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Eng Kiggundu talks brewing kwete and lucky life

Badru Kiggundu

ENGINEER BADRU KIGGUNDU has been the chairman of the electoral commission since 2002.

He was associate professor, head of Civil Engineering department and later dean of faculty of Technology at Makerere University. He talked to Simon Kasyate on Capital FM’s Desert Island Discs programme about his life story.

Good evening and welcome to the show, professor, ohh sorry, doctor?

Even that is mine. But I am a humble servant…Fine thank you. Trying to stay best up with the law and the [EC] roadmap. Roadmaps are not static, they are dynamic because the environments change, one of which is the legal framework. If it changes, you just have to respond dynamically.
Our listeners know you as the EC chairperson: but beyond that, we want to know who you are, when you were born, where and to whom.

Ohhh, I am a very young person. I was born on January 1, 1945. I was born in Nkozi hospital; my mother at that time had had problems with deliveries. It was luck that I made it through. Both my parents are deceased.

My mother is the late Hajati Yunia Kabugo. My father is late Hajji Yunus K A Luswa. Both lie here in Kikajjo where my grandparent, the late Sulaiman Kiwanuka, laid out a piece of land for family burials. When I was born, my father was staying in Butambala, in Waluluma.

How many siblings are you?

From my very mother, we are three surviving ones. My youngest is a sister, a midwife; she has served Mulago hospital for over 30 years and retired... My brother, the eldest, Hajji Sulaiman Kiwanuka, is an engineer; he lives in Mutundwe.

My father, by the time he passed away, had 23 surviving children. So, I have other brothers and sisters. And for us we don’t have these things of half-brothers of sisters. We are all siblings. We are all united.

Badru, paint for us a picture how your homestead and childhood was like back in Butambala.

First of all my grandpa happened to have been holding a particular position in Buganda kingdom. So, either through him or through influence, my father was appointed a parish clerk (owomuluka) in a place called Kitayita in Busiro county, current Wakiso district.

So, we moved to that place. I was very young. At the age of five to six, I was taken to a primary school. It was the first time away from my father’s household, about six miles away and I was staying with a brother, who has also left this earth.

I spent only one year there because the conditions were not favourable; but I still thank my elder brother for having exposed me, in the early days, to education circles. From there, I was moved to Kabasanda, which was in Mpigi district but now in Butambala district. I attended primary up to P6 at Kabasanda primary school.

I was then staying partly with my uncle (we don’t have this uncle business in Africa; so, he was my younger father) who was an assistant county chief. I stayed two years with him and he was promoted to county administrator in Kalangala islands. I was left to be hosted by another relative, who wasn’t of the same creed as us.

Therefore, that is how I leant to brew some kwete and malwa [local brew]. I have gone through that, but I have never tasted. Even mwenge bigere, I used to jump into those boats as a young man but after about two years with her, I got fed up and I talked to my father. I was then staying there with my other elder brother.

So, we were moved from Kabasanda residentially to another family, grandparents but not immediate, in a place called Magoogwa in Busujju, which was about five miles away from Kabasanda. We used to walk on foot to and from Kabasanda to study until we finished.

We had also so many chores, we had to carry water on heads, do some food collection, digging. Then in the night, though so tired, we had to read, use some candle lights. But all that I think was grooming us to be very enduring. I always cherish that background; it made me what I am.

Choses a song welcoming migrants from Mecca [Kiggundu went to Mecca in 2005 and would like to go back one day]

Did this movement from home to home ever make you feel that it denied you of parental love?

I was fortunate and I want to thank Allah for that. Literally, every home I stayed in, I was loved. I had a unique development when I was finishing primary six. There was a particular family and I loved them so much.

It was of the late Hajji Abas Bamulanzeki from Mpigi who picked me and adopted me as his own child. He picked me on three grounds. At the end of the year, there was always a parents teachers’ meeting where children would demonstrate what they have been doing and so forth. That happened to have been my final year.

At the end of the function, the headmaster started calling out names of kids for various prizes. I was called out for three achievements. Number one, the best behaved. Number two, the best at attending religious training and number three, I was the best academically in that year.

When that announcement was done, here is a parent in the audience... He put up his hand and said: ‘I, Hajji Abas Bamulanzeki, have taken pride in what has been read about that child; I want to make a public proclamation. From today on, I am taking him on as one of my sons, among my children and I will join hands with his natural parents to educate him.

And he can come and become part of family in my house, take holidays there and be known by his fellow children.’

It happened that very holiday. I went there and I was warmly embraced by that father, brothers and mothers who were in that home loved me so well. From then on, up until I finished secondary school, there was no single term that I never benefitted from him, financially, love.

Talking about secondary school, which school did you go to?

I went to Kibuli secondary school.

At that point, did you have an idea of what you wanted to be in life?

The idea started cropping when I came close to the completion of secondary school and I was looking at my performance. I was very good in sciences and not very good in arts.

Before I finished O-level, some of my teachers were Americans and I happened to be one of the children, about four, who were picked for potential scholarship to the United States.

You are such a lucky guy!

