13 September 2003

Uganda: The Most Popular Man in Uganda

Nairobi — You do not have to bring heaven to earth to attain celebrity status, and Gaetano Jjuuko Kagwa has proved just that.

When television channel MTN Uganda on May 25 disclosed the identity of the country's 30-year-old housemate in the Big Brother Africa house, no one could place the face in the popular social columns.

"And what kind of name is Gaetano anyway?" several people wondered, skeptical about Multichoice's pick.

A few days into the reality TV show, the skepticism among Ugandan viewers grew as the Makerere Law student refused to take a shower in front of the cameras, even as other housemates stripped and bared all.

He came across as very laid back those first days, something that had many doubting his chances of lasting until the second eviction.

But then his luck began to change. Within weeks, a witty, intelligent and sexy Gaetano emerged, to the thrill of Africans across the continent.

When he was chosen to go to the Big Brother UK house for three days while Cameron went to South Africa, he put up an even better performance, hooking millions of viewers in Africa and beyond.

Newspapers in the UK suddenly had something interesting to write about their Big Brother show as the Ugandan insulted a housemate and kissed another.

What swelled the numbers in his fan club, made up mainly of women, was what Gaetano unveiled when he finally decided to take a shower.

Viewers gasped at his arguably generous endowment, at least compared with what the other housemates had displayed, and in no time, 10.00 am in Uganda - the shower hour - had become a favourite TV time for many.

During the weekly eviction shows after that, women interviewed in Zimbabwe, Nigeria and elsewhere wanted Gaetano to win.

And then his mother of all blunders - or was it, for him, the jackpot? - Gaetano fell for the charms of the South African housemate, Abergail Plaatjes, and before long, the two were busy under the blankets.

This turn of events brought out mixed feelings among the viewers as he lost the support of some due to his 'immorality', while others loved him even more as he was believed to have made the show a very romantic one.

In an exclusive interview with The Monitor, the Daily Nation's sister paper in Uganda, Gaetano said minutes after arrival in Kampala that Abby's humour, intelligence and outspokenness are what had attracted him to her.

But the odds are that the weeks the two spent frolicking under the bedcovers and basically playing married in the house blew their chances of winning the $100,000 (Sh7.5 million), which Zambia's Cherise Makubale scooped.

Instead of the anticipated win, he came fifth out of the five finalists, an announcement that shocked Kampala and drew tears from some fans.

But Gaetano did not leave South Africa empty-handed.

With Abby safely at his side, he stepped off a South African Airlines flight in Entebbe at 1.32 pm on Wednesday to a celebrity welcome.

Just 109 days since the day he left the same airport with no one giving him as much as a glance, he came back to find what looked like the whole of Uganda waiting.

At a press conference later, he mused that he may not be much richer moneywise, but he certainly was 24.6 million Ugandan friends wealthier.

The Kampala-Entebbe highway unofficially became a one-way road as thousands of fans raced to the capital behind Gaetano in more than four lanes of traffic.

Even the Minister of State for Transport, Andruale Awuzu, was caught up in the melee as he tried to travel to Entebbe, and sat helplessly in his four-wheel drive as screaming fans sped past in his lane.

The crowd could only be compared to that which turned up to receive former Kampala Mayor Nasser Ntege Ssebagala, when he returned from an American prison in 1999.

And when President Yoweri Museveni asked MPs on Tuesday who this man was who was even making women shed tears, almost every Ugandan had a ready answer: "Our Gae!"

Many interpreted the president's remarks as a jealous outburst when he started wondering where the Gaetanos of this world were when other Africans were fighting for South Africa's freedom.

No one really cared. More cars streamed to Entebbe to give him a hero's welcome, one of them carrying an ambitious placard saying, "Gaetano for President!"

The new star was obviously overwhelmed. At the sight of the ecstatic crowd, he grabbed his head and stared on in amazement. The thickness and rowdiness of the multitude watered down Spear Group of Companies' Executive Director Gordon Wavamunno's efforts to bring a fleet of Mercedes Benzes for Gaetano's homecoming.

The car he was supposed to ride in - a convertible Mercedes Benz with Gaetano's personalised plates - suddenly seemed so far away at about ten metres, and he ended up being stuffed into the nearest car.

And a journey that could have lasted not more than 45 minutes on an ordinary day lasted over four hours as people rushed out of their homes and onto the streets to catch a glimpse of their hero.

More exciting it seems, was the fact that he had managed to bring Abby home.

Some excited fans at the airport threw caution to the wind and groped at her, to the consternation of the South African and her bodyguards.

In Kampala, shops closed by 1.30 pm as workers rushed off to join the melee. Ethics and Integrity Minister Tim Lwanga later said the level of "redundancy" in Uganda amazed him.

But Gaetano had proved a fact.

At the end of the day, you do not necessarily have to prove yourself in education or on the battlefield to win the hearts of Ugandans.

It is the small things you do to take their minds off their troubled lives that crown you an instant hero.

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