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How Geraldine Ssali landed into big NSSF office

Geraldine Ssali Busuulwa

Geraldine SSALI BUSUULWA is the deputy managing director of the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). She shared her story with Simon Kasyate on Capital FM’s Desert Island Discs show.

Good evening and welcome to desert Island Discs.
Thank you very much.

Who is Geraldine? When, where and to whom was she born?

Okay, Simon you know I am a woman and I am nothing exceptional on my age. Not even my husband knows my age. He can only when I am on my deathbed and he has to sign on my consent form. But it’s an approximation and it’s between 30 and 30, and it will remain that way for the next 10 years. So, let us keep it a mystery.

I was born in Lubaga hospital to Agnes Ssali and Gerald Ssali; they are both Catholics. Our village is in Masaka, and I am proud to say that; but I was raised in Namungoona just after Kasubi tombs.

How was your childhood?

My childhood was full of hard work. I must say my mother was a very tough cookie; she has very tough love which you will only appreciate when you grow up. My father was also always very strict. Any expenditure was in relation to education and health – anything else was a luxury.

So, if you wanted a textbook, that one you would get, but if you wanted to do things like hair, buy new shoes, you needed to say I am now getting a chemistry book part three. You can go to part three up to part eighteen but it still remains a chemistry book and that is the only expenditure he understood, then you could do your hair and do your shoes.

How many children were you?

My mother gave birth to nine of us; I am number five but I lost a brother and a sister. As far as my family is concerned, I am still the Geraldine Ssali: they do not see me as an MD of sorts. They still maintain my position, as you need to stay in line. If I became a nuisance, they tell me off straight without any hesitation and probably lock me out of the house.

Which school did you go to?

The famous Buganda Road PS.  But I am telling you when I go passing over Buganda Road today, my heart falls.

I am very disheartened by the state of the school and I am wondering if the current product might turn out to be as fine as we are, but I am hoping that at some point they will find a ground where we are breeding the future leaders to a standard that is desirable for a country.

Plays Talanta Yange by Elly Wamala

Did you have a sense of career guidance from your peers or your parents on what exactly you wanted to be?

Oh, my father is the most precise person on career guidance and I really thank him for that. I remember when I was at Gayaza HS in S4, there was an arts competition and I was very good in Art and I had that passion for art. I was the second best in the whole country and I got a prize.

I knew that, now art is my destiny. Then I went to a career talk and we were given our reports and our parents were asked to give guidance.  My father – he is this kind of a person who first convinces you – told me: “Let’s first go to Makerere and I will show you the art pieces these guys do.” I saw they were the best art pieces. And he said: “Look at his shoe as well.”

And I don’t want to mention the names of the principals at that time but he said to me that they were the poorest people.

“Unfortunately, Uganda doesn’t recognize talent that way unless you go to London and do pieces which are going to be auctioned.” So, he said to me: “Unless you are at that level of London which will take you like millions and millions of years – and your predecessors have not yet got there – your quickest route is going to be in accounts.” He is an accountant himself.

“If you want passion, follow it after you have succeeded in your main career; then you do it as a hobby that is going to be your art: go and paint pictures when you have retired, that is after you have made money. I have not told you to give it up completely, but postpone it.” 

But I tell you I have a drawing of a skull of a goat at the library of Gayaza HS.


A career in accounting, were you good in subjects that require you to do accounting?

I happened to be good at Mathematics because: I got [distinction] one at P7 , then I got [distinction] one again in S4 so that is the best subject. So, he said to me “once you have got the ingredient, you just need to point them towards the right direction.”

But if I spoke to the headmistress of Gayaza HS around the time when you were there, how would she describe you, or how would you describe yourself?

You know I wasn’t like the best in class but neither was I the last. I was near to successful students like your number five out of 40, but I believe that is what an all-rounder takes. But I know there was sometime where she believed I had caused a lot of insurgency but she never caught me.

So, which strike did you lead?

[Laughs] No, no! You know there was always a group of students not turning up to class and a moment the roll call is done I am there.

But the rest of my colleagues who think that I am with them, they look around and I am not [with them]; I am in the class. So, actually the teachers and the prefects never got an opportunity to catch me, because I always knew when to jump out.

You’re talking about prefects, which means you were never one of them?

When I went for S5 at the same school, I was the council chairperson; so, I never got any punishment at all. I never stood in the punishment tree even once but somehow I was the kind of person who would say [for instance], ‘let’s do this’; but you know, you just tell people and they just run in without even thinking of the outcome.

If you were addressed a letter, say a character is from St Mary’s College Kisubi, and it is dropped to your desk and you do not know the character, what would you do?

