January 4, 2007
Rhoda Kalema was arrested as 'Museveni sister'

In the seventh part of our series on politicians who have endured imprisonment on account of their political association [or suspicion], MICHAEL MUBANGIZI talks to UPM founder member, former minister and MP RHODA NSIBIRWA KALEMA

My name is Rhoda Nsibirwa Nakibuuka Kalema. I was born in May 1929, in Mengo Butikkiro. My father Martin Luther Nsibirwa had just become Katikkiro of Buganda Kingdom in April. He took his children to good schools then, daughters to Gayaza, boys to King’s College Budo.

In 1933, he started educating my elder sisters in Budo. I studied in Gayaza for Primary One, then joined King’s College Budo until 1947. Here, I did my primary and national exams, the equivalent of O-level.

At the end, one could either take an academic course leading to Makerere or a commercial course for secretarial training.
I took the latter. I was secretary and Bursar at Gayaza High School until 1949.

In 1950, I got married to (former minister of Commerce) William Kalema, then a teacher at Budo. So I went to Budo, this time as a wife. I was asked to be a part time office routine and typing teacher.

Rhoda with her late husband William Kalema in 1967

Rhoda Kalema during the

If I had just stopped at Budo, perhaps I would not have had the inspiration, conscience and concern to join politics. But in 1953, the British government gave my husband a scholarship to Edinburgh University. I joined him two years later. I did not continue with the secretarial course, I was interested in social work, helping people.

I studied in an Adult Education College, New Battle Abbey, near Edinburgh for one year. It was like Social Work and Social Administration training.

I did well. They considered me to enter a certificate [in] Social Studies course at Edinburgh University for two years.
I think that is when I got interested in joining politics. That is where I learnt about Karl Marx, Lenin, Communism and Democracy.

I did not decide then, it was just interest.
From my father I leant that politics is about people, not slogans or rallies, and that if society is not properly governed, human beings are bound to object and express what they want.

Joining UPC
My first political party in 1961 was UPC.
I was initiated into it by Grace Ibingira and Adoko Nyekon. I was just a supporter with no active role. I don’t know why I did not want to be DP. I neither had strong feelings against DP nor for UPC but I joined UPC.

I gave up politics when Amin ousted Obote [on January 25, 1971]. The shock that follows a coup, persecution and haunting of those in the overthrown party, the best thing is to lie low and live a normal life.

My husband was part of the Singapore delegation (where Obote was attending a Commonwealth meeting at the time of the coup).
He also gave up anything called politics when he returned. He said “my family first”. He wanted to rebuild himself and be with his family.

Cruel death
After a year [outside politics] on January 20, 1972, my husband was kidnapped by Amin and killed (and his body has never been found).

We lived in Nakasero. He was waylaid in his car near Kansanga, put in another car and driven [away] by his captors. That was the end of his life. I never saw him again. That shock and experience doesn’t need further explanation.

Circled (L-R) Adonia Tiberondwa (RIP), then minister of culture and community development in 1980 presiding over a function in Bushenyi with Rhoda Kalema, her deputy

Our youngest child was two years. From 1972-1979, I concentrated on taking care of my family, struggling to see that my children got educated.

My husband was an enterprising person, he had started a paper and fruits making company, Manufacturing Stationers, with two friends Bazilio Ddungu and Robert Ssebunya, at the present day DFCU banking hall on Kimathi Avenue. When he died, Ssebunya and Ddungu asked me to replace him in the company as a director.

At a time I don’t remember, before 1979, Ssebunya went to exile in Nairobi. In 1979, the State Research Bureau people somehow believed or detected that Ssebunya was trying to topple Idi Amin. They knew Ssebunya’s colleagues in the company. Perhaps they thought Ssebunya was sending money through this company to oust Amin.

In January 1979, they bombed Ddungu’s house in Jinja and arrested him. They asked him, “Where is Rhoda Kalema?”
He tried to dodge. But they insisted.

“You must tell us, she has been your acquaintance”. Finally, he brought them to my house in Nakasero and I was also arrested.

