5 February 2013

Uganda: Tale of Alcohol, Cancer and Lost Fame

She lived life in the fast lane; partying and performing as part of teenage rap duo, Prim n'Propa, but life was not that prim and proper for this girl. Lillian Butele Kelle was an emotional wreck, covering up a nasty past and coming to terms with very bad memories, writes Stephen Ssenkaaba

She smiled before we could even exchange greetings. In a husky voice she said: "My name is Lillian Kelle Butele."

She is a Ugandan currently living in the US with her American husband and their two sons. The 1990s youth will remember her as the teenage singing sensation - the other half of the musical duo called Prim n'Propa. She is daughter of former government minister Anthony Butele.

I caught up with her recently. Small of build, with a dark roundish face, she was most amiable. There is a slight incision on her neck and her eyes are clear and white. She carried a book in her hands. "This is my story," she said.

Her book is entitled I know Now It Was All For Good: Learning That Nothing Just Happens. In it, she reflects on her turbulent life's journey. "I share my story so that some people can see themselves in it," she says.

She also seeks to unburden many years of emotional turmoil that had been covered under the cloak of celebrity and a seemingly successful life. Deep down though, she was hurting.

The childhood that never was

Butele was raised into a wealthy family. "My childhood revolved around the good things in life. I went to the best schools, enjoyed nice privileges and the company of fellow rich kids," she recalls. She, like her siblings, was chauffeured to and from school and always had minders. But when she was seven years old, something happened that changed her life.

"At home we lived with a close and trusted relative. He used to help us with homework. At night, this man would sneak into our bedroom to sexually molest me," Butele narrates. This practice went on for a long time, but Butele did not tell her parents. "I was confused. I felt worthless and traumatised," she says.

As a way of dealing with her trauma, she devised a coping mechanism. "I became very active in class in order to please my teachers and my parents." From Nakasero Primary School, to Mary Hill, Gayaza High, to Nabisunsa Girls' School, Butele was a model student, leading everyone else and excelling in all school activities.

In the early 1990s, she joined Brenda Z'Obbo to form Prim n' Propa. Peter Sematimba, their producer and manager then, describes the duo as "one of the smartest, most lively young people that I ever worked with."

At university, she found herself in a new, unfamiliar world. Her music fame had waned, her glory days were no more. She felt out of place and sought solace in drunken orgies and dance parties.

"I used to walk around with a group of girls. Our job was to dance and drink to the best of our ability." She contemplated suicide a number of times. "I drank until I blacked out so many times, hoping that I could die. It never happened," she says.

Despite all this, she forced herself to the lecture room and did well in class, more out of fear of disappointing her academically successful family than from a genuine need to forge a successful future for herself. Even after graduating and finding a well-paying sales job with a leading telecom company, she says she still felt empty, wrathful and suicidal.

Butele squandered her sh2.5m-monthly salary on alcohol and parties, taking back home bottles of waragi in the evening. Her woes were heightened by an abusive boyfriend from university who beat her up, but somehow she stuck with him.

The dam bursts

As she walked through Ntinda one day, she met the relative that had molested her. She went and bought six bottles of waragi and locked herself inside her house. She slowly drank the liquor on an empty stomach until she passed out.

"I was unconscious for a couple of days. I later found myself lying on the floor of my house, feeling as though someone had sat on my chest. I saw black smoke coming from under my front door.

I felt as if my body had left me and then heard a voice calling out my name. I got up, cried bitterly and went to have a shower," she says, adding that she poured whatever was left of her alcohol, resigned her job and left for the US.

Coming to America

"I left to escape my past," Butele says of her relocation to the US. Broke, she sought refuge from friends, spending the first six months with a friend.

Later, a Good Samaritan offered her a scholarship to study law at the University of Southern California. When her sponsor's business closed, Butele dropped out of college and lived on the streets for one-and-a-half weeks before another Good Samaritan offered her accommodation. Here, she survived while looking for work.

In June 2002, a friend of hers introduced her to a gentleman called Kyle Kelle. "We became friends and later got married," she says. Butele got a job as a real estate agent, while her husband worked as a law enforcement officer.

The couple settled in New Jersey, where they have since lived with their two children. Butele built a new life with a man "who loved and accepted me as I am." The hope that she had once lost returned. She informed her parents about her new life in the US and arrangements were made to have the couple visit Uganda. She returned home after 10 years.

Cancer hits

One cold winter's day two years ago, Butele was having a facial when her masseuse felt a lump on her neck. "She advised me to see a doctor." In hospital, she was diagnosed with stage 3 throat cancer. "The doctors said I did not have much time to live, six to eight weeks at the most." She was devastated.

"My mind shut down. I cried for two weeks. I was very scared for my family, especially my two children," Butele recalls. Staring death in the eyes, she started preparing her husband for life without her.

"I took him through the basics of child care and looking after our home," she says. The thought of her turbulent life and leaving behind two young children haunted her.

"I wanted my sons to know that their mother loved them and lived for them; I wanted them to grow up into responsible gentlemen," she says.

She decided to write them a journal: Things she thought they ought to know about her and about life.

As the days went by, and as the chemotherapy took its toll, Butele felt she needed to come to terms with her past.

"The cancer had forced me to put my life into perspective. I decided that if I were to die, I would take no unresolved issues with me to the grave. I wanted my spirit to be free when they put me in the ground."

Butele's book teems with passion and life's lessons

It takes courage to let out one's private life to the public, which is what Butele has done in her new 184- page book, I know now it was all for Good: Learning that nothing just happens. But you would be totally wrong to think this as merely a sensational expose. Butele is teaching us something, using her own life experience.

This is a tale of the little happy girl, born and raised into privilege. Her life is turned around when a close live-in relative begins to sexually molest her at only seven years of age until fate drives him away from their home.

By then, indelible scars have formed and affected her personality. She eventually comes to terms with her own past by sharing her story and most importantly, forgiving her tormentors.

Butele's book is written in a simple but clear style that enables even average readers to access her story. Her descriptions are vivid and interesting. Butele's book will be launched at Hotel Protea, on Friday, February 8. It will be on sale at sh45,000.

Butele is a go-getter

Peter Sematimba, friend and manager of Prim n' Propa music duo

I remember Butele as a very ambitious, bubbly and smart woman. She came across as a very focused person, who knew what she wanted. If there was ever a problem with her, it was difficult to know because throughout the time we worked together, she was positive,

energetic and very productive.

Brenda Z'Obbo, close friend and the other half of Prim n' Propa

Butele was a confident go-getter who knew what she wanted in life. She was wise beyond her years. I enjoyed her genuine friendship and fun-loving ways. She always wanted to get the best in life. We became close friends and our families got to know each other quite well. Maybe we both regretted giving up on our music so early in our careers.

Joyce Butele, Butele's mother

Lilian was always an independent person, the kind that accomplishes what she sets out to do. I did not like her to sing at the expense of her studies, but she pulled it off well.

She went to the US on her own and stayed there for 10 years, before returning to see us. Initially, I was concerned that she was getting married to a non-African, but she assured me it would be fine. When she returned, she was already married with children. I collapsed and cried when I received her back home after all that time.

She kept the news of her cancer diagnosis from me for three days during her visit and when she eventually told me, I was worried. We thank God that now her life is out of danger.

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