I salute Allah. I am not the type of person who would like to injure or anger anyone. I don’t believe I have any enemy because I am not responsible for the creation of anybody; it’s only Allah who creates. So, I think I owe my relationship to literally everybody.

So, this scholarship?

There were tests which were conducted at Makerere University by an institution from the US. We were not the only four kids from here. There were others from other secondary schools. 

Later, the O-level exams, which were marked from the UK, also came back, because those were the Cambridge days. I had passed. I was number one from the class of 1964. I got an A-level scholarship in Nabumali while we were still waiting for the nomination to US. And while I was in Nabumali, somewhere around May, I got communication that I had passed the exams for the scholarship.

I was puzzled…I had some British teachers in Nabumali whom I consulted. I consulted one of them and his first piece of advice was: “take the American scholarship”…

The scholarship had conditions: you must pick a profession that is not taught in East Africa at the time (because we had Makerere, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam universities)…I wanted to be either a medical doctor or an engineer. I chose engineering, it was not available here. I was taken up. In July of that year, I flew out of the country.

Plays Obululu Tebutwawula by Bobi Wine

Back to school days, did you ever participate in politics?

Not really, maybe I was too serious a student. That has kept me out of trouble. I don’t believe in kunaawula ntalo [warring], I believe in people sitting on roundtables and discuss issues that may seem to divide them, but come to a solution. But I became a prefect in Kibuli SS for Kakungulu house.

Did you participate in an election or...?

Those days it was by appointment. So, the teachers would select you on the basis of what they see in you and I became appointed.

You learn that you have been awarded a scholarship in America: how did you break the news to the family?

I was staying with my immediate elder brother. He was the first one to get the news and he was so happy. He called me from Nabumali and he said what you have been struggling for has come through. I was really happy.

I came back and we had to organize a sendoff ceremony at my brother’s house…we probably had 200 members at his house for the ceremony, led by religious leaders to send me off. As equal as those many people escorted me to Entebbe. Time came to board. This was a huge, about 200-seater, plane but we were only about 16 students from Uganda.

Do you remember the plane?

World Airways. It was a chartered one.  We flew from Entebbe to Nairobi. The intention was to collect the other African students who had been successful also. We got about 45 students from Nairobi. We flew to Lagos and collected another bunch of students, at that time, it was almost filling up.

Then we flew to Dakar, Senegal. By that time it was full. So, we took off from Dakar and were told we were going to fly for six top seven hours across the Atlantic. I said what! Here is a large body of water which I had been reading about in geography; now we are flying across it. I just saluted Allah for the opportunity. We crossed the Atlantic and landed in Boston.

We were loaded on huge buses and taken to a state called Vermont, in a small town called Putney. We were taken there purposely to take us through what American life is. We had orientation for over two weeks. We were staying in hostels but what surprised me was seeing fields of corn all around and I was like this is like Luweero, Lira; they grow maize here as well.

It made us feel at home. After two weeks, they distributed us. My first intermediate destination was Chicago, which was about 1,000 miles away. We went by bus and me and another student from Kenya, Joseph Gaita, we were put on a plane headed for New Mexico, Albuquerque, another 2,000 miles of flight. It looked like a desert.

We got out of the plane and it was hot like hell. I said what! Should I go back to Uganda? Am I going to survive this weather? But then I inside said: what did I come here for? I must be like a warrior. Fortunately, the sponsoring programme, African Sponsorship Programme for American Universities (Aspau), had arranged a scheme of host families and my house family, were living in a town called Los Alamos… this family was waiting for me at the airport and their three children.

The youngest was about five and oldest was about ten. They welcomed me. And said: ohhh this is our Badru we have been waiting for. I called the man Taata and the woman Maama. They took me to a restaurant for my first meal. They had more than 40 dishes and I said now, where do I start? I had to caution them that I don’t eat anything with pork... After a good meal, we drove 100 miles north.

I stayed there for about a month before university started. They took me in as their own child. There was an old lady who was a granny of the children; she became such a great friend of mine. After about a month, they brought me back to Albuquerque and I stayed in the dormitories for the first time because I had no experience to stay outside on my own.

We used to share rooms and I shared with one American (white), Michael, who became a brother to me because he took me in so well, he took me to his parents who were living in Santa Fe in new Mexico, about 60 miles north. As years went by, we parted with Michael because he went to a different field of study.

He had wanted to be an engineer but never made it.  So, I went to engineering. Second year, I moved out of the dormitory. I stayed on my own, sharing an apartment with a Nigerian. We stayed together until I graduated.

Being a Muslim, you must have been different. How were you treated?

I am not a radical Muslim. (They only knew I was a Muslim by my name). They didn’t even know what a Muslim does… They all liked me. I had a lot of prizes, plaques which I still have in my house.

Eng Badru Kiggundu shaking hands with President Museveni after his nomination for next year's elections

Let’s look at your social interactions: how were your levels of indulgence?

I think the background matters. Where you come from, the family structure, the upbringing is very important. I know some kids who got spoilt when they got there. They never made it. You have to be objective. You have to be an achiever. It was always a checkpoint in my heart. How will I go home and show no success product?

