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Okusinza mu Luganda #8: Childhood village escapades and career transitions

by Shanon Shah

Stephen Kafeero (courtesy of Stephen Kafeero)

Our three-part interview with Stephen Kafeero closes our special series to support the 30th anniversary celebrations of Okusinza mu Luganda (Worship in Luganda) at St John’s Waterloo. Stephen is a behind-the-scenes wizard at the monthly Okusinza services – he helps with the sound system, takes photographs, sets up for drinks and food afterwards, and updates Okusinza’s website and social media platforms. When he spoke to Shanon Shah on 18 May, he was eagerly awaiting the return of his wife Irene and two young sons from Uganda – he hadn’t seen them for nearly six months because of the coronavirus lockdown in both countries. The family reunited safely in London soon after this interview was conducted.

In this first part, Stephen talks about his childhood in Uganda and early adulthood in Blighty.

Shanon: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Stephen. Where were you born?

Stephen: I was born in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, in September 1967, around six years after our independence. I spent my childhood in Uganda and did my education up to my first degree there – a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Then I came over here [to the UK] to start my Masters in Telecommunications in 1991 at the University of Surrey. When I came, I had some gap years before I finished my studies – I resumed my masters in 2003.

Shanon: Were you working in between?

Stephen: Yes, I used to work in a restaurant - Harvester. It’s kind of like TGIF, have you heard of that? Kind of like an American restaurant.

Kampala, Uganda

Shanon: Like steaks and fried chicken and all that?

Stephen: Yes, that’s right.

Shanon: What was childhood like in Uganda?

Stephen: So, the time I started to understand the political situation was during the regime of Idi Amin. I was a child. I knew he was in power. But I experienced the war that overthrew him. I remember we had to run to a village away from the central capital because of the war. Then we came back – as a child I don’t remember much about what happened afterwards. And then school started. Then the next civil war was in 1986 and I was in what you would call here Year 7 – my secondary education. I experienced that civil war, but in our main district we weren’t that affected. There were some areas you hear where there was so much bloodshed but, in the centre, we didn’t experience much of that.

I grew up in a middle-class family, so we had the means. For example, I used to come to the UK for holidays with my parents. I would say it was good, when I look back. My transition from Uganda to here wasn’t so much of a shock. And you know we were colonised by the British, so the systems are more or less the same, and we all speak English.

Shanon: What did your parents do?

Stephen: My dad was an engineer. He’s now retired. My mother was into retail, buying and selling clothes. She had a shop selling bridal outfits for weddings – she had a saloon. That’s what kept us going.

Shanon: How was that affected during the Idi Amin years?

Stephen: To be honest, I think what you read in the media is not actually what’s happening on the ground. People were working, earning money. I think it was those that were involved in politics that were affected by him. But my parents were never involved in politics. We never experienced, you know, what you read in the papers, what Amin used to do, we never experienced that. For instance, we used to go to hotels for swimming. Things were good. It wasn’t that bad – not against my family anyway. I have to be honest.

Shanon: Do you have a big family?

Stephen: Yes, we are seven boys, no girls.

Shanon: What number are you?

Stephen: Number one. The last-born boys are twins. We used to be three here [in the UK], but then two went back to Uganda. They got jobs back home, they have wives and kids, so they thought it was best to go back. But my wife Irene is here, too – she’s Elizabeth Singaga’s daughter, by the way. (Elizabeth is a deputy church warden at St John’s Waterloo.)

Stephen and Irene with their sons. Stephen is holding Kyle Mikka Kafeero and Irene is holding Kezron Ttyaba Kafeero - their middle names identify their traditional clan, the Nkima (monkey) clan - courtesy of Stephen Kafeero

Shanon: But you stay in touch regularly with your family in Uganda?

Stephen: Yes, and I go back home very often. At least twice a year. I was hoping to go this last time and come back with my family and then, (chuckles) everything grew pear-shaped, you know?

Shanon: It was so unpredictable, wasn’t it?

Stephen: Very unpredictable. That’s why it’s important for us to appreciate the moment. You can plan for the future, but don’t miss out on the moment because you don’t know what the future holds. This has been a lesson.

Shanon: What were some of your happiest memories growing up in Uganda?

Stephen: Going to visit in the village, coming from the town centre to the village. The village is where everything is down to basics – there’s no electricity. Being able to go into the plantations. Picking fruit. I think those are the most beautiful, purest childhood memories. Grandmother and grandfather telling you stories at night, just before bed. There would be maybe twenty people in the homestead, maybe sitting around the fire – it was beautiful. And early morning, you’re up early, watching them slaughtering a goat or a cow, because you know that’s what you’re going to eat later. Then you go back to town, to the city, where there is nothing exciting going on.

Market in Kampala, Uganda

Shanon: I remember once Alice Mwanje once gave us a mango that she brought back. It was a giant mango. The size of a football. (Laughs.)

Stephen: (Laughs.) And you know what? In Uganda, they keep falling off the tree and no one picks them up. And you’re thinking, I buy it here at Waitrose for £2.50, and back home they’re just falling on the ground.

Shanon: Now you work in the stock market?

Stephen: I studied telecommunications, but sometimes you choose courses to study not because you want to but because your parents wanted you to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. But after I did my masters, I realised my interest wasn’t in engineering. I started going more into the financial side of life. I started studying a few courses here and here, in financial markets and the stock market. And eventually I started trading shares, then options. Now I trade currencies. So that’s what I do full time, for seven years now.

Shanon: That’s so interesting. Is your work affected by the pandemic and the lockdown?

Stephen: Not for currencies. It’s the company shares that are affected because companies are losing work and earnings. But for currencies it’s still the same. Nations still need money, so they borrow money from the market.

Shanon: You know, I studied engineering, too, and then I branched out.

Stephen: And it was because of your parents, wasn’t it? (Laughs.)

Shanon: (Laughs.) Yes.

Stephen: Yeah. But the good thing about engineering is that when you master it, you can tackle anything else in life. That’s what I found.

Shanon: Yes, problem-solving.

Stephen: Exactly. And you become very analytical, and you know you can get the answer.

Next: Stephen recalls his spiritual journey that eventually took him to Okusinza mu Luganda.

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