Seated on a bench, an old man with a grey moustache is peeling matooke on a nylon sack. Clad in a denim shirt paired with black trousers and black gumboots, he grabs a tea towel wipes his palms and picks a stool from the living room which he offers me. Siraje Baswamu Mugabo, 84, walks pupils to school. He is popularly referred to as Sirajje.
Prior to the interview at midday on a Wednesday, I had met Sirajje at 5.45pm on Elgin Street, in Masaka. He was walking four pupils; Pretty Musinguzi, Abdu Paapa, Ryan Mugerwa, and Aidah Nakayondo, to Step Up Nursery School.
The children in neatly pressed school uniforms and matching school bags march hand-in-hand single file chatting away, chuckling and occasionally making animated gestures.
Siraje is one of the few everyone speaks highly of in Masaka Town because he walks children to school. A man of his stature is expected to be at home listening to the radio but he is a lone wolf in his rental at Bata Cell Village, Masaka Town.
Siraje, born to Rwandan parents says he does not know whether they are still alive, and he came to Uganda in 1961. Back then, he was hunting for odd jobs to make ends meet because his parents could not afford an education for him and his brothers. He was a cattle herder at his father’s farm.
And because he could not read or write, he found a stint as a house help at Badru Baranwe’s home in Masaka town. Baranwe was a prominent Indian national.
“I used to earn Shs120 as my salary,” he says.
Four years after saving some ‘good’ money, he left and ventured into cooking food for taxi drivers and bar patrons in Bukoyolo Village. A plate of food cost an average of 50 Cents.
Due to restlessness at the time, and health issues, the business did not survive. One day, soldiers invaded Sirajje’s kiosk and fired at the clients which saw many running with plates as they were eating and went to hide in a nearby forest. Later [around 1962], Sirajje suffered from ulcers and he quit cookery business.
“I went into meat-roasting at Green Bar and Night Club on Fork Road because it was not as tedious,” he recollects.
In 1974, through a friend, one Obama, Siraje was entrusted to be a caretaker of the rentals where he currently lives. His friend was killed for supporting Obote by president Idi Amin’s soldiers in 1976.
Sirajje felt idle but realised he could make an extra buck from selling matooke peelings. He approached different restaurant owners and they allowed him to take peelings free of charge, which he sold at Shs2 but now it costs between Shs2, 000 and Shs3,000. He usually collects matooke peelings every day after returning children from school.
He says Wangi who also died years ago was the first parent to give him a chance to prove his ability of taking his daughter Mega to Kawonawo Primary School in August 1990.
“He used to give me Shs20 per month. It was not a lot of money but I worked because I love children,” he recounts. Since then, he chose to walk children to school.
Opportunities increased as he added two more children; Brian, and Ssekivunja. Here, he was happy to see parents start to entrust him to take their children to school. Parents who meet him and like what he does, visit him to assign their children to him too. Today, many parents seek Sirajje’s services and he has 17 children to handle.
“I do not earn much as payment range from Shs200 to Shs500 per pupil every day,” he says. He adds that it is only one parent who pays him on a monthly basis. And he likes it that “the different parents whose children I handle are keen and good time managers. They rise early and never delay me to school.
His routine and worries
Like any other business, all is not rosy for Siraje. “I fear those (boda boda riders). They ride at breakneck speed. I’m always worried they could knock my pupils and I while we move,” he said. Currently, he has 17 pupils who he takes to different schools from Monday to Friday. Siraje wakes up at 5am. He freshens up, and wears; socks, jacket, gloves, and head sock before heading out to pick up pupils from their different homes at 6.20am. He has a two- foot blue/green vuvuzela which he blows to alert children that it is school time. Armed with a handmade red flag he walks with a steady gait to take pupils in shifts.
First, he takes six pupils to Kalinabiri Primary School; four in Primary Two and two in Primary One. By the roadside, he stands and holds the children’s hands firmly, asking then to hold each other’s hands. He looks behind asking each to mind their neighbour as the little ones chuckle. Siraje holds his flag up and vehicles stop, in order for them to cross.” They trek the two-kilometre journey to ensure they get to school by 7.30am.
Then, he takes a Shs500 boda boda back to Masaka Town. Then walks six pupils to Step Up Nursery School and concludes by taking five pupils to Konoweeka Primary School. By 8am, Sirajje is done with the routine and returns home to prepare his breakfast and lunch, and proceeds with picking pupils from school. At 1pm, he goes for the afternoon shift that involves picking up the Step Up Nursery School lot. Afterwards, he picks up those from Konoweeka Primary School and in later in the evening picks up those from Kalinabiri by walking a two-kilometre journey. According to Brendah Namagwa, 23, an architect in Masaka town, Siraje exudes a rare dedication especially on the busy Broadway Road, Masaka. “The first time I saw him moving with the children I thought he was paid by schools to take the children to their homes. Later, I discovered that he was paid by parents. This is exceptional,” By 6pm, he is finished with getting all pupils from school. Siraje approximately earns Shs4,300 per day from taking pupils to school.
“Despite the fact that I do not pay rent, such an amount is not sufficient to cater for my essential needs; since I buy food every day, and pay utility bills. But somehow I survive,” he says.
Siraje says he found his passion in taking pupils to school and he spends most of his time talking to them, as they discuss what they have to do the next day.
And when it rains or it gets hot and bright. “I use umbrellas which I bought to ease my work,” Siraje says looking determined.
“I’m addicted to them [children]. They give me joy and whenever we are moving. I don’t rush them and we usually walk slowly and cautiously,” he said. “I have loved children since childhood. These pupils are like my own and I care about them so much,” he explained.
What keeps him going?
“Continuous appreciation from parents, residents and local leaders for taking pupils to schools on foot gives me pleasure to go on,” he said.
Siraje at a glance
On Family …
In 1971, he married Majima Namata and had a son Isa Kamondo then twins; Babirye and Nakato. Unfortunately Kamondo died in 2009. He left a grandson Shafik Mulema whose whereabouts remain unknown. And because, Siraje was unable to cater for the twins because of insufficient income, the mother took them to her parents’ home in Kasambya- Lwebitakuli Sub County in Sembabule District. “The last I heard was that Nakato died. We are not in touch but I am looking for them,” he said.
He loves matooke, posho, rice and fish. He says, because of ulcers, he is losing appetite for matooke.
His leisure time
Siraje loves playing Omweeso, a local board game on weekends on Buddu Street, Masaka Town.