On the first weekend of 2022, I travelled to Kasangati, Wakiso District to meet Omugurusi (Mzee) Francis Gahwera for an interview.
I had earlier met him a year before after Andrew Kirungi Byakutaaga, the Omuhikirwa (Prime Minister) of Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom asked me to meet this elderly man who had burning issues to discuss about the Kingdom.
When I called Gahwera for an appointment, he responded with enthusiasm, directing to his home.
“I stay at Masooli in Kasangati, Kyaddondo. Branch off the Gayaza Road at Masooli. As for Ruseijera. There’s hardly anyone who doesn’t know me. My name – rather nickname – is my address,” he says.
His home is located at Masooli village (which shares the name with the paish), Nangabo sub-county, Kasangati, Kaddindo County.
Encounter with the sage
Indeed, I found my way to his home easily. He warmly welcomed me, we exchanged pleasantries, and sat down.
Here I was face-to-face with a 90-year-old Munyoro who had stayed in Buganda for more than half-a-century.
For all the 64 years he’d lived here, he has fond memories of his childhood recollections, growing up in the Kaaruziika (Palace) at Hoima during the reign of Omukama Sir Tito Gafabusa Winyi IV, the 26th Mubiito king of Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom.
Background – Royal connection
Born in December 1931 (he’s not sure of the exact date), Gahwera was a product of an illicit liaison between Omubiitokati (princess) Susan Kwebiiha Amooti and a obscure palace official.
Kwebiiha was daughter of Omubiitokati Caroline Guhemura Gahwera, sister of Omukama Cwa II Kabaleega, and the two share the Mparo royal burial ground.
It’s Kwebiiha Kwebiiha who gave Francis a surname (hers, one of the unisex names in Bunyoro).
Son of a king’s chef?
This was after his father, who came to the palace from Bugangaizi around 1928 (four years after Omukama Sir Tito Gafabusa Winyi IV ascended the throne), was recruited as the Omwokya (official chef) of the Omukama, did the unthinkable and impregnated a Mubiitokati.
Being a commoner, his father fled for his life, months before Francis was born.
Before his escape, however, the chef had earned himself a nickname of Akasoro kaliire enkoko (literally “chicken eater”).
Among the royalty, eating chicken was demeaning, something of disdain if not a taboo.
It would have taken long for the public to know his secret had he not slaughtered a premier cock that was the palace’s time teller.
When the cock was conspicuously absent, an investigation was undertaken, only to find that indeed he had eaten one too many.
Anyway, he would have been forgiven for the misdemeanor, but impregnating a princess, moreover, Kabaleega’s niece, was a step to far!
The plot to have him arrested was hatched by Guhemura behind the Omukama’s back. He only got to know of her aunt’s action after his official chef had fled.
That’s how Francis grew up in the palace under the care of his mother and grandmother. He never got to know his father, but later discovered his siblings.
“I was an only child of a lone mother,” he said.
Guhemura died in 1939. Gahwera was eight years old at the time..
Growing up in the palace was as exciting as life could be. He caught the Omukama’s eye, and, indeed, became a darling boy.
He slept close to Winyi IV and was tasked with opening the door for him very early in the morning (and being the first person met by him).
Later, after his grandmother’s death, Gahwera was sent to Kihande, Masindi to stay with prince George Kabaleega, one of Omukama Winyi IV’s brothers who had been sent with their father in exile in the Seychelles in 1899.
Hence Gahwera started his primary education at Kabaleega School and then at Bujenje CoU School.
In 1942, the British created the Western Province, comprising Bunyoro and Tooro. This saw an influx into the region of technical staff.
Among the civil engineers posted to Bunyoro was Clement Ssengendo, who had been transferred from Gulu.
In Bunyoro, he teamed up with railway engineer Erifaazi Nyakaana from Bulindi, Hoima.
The duo were Sir Tito Winyi IV’s friends and were frequent visitors to the Kaaruziika. Indeed, Nyakaana married Winyi’s daughter.
Loss of grandmother
Guhemura died immediately after the couple’s wedding, making Nyakaana’s bride her heir.
Before her death, Guhemura had nicknamed Francis “Gaalimaka” (literally “they were once a family”). But she changed it to Gahwera – a name he holds to-date.
After the wedding, there was the small matter of where the couple would stay.
As a king’s daughter, the princess could no longer stay in the palace nor in the staff quarters at Masindi where Nyakaana lived (it would be demeaning for her stature).
Neither could they stay in the house of Miriya Kabayaga, Nyakaana’s mother, at Kihande.
Accordingly, the Omukama decided to build a house for the couple at Kihande (the present palace).
