In most of the official narratives about the guerilla war fought by the National Resistance Army (NRA) between 1981 and 1986, women are never really considered to have played a central role.
Actually, most of the female heroes of the war have their contributions tied down to nursing sick combatants and searching for food.
However, women were actively deployed in battles against the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). Perhaps, these women were driven by the fact that they had more to lose than their male counterparts. In any war, women are subjected to rape as a weapon of war, violence towards them by male soldiers, and loss of their family members and homes.
As the National Resistance Movement (NRM) commemorates 32 years in power, we bring you the some of the better known women whose contribution helped bring the current government into power.
There are many more undocumented women fighters whose contribution to the liberation struggle might never be known outside of their immediate family.
Capt. Oliver Zizinga
Three of her children were killed in 1980 by UNLA soldiers. That incident made her vow to support anyone who would fight them. She joined the NRA as a mobiliser doing clandestine work.
By late 1981, she was one of the three women on the National Resistance Council (NRC). She and Gertrude Njuba were in charge of Museveni’s welfare and never participated in any battle. They ate one finger of matooke and a piece of meat per day.
Zizinga survived the firing squad thrice. The first time was when a leaf of mujaaja (basil) appeared in Museveni’s cup. His auntie had warned him that he could be bewitched through mujaaja. When he fell sick after drinking the tea – saying there was something walking along his spine, Dr Bata diagnosed Amoebiasis. Zizinga and Njuba stayed awake to make sure he took his medication.
Another time, with Njuba, Zizinga was accused of poisoning Museveni. Such was her pain at the accusation that she cried for three days and attempted to put herself in the line of fire so that she could be killed.
An anecdote is that she was charged with the offense of crying by the High Command. The crime was punishable with death, but Museveni pleaded mercy for her.
After the war, Zizinga served in the Fifth Parliament (the NRC). She is currently a presidential advisor.
She is the mother of the late Maj Herbert Kikomeko alias Itongwa. Her husband, Bikwanso Sekitooleko, was a rebel informer and mobiliser. She was a nurse with an established clinic and a huge stock of drugs when the war came to Bakijulula in Luweero District.
Her brother, Israel Wamala, the assistant head of the African Service of the BBC World Service had told Museveni about her.
Museveni sent Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, Maj Gen Fred Rwigyema and Maj Gen Joram Mugume to talk to her.
After the meeting, she began treating injured rebels at her clinic and sending drugs to the combatants. When the UNLA found her out, Rwigyema took the nurse and her four children to their settlement in Kasiso forest. There, she met her first son, Itongwa, who had already joined the war. From then on, she joined the medical team headed by Dr Bata.
She left the bush in 1984 to put her children back in school. After the war, she worked as a nurse in Mbuya and Bombo barracks until she retired. She lives in Kagoma.
Capt. Gertrude Njuba
Njuba is the daughter the late Bishop Yokana Mukasa of Mityana. When her husband the late Sam Njuba was arrested in 1981, she appealed to the (then) state minister of defence, Yoweri Museveni, to help have him released. On his release, Njuba fled to Nairobi leaving his family behind.
UNLA soldiers ransacked their home in Ggaba and Njuba and her children took to sleeping in the bushes at night.
Later, she sneaked out of Kampala to Luwero. She began as a courier, taking information to and from the bush, and recruiting government deserters. She published the letter declaring the war in 1981 and distributed it to different embassies. She was very instrumental in recruiting Baganda to the rebel outfit. Baganda had shunned the NRA which they viewed as an Ankole outfit, in favour of Andrew Kayiira’s UFM.
Njuba was one of those in charge of Museveni’s welfare and the finances of the struggle. When he got a liver infection, it was misdiagnosed as poison. Top commanders recommended that she be executed for poisoning the rebel leader. However, Museveni directed that Njuba be left near him to see him dying.
Luckily for her, Dr Ronald Bata diagnosed the liver infection. She left armed combat for Nairobi in 1984 to become a mobiliser of Ugandans in the diaspora and soliciting for arms from different countries. She returned when the NRA captured power. She has since served as a minister in a number of portfolios. Currently, she is head of the State House Land Department.
Capt. Janat Mukwaya
She was a magistrate with eight years’ experience before she joined the NRA. Tagging along with her husband, Captain Abbey Mukwaya, to the bush, she was one of the first women to join the struggle. There, she acted as one of the magistrates.
