22 January 2013

Uganda: Exceptional Jjajja Benna Changes 28 Kids' Fortunes

It's a bright sunny Thursday morning and the sky is an ever-changing colour of gold and grey.

Before we alight from our car, about five three- and four-year-olds run towards us from the large grey and white house dwarfed by a very big well-kempt compound. The quickening of their steps is barely audible but their giggling is unmistakable.

"Kulikayo maama... (Welcome back mummy)," little voices unanimously chirp, hugging our legs. These adorable gems are among 28 children being looked after by 73-year-old Jjajja Benna Nakijoba.

There is no outward beauty to attract you to this home situated in the heavily populated area of Kajjansi; only stories of transformed lives. Their Jjajja has been their bread and butter for all their lives and no wonder when they cry, she is the only one who can calm them down. Wearing a blue gomesi that has seen better days, she squints and smiles. It is evident she is happy to receive any visitors and is not press-shy.

After all, she has already been featured on NTV, Bukedde TV and most recently, the Chinese news channel, CCTV Africa. Passionate about the medial role she has played in catering for orphans for a period spanning 40 years, Benna narrates the story of her life with joy. She thrives on people's attention and generosity and the doors to her house are always open to visitors from across the globe.

Her laying down her life for other people's children, wearing that one blue gomesi and going without a meal on some days, makes her a local heroine.

"In this community, she is well-known and respected for her work with abandoned babies. She does her best. She is a local heroine," says 17-year-old Swalley Kiyingi, one of her 'children'.

Jjajja's story:

Benna was born on January 1, 1940 in Masaka district and is one of four surviving children out of a family of 18. Her father passed away on June 25, 1949, when she was just nine years old, so her education died at primary six and so did her dream of becoming a teacher. For fear of being a social misfit as orphans were regarded then, she was married off at the age of 15.

"I got married to a 35-year-old businessman but when I failed to bear him children, he told me he was going to get children from another woman whom I should take care of. Of course I refused," she recalls.

This position earned her scorn from her in-laws but she stood her ground and walked out of the eight-year marriage to go and stay with her mother, Rose Nakkonde, in Namulonge. As fate would have it, she landed a job as a nanny at Cotton Research Company in Jinja, looking after white workers' kids and earning Shs 80 per month. The job was, however, short-lived as the company folded.

In 1971 she moved to Wandegeya, scavenging for a job and living in a flimsy one-room mud and wattle house in Katanga. With her meagre savings, she established a textile stall in Wandegeya market, which earned her about Shs 30 monthly. Probably having missed out on taking care of her own kids, she developed a habit of looking after her neighbours' children.

The 1980s political wars brought her more responsibility. As people fled from Bulemeezi to Kampala, many, for unknown reasons, dumped their children at her doorstep. At that moment in her life, she developed an idea that she calls 'the love of your fate', to care for wretched and abandoned children,

a cardinal self-appointed role she has done for the last 40 years.

Although infanticide (killing of young ones within the first year) by young 'guilty' girls is still a problem in Uganda especially in rural areas, it is rare in cities where children are instead just dumped either in pit latrines, police stations or at strangers' homes. This is how Jjaja Benna accumulated all the 28 children under her custody now.

"Many of the slum girls usually get pregnant at an early age and because they have no means of caring for the children, they would drop the children at my door," her voice slackens as she narrates.

Needless to say, the living conditions were deplorable. The room was grotesquely small to accommodate herself and all her 28 children, unhygienic with a few broken bunk beds and soiled sheets. Little wonder that the children were always suffering from acute malnutrition, kwashiorkor, diarrhoea, polio, pneumonia, malaria and measles - a hint to their inglorious lifestyle.

"I am sometimes grateful for being barren, because I would never have taken care of abandoned children if I had my own. This was God's making and it has paid off," she says, burying her head into a smiling three-year-old Akram's bosom.

With her limited resources, she provided the basics and even went as far as paying their school fees.

"These children without an education would never make it in life," she emphasises. It's only recently that her burden was halved with the creation of Live it Up-Uganda, an organization that has been formed to specifically cater for her and the children. The children are between ages two and 18.

The breakthrough:

On how and when she left Katanga to live in the spacious and modern home she now occupies, tears begin streaming down her face. Lifting up her hands, she says: "Bannange, Katonda ono - eh! Mwebaza nnyo' (This God! I am so grateful).