First arrest
At 11:00a.m. I think, on January 23, 1979, they took me in a small saloon car with two men to the State Research Bureau [in Nakasero]. They brought us sweet potatoes, I tried to eat but Bazilio Ddungu didn’t.

Soon afterwards, they came back, took him (Ddungu) out and that was the end of him. I was the last person to see him. I knew later that he had been killed.

Later in the evening, I got apprehensive. The girls in the office were whispering that Amin’s wife Kay had been killed.
Looking at their faces, I became much more fearful.

At about 6:00p.m., they took me to the office of what they called a Technical Army Officer. He asked me to make a statement about my company and the people I worked with.

He said: “You know there are people whom you are working with in Nairobi who want to overthrow the government, perhaps you are innocent; we will let you go, but I warn you be careful with your life. Don’t involve yourself with other people.”

It was 10:00p.m. They put me back in the same big, hefty saloon car that brought me. A Nubian man drove me back home and left me there.

As we were going, he said, “I advise you not to run away, because even if you do, you will be caught, then you will be in more danger.”

Between State Research Bureau and home was a moment of apprehension. I wasn’t sure he was taking me home.
At home, my mother was there, she was relieved to see me back. They arrested me when she was there; she had been very worried.

After this incident, I felt insecure. My relatives, children felt anything could happen. A friend helped me escape in his Mercedes Benz to Nairobi where I stayed with my brother until Amin was overthrown in April 1979.

I came back after the [liberation war]. The so-called liberators of 1979 formed the National Consultative Council (NCC) and decided to expand it and involve people who stayed here during the war. They called us the stayees.

It was an open invitation announced on radio. I think the invitees included professors Edward Rugumayo, Dani Nabudere and Sam Karugire. Others were Omwony Ojwok, Chris Rwakasisi, Kirunda Kivenjinja and Samuel Mugwisa.

After all these tragedies, instabilities, my husband being killed eight years earlier and my arrest, I said “if there is anything I could do to make Uganda a better place where my children will not suffer, I will do it.”

I joined NCC. It was by application. James Mulwana (businessman) who was Kampala district council member, asked me, “Why don’t you apply?” I applied in Kampala district because I had taken long without going to Kiboga. Ochaya Lakidi, the late Henry Kayondo and myself, represented Kampala in NCC.

Amin was ruling by decrees, so we spent most of the time in NCC deleting his decrees. Some were however left by people who hoped to use them to suppress others.

I was the only woman in NCC. I watched and marked NCC members in their debates. I was very much inspired by Sam Karugire, Nabudere and Rugumayo.

I think Rugumayo was the NCC chairman. One of the issues in NCC was when to have general elections. Should it be under political parties or the umbrella (UNLF government)?

Forming UPM
I was among those who opposed elections under parties. The country had been badly governed. We preferred a healing process first.

When it was announced in June or July 1980 that we were going into elections under political parties in December 1980, I met Kirunda Kivenjinja (now minister of Information and National Guidance) two days later at what is now Grand Imperial Hotel.
“Rhoda, do you know we are meeting in Kampala City Council Hall? We want to decide on the third alternative.”

I read about the third alternative in Dr. Kizza Besigye’s story in Daily Monitor. That is what it was called. We did not want to call ourselves a political party. We said let it be a patriotic movement.

I was founder member [of Uganda Patriotic Movement-UPM] and Secretary for Women. People like Kategaya, Bidandi Ssali, Karugire attended its early meetings. I remember seeing Yona Kanyomozi but he wasn’t a staunch UPM; and that was in the early stages.

In the hall, we asked who of us will be a leader? By consensus we proposed Akena p’Ojok but he wasn’t convinced. He liked the idea but was wooed by UPC. The following day, he abandoned the party (UPM).

Then we pleaded with Museveni to be our leader. Museveni wasn’t sure. I think he was also puzzled; he did not want UPC or DP. It did not take long to get Museveni to accept. He knew he had a role to play.

From then I became very active in UPM. I went to various places preaching its gospel and recruiting people like Col. Sam Wasswa from Bukomero.

Second arrest
Obote and Muwanga were angry with me. Muwanga was minister of Internal Affairs and Chairman of Military Commission.
Some doctors (at least three) were in 1979 killed in Kampala, including Dr. Jack Barlow, who was a popular dentist and one Bagenda and Kamulegeya.