And, princess Susan Kwebiiha, and her son Francis, were asked to join the Nyakaana’s in the new house.
The Nyakaanas’ wedding was short-lived as the princess found life outside the palace incompatible to her status.
After divorce, the princess moved to Kenya and Tanzania where she lived her life away from the prying eyes of her society. Good enough, the couple had not produced any child.
Nyakaana remarried and lived a happy life thereafter.
In 1945, the British established Makerere College’s School of Engineering near the railway line at Luzira. The following year, Ssengendo was transferred from Masindi to the school as a tutor.
On the eve of Uganda’s independence – 1955-58 – to be exact – the British transferred this institution from Luzira to Kyambogo, and made it autonomous of Makerere College (later University).
It became known as Kyambogo Technical School of Engineering.
As Ssengendo was leaving Masindi, he requested both Nyakaana and the Omukama to allow him take Francis to Kampala for a better education.
Sir Tito Winyi consented but on condition that the boy would be returning for holidays, at least during the long holidays.He was in P.4 at Kabaleega School at the time
Departure is Kampala
In November 1947, Francis moved to Kampala with the couple (his wife was a Munyorokati from Kihande, Masindi called Donata Kaimukirwa. She’s the mother of the famous Dr Ntege Ssengendo).
The family settled at Ssengendo’s ancestral home at Masooli, Kyaddondo. Francis joined Wampewo Primary School for two years. Soon, he was baptised at Masooli Church of Uganda.
Immaculate and sharply smart with characteristic white canvas shoes (the only pupil wearing shoes at school then), Francis was nicknamed Ruseijera – a sobriquet that has stuck to-date.
Add to that his football skills, the nickname spread throughout Buganda and beyond!
Furthermore, Ssengendo bought him a Raleigh bicycle worth UGX15, which he would ride with aplomb.
Thus, either on the pitch (he would play football in his canvas shoes!) or demonstrating his riding acumen, people would shout at him in admiration, “Ruseijera, Kaseijera!
After completing P.6 in 1949, Francis joined Nsambya Junior School. Sharp as he was, he completed the three-year course within two years.
During his stay at Nsambya, Bishop Billington, who was the headteacher of the school, gave Francis preferential treatment. Impressed by his smartness, brilliance, athleticism, sportsmanship and all-round character, Bilington invited Francis to dine at the high table throughout the two years
After completing his Junior School education in 1952, his teacher, Fr Wasswa Kato, advised him to undertake a 5-year civil engineering course at Kyambogo – something he did.
However, he opted to be a non- resident, staying with the Ssengendos at Masooli as he kusejerad his bicycle to and from school everyday.
Upon graduation, in 1958, Francis undertook industrial training at the Ministry of Work on Jinja Road. After the internship, the Ministry offered him a job, and he worked for four years before going back to Kyambogo for a six-month course.
When he was done with it, he rejoined the Ministry. He was assigned to head the Housing Construction Unit, which was building houses and staff quarters for Europeans and Indians at Kololo.
Because of his high-quality workmanship and professionalism, Francis became a darling of the Europeans. His bosses treated him as their peer and friend.
The eligible bachelor
In 1959, Ssengendo gave Francis a two-acre piece of land at Masooli. He constructed his house immediately.
In 1961, as Uganda attained internal self government, Government gave Francis a brand new Francis Bunnet motorcycle worth UGX4,200.
Francis, to the dismay of the Ssengendos, bought a three-acre piece of land worth UGX1,800, behind their back. He later expanded his estate to 15 acres.
House warming party
Francis, invited Omubiitokati Ruth, sister of Omukama Sir Tito Winyi IV, who was staying at Mengo, to grace the occasion.
He was still single by then – something that bothered the Ssengendos.
Bride of a surprise
Secretly, they arranged a bride for him called Ruth Nakiwala from Kampiringisa, Mpigi District. They unveiled her during the house party on January 2.
This took Francis by surprise, shock and dismay. But he couldn’t say not. Obviously a loveless marriage. For six months, the couple lived in separate rooms.
It took the intervention of many people, including Princess Ruth, for the couple to consummate the marriage, which produced two sons (one has since died).
In 1959, the marriage broke down after five years. “My wish was to marry a Munyoro woman,” he told me. “I lied to her that I had been transferred to Bunyoro,” he added.
Two years later – November 1968 – he returned to his home at Kij Biizi in Masindi, where he wedded his sweetheart, Atwoki of Kiryanga. The couple is blessed with eight (8) children.
In Masooli, he continued living alone until a “certain wealthy female Muganda friend advised me to get a wife” (he doesn’t disclose her name).
On Independence Day 1980, Francis married Ruth Nabatanzi Akiiki, with who he produced seven (7).
