brave, brilliant and beautiful girl we had always admired,â€ Etoori says.
She became Miss Tororo. When she went for Miss Uganda, Eastern region contests in Mbale, she was first runner-up. And during the Miss Uganda finals at Speke Resort Munyonyo, she was first runner-up.
Such success was an explosion of her brilliance and exceptional self-belief.
After one and a half years and for the first time since the Miss Uganda 2004/05 contests, Aidat returns to her childhood home in Jinja.
Her aunt, Hajjati Nyende is sitting in a grocery shop facing a busy street. She leaps up in joy, paces towards the car and hugs her in the sizzling lunchtime heat. Activities around the nearby shops stop.
She is quickly whisked to a small sitting room of the main house, located behind the shop. News of her presence quickly spreads through the neighbourhood like a rumour that cannot wait another day. Soon, a stream of people flows in. Hugs, laughter and tears of joy become rampant. Everyone around fidgets to catch-up on old and lost time.
Aidat is overwhelmed but she keeps her cool. She smiles most of the time. The sight of her elder brother, Nasser excites her but when he sees me taking pictures, he makes a mad dash before saying anything.
â€œYou see, I told you that he doesnâ€™t like taking pictures,â€ says Aidat.
Nasserâ€™s faith doesnâ€™t allow him to take pictures. However, Herbert Waibi, a neighbour, takes none of that.
â€œHow can he do such a thing? That boy is just stupid, leave him,â€ he complains bitterly.
It is hard to imagine now that about one and a half years ago, this house, crammed with jovial neighbours and excited relatives, was a sorrowful place for Aidat when she lost her mother.
Aidat is almost in tears when her youngest brother, Akram Magambo, walks in from school at lunchtime. Her eyes glow with tears of joy as they hug. They stay close to each other.
â€œHow is school,â€ she calmly asks him.
â€œIt is fine but I have not yet paid school fees,â€ Magambo replies
â€œI will try and see what I can do,â€ she says while rubbing her hands over his head.
Dishes full of meat, posho, chapatti and matooke are placed on the table.
â€œAunt, where is rice? You know how I love rice,â€ Aidat says while placing chapatti on a plate.
â€œBut Aida, you should have given us an advance notification of your visit,â€ she replies.
She shares an inexplicable emotional attachment with Magambo and her home. She is very reluctant to leave. It is as though she is leaving a part of her behind.
â€œI will return soon,â€ she promises her brother.
According to Waibi, at 14 years, Aidat was a very cheeky and stubborn girl who only considered someone to be her friend when he/she gave her money to buy a soda.
â€œYes, I used to disturb him a lot,â€ Aidat admits with a meek smile.
That was five years ago. Now she has developed a motherly compassion. She worries about the welfare and education of her siblings. At Hafsa and Mariamâ€™s primary schools, she inquires about their performances and promises to gift an excellent performance.
Aidat pleads with the head teacher of St. Paul Primary School, Jinja, to allow Mariam study while she looks for her school fees.
â€œShe is a candidate. Please donâ€™t send her home,â€ she begs.
The atmosphere at Zasangaâ€™s (her biological father) home in Mbiko sharply contrasts with the mood at her Jinja home.
It is Sombre and edgy. Initially, it is sociable but later, Aidat remains unusually reserved and Zasanga seems to fidget in conversation. Occasionally, an awkward silence creeps in the sitting room filled with a handful of Aidatâ€™s paternal family members.
â€œWhat separated us was when she (Aidat) was taken to the school of the deaf,â€ Zasanga, who has a total of 16 children, says. â€œWhenever she came home for holidays, I always had a communication barrier because I didnâ€™t understand sign language,â€ he adds.
He speaks eloquently about his daughterâ€™s birth but gets a block when it comes to her entire life. He is not even certain which school she went to!
He only met Aidat for the first time when she was 12 years and they could only meet during Aidatâ€™s brief holiday visits.
Zasanga, who is a long distance truck driver says, â€œI had little time because I was always on the road.â€
But Zasanga Halima, her stepmother, recalls; â€œAidat was a very tidy and hardworking girl who led a very expensive lifestyle. If she visited and never found the television operating, she left. She never ate posho or accepted to share a bed with her friends.â€
The body language between them reveals a negative chemistry. Aidat does not say a word except secretly imploring me to ask her dad personal questions.
â€œMy mother told me never to ask him any questions,â€ she had earlier said. â€œI know he is my dad but I am neither proud of him nor embarrassed about him. He has nothing to do with my future. I asked him to pay my fees and he refused.â€
Aidat always wanted to go to school where she related with loving friends. Ritah Masika, who lives in Walukuba, is one such friend with whom they loved watching television. Their reunion is a touching moment. They hug and shyly smile at each other.
Masika is a mother of a one-year-old baby girl whom Aidat carries and fondles for almost an hour of their meeting. They share old time jokes.
â€œShe always loved babies and now that she has her own, she must be very happy,â€ says Aidat.
â€œYes, I am,â€ Masika replies. â€œI am also very happy for you. I used to read a lot about you in the papers,â€ she tells Aidat.
â€œI wanted you to win so that the whole world can know that deaf people can also reason,â€ Masika added.
Aidat may not have been crowned Ugandaâ€™s Beauty Queen but being the first-runner-up was an overwhelming achievement.
On our way back to Kampala, I tease her about her â€˜expensive childhood lifestyleâ€™.
â€œI could not eat Posho at home when it was all we ate at school and I hated to wake up in the middle of the night only to find someone breathing in my face,â€ she smiles.
Somewhere along the journey, she sleeps off in the car. I wonder quietly what her dreams might be. What journey does she dream of taking now?