Maj Kazoora, in his memoirs, writes: “Life in the bush was becoming incredibly harsh.
Medicines were so scarce that people were dying of scabies, the enemy had squeezed us, there was lack of salt and food, and women like Janat Mukwaya had lost their breasts because of malnutrition and had run bonkers.”
After the war, she worked as the Director for Women Affairs. Then, she won a seat in the Constitutional Assembly (CA) and has since worked in various ministerial portfolios.
She died in 1982 during childbirth in the bush. She was the wife of a prison warder. She is remembered as having been involved in the armed struggle since the 1970s. She was also an NRC member in 1981. Being the first woman in the bush, she inducted the new women into bush life. She was also a competent recruiter, having recruited the likes of Major John Kazoora and Lt Col Ahmed Kashillingi.
Major Sarah Navuga
In 1983, she was recruited by the rebels when she was on a two-week visit with relatives in Luwero. She was only 15-years-old and was studying at Kampala High School.
In an interview, she once stated that sometimes, all she had was a bottle of water for washing private parts for personal hygiene, and she never got her periods during that time because of the tension of the battlefront.
Currently she is a member of the General Court Martial.
She was a child soldier who had grown up in a dysfunctional family. According to her book, Child Soldier: Fighting for my life, she was conscripted in the NRA at the age of eight.
In her book, she talks of the sexual abuse she and other children suffered under some commanders in the bush, the tribalism, alcohol, and drug abuse.
At 14, she became the bodyguard of Lt Col Moses Drago, and soon gave birth to his son. By the time she was 15, she could not count the commanders who had used her body to the extent that she does not know who fathered her daughter.
She rose through the ranks to become an escort of the commander of the 5th battalion, Lt Col Ahmed Kashillingi. When the NRA captured power, she spent 10 years in the army.
She later fled Uganda in 1995 after reportedly refusing to have sexual relations with a general and sought refuge in Kenya and South Africa. Currently, she lives in Denmark and is a crusader against the use of children in war.
The government later launched a 28-minute documentary, Child Soldiers, The Media Hoax, to counter Keitetsi’s book.
Nowadays, called Maama Chama, Namayanja, depending on who you speak to was the traditional healer or witchdoctor of the fighters in the liberation struggle. Her role was to provide spiritual guidance to those fighters who claimed they had been attacked by spirits (probably of the people they had killed).
Col. Dr Kizza Besigye once described her as a kind and determined woman who always prepared tea for the combatants passing through her home in Singo during the terrible time (according to bush lore) when Maj Gen David Oyite Ojok carried out his offensive against the NRA.
After the war, she went silent until she resurfaced in 2006 in the rape case against Dr Besigye when it emerged that she had procured a housemaid for Dr Besigye. In 2013, she was embroiled in a bitter property dispute with a group of Asian investors, which saw her lose her house.
There were many other women whose contribution cannot be quantified because they disappeared into the annals of history after the war. Some of the women mentioned in various accounts of battle include Maama Kawempe, Maria Bata, Sergeant Christine Nakiryowa (who claims to be the first woman to join the NRA), Lt Night Nabunya, Commander Sarah Kamagoba and Nalongo.
There were many other women who were part of the NRA guerilla war whose roles have not been disclosed and whose stories remain largely untold. These include; Joviah Saleh and Major Dora Kutesa, who is said to have helped to rescue Gen Salim Saleh from prison in Moroto.
Major General Proscovia Nalweyiso
In 1979, she began working as a teacher and typist in Mpigi and served as a sub-county publicity secretary for the Democratic Party. She was already married to an army officer at the time but they soon separated.
She joined Bush War in 1982. In 1983, when the women’s wing was formed, she was appointed its commander. In 1985, the women’s wing participated the battles in the Western Axis. They were in the unit that attacked Mbarara Barracks. Five women died in that battle.
After the war, she was made a captain and given the command of the 800-member women’s wing. She steadily rose through the ranks and by 2000 was at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
In 2011, Nalweyiso became the first female Brigadier General in Uganda. At the beginning of 2017, she was elevated from Brigadier to Major General.
At the rank of Major General, she is the highest ranking female officer, in the Ugandan military.
Since the end of the Bush war, she has served in various capacities as Presidential aide and assistant in State House. She is currently a senior Presidential advisor to the President on defence and security and has become an influential power broker.