I don’t remember their other names. The doctors’ suspected killer escaped from Luzira. He was hired to kill these people for reasons I won’t go into but they wanted to create instability. Some of these doctors, I think, had confronted Muwanga in one way or another.

In the NCC, Muwanga was asked to explain what happened to the suspected murderer. He (Muwanga) said that the suspect was allowed to go outside his cell to eat lunch, and from there he somehow escaped from Luzira Maximum Prison. A few people, including myself, complained.

Muwanga wasn’t happy. He got angry with me because I challenged him. Later, he told people that Rhoda believes I killed these doctors.

When Dr. Jack Barlow died, I had called Muwanga and said, “Have you heard that Dr. Barlow has been killed?” He said: “Yes, I have heard. We are sending people to find out who might have done it.”

Even for that morning call, Muwanga believed I was implicating him, but it was an innocent call. Obote was angry that I was no longer in UPC. So I had two people in government against me.
I was vocal in UPM.

Museveni goes to war
Museveni started his bush war in Kabamba [on February 6, 1981] and Kiboga. He actually held a meeting in Kiboga.
It seems Muwanga believed that I aided Museveni; that he slept in my house in Kiboga and from there early in the morning took guns from Kiboga police post to start the war.

I did not know that Museveni was starting the war.
But it’s true that in meetings before the elections, Museveni had said, “I must tell you clearly if Muwanga and Obote rig the election, we are going to fight.” I did not know that he was really serious, I thought it was a simple threat, incidentally it wasn’t.

When they hit Kabamba Military School, fortunately he did not tell me. I wasn’t warned, I think he knew I wasn’t capable of joining. He (Museveni) had visited and seen my young family. He knew I wouldn’t be helpful. He didn’t tell anybody that wasn’t ready to go.

This is where I disagree with Jaberi Bidandi Ssali’s opinion (See: How Museveni caused Bidandi arrest, The Weekly Observer, November 16-22, 2006). He was very angry that Museveni did not tell him.

For me I was happy Museveni didn’t tell me. If I had known, during the interrogation, it would have been difficult for me [to deny]. You reach a stage where you have to say what you know, which may not save you either.

Museveni and Kategaya were kind not to tell me. Kategaya knew, in fact he asked me the way to Kiboga and I directed him. He asked me innocently, “Kalema, there is no other route to Kiboga apart from the main route?”

I said “there are many”, and directed him. It was an innocent question and an innocent answer. I did not understand why he did not want to take the main route. I heard on the radio two days later when they attacked Kabamba that the guerrillas had started war against government.

Arrested again
I was arrested at about 8: 00p.m. on February 12, 1981 (six days after the Kabamba attack). I was at home in Nakasero listening to the news.

My shamba boy came and said: “Mama, there are men outside.” I was so frightened. I asked, “what are they doing?” As he was telling me, one of the two men came through the back door.
“Are you Rhoda Kalema?” I said, “Yes, sir.”

“Sit down,” he said. I sat down. He disconnected the telephone. “Take us to your room,” he ordered. I was dressed in a long maxi dress (reaching the ankles), slippers, and I think I had a scarf on the head. They were casually dressed, not in army uniform but they had a pistol. I think they belonged to NASA (National Security Agency).

“Do you have guns here?” I said, “I don’t”. They checked, looked in the wardrobe for about five minutes and took two brief cases. “Follow us”. My mother [who was at home] stared stiff.

I followed them, entered their big, heavy car outside the gate. One man sat on my left, the other drove at a very high speed to Nile Mansions (Serena Hotel now). We reached there at about 9:00p.m.

In a car outside the Nile Mansions was Tony Masaba, a notorious NASA person. He said, “Rhoda, tell us, you made a meeting in Kiboga for Museveni, you know very well you were in that meeting.”

I said I wasn’t. He said, “We have photographs, if you deny, you are in problems.” I was so happy when he said photographs, I knew I wasn’t there. Helpless in a car, with him and a soldier, I told him, “Can you show me the photographs?”
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

I think he realised that I was also tough. It’s correct that Museveni held a meeting in Kiboga before attacking Kabamba. For me, I was in Kampala.

