by Shanon Shah
We continue our curtain-raiser for the commemorations of the 30th anniversary of Okusinza mu Luganda (Worship in Luganda) with this two-part interview with former youth leader Sara Kwagala. Members of St John’s Waterloo will also know Sara as the daughter of former churchwarden Alice Mwanje. In this first part, Sara tells Shanon Shah about her childhood in Uganda and her move to London as a young adult.
Shanon: Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview, Sara. Let’s start from the beginning. Where were you born?
Sara: I was born in Uganda in the early 1980s. I spent my childhood in three places. First, I used to live with my parents. When they had to leave Uganda and come here [to the UK], I stayed with my grandparents. And then my grandma died, and so I had to live with my uncle until I rejoined my family here [in the UK].
I was between 9 and 10 when my grandma on my mum’s side died. At the time I was in a day school. Then I joined a boarding school in Uganda when I went to live with my uncle, my mum’s brother, because it was easier that way.
Shanon: When did you come to live in London?
Sara: I came here when I went to college at Tower Hamlets College. I trained as a nursery officer. I went up to Level 4. I worked at Hackney Community College, at BBC in White City, and then at Pembury Community Nursery.
Photo: Presenting on knife crime at Uganda House in the UK with Miss Uganda (courtesy of Sara Kwagala)
Shanon: What do you do now?
Sara: Currently I’m a paediatric nurse. While I was doing my teaching work, I decided I had always wanted to be a nurse. I come from a family which has got lots of medical people – my grandma, my uncles, my aunties. My mum especially inspired me as I was growing up. She used to be a nurse [in Uganda], and she worked in this hospital where they used to wear this white dress with a very nice, mustard belt, with a wide hat. She used to look so nice! I said, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a nurse.” By the time I had my firstborn, Kieran, I thought, “Why not branch out to be a nurse? I think I’ll achieve more than being a teacher.”
So, I went back to university – London Southbank University – and I got a degree in paediatrics. I trained at Great Ormond Street Hospital. I was there for two years, then I moved to Chelsea and Westminster for three years, and then I went into school nursing with very complex children, in Croydon. The school has around 200 children, all with very complex needs – some on ventilation, some with gastric feeding needs. These are children who could have a normal life at home rather than staying in hospital. I was leading two schools out of a group of six schools in Croydon. I worked with those up until last year in March.
Sara got a degree in paediatrics from the local London Southbank University
Then I thought, time for a change, so I went into community work – yes, I still work in schools, but at the same time I’m working within the community. These children are back home, so if they do need help, they don’t go to hospital. They call you up to come and help. Sometimes maybe their feeding tube has come out, or they’ve had a seizure that’s lasted 10 minutes. Before sending them back to hospital, we’ll go in to see if we can help. If we can help, we resolve the problem and they can stay home. You see, they’ll need so many other things if they get to hospital, and their immune systems will get so compromised.
Shanon: Your life is about service - just like your mum. And you’re fashionable like your mum, too.
Sara: (Laughs.) Thank you, Shanon.
Shanon: What are some memories from your childhood that stand out until today?
Sara: One would be when I lost my grandma, whom I loved dearly. She had diabetes. When I lost her, I had to change so many things. That brings me to boarding school. This is when I learnt to be independent and when I gained the self-confidence and self-esteem that I never knew I had. You know how when you’re at home, you’re like a baby? Once you go to boarding school, you have to do everything for yourself. But it was for the best because I am what I am today because of that.
Shanon: Was there anything else in your childhood that inspired you?
Sara: Yes! I had a very rich grandpa who used to travel a lot. All my uncles studied abroad. Because grandpa travelled a lot, he had friends who travelled a lot, too. I used to think, “Will I be able to travel like this?” He was good – he was an old man but he was very inspiring.
Shanon: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Sara: I have two brothers and three sisters. We all used to come to the Waterloo church, but two of my sisters don’t come so regularly anymore – they come on special occasions.
Shanon: Was it difficult to move to the UK?
Sara: When I came over to start college, my parents were already here and I had a place in college already. I didn’t find it difficult, except that maybe a year or two after I started going to college, I started missing home. I started missing my childhood friends. You get over that, but it takes time and it’s very painful.
Shanon: Are you in touch with your childhood friends from Uganda now?
Sara: Yes, in fact, most of them have moved here. Some of them come to the Ugandan service [at St John’s] once a month. The ones who have stayed there, we stay in touch with Facebook and WhatsApp, and we meet up when I’m back there.
The final part of our interview with Sara, where she explains Okusinza’s youth dimension, can be accessed here.