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.)