21 February 2013

Uganda: At 92, Mutegaya Earns Living From Childhood Hobby

She may be aged, widowed and sickly, but Fridah Mutegaya does not consider any of these so much of a limitation in her life. At 92, Mutegaya's sight is still so good that she could count the stars.

That is why she can weave mats, which she sells and gives the money to her church.

Sitting in her well-lit bedroom, which doubles as her workshop, Mutegaya looks back at her life with nostalgia. She does not walk, but crawls. However, despite the immobility, Mutegaya's brain still ticks like a clock that has just been recharged.

Her health woes started in 1980 when her legs developed severe pain. She suspects the pain originated from the long distances she used to trek as they fled from the soldiers during the political upheavals of the late 1970s during Idi Amin's regime.

"We suffered a lot during that war. We would move long distances, carrying our luggage and babies as we tried to run away from the soldiers," Mutegaya narrates at her home in Nyanga cell, Kabwohe, Sheema district.

After the war, Mutegaya says, she would crawl to her banana plantation to weed. She later became tired and her back pained.

Many Ugandans who were around that time have since forgotten the experience of the 1979 liberation war that ousted Idi Amin. Many others cannot comprehend because they were not yet born.

"Immediately after the war, I developed a problem with my legs, which I attribute to the long distances we used to trek while looking for refuge," she recalls.

Mutegaya narrates that, together with other families and children, they used to run from their homes in Nyanga, Kabwohe in Sheema district as a group to take refuge in Rwampara hills in Ntungamo district.

"This is where we used to see bombs and missiles flying over our heads as Tanzanian soldiers battled with Amin's soldiers," Mutegaya recalls.

Re-awakening her childhood talent

The pain in the legs and back gradually intensified to a point where she could not move. She would sit at home or sleep and wait to be cared for. This is when Mutegaya started thinking of what she could do to keep her brain and body active.

"I slept a lot and it made me weak. But later I said; instead of wasting time in bed, why can't I do something to keep me busy," she recalls

In 1981, she thought of resurrecting her talent of weaving mats because she could do this while seated in one position.

Today, 33 years later, Mutegaya counts herself among the successful people who have tried to support themselves and contribute to the country's development.

Since 1981, she estimates to have produced over 3,500 mats. She sells most of the mats and gives some to friends.

"I sent some to Chris Rwakasisi, a family friend, as a gift to welcome him in 2009 when he came back from Luzira where he had been jailed after her was convicted of murder.

"On seeing my gift, he paid me a visit," she says. "I wish I could meet President Yoweri Museveni so that I can give him a gift for pardoning my friend."

How she does her work

When she wakes up in the morning, before breakfast, she is given her Bible and Daily Guide (Kishumurizo) to renew her commitment with God.

After the death of her husband, Elisa Mutegaya, who passed away in 2004, "I am alive because of God's mercy and protection," says Mutegaya, who got saved when she was 10 years old.

She then assembles her materials to begin her daily work of weaving mats until evening when she retires.

In the past, she could finish weaving a mat in two weeks, but now, because of her deteriorating energy, her speed has gone down. However, nobody helps her to finish a mat; she does it all herself.

She also used to mix the colours herself, but now she gives her girls instructions on how to do it. Her daughters, who stay in Kabwohe town, help look for the materials, especially palm fronds (ekindo) and the chemicals.

The beginning

Mutegaya, a Primary Two drop-out, says she learnt how to make mats from her a friend (Mrs Magezi) who lived in Kabwohe town, where they had a shop. "I used to visit her to see how she wove. That is how I picked the idea," she says.

Marketing her products

Mutegaya does not need a marketer to sell her mats. Because of the quality of her mats, people, especially those planning weddings and give-away parties find her at home.

"I don't know whether there are other people out there who are doing what I am doing because the demand is too much," she boasts. She says sometimes people call her to make their orders. And because of the high demand, she sells a mat at sh30,000.

"I sell it at that price because the cost of raw materials has gone up," she says.

All the money she generates from mats is to fulfil her obligations in the church where she has spent 10 years without going. However, the worshippers find her at home to conduct service.

"All the money she gets from the mats goes to church and we have no problem with that because that is where her heart is," says her daughter, Dorcus Mutegaya.

Last year, Mutegaya was awarded the title of an elder in church because of her contribution.


Because of her age, Mutegaya suffers from many ailments ranging from diabetes, ulcers and general weakness. The continuous degradation of the environment that has led to the extinction of plants (palm trees), which she uses as raw materials, Mutegaya says, has affected her production as prices for materials are also going up.

What worries Mutegaya most is the thought that her talent is going down with her: "I don't see anybody who is willing to emulate what I am doing and when I am no more, it means this talent will end with me," she says.

Appeal to the Government

Mutegaya is disturbed by the current generation where women dress indecently. "I hate the manner in which they carry themselves but I have no capacity to handle them."

Her wish is to see the Government implement the promise of paying the elderly, especially those who are not earning pension yet they have served the country.

"The Government has always promised something for the elderly but we don't see anything coming," she says.

What makes her happy

Top on the list is seeing her grandchildren tell her stories and playing in front of her. "I like it when I hear them calling me kaaka."

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