JENNIFER SSEMAKULA MUSISI is the executive director of Kampala Capital City Authority. While many view her as a tough iron lady, she says she is a very jovial lady. She shared this and more of her life story with Simon Kasyate on Capital FM’s Desert Island Discs programme.
Thank you for gracing us with your presence...Who is Jennifer Musisi? When, where and to whom was she born?
My name is Jennifer Ssemakula Musisi; although most people think that one of them should be my maiden name, both are my husband’s names. I was born and grew up mostly in Kampala.
I have worked in Kampala; I am still here. Both my parents were born just on the peripheries of what is capital city authority’s jurisdiction. So, I was majorly raised in the city. My mother was a public servant. My father was a businessperson.
Just paint a picture for us of that household where you were born; what kind of parents you had, the siblings…
I grew up with my mother. My father was alive, though. My mother was, as I said, a civil servant. We were living in Nakasero. She was a very disciplined lady, very strict and hardworking. So, she is one of those who never spared the rod, not that she had to use it a lot on me. I was also a disciplined child.
I think because of her influence and perhaps part of my nature, I always wanted to excel. So, right from primary school, I have always been in positions of leadership. I have been class monitor, a prefect, deputy head prefect, head prefect…I actually had to turn down opportunities to lead at certain points. Like at campus, I didn’t want to get involved in campus leadership. But I have always been pushed into leadership, many times without my volunteering.
Are you the last born…?
Nooo. I am actually the second last born of five. I have two sisters and two brothers, one is deceased.
Which schools did you go to?
I went to Shimoni primary school, which has now since been demolished. I had a stint in Tororo Girls and then went to King’s College Budo, and then went to Makerere University. After Makerere, I did my LDC and after that I did many, many programmes in different universities.
I have done several programmes in Harvard University (Law school and Business school), George Washington University and a whole host of capacity building programmes in tax administration, alternate dispute resolution, negotiation... I really thank God because a lot of those have put me in a position where I can handle a lot of different things…
Back to primary school, were you this disciplined and quiet girl…?
Hahah, I was definitely not quiet. I was talkative, friendly. People sort of congregated around me. I was also very ambitious from the start. A lot of this ambition came from the desire to make my mother happy. She was struggling to put us through school as a single mom. I wanted her to be proud of her investment.
So, I went to primary school without doing nursery school, which was unusual at that time. When I went to P1, I hardly knew any English. I dint have the background that other kids did. The only person who taught me some English was my grandfather. He was a civil engineer, very exposed.
As his favorite grandchild, he would sit me down and teach me the basics of English. By the end of the term, I could speak fluent English and by the end of the year, I was top of the class. And I was top of the class almost throughout, except on a few instances where I would be second or third and my mother would get very upset. So, I would work hard to bounce back.
Plays Survivor by Judith Babirye
Jennifer, what did you actually dream you would become?
Actually I dreamt that I would be a professional baker, cook or chef… I just loved anything to do with the kitchen, to try out lots of recipes. By the time I was in P3, I was baking and cooking. So, I dreamt of being this person with very successful restaurants and pastry business…
For those that know you very well, they know that you have lived that dream.
Yeah, I cook a lot; it’s like therapy – walking out of this crazy office and go home to cook. I create recipes. When I have the time, I like entertaining people, I invite people over and I can do Chinese cuisine, Indian cuisine, Baganda cuisine and a lot of things in-between.
How do you manage to run Kampala and at the same time bake and cook for your people?
I don’t cook every day. When I cook, I cook over the weekends. I had to make a decision on what the most important things in my life were; that is my family, my job and my God.
In that order?
First of all God, then my family then my job. So, I looked at all the things I have to do, I looked at the priorities and took out the priorities of those priorities, which are those three. So, on weekends it is my time, my time to do things that I want to do, that I have to do…That is the time that I have; otherwise you don’t have a life.
You wake up so early. Many times I am up by 3am, spend time praying and reading the Bible, then I start working. So, I would be doing my emails, sending WhatsApp messages, reading through documents at those really wee hours of the day. And get ready to be in office. I am usually in office by 6:30am latest, to start my day so that I have time before those crazy programmes that start at 8am. So, that has been my routine for the past five years.
How do you manage to stay fit?
I exercise when I can. I used to do a lot of walking and jogging. I could actually jog eight to ten kilometres on a Saturday but now I don’t jog for a lot of other reasons, except on a treadmill… I don’t exercise as much as I should.
Doesn’t that bother you?
It does; because I reach a time and my body tells me you are too tired, you need to take a break. I don’t do diets. I eat when I need to eat, which isn’t very often. I am very finicky about food; so, I don’t eat as much as I should.
If I were to host you, what food should I prepare?
Chappati, fresh fruit juice except passion fruit. Kalo with groundnuts.
