While GIFT KUKILIZA turned 23 on May 25, and her firstborn is aged six, the Mbarara-based fashion designer is not only a victim of teenage pregnancy; but the baby's father also never took responsibility.
As she narrates to Alex Taremwa, the trying situation turned her into a hardworking, self-reliant person; and she is earning big.
At a garment shop on Mbaguta street in Mbarara town sits Kukiliza on her sewing machine, with a measuring tape hanging around her neck. It is a hot afternoon, and the mother of two looks physically tired.
As I engage her into a conversation, she tells me she is not about to retire. On particular days, Kukiliza sleeps in the shop working on new designs and clients’ orders.
“When it clocks 9pm, I lock myself in the shop on some days and continue working up to as late as 2am. For security reasons, I sleep in the shop and head home at around 6am to prepare my kids for school and make something to eat,” she says.
Kukiliza darns female attires for a living. These include mostly African print commonly referred to as ‘ebitenge’, Ankole female suits, bridal changing dresses and beach suits, among others.
Although textile designing is a talent she was born with, it is not the career path that Kukiliza had wished to take.
Instead, she wanted to be a nursery school teacher. But the need to create an income, build self-reliance and fend for her children forced her into tailoring; and she good at it!
Patience Akankwatsa, a model and 2015 Miss Uganda Sports Queen, has been Kukiliza’s loyal client. She says Kukiliza’s work first caught her attention when it was featured in a fashion programme on a local television channel.
“I was amused that we had such great designers in this town. Often, we have to travel to Kampala for this kind of stuff and that is – as you might imagine – expensive,” Akankwatsa adds.
Akankwatsa had the body, Kukiliza had the designs. Together, they worked on promoting one another using their complementary skills. One would make the clothing; the other would model in them.
Kukiliza’s personally inspired designs have made her an independent, self-reliant and optimistic young woman.
THE CHILDREN EFFECT
She is crazily in love with her children. In fact, her offsprings are the most important motivation she has to keep working to ensure the youngsters get everything they need.
“If there is something that really hurts me, then it is seeing a child in need of something, say school fees, and I can’t provide it,” she adds.
Children are innocent of the goings-on. It is totally unfair, she says, to involve them in certain drama they weren’t apart of. On the streets, Kukiliza often forks a few shillings out of her wallet to buy a decent meal for random hungry children.
To her, this is the kind of love that Jesus Christ signified. In fact, part of her future plan is to build a vocational training centre that would equip vulnerable children with the basic life skills using the talents they have.
“I believe everyone is born with a talent. If I can’t teach them how to harness it, I will instead teach them something else that will earn them a decent living. This is my dream. Children are my passion,” she says.
Currently, Kukiliza is already training eight deaf girls how to knit sweaters and sew uniforms and T-shirts. This, she says, will position them well especially in light of the increasing number of schools and the population of school-going children.
Unfortunately, Kukiliza does not extend the same love and affection she has for children to men. In fact, she does not like talking about them altogether, including the father of her children.
Even in our interview, she does not refer to him, except when she says: “He wasn’t there when I needed him.”
And when she gets male clients, which is less often, she does not accord them an ear to chit-chat. Not only has she lost respect for them, Kukiliza also finds men increasingly unreliable.
In her parting shot, she advises fellow girls – especially those who turn to men for smartphones, shopping and airtime, among other needs – to strive hard and become self-reliant.
“You may get the care, but don’t count on it as lasting. Men, like some women, are cunning creatures. The only certain way to be on the safer side is making your own money and buying your own things,” she says.
A big fan of Rema Namakula and Iryn Namubiru, Kukiliza singles out her mother as her role model. She argues that when her father Dan Sserwadda passed on, her mother faced the almost impossible task of fending for the seven children singlehandedly.
“And for the sake of emphasis, I wish to stress that we never lacked a thing while growing up. That is how I want my children to grow up – with everything they need,” she says.
The fifth born of seven attended Mbarara Preparatory School and Masaka secondary school for primary and secondary education respectively. At age 19, she started her fashion business. Kukiliza is a mother of six-year-old Brian and five-year-old Bilham.