Individual Social Responsibility
As a civil engineer, Francis voluntarily oversaw to the construction of Masooli Church and built a new church at Biizi in Masindi.
Since 1963 to-date, Francis is head of laity at Gayaza CoU. Also, since then, he has also been paying an offertory of UGX150 everyday.
For many years in Buganda Kingdom, he headed roads supervision department. Since 1966 – the year Milton Obote abolished Buganda Kingdom – Gahwera has constructed 10 roads in Buganda. And, he adds, the many good rural roads in Kyaddondo are largely his handiwork.
In appreciation, Buganda Kingdom named the one-and-a-half mile road leading to his home (which he, himself, had graded) after him – Ruseijera Road.
However, when recently the local government erected a signpost on the road in his name, he removed it in protest. “I am a simple and humble person; I like to keep a low profile,” he says, adding, “Moreover, Ruseijera isn’t my real name.”
When reported to Kasangati Police, he gave the same reasons. The Police dismissed the matter.
He also hnts about a Cabinet Minister in the Central Government (he doesn’t mention their name) who moved to the locality recently but proved uncooperative.
“When they proved arrogant, destroying people’s property with their vehicle,I blocked the road to their home. Once again, when I was summoned to the Police, I stated my case. They advised the Minister to seek me for an amicable settlement,” he says, adding that now the matter was solved.
Service to Buganda Kingdom
– Gahwera served as a member of the Lukiko (1959-63);
– To-date he represents Kyaddondo elders in the Lukiko;
– When the Kingdom was abolished in 1966, he was one of the 11-mermber society appointed to take care of Kyaddondo county. The committee worked with government, represented by District Commissioner called Ssegulamirambo to develop the area;
– He helped to construct Kasangati District Police Headquarters, the Ssaza Headquarters, and the current CAO’s office.
He would have done more had the Government not transferred him to Arua (1958-61). He also had a stint in Mbale. “Throughout my life, I never bought a car. I rode my motorcycle,” he says.
Relationship with Omukama
Gahwera has a special relationship with the Omukama of Bunyoro, De Solomon Gafabusa Iguru I. “On the eve of his enthronement in 1994, then Crown-Prince Iguru called for a private meeting. What we discussed remains confidential,” he says.
He also met him at the Kaaruziika years ago. And, in 2017, he took his whole family on a tour of the palace and Mparo Royal tombs two years ago.
“On that visit, I had wanted to meet Kabumba to discuss pertinent issues, but it wasn’t possible. I only met Princess Daphne Kabataleesa (king’s daughter).
Gahwera is concerned of the widening gulf between him and the king, which he blames on Kingdom officials, saying he sees a lot not going well in the Kingdom.
*Yearning for ancestors’ blessings
“Kandi nyenda embeho zinteereho” (Runyoro for “I crave receiving blessings from my ancestors”).
He adds, “Niinyowe amanyire Obukama bwa Bunyoro-Kitara kumara emyaka 80, obwa Buganda, emyaka 60” (literally, “For the 80 years I have known the Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara, much more than the 60 I have served Buganda Kingdom, I am a resourceful person”).
“Buganda has benefitted more from my knowledge and expertise more than Bunyoro has. Just recently, Katikiro Peter Mayiga asked me why, of all the counties in Buganda, is more developed. He often consults me”, he said further.
As we wind up the two- hour interview, Gahwera pleads for an audience with Kabumba. “I am a Kingdom insider; I know my role in the palace, and much more about the cultural rituals. Let me just be allowed to show my face to him.”
He ends on a lighter note thanks the current Okwir (head of the Babiito clan) , Archbishop Emeritus Stanley Ntagali, and a few other leaders who have spared time to visit him.
East, West, home is best
True, time of our stay here is up. But so is Gahwera’s in Buganda. “I am planning to go back to Bunyoro,” he says, as his son Sgt Gozaga, who’s getting ready to embark on a tour of duty of Somalia, nods in agreement.
Throughout the interview, his two grandchildren (Gonzaga’s children): Gift Abigaba Amooti, 12, and Brian Bagonza Jr, 8, have been listening attentively.
(I don’t know if his favourite pet cat, which has sat on his lap attentively, has)?
I have noticed that save from a few slips from Gahwera’s wife, everyone has spoken in Runyoro.
Lastly, his house, built 62 years is as good as a newly constructed one (if not better) – there isn’t any crack on the walls or the veranda. It’s well painted.
And, as he has told us, the furniture he bought on the eve of the house-warmng party, is still good. The leather, though faded a bit, shows no crack!
My wife leads us in a closing prayer as we bid good night to Francis Gahwera Ruseijera and his family.