Jajja who is uniquely eidetic, chronicles past events and their actual dates with accuracy.

"It was on the 2011 Eid al Adha [November 6] when a certain Hussein visited me with Germans, saying they wanted to help after seeing my plight on TV. Indeed when he reached my makeshift home in Katanga, he was short of words because of the condition we were in.

He connected me to a lady called Yasemin Saib, the founder of Live it Up Uganda, who brought me lots of goodies. In fact, I remember her giving the children chocolates and they developed [diarrhoea] because it was something new to them."

Haunted by the fact that the goodies would soon run out and Jjajja and her kids would go back to their condition, Yasemin asked Hussein to quickly look for better accommodation and also take the kids for a total health screening at St Catherine's clinic on Buganda road. Amazingly, all the kids were found to be HIV-negative.

They moved to Kyebando in 2011 but on the advice of ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, Live it Up relocated Jjajja to an even more spacious home on Kajjansi fisheries road. As you look across the living room that still lacks furniture, you cannot help but admire. Modern, exotic dimmer lights hang from the ceiling, fresh air swirls around being brought in from the glass windows and the children twirl from one end of the room to another.

On the compound sits a donated cage with 100 birds that are being reared for food and income. It is a total transformation from life in Katanga. The house boasts a tiled floor, washing machines, a water heater, a study room, and a dining room. It has two teenagers' bedrooms, another for toddlers, one for babies, another for Jjajja herself and one for the matron.

Memorable moments:

"My most painful memory is when I learnt that a certain gentleman who had been sent by the Germans to give me Shs 15m had made off with it," she says.

Another is her lost daughter Christine, whom she once took care of. The girl made it to Makerere University, pursuing a medical career.

"Christine would visit me every weekend with lots of foodstuff and essentials. She would even take the children for medical screenings to Mulago hospital. But after buying me a piece of land in 2008 and promising to build me a house, she disappeared and I don't know where she is now."

Jjaja's children speak out:

Sandra Nalukwago, 18:

Although she does not recall when she started staying with Jjaja, the least she can confirm that Jjaja has been with her through it all.

"Although we were cramped in one room in Katanga, Jjaja managed to pay my school fees," she says, peering at the floor. As a payback for this kindness, she hopes to give Jjaja whatever she needs.

Nalukwago has completed S.6 at Tropical High School, Kabalagala, and hopes to become a teacher.

Swalley Kiyingi, 18:

He started staying with jjaja in 1995 after his mother; Nulu Namwanje, dropped him at the Katanga home and never returned for him. Kiyingi recalls eating one meal a day and wearing tattered khaki shorts for almost a year.

"I have learnt to be patient in life because good things always come to those who wait and while Jjaja is still alive, I pray everyday that the golden gates of heaven usher her into paradise," he says.

About Live it up-Uganda:

With Najla Al Midfa, Yasemin who says she holds a tradition of giving back to every community she visits, asked for someone they could help. They had come to Uganda for gorilla tracking. On returning home, they mobilised nine other women for the cause.

One of the board members organised a marathon dubbed 'Live it Up-Uganda' in Dubai and managed to raise over $10,000. The women dedicated to contribute a monthly stipend for life towards the welfare and running of the organisation with Ada Mugenyi Magezi as the Executive Director in Uganda.

"Live it Up paid Jjajja's rent of $800 per month and every week we spend at least Shs 1m for the smooth running of the home," Mugenyi says.

Live it Up's goal now is to equip the children with all the necessary tools that will help them become self-sufficient and productive. In fact on the day The Observer visited, the school-going kids had been taken for enrolment interviews in the nearby schools.

"Our measurement for success is not whether we have helped to keep them alive; rather, the elevated quality of a life we help them achieve. Our work has just begun," Mugenyi says.

The organization employs five staff; a cook, watchman, matron, cleaner and operations manager that help in the running of the home.

"Looking after 28 children is not an easy task and I almost left, but reconsidered after seeing Jjaja's struggles," Margaret Babirye, the matron, says.

Live it Up-Uganda hopes to secure land and build its own home with a kindergarten and pre- primary school. To support Live it Up, you can contact Mugenyi on 0775599533 or

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