AT HOME. She speaks with a little difficulty and smiles in between as she talks about what she is up to since she left the public eye. Former minister, presidential advisor and, educationist, Geraldine Namirembe Bitamazire spent some time with Desire Mbabaali.
As we branch off at Kansanga stage, to the left into a residential hub; carefully scanning for landmarks that Geraldine Namirembe Bitamazire has already highlighted for us during our phone conversation, it is obvious where we are headed is a middle class residential area. On the way, we lose track of our direction but figured it should not be hard to find. Jumping off the boda boda, we ask for directions at a random boda boda stage.
We go back the way we came and after a couple of houses, take a turn to the right. It is a silent neighbourhood. Fenced residential homes on either side of the tarmac road.
We stop at the black gate as per the directions. We knock and wait. A tall young man opens a small gate and just so we are certain, ask him whether it is Bitamazire’s home, to which he nods in the affirmative, with a smile.
He seems to be aware of our appointment. He leads us round a colonial style medium size bungalow, with a well-maintained expansive green compound to a porch with a big round table, plastic chairs. There are a couple of newspapers on the table. There are diamond-shaped bricks that seem to draw a fresh breeze. We take our seats and soon after, the same young man emerges from the main entrance with a tray of soda and bottled water which he sets on the table before us and tells us to make ourselves comfortable.
We are hesitant to open our drinks before we see our host. About five minutes later, Bitamazire emerges from the house. She is clad in a cream floral maxi dress and neat black afro with hints of grey in the hairline.
With a broad smile, she welcomes us and asks us to feel at home.
“It is a country home in the city and I have been here for about 40 years now,” Bitamazire describes it, explaining the fruit trees, banana trees and the numerous indigenous crops, trees and herbs that engulf the home away from the big green compound. “I grew up in a village home, that is why I plant a lot of things,” she adds.
She, however, does not let us go into further conversation before we open our refreshments; we oblige and gradually dive into conversation. She is slow in speech, and right away apologises for her difficulties in talking, which she attributes to health challenges.
“I have more than 10 people living here, and what I do now is look after my grandchildren and my children. I tell them stories, and since many of them are school going, I supervise their studies. Some are at university, others are working, others are in primary school. So, I look after them,” she shares when asked what she is up to.
Her typical day
I wake up at 8am and I sleep at about midnight because I want to listen to all the news up to the 10pm news bulletin. I watch CNN, BBC, Aljazeera, and by midnight I have exhausted the world news and local news.
The other reason why I wake up late is that by 5am, the children are up getting ready for school so their noise wakes me up. When they go at 7am, I sleep again and wake up at around 8:30.
I get my cup of porridge, clean my house and compound then at around 11am, I start reading or watching television since I have a house maid who helps me do the rest of the work. I also cook my own food because for the past six years, I have been on a special diet due to health problems which requires a lot of care which no body cannot really appreciate doing, so I do it myself and that keeps me happily busy.
At around 3pm-4pm, I go back to bed for about one hour. By 6pm, I am back on the news again till I sleep.
Her pastime engagements
As our conversation continues, it is obvious the 78-year-old holds her Buganda cultural roots dear. At the question of how many children and grandchildren she has for example, she emphatically notes between laughter: “They do not count children traditionally, but what I can say is, I have many children and therefore many grandchildren.”
“Then I read a lot. I have a lot of books, newspapers, and surely, I read the bible. I also watch TV programmes everyday. Sometimes when I can, I walk to church (Our Lady of Mt Carmel Catholic Church, Kansanga) in the morning and evening. And, also I tend my plants and crops – work that retired people do,” she says with a smile.
Among the things she enjoys watching is news and features on health, education and women and some programmes on politics. She is an ardent follower of president Donald Trump, Theresa May, and the Me Too movement. She is also an ardent football fan who supports Arsenal.