Let’s get down to your earlier years...
Those days also, depending on where you had strengths, you ended up in certain courses. If you were good in arts, you ended up in law. If you were good in sciences, you ended up in engineering or medicine.
If you do well in arts, you are doomed, you become a lawyer. And then you have your mother saying, you have to be a lawyer. We need a lawyer in the family. I ended up in law school.
You were living in Nakasero and a decision is made that you go to Tororo: why so?
Because I was so tired of being closeted under my mom’s wing. I wanted adventure, to get out and see what is there outside Kampala. What is it like to be independent in a boarding school?
Plays Bless The Lord by Matt Redman
You were a leader almost in every school: what was your leadership style like?
Depending on the circumstances, there has to be discipline if you are going to make any progress, whether at home, school or the city. There has to be some acceptable levels of conduct for the good of everybody else. That is it. And if we understand, accept and implement those minimum levels, everybody is happy.
The challenge with me is that I am a very black-and-white person. It’s very hard for me to operate in the grey. If something is wrong, it is wrong; if something is right, it is right. So, I am very truthful in my opinions and I don’t really care whether you agree with them or not, I will tell you. I don’t want to be nice at the cost of not telling the truth. I want the truth to be told in a nice way as much as I can.
For example, if I am not going to do something, I will not tell you that I am still thinking about it, or perhaps or maybe…for example, people flip and they say, maybe he has a baby and in Luganda they say mukakulike (congratulations!) And in Luganda, they reply that mwebale kutusabira (thank you for your prayers).
People say they are sick and the response is katukusabire (let us pray for you). If I am not going to pray, I will not say it; I will say something else. If I say I will pray for you, I will make sure. In fact in order not to forget, I pray in my mind right there and then. That is how I have always been. Like if people ask me how are you doing, how are things? I will either say how things are, which sometimes is shocking for people, or I would not say anything.
The president has entrusted you with responsibility to run the city: have you ever spoken the truth to him in the sense of saying I speak truth to power?
Many, many times. Many, many times. And I think he said many times that I am one of those few people who tell him the truth as it is. I will tell him the truth and leave him with it. He is in position to deal with it.
He has asked for my opinion many times and I have given him my truthful opinion even though it has differed from his opinion. But also he said before that a lot of people don’t tell him the truth. I think they tell him what they think he wants to hear or they hold back but I think that especially now that we are technical people in government, I think we have a duty to tell the truth…
How do you feel when you are referred to as Nankulu. To me it doesn’t sound complimentary.
I think behind my back, at least in Budo, they used to call me iron lady. It is not a new thing. But also I had a lot of friends. Because outside your regular job, you make friends. I laugh a lot.
I have a big sense of humor, contrary to what people think. So, I have friends who are forever sharing jokes on social media; I always like a good laugh. Sometimes I laugh so much, you come out of a meeting or a press conference and everyone is saying ‘ohh Jennifer, she is tough!’
I go to my office and I just burst out and laugh and say I wish they knew. I throw my legs on a stool and relax and I say I wish they knew. So, life is not that serious. Sometimes you need to calm down and relax.
How did you react when you left the dictatorship of secondary schools and joined the university where things are a little independent?
Fortunately, in my background, when I was in Budo in senior five, I committed my life to God. I became a born-again Christian. So, my life really changed and reformed. By the time I went to university, I had no desire to get wild or do a lot of things that girls and boys of my age did at university. I was very disciplined. I would spend a lot of time in church. I was part of a gospel music group.
You can sing?
Yes, I can sing. I am actually gifted in a lot of ways. I am a very good artist. I can paint. I do hand stuff. I like sowing, doing tapestry art, where you sow a picture you haven’t seen… It’s called counted cross stitch, it is an American style. So, I do a lot of that, in-between reading...I have never been in a nightclub.
Maybe you should, since you manage a city full of nightclubs?
Yeaah. But it is scary. I like dancing. In my free time I dance. But not in a nightclub. At a party, at home.
Plays Kalibattanya by Juliana Kanyomozi (she my favorite secular musician).
As you leave university, you begin to appreciate the opposite sex…
I went through that, like everybody does. But within the context of my faith, there are limitations. For example, you have a lot of male friends that are part of fellowship, part of the wider body of the church. You also have a lot of lady friends. And we do a lot of activities together, openly.
You do parties, picnics, have fun. So, that helps you to stay in a setting where you are not drawn into casual sex, for example. But also in a way we were taught, discipline, no pre-marital sex, no getting drunk, don’t do drugs. That helped a lot, not saying that you don’t get tempted. You say supposing I did this, but then you get scared of Hell’s fire.
KCCA, you have been here five years: looking back, what are you proud of?
I am proud of what we have been able to achieve because it is so much, it is so much. Recently, we were doping a thanksgiving and we were going over the highlights of what we had done…people talk about infrastructure but that is just one sector.