These are things I would never respond to; a character that I even didn’t know, I would just tear up the letter; it wouldn’t even waste my time. I was actually a big girl – you know girls mature very fast – it was very difficult to impress me. I am sorry to say but Gayaza girls will always have these airs around them.

At that school, I was not a born-again. I would attend the church and do everything but I remained a Roman Catholic and you know we Catholics, we drink wine but you remain who you are. Even in my [final] year, we were three of us who never became born- again even though we used to pray and sing the nice songs. We joined the choir; we respected the religion but the sign of the cross was always there with me.

Plays Nkuumira Omukwano by Aziz Azion

Where did you go after Gayaza High School?

I found myself in Makerere University and you know sometimes we take these things for granted; there is certain part of life you will never know.

You think that everybody goes through nursery school, goes to primary then secondary school and automatically goes to Makerere University; but you don’t realize how narrow the top is becoming when you get there.

How did you find Makerere with its unprecedented freedom?

For some strange reason, my parents always loved music and they wanted to be entertained. So, at home, we are always dancing for money and we always played music and my mother always allowed us to go out and she provided us with transport. But if you went and you were irresponsible, you would get a beating. We had these Makerere guild parties.

They allowed us that degree of freedom that killed your curiosity completely. So, I can stay at home and be allowed to drink a glass of wine and my father is sitting behind reading his newspaper.

You see this studio here when you go to my father’s house, you will find it there with all the music equipment. He was creating a balanced individual. So, by the time I went to Makerere and people were getting excited about the music, I had seen it all. I could actually do turntables; I had a laptop loaded with all sorts of music.

How do your parents treat your children, are they spoiling them or they treat them as they treated you?

I have children but they were taken away from me by my mother. I attempted to retrieve my daughter for one week one time, I think my mother got a bit of diabetes and I said let me pick my daughter so that my mother can rest. But my father called me after three days and said:

“If you want peace, just bring back that child because your mother is not happy.” Absence of my daughter in their house had caused sadness, I packed her up and took her back; I have never been allowed to get her back. I actually go and visit. They are very spoilt and that is what grandparents do. My daughter now sounds like my mother; she knows how to tell me: “Geraldine, leeta amata! Yanguya!” [Geraldine, bring the milk; hurry!]

Plays Haturudi Nyuma by Juliana Kanyomozi

Geraldine, what followed after Makerere?

I left Uganda the week after my graduation; I went and tried out life in London. In Uganda, URA turned me down; I went to Electoral Commission, they had no jobs there. While I was looking for jobs, my brother told me:

“You know, Geraldine, don’t even waste your time; there is a very good course which I had wanted to do myself but since I am doing another one, you come and start on this one.” It’s called CIMA [the Chartered Institute of Management Accounts] and it marries very well with the course you have been doing; so, you will get exemptions and this is where the world is going.”

So, I flew to London and he booked me into his place of work; so, I started working in the accounts section. I had never worked before and then I realized at that moment the way the world was growing. I should have studied at Makerere University while working – IfI could turn back time.

I used to see people working while studying at Makerere University… Work while studying! Don’t think you are going to succeed because you are applying 100 per cent of your time reading books. Avery successful individual will multitask.

Somebody was telling me that even Sudhir has 24 hours like everybody but he has achieved more. I went through this CIMA programme, I became an associate and before I knew it, I was going for a master’s degree which I could actually get easily because I had CIMA and you could only do a thesis.

But my father said: “No, actually you have to go for the real thing at Manchester. Do it all.” Before I knew, it was so expensive but somehow I managed to pay my way; my employers also helped me to finish this course.

How did you meet your husband?

I met my husband Victor Francis Busuulwa in London but I had met him here before because his mother and my mother were very close friends – actually his mother made my mother’s wedding gown. She used to make our baptism clothes. I remember seeing him when I went to collect confirmation results at Uganda House; he was just behind the counter and I said, ‘this man looks nice’.

It was just a thought and he never came into my mind and I even didn’t see him again. But he used to hang out with my brothers.  When I met him in London, I said: “You Victor how are you.” So, when we started talking, he just said to me so funny things. You know, I don’t like being very serious with love; it puts me off when someone gets into serious love, he scares me off. 

So with him, he was like ‘I am looking for someone who will cook for me’, but I didn’t take it serious. One day, I was looking for a car to buy and so, we went together outside the city. When you go outside London, there are many horses which people often use. He told me to leave the car so he could buy me a horse because it does not use fuel – it is cheap.

I just loved him because of his humor, he didn’t try to impress me; he was just himself.