“I am not on social media because I think there is a lot of opinion, emotions and a lot of things that can’t be touched or proven. Not to mention I prefer to stay with my small, simple Nokia phone. Sometimes, my children tell me what is happening,” she says.
Comparing to active life
From a busy minister of Education working around the clock over the years, retirement obviously makes life different and Bitamazire cannot agree more.
“My life was a busy one from the time I graduated at Makerere University. I used to go to different places; from Tororo to Mbarara, then Gulu, then fly out of the country for work. I was used to do that for more than 50 years but now I sit at home. Sometimes it is boring. Watching television does not work,” she says. However, she appreciates this season of her life and all the things it has allowed her to do.
“I have got time to read a lot and follow issues which I didn’t have time for when I was a minister. And I have had time to bring up my grandchildren,” she says.
“First of all I had many children and a lot of work but I was lucky because my children went to good schools, (Nakasero Primary School, Namiryango Boys), so I knew for sure that they were doing well. And of course they were in boarding school,” she adds.
Away from home
Bitamazire also has some assignments that take her to the community. In 2013 for example, she was installed as chancellor of Uganda Management Institute, a position she holds to date.
“Then I have the church community. Sometimes I go to the choir, women associations, sometimes I attend their meetings and on top of that, I go when they have special functions,” Bitamazire notes.
Nevertheless, what keeps her busier are the many people that come to her home. A month cannot end without the press, consultants, researchers on women and education, school leavers, parents, people seeking help with placements, university students asking about universities or courses, teachers who want to get on government payroll, teachers who have failed to get employment - the list is seemingly endless.
To add to the list, we were also asked to sign the visitors’ book.
“I am very happy with that because people think I can help them and some of course don’t believe I am out of the ministry (of Education). So, sometimes I tell them who to see, or just tell them what I know,” she says.
As would be expected, education in her home is a big deal. Having been brought up in a strict home with a father and mother who did not tolerate nonsense when it came to school, but also being among the first generation to go to school before Uganda’s independence, she carries that same discipline and moral values in her own family.
“Academically, I don’t think I help the people I live with, I think I harass them. Having gone through the system, I know why people fail and why they pass. So, I check their homework, coursework, discuss what the teacher taught, check their books, advise on which books they should read. I give them academic guidance, religiously. When they go to do their research, I become their supervisor and I think they have benefited because we share a lot of academic things and they know that I know, so they cannot lie to me. One of my children said, ‘we have a mother and a headmistress at the same time’,” she says as she breaks into a smile.
Even now that her children are grown up, they have to call her at least once a week. “I ask them about their office work and I feel happy that I have lived long to see my children grow, and work and look after their families. I am also happy to know that they have a mother who they know they can ask a lot of questions about office work and life,” Bitamazire explains.
To walk us down memory lane, she disappears into the house and later comes back with three photo albums at the look of which she jokingly says are as old as she is. Many photos therein are of her in a conference, giving a speech or attending a seminar in different places. It also has some sweet family memories – which she insists she does not want included.
She verbally captions the photos one at a time, and it is amazing how vividly she recalls most of the events and the years.
“To live a successful life is to live a principled life. If you do not stand for anything, you will go for everything. In short, to live a long life is God’s blessing, but to live carefully is your responsibility - knowing what to do at the right time because there is no place for disorder in the world,” she says.
When asked what she misses about her life before retirement, Bitamazire is sure she misses nothing.
“I don’t think I miss much because by God’s grace, I saw myself climbing the ladder up to where I could go. I can’t miss being a headmistress because I was there, senior education officer, in charge of teachers, I was deputy chairperson of the teaching service commission, and I was minister of Education, says the retired educationist.
“ I served my time up to retirement and I feel like I have had enough opportunities to participate and serve my country,” she concludes.
Geraldine Namirembe Bitamazire attended Mitala Maria Primary School before joining Trinity College Nabbingo, Mpigi. Then she went to Makerere University where she pursued diploma in Education, then her Bachelor’s degree and Masters. She also studied Management and Administration from the US.