There is public health, institutional development, governance, institutional accountability, revenue performance, people whose lives we have impacted, the training centres we have set up, the agricultural resource centre, the concrete yard, solar lighting projects, the train services (that is a miracle after decades, we have 3,000 people using it [train] every day).
People tend to mute those [achievements] as they talk about the challenges but for us who have worked to get here, we are very grateful to God…that makes me happy and feel I have made positive influence. For Kampala to be rated the best city in East Africa, that is not a mean feat. And internationally, the 16th in Africa.
That is no mean feat; Kampala?! It is a big achievement and we want to keep it there. To be accredited by the World Bank for our performance, revenue management , for having electronic revenue management systems, now people pay taxes on their mobile phones. Things like that were a dream in the beginning. The auditor general giving us a clean bill for two years, unqualified opinion.
It gives us confidence that what we are doing is good…I feel a very big need to take this city to where cities are supposed to be. Actually what we have done in the last five years are basics – roads, lighting, cleanliness should be a given in any normal city. Garbage collections should be a given. But because performance was a challenge when we came in, people look at these things as luxuries or privileges. It is not a privilege to have good roads.
What about the politics?
The politics, unfortunately, has been disruptive. But probably because of the fact that we are implementing a new law and people come in with expectations based on what was, in terms of governance, control and who reports to who and what happens when; and when we come in with a new law which changes that, then I think it has been a challenge for the politicians to appreciate and understand.
But also, they may have other reasons which I don’t have in black and white… The other thing is personal interest. When we came in, a lot of properties, revenue collections, the contract awards had been personalized by connected people in whichever direction. So, what we have been doing in the past years is trying to bring back systems.
In the process of, say, recovering land which was taken by someone connected, those people are not happy. They happen to be politicians, rich people in the city, benefactors of whoever; but we thought it was the right thing to do. Our asset value now has grown; we found it at Shs 46bn in the books. It is now over Shs 670bn, but that is properties we have recovered or bought, properties that were hanging there with people that don’t actually own them.
Do you sometimes feel unsafe?
Yes. I sometimes feel unsafe. Because if you are treading on interests of some of these people, they threaten you. But as time goes on, you begin to get used to it. You feel like this is part of the job, because you can’t make everybody happy. But also God has total control over my life.
Plays Favor by Judith Babirye
How do get to pick your clothes?
I shop, especially when I am out of Uganda. I want to walk into a shop incognito, by myself, try on stuff, pay for it… my husband usually comes with a good book [to read as I shop] and says when you are done, find me here.
What styles do you like?
I don’t like office suits; that is why you never see me in them. I like simple colours.
Are you a person fascinated by jewelry?
I don’t want to look like a Christmas tree. I wear jewelry when I have to. I love calm…
What of shoes?
I love shoes. I buy a lot of shoes. I end up giving away a lot of them without even wearing them. Because I sort of zero in on wearing a few pairs that I really like… actually the first thing I notice about men is their shoes, and that gives me an opinion about them.
What angers you, Jennifer?
Unfairness… It saddens me if people misunderstand me, because I am not a person who wants to cause grief or discomfort or pain on purpose. But sometimes the things we do end up causing people grief, then people begin thinking you don’t like them.
There are actually a few people I don’t like, if any. I have no people I call enemies, but there may be people out there who think I am their enemy.
I want to believe you are a mother?
I am a mother of several children.
Do you stop to think of something unfulfilled in your life?
First of all, I don’t want people to think I am perfect. I have made my mistakes. There are things I wish I hadn’t done. But I always go back to God and repent… but I wish I had the freedom to live a normal life like other people do.
I wish I was any other Jennifer… and go to a party without disrupting the MC’s speech; people are cheering you as you enter a supermarket…it’s good but also intrusive. That is why I say I am only free when I am outside Uganda...
If you were marooned on a desert island and asked to carry one person or one thing, who or what would you go with?
I would bring my husband and my Bible, and hopefully my iPad.
Plays Sabisanira by Herbert Twina
This song is about how this young man is today and where he was then; and this reflects my life. A lot of things that God has enabled me to reach. I know I am not a super person or so intelligent, it’s really by the grace of God and with the help of a lot of people like my mom, and friends…that is why I am not a proud person.
I am very aware of that but for the grace of God, I would probably be someone’s maid, or some woman struggling in the village with sick children and no medicine and no money, or some beggar on the street…. I try to enjoy the moment though I don’t like the publicity so much, though it comes with the territory.
I have been acknowledged, appreciation, not just in Uganda but even outside…perhaps the fact that I can encourage other people to also do their best no matter what the circumstances are. So, sabisanira (I don’t deserve this), just the grace of God.
TRANSCRIPT BY JOSEPH KIMBOWA