Then Masaba went to Nile Mansions, came back and left me in the car with the other man. I think as part of their methods to scare a captured person, he shot a number of bullets in the air.

I was scared, but what could I do? I was just wondering, why shoot in the air? At about midnight, they took me to what is now Sheraton Hotel. Masaba did not follow us.
We went with a fat NASA girl, two men who wore army clothes and a driver.

At Apollo Hotel, I stayed in the car alone. As this lady was getting out, I saw a car with a lot of guns on it following us. We were there briefly before we got out through the entrance opposite Uganda Club.

At about 1:00a.m., as we got out, solders stopped the car and brought a rag, a very nasty cloth, I remember it was an old soldier’s uniform, and put it across my eyes to blindfold me.
I told them, “Please, don’t kill me, don’t torture me. I have big children like yourselves.”

I prayed and said Psalm 23. They kept quiet and only said, “don’t shout”. They drove through places I didn’t know. Finally we reached Katabi Military Barracks in the morning.
The cloth was still on.

They took me to a place in Entebbe and took off the cloth at about 8:00a.m. Here, they started telling people: “We have brought Museveni’s sister; she has been found cooking food for Museveni and the rebels in the bush.”

Soldiers who I later knew were Tanzania Peoples Defence Forces (TPDF) still here after defeating Amin, came, looked at me and asked, “Are you Museveni’s sister?” I said “no”. “Yeah, you are Museveni sister,” they insisted. They (TPDF) were in charge of Katabi but not interrogation or arresting.

Later that day, we returned to Katabi. I was the first one there. Thirteen TPDF and Uganda Police interrogated me. One of them asked: “Can you say that you didn’t know that Museveni was going to the bush?”

That is when I realised that Museveni was really in the bush.
I told them he used to say in meetings that he would go to the bush if elections were rigged but I didn’t know he was serious.

More women
They brought in a lady arrested at Entebbe Airport for allegedly spying for Bidandi Ssali. She asked me, “But I don’t know Bidandi Ssali, how does he look like, do you know him?” I said I know him. They brought in three more women. One had been Paulo Muwanga’s secretary. Muwanga ordered her arrest after suspecting her to be conniving with the rebels.

Another one was an enterprising Munyarwanda lady. She had a shop in what is now Sheraton Hotel. She believed they brought cases against her to take her shop.

We were moved to another room the following day.
It was a nasty place with shattered windows, broken glasses, tall grass outside and many mosquitoes.

It was not that spacious, but kind of a food store.
They hadn’t anticipated women prisoners of war.
The only place found was that store. The men were in a different room. There were no bed sheets, they gave us two, two-inch mattresses and blankets to share.

We (five inmates) slept on them sideways. The [TPDF] guards were kind to us. They gave us rice and beans for lunch and supper. Soldiers cooked for us.

I don’t remember getting tea or breakfast. Hygiene was difficult. To go to the toilets or have a bath, you knocked on the door and an askari escorted you.

There was no routine work, we sat and talked about our arrest. We remained with our clothes, with no freedom but we were not tortured. We had a good relationship with fellow inmates and became like sisters.

Someone smuggled in a Bible for me, I led them in prayers, telling them the need to trust God. While in Katabi, I saw Bidandi Ssali going to the men’s cell. He wasn’t handcuffed. We did not talk, only eye contact.

But he later told me that he was so sorry to see me there. I read [how] he told you that I was beaten. I will tell you where I was slapped.

To Luzira
When we were later transferred to Luzira, they first took us to the men’s prison and made us sit on the ground floor.
They said we are going to count you, “Whoever I reach, say moja, mbili, tatu, nne, tano, sita, saba.”

I knew some Kiswahili, so I thought that was simple, just to count. But it was accompanied by a slap here (on the cheek).
When they slapped you, you said moja, your neighbour mbili, tatu…I was sita (six).

After that, we (women) were transferred into a Land Rover to the women’s prison. While there, a wardress recognised me. She knew me and my family. She asked, “What happened [to the cheek] Mrs. Kalema?”