How did you get into NSSF?

Well, after my graduation again in London, I started applying for jobs in Uganda. I first applied to the East African Community; I applied to the auditor general’s office, to NSSF. I applied for about seven jobs which I used to see on the internet and nobody responded.

But I had started a little scheme with my father and I wanted to open maybe a restaurant or something else just to get me started. My father said: “You come back, you will not fail to get something.” As I did the application, I learnt that the jobs were still open and they were still doing the interviews. I came home and after three months I was called by NSSF to do an interview.

I didn’t know even where the NSSF building was; my husband took me there.When we reached there, they said: “We don’t have jobs for junior staffs but we have only jobs for MD [managing director], DMD [deputy managing director] and CS [company secretary].
 

I said those are the ones I applied for. And the head of human resources couldn’t believe it. She asked for my name and said that the name was on our shortlist. She asked if I was the one with that CV and I answered in the affirmative. At that time I think you look unserious when you’re just on a holiday and when I got the chance to do an interview and I came in a suit, she couldn’t believe that I was the one.

When I got the job, she went back and told her people: “Guess what, the girl who was here in jeans is the one who got it.” They couldn’t believe it. She had called me before and told me that there was another job of head of investments which she encouraged me to try. I had given her my CV. She asked me for my pictures and they said: “But she is young. Is she going to manage?” But they entrusted me with the responsibility; and again, it is the theme of “you have to be responsible” regardless of your age.

Plays In Harm’s Way by Bebe Winans

 

If I must get you really angry, what could I have possibly said to you or done to you?

I think the thing that gets me angry is someone who would lie to me and think that they are too smart [and can] get away with it: that would be undermining my capabilities and intellectual capacity. But there are some petty liars and white-lies – those ones I let go – but where it is very critical and undermines my persona you will always feel my full wrath. That means I cannot work with you.

But if I want to get the opposite of your full wrath what would I have to say or do to you?

I like people who are very efficient and deliver results at all times and consistently. I like high performers, people with all round character; yes you are a performer but you are funny; that really excites me about people. People who have got qualities and values at all the time and they are rich at heart all the time.

Of all the people you have met, how many would you say fall in that category?

Not so many… I think people get to know your character, they don’t want to be judged; so, somehow they stay clear. I will use this example of the former prime minister [Apolo Nsibambi]. People got to know he was always straightforward. So, if you’re not that kind of person, you don’t even bother to have a conversation with him.

It is the theme of self- branding. I brand myself in such a way that only people who mean to have a meaningful conversation come; those who mean to have laughter come because they know I am good at laughing.

Which type of food do you like?

I love my traditional food smoked fish absolutely. And I also love “binyebwa” [groundnut sauce] but I also love shrimps, crab-fish and that one is for my acquired taste.

How do you relax?

Most of the time, I always go home and spend a lot of time playing with my kids. Music is always part of me and I always listen to music and I like to have good laughs with my siblings.

Then my husband – he is just the killer – sometimes he makes me laugh and I crawl across the floor in my bedroom and I can’t get up. I also meet a lot of friends for lunches, dinners and many of them… I inspire and mentor them.

Do you actually save other than with NSSF?

I do have a small saving scheme that I left in London running because you know when you save money there and also your national insurance, you do not claim it until you are old. I also have a small savings account here in Uganda and I encourage other people to save. Actually I don’t keep that money on a savings account; I moved it to fixed deposit.

How do you feel when a guy walks into the boardroom putting on a suit with labels?

When I see a guy putting on a suit with his labels on, what comes into my mind first is that he is Congolese. I am obviously thinking that he is not refined but if you knew better, you would not move with your labels. But not judging people physically; the matter is more in what they say than how they are dressed.

As one of the few women in the boardrooms, is it that rough for women in boardrooms in Uganda?

I think to a greater extent, it is because in the very beginning when I got my job, I was judged by my age. But Uganda is embracing more women; they are somehow moving past the age thing and the gender thing and maybe the tribe thing also. It is really about what you bring to the table.

If you were marooned on a desert island but you were given an opportunity to take with you one item or one individual, what or who could that be?

I wound take my husband with me because even in the saddest moments, he will crack a joke and every worry that you have, he will take it away. But he can also be a very annoying person you would want to kill; that person with that combination, nobody will know that I have killed him. But I would leave him breathing to crack the next joke.

Plays Canto Della Terra [The Mighty Sun] by Andrea Bocelli.
skasyate@gmail.com

TRANSCRIPT: KAKOOZA BUKURI & SAMUEL KAMUGISHA

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