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Bitamazire has never worn makeup or painted nails; not even on her wedding day!

Geraldine Namirembe Bitamazire

Geraldine Namirembe Bitamazire

GERALDINE NAMIREMBE BITAMAZIRE, 83, was one of the longest-serving ministers of Education and Sports before she exited the sector in 2011.

A former woman member of parliament for Mpigi, Bitamazire is an icon in education. She does not regret retiring from active public service and happily enjoying valuable time with her children and grandchildren. 

Quick Talk caught up with the revered educationist at her humble residence in Kansanga-Kiwafu estate, where she has lived for about 40 years.

It is a pleasure meeting you, Honorable!

Wow! You are looking good. I am glad to meet you [this, as she ushers Quick Talk into the house…] I love interacting with young people nowadays.

[We find one of her grandchildren watching cartoons on TV. She requests him to switch off the TV and exit the living room to pave the way for the interview. Quick Talk kneels to greet her]. No, no, no please stand up! I don’t believe in kneeling as a sign of respect for a visitor. I would only allow that for my biological children. Just give me a simple hug.

You must be having a good time with your grandchildren now

Oh, yes. I am now attending to a second generation. Isn’t that a beautiful thing to thank God for? They enjoy me a lot during the holidays. I have seven children [three girls and four boys] and more than 10 grandchildren, but I am asking God for more.

On my way here, I contemplated doing this interview in Luganda. Should we continue in English?

My dear, I have a whole master’s degree. I am an educated and liberated woman. I am one of the founders of Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi. It’s unlikely that I forgot the English language, because I have been to 38 English-speaking countries. I read newspapers daily and I can’t forget English. After all, you will publish this work in English.

Do you use English or Luganda with your grandchildren?

Unfortunately, they don’t speak Luganda, because we mostly use English. As a Muganda woman, I feel guilty, sometimes, but I can’t do much about it.

When I got married to my late husband, a Munyoro, it brought some confusion about the language to use at home. We settled for English as a language that binds us all.

Namirembe Bitamazire during her youthful days
Namirembe Bitamazire during her youthful days

Your house is tidy… but it looks like you have no house help.

You have a keen eye! I like that. True, I have no housemaid and I do my chores at 83 years old. When I am expecting visitors, sometimes, I call my daughter to assist me. If I started sleeping and doing nothing, I would be weak yet my body needs to be active.

You still have your signature afro hairstyle!

That’s called branding. I remember someone who told me to have a professional brand so that no one mistakes me for somebody else. I have largely lived a busy life … For two years now, I have not left my home to attend public events.

No offense, but is it your natural hair or a wig?

[Laughs] It is a wig. It is my professional brand. I am not saying this in bad faith but today, you find young people wearing all sorts of clothes and changing hair to different colours. What is that? How shall people identify you?

Maybe, they are following trends…

When I was in a teachers training college, we were encouraged to be smart and wear some high heels with not-so-long pointers. This means that when you are going to class, children hear you from a distance and get ready for lessons.

A teacher will not waste the first minutes telling children to keep quiet, because they will have heard you walk to the classroom. I encourage anyone to have those small nitty-gritty that professionally define you. You don’t need many dresses, shirts and trousers.

Interesting…. Quick Talk hopes teachers will pick a leaf.

During my time, even men with big beards were not allowed in classrooms.

Why?

You would scare children. Male teachers needed a well-trimmed beard.

I have never seen a photo of you with makeup or nail polish.

I have never put makeup on my face or painted my nails; not even on my wedding day at Christ the King Church, Nakasero in 1971. I am a typical, proud, village woman. My village must be one of the deepest in Butambala.

But there was hot combing…

No. Those are not my things, nedda! I am a rural woman. Although I have lived in the modern world, I found it unnecessary to change my looks.

You pulled it off your wedding day without makeup!

Oh, I looked so beautiful! I wore a very nice white bridal gown hired at Shs 150, smeared vaseline, and went to church. My sister was the matron but she also had no makeup.

Namirembe Bitamazire at her wedding
Namirembe Bitamazire at her wedding

They twisted my hair a bit but it didn’t take away my natural looks. The wedding reception was at Lugogo indoor stadium and we had fun, by the way. Today, I see young girls with artificial eyelashes, lipstick, etc. I have no problem with them, though. That’s modernity.

Are you also particular with your dress code?

Why not? If you are going to church, wear something that doesn’t fully display your curves as a woman to other congregants. Just be decent, for the lack of a better description.