I said, “We were slapped.” But for others it was minor, it didn’t swell. Mine had swollen; you could even see the finger weals.

She later said, “Mrs. Kalema, direct me to your place or sister’s so that I can get you something.”
She smuggled in a dress, towel, some sugar, tooth paste, tooth brush and a Bible.

I told Bidandi about this. That is how he knew I was slapped.
The transfer to Luzira was after a week in Katabi. A soldier told us, “We are taking you to Luzira women’s prison.”
We went in a full prison bus with men as well. There was a boy behind with a pistol giving us orders not to look behind and side ways. You couldn’t move your head.

It’s true when Bidandi Ssali says you got a knock on the head when you looked up, but I don’t remember if we moved in the same vehicle.

We didn’t know if we were going to a dungeon or safe house (in to today’s speak) or Luzira until we reached Kitintale. They did not want people outside to see us. They drove very fast to Luzira.

But a car had broken down at the Barclays Bank junction, opposite Housing Finance. Vehicles couldn’t pass. Our bus stopped as vehicles moved out of the junction.

We couldn’t look out, but people out could see who was in the bus. A lady who knew me saw me and she told my relatives.
We remained five women. We shared rooms; I shared with one. It had one ventilator with [bars] that allowed in fresh air.

There was plenty of water. The toilet and water were inside, we bathed as much as we wished. They allowed us an hour outside.
There were no mattresses, we slept on banana fibres and fed on rice, beans and potatoes brought from Katabi and cooked in Luzira.

We were not allowed to cook. We were rebels. Relationship with fellow inmates was warm. We were so happy together, in fact one of them called me a week or so back. I was the eldest among them; they liked and respected me. They called me mum and refused me to clean the floor.

There was no activity, no liberty to do anything. That is what it means to be in prison, you are cut off from the world. If you are allowed a radio, that is a great privilege.

We did nothing except talking. We were not allowed visitors. Our names were recorded in the Prison’s book as rebels, [but] we did not know why we were arrested. We had no power to ask why or to get out.

No harassment
We were under a women wardress. There was no sexual harassment.
Today, it has gone beyond what one can understand.
I think there has been a breakdown of morals.
I never witnessed any killings. The prison institution can’t kill inmates.

The warders (or wardresses) were quite okay with us; they had no animosity or anger against us. It’s not an army or IDP camp.
Once your name entered the prison’s book, they (warders) would be answerable.

I was released around March 28 or 29, 1981. My children except one were abroad. Martin returned from London, contacted his uncle, my brother-in-law, then Chief Justice Wako Wambuzi.
He wrote to Obote saying, “We don’t want our mother to die like our father.”

They later made an appointment for Martin to meet Obote. He asked him: “What has Maama (mum) done, what is the problem?”
Obote said: “She had guns.”

Obote knew very well that they had not found any guns with me.
I think he fell to Mr. Wambuzi, my son and Ignatius Musaazi’s pressure to allow my release. Musaazi was a close friend, he announced my arrest on a German radio (Deutsche Welle).

I was in the room when I saw Brig. Sam Nanyumba coming. He said, “Rhoda Kalema, come out, you are going.” I said “okay”, and changed dresses. They drove me to Entebbe State House where Obote stayed. We passed by Parliamentary Avenue at Luwuliza Kirunda’s, the then Internal Affairs minister.

We proceeded to Entebbe where they put me in a room. I didn’t know my son (Martin) was in the country. When I saw him and Justice Wambuzi, I wept, and he (Martin) wept too. The way I looked in the dress! You can imagine.

Meeting Obote
Obote came in sarcastically. He said, “You can go, I don’t stop you from doing your subversive activities. Your son is here and Justice Wambuzi who I understand is your brother-in-law. They have come to take you.”

I said “thank you, but I don’t understand when you say I should carry on with subversive activities. I never did any subversive activities. I was arrested from my house”.

Obote couldn’t understand that I still had the courage to ask.
“Your brother in-law has guaranteed that you are going to behave and stop subversive activities. But you are free to carry on.”