Plays Maama by Judith Babirye

When you graduate as an engineer, did your parents get a chance to come for your graduation ceremony?

No. The hullaballoo we see here of big, big ceremonies is not the usual thing in developed countries. I walked in, got my certificate, and if I had some 20 dollars, I would sit back and buy some soda… My American father came on graduation day and took me for dinner. But this business of 300 people, money you have not earned yourself, no! It is painful. 

After graduation, where does life take you?

As soon as I finished my first degree, I had an opportunity to get a scholarship to do my master’s at the same university. Right after I had accepted, then I got another Fulbright scholarship to go to Carnegie-Mellon University to do my master’s.

I had to sit down with my head of department for counseling. His mature advice was it is best you get a second degree from another university. So, I left and went to Carnegie-Mellon and finished my master’s in one year.

I earned an opportunity for PhD from that same university but someone who was an advisor of Ugandan students at the embassy refused my continued stay. We argued. Government was not spending a single penny on me…He said ‘you have been here for long. Go and make some contributions at home’.

But he was right…

Yes. But these opportunities don’t come too many times. My professor, who had given me the scholarship said don’t worry you go. After two years, you can come back and I will still give it to you.

So, I came back and I took on employment with National Housing. I worked there from 1971 to 1977. I was head of the road construction unit and over the years I still yearned to go back but management would say we have nobody to take over your responsibilities.  Eventually in 77, I said I must go.

Away from the academic path, your social life...

I got married in 1973.

Did you meet your wife here when you returned?

When I came back, I found what I had left as a very young lady from a respectable family was already in the working environment. I had known her brothers before, we had gone to school with her brothers and we were friends.

So, my oldest children were born by her. After that family setting, I got a scholarship to go back and do my PhD. This time [sponsored] by National Housing. That was 1977.

Which means you had been part of these housing units in the country?
One of my first units was in Lira. I was put in charge of reconstructing Lira-Soroti road. I put my base camp at Agwata. I am a native there. I also worked at Karuma-Anaka-Pakwach road.

Here in central, I did Kampala-Bombo road, Mityana-Mubende road. In the west, Mbarara-Ntungamo, Mbarara-Kasese. I was all over the country.

So, when I came back from my PhD, I joined Makerere and taught a good number of engineers and I am proud of that. I came purposely to ensure that I share my knowledge with young Ugandans and many of them are doing a good job where they are.

Plays This World Is Not My Home, Jim Reeves.

Engineer, do you ever get stressed or depressed?

I must thank Allah because I think I have a self-cleansing mechanism in my body. I forgive easily. There is a saying in Luganda: “emirembe ngalo” because variables continue changing but you, as a human being, how do you change with those variables?

If I were to host you for a meal, what would be your best dish?

I am very selective these days because I love cooking for myself; and my wives do the cooking… I like a dish of matooke, supported by a bit of pilau, some chapatti, I like chicken in different forms. I like fish and I eat less meat now.

How many children are you blessed with?

I thank Allah I have ten healthy children of all ages.

How did you move from the academic world to the person you are now?

I am a person who believes in transitions. When something calls for me to participate or lead, I like challenges… My first entry was at LC level in 1989. That time, I had just come back to this country when I was living in Mutundwe and somehow people came to me and said:  “professor, twagala otukulembele mukino’ (professor, we want you to lead us).

I said: are you sure? They said: yes. I said okay, if you give me the votes. That was my first entry. Nobody contested against me… I was later moved to LC-II and eventually became chairman LC-II for over 10 years in Mutundwe, which I am very proud to have been.

Then a call comes through that you are appointed chairman EC: did you see this coming?

No. It just landed on me. I was outside the country on a university mission… When I came back, I said what! And engineer to get into a position of managing politicians? That is not a profession. Those people believe in 1+1=3. But just like I said earlier, I don’t fear challenges.

Were you friends with President Museveni? Have you asked him why he selected you?

No. But I admire the wisdom of the president, how he picks judges or other chairpersons of commissions. I have never taken trouble to find out.

How do you balance your time of doing this demanding job at EC…?

Allah. The good Lord gave you Kasyate 24 hours in a day and also 24 hours to me, just like to the president of this country…But how we parcel out the application is the gimmick. Actually, if I want to do something, I will find time.

You are now closing in on 14 years at the EC: do you plan to continue serving?

We can’t predict what will come but as long as I have health in me, I will take it on.

Your name is almost always in the newspapers: how does your family feel about it?

I ask them also. But what can they change? I am theirs and they are my people…

If Allah was to banish you to a desert island and He asked you to take one person or thing, who or what would you choose?

My family.

Plays Olunaku Luno by Silver Kyagulanyi

Final word to voters...

My dear brothers and sisters and those who qualify to be parents, I love you all. Personally, I have no enemy. I want to appeal to you to learn to be tolerant of one another.

To learn to be forgiving because none of us is a Messiah. We make mistakes as humans but we should learn out of those errors. If there is any discord, let us sit around the table and discuss and come out with a workable solution. 


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