When I was a head teacher during Amin’s regime at Tororo Girls School, he banned miniskirts. So, I learned to wear dresses that lie between my feet and knees. I hate miniskirts, I don’t like half dresses. In my home, I wear my kitenge like you see, and at weddings, I wear a nice dress that covers my shoulders. During my ministerial days, I used to wear suits to work. I would walk around and feel the smartness all over me.

Have you tried trousers?

[Raises eyebrows in shock] Eh! Noooo. I have never won trousers. I am a Muganda and village woman.

But you said you are a liberated woman?

That’s true. When women’s emancipation came, I was one of those women who spearheaded that movement. It was not about feminism, but empowering women through education and other things. I walked away from the traditions of being a woman who sits on the floor.

What attracted you to a Munyoro man?

I studied with Baganda men while on campus, but some of us were disciplined church-going young girls from [Trinity College] Nabbingo.

However, there’s a time when you don’t love someone because of their tribe, but [for] other things. I chose a Munyoro and asked God to help the marriage work. [And the marriage worked until God called home her husband, Alphonse Bitamazire, about five years ago].

So, Mr Bitamazire was your first cut?

[With shy smile] Yes. For us at Nabbingo, life was about books, not boys. We would be thinking about church, fasting, and sisters taught us how to walk like women of class. [She stands to demonstrate how a lady steps with her toes, then follows with the heel].

Your husband got his “ideal” woman!

Exactly. He once told me that he was looking exactly for such a woman with my qualities. [Bitamazire pauses the interview to introduce Quick Talk to her daughter, Clare Kabonesa, who doubles as her personal assistant. Kabonesa says social media has been unfair to the family with unfounded talks about her mother’s life.]

People may think I walk on crutches, but here I am, on my two feet. I can’t be out there to explain myself, but I am doing well.

Are you on social media?

No. One of my grandchildren downloaded WhatsApp on my phone and the messages were many. I told him to immediately delete it. I have a smartphone strictly for calling and receiving calls.

What type of music do you listen to?

Gospel music [she sings a chorus of her favourite song: Judith Babirye’s Yesu Beera Nange]. I also like this other young pastor in Nansana, Wilson Bugembe [she sings Katonda Y’abadde Mu Eno Ensonga]. I watch many others on TV, but those are my favourite.

You don’t follow our secular artistes?

[She shakes her head in strong disagreement.] During my youthful times, we used to call them biduula. I am now past the stage of following those artistes where people dance and sweat.

Your parents must have been very strict!

Yes. They couldn’t allow us to go to biduula. If my dad ever found you outside the home after 6pm, it would be war.

Even when you joined campus?

While at Makerere University in the 1960s, I didn’t change much from my village life. Firstly, the student population was low. I remember around 1964, there were only 60 females on campus and we focused mainly on our education.

My father used to take me straight to Mary Stuart Hall, lay my bed, and then go back. Unfortunately, my father died just after [my] completing at Makerere while my mother followed him in 1994.

Sorry! Did you do the same for your children?

I have always picked up and dropped my children at school and campus. For those who went to Makerere, it was a rule to have lunch with us at home on Sundays.

You are such a protective parent!

Ohhh… So much to the extent that I still follow up on my children. At least, I make a call to ask if they are back from work and at home.

I have never heard a daughter-in-law complaining that my son went back home after 10pm. I visit their homes occasionally and I have not received complaints. In my home, everyone must be home by 8pm regardless of your age.

How do you spend your free time?

I read a lot of books and newspapers, and clean my house, compound, and flower garden. When I was still very active, I would attend to my banana plantation in Bunga.

Do you follow sports?

I like football and I am an Arsenal fan. My love for Arsenal led me to a photo moment with Arsenal’s greatest coach, Arsene Wenger during the 2010 World Cup hosted by South Africa. I also watched all the games that were played in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, even late at night.

Wait. You had a photo moment with Wenger?

We slept at the same hotel. While chatting at the hotel, I introduced myself as part of Uganda’s delegation from the ministry of Education and Sports. I asked for a photo moment and he accepted.
 
Do you think Arsenal is winning the trophy this season?

Haaaa, the Premier League trophy is still a tricky one. When they started losing some crucial games, I started getting worried. But, we are now doing well and God willing, we shall see the future [she makes a fist to celebrate Arsenal’s good run.]

Some of my children support Manchester United and they keep teasing me whenever they win a game, while I laugh when they lose. We keep quarreling with whoever supports Man U. Just imagine someone giving you a call just to say Man U won a game, yet they know I support Arsenal! Naye abaana abo!

Any last word…

Thank you for coming through. You know I fear interacting with journalists for more than 15 minutes. They always have something to write but I know you will do a good job.

nangonzi@observer.ug

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