I told him I am not interested in subversive activities.
We left State House and came in Wambuzi’s car back home. My mother, house boy were there. They could not believe it.
Obote told me to report to CID offices, then at Impala House. I did it for a year. It was initially weekly, monthly and later every two months.

I had to get special permission when traveling abroad.
Other prisoners remained in Luzira. There was no one to plead for them. Perhaps they were justified to arrest me, I had more cause but not them. I was in politics and associated with Museveni who was fighting government. They where later released.

I met Sophie recently in Bank of Baroda. I asked her, “Did you work with Paulo Muwanga again?” She said, “Me? I could not. Muwanga betrayed me and put wrong stories on me.”
There was no more UPM work after prison.

Some UPM members were in the bush, prison and others silenced.
I took a low profile, taking care of my children.
After NRM/A captured power in 1986, I contested for Kiboga County and was NRC member.

Around April 1989, the President (Museveni) appointed me deputy minister of Public Service and Cabinet Affairs until 1991 when I was retrenched. I was happy. It gave me time for my constituency until 1996 when I voluntarily retired.

I was also CA delegate for Kiboga East. I beat eight men.
I don’t regret having tasted prison life in the process of bringing peace and liberty to my country.

Third arrest
Museveni was still in the bush in February 1983 when I traveled to Nairobi. I was arrested at Entebbe Airport on my way back.
Muwanga saw me when I was going. I said, “I am going to visit my daughter in Nairobi.” He said, “I see”, and went to the VIP lounge.

It was an early morning flight when I came back three days later. The plane reached Entebbe at 8:00a.m.
I went to immigration desk where they stamped passports.
The man in charge saw my passport. He said, “Are you Rhoda Kalema?” He whisked me to a Police office.

I said, “Why am I arrested?” He said: “We are waiting [to hear] from Kampala, we are not getting in touch with those who wanted you arrested.”

I suspect Muwanga asked all Nairobi entry points at Busia, Malaba and Entebbe to watch out for me.
After waiting and realising I wasn’t coming, Martin drove to Entebbe.

The Police told him, “Okay, we have just interviewed her, she has told us she has a son by your name.”
I was told to go to report to CPS immediately and set free at around 2:00p.m. It was a six-hour arrest.
They had been told [at CPS] that I controlled a battalion in Ssingo.

When I went there (CPS) the following day, they said: “Is this Rhoda Kalema?” This man looked at the papers. He asked my name again, looked and looked at the big files for almost an hour. He couldn’t find my name.

He told me to report back the following day. When I went back, he said come back next week, next week, until it was dropped.

There was nothing nasty or good in prison.
But I learnt and got prison experience and testimony that I tasted a much undignified prison life and kindness of people in prison.

I started looking at life as very shaky, more tragic than orderly, that involvement in politics is risky not because you are wrong but because you are opposing someone who wants to govern and doesn’t like road blocks.

In comparison, there is a determined wish for leaders to be in control of the country, whether it was in 1960, 70, 80, 90 or 2000; the situation is the same.

The reasons of taking people to prison are the same. There is a leader who likes to be in control. It’s not what I think, whether the situation is better, worse or the same. It’s what you people in the media report.

Once the governor and a number of the governed don’t see eye to eye, the result is the same - friction. One who has the power and control imprisons and what he says is right.

I don’t want to comment on Dr. Kizza Besigye’s arrest. Besigye was arrested a year ago, his name has been in the newspapers everyday. There is no one I can educate about Kizza Besigye.
From my prison experience, I am convinced that it’s important for people who call themselves leaders to realise that the country belongs to everybody whether opposition or in government. God made people with independent thinking. There is no need for whoever is opposed to be an enemy.

That is why I liked a comment by [independent candidate] Dr. Abed Bwanika. I have never met him, he almost got nil votes. But most people were inspired by his word. He used to say that the country belongs to all of us.

Tolerance and understanding of divergent views is where European governments beat us. That is what African political leaders must learn. You can’t personalise politics, control over power, leadership and opposition. We spent time in the NCC deleting Amin’s decrees but people are changing constitutions!
When people complain about teargas, even the one administering it feels bad when they are criticised.

If you are criticised from morning to evening, you can’t have peace. It’s not a matter of being right, it’s how you are appreciated.