25 February 2013

Uganda: Bob Marley's Cousin Chose to Live Here

While the rest of her family is scattered around different parts of the US, Romelle Ann Booker White, a cousin of music legend Bob Marley, found home in Masaka, Uganda, writes Joseph Batte

Recently, fans of Bob Marley and the Rastafarian community in Uganda celebrated the birthday of the king of reggae. Little did they know that for the last six years, Masaka town has been 'hiding' Marley's cousin, who would have added an interesting dimension to their celebrations.

Until now, hardly anybody in Masaka knew she was linked to one of the most famous music families in the world.

In the years Booker has been in Uganda, she has been a respectable, humble, African American woman with a charming accent. She runs a non-governmental organisation called Mtoto Wa Jua (Swahili for Child of The Sun).

She has been going around Ugandan schools preaching a message that very few Ugandan head teachers like to hear: do not cut off your students' or children's hair, you will be exposing their brains to devastating effects of ultra-violet rays from the sun, thus stunting their brain growth.

When I met her, she was wearing sunglasses to shield her eyes from the glare of the afternoon tropical sun. Her shoulder-length hair braided. A beaded necklace hanging around her neck and a head scarf complete her smart casual look.

She still walks with a spring in her stride and gives a firm hand shake. Booker can well be described as a confident assertive spiritual woman. Throughout the conversation, she speaks with the energy of an evangelical pastor, but in a polite and friendly way.

Her full name is Booker Ann Booker White. 'White' is because I am married to a man by the name of White, but he is as black as night. You know many people do not want to talk about their age, but I made 64 this January," she says.

She was born about 60 miles south-east of Los Angeles in San Bernardino, California. Her mother was a housewife and her dad an aircraft mechanic at the airforce depot before he passed away in 1960.

Booker's parents wanted her to be a nurse "It was like brainwashing. If anybody asked, little girl what will you become? I always said nurse, yet I never really wanted to be one. I always wanted to be a singer."

Still, every Christmas she would get little mannequins which she would dissect, remove their little organs and put them back. By the time she started school, she knew all about the human body.

Learning to be best

When her father died, Booker was sent to a boarding school and back then not many African Americans were going to boarding schools. So, she interacted with many whites from whom she learnt about the dangers of ultra-violet radiation.

Booker also learnt how to fight to be the best. "Prejudice and racism is very real in America. They expected you to fail, so I had to excel in everything. That is a lot of pressure for a young teenage girl."

The pressure to do well helped her excel and become a very good nurse. In 30 years, she delivered thousands of babies and never lost even one patient. She was elevated to 'travelling nurse,' which meant working in the best hospitals, flying in planes and earning good money, which she spent on vacation and good clothes. One of the vacations she took was in Jamaica.

"I just fell in love with that island. I felt there was a calling for me to go back to Jamaica every summer holiday. This is how I met Cedella Booker, the mother of Bob Marley in the 1970s and later my husband.

"The first time we met was at a concert. I made it my business to introduce myself first. We found out that we are related through marriage. I was born Booker and she married Booker, my uncle.

Meeting the Marleys

A happy Cedella invited Booker over to their home in Jamaica, where she spent two months just getting to know them.

"During my stay with them, the first thing I noticed is they eat fish, salads and lots of good stuff because they have the money, but no red meat," Booker recalls.

"The Marleys are showbiz people. Their family is very extensive with so many children. I remember at the time they called Cedella Booker Mother B. Even in America, that is how she was known," she adds.

"I found Cedella to be a very kind lady. She was full of life and she gave me a lot of strength. Although she was not highly educated she was very intelligent and spiritual. She loved reading the Bible every morning.

"I met Bob Marley while he was performing. He had a short interlude, so we spent limited time together. Although we did not talk much and have no blood line between us other than the fact that his mother was married in my family, we clicked."

Coming back to Africa

Booker met her husband in Jamaica, a farmer who was really handy and could fix anything. All throughout the three years of dating, they talked about coming back to Africa.

They got married in Jamaica in 2000. After four years, they decided to return to Africa. Their first stop was Ghana, through the Gate of No Return, which has now been renamed the Gate of Return.

"We are the first of the Booker generation to come back, me and my husband's family. Ghana was just too hot for me. We took off for Kenya in 2005, but we found the people not warm enough.

"We left after one year just before the big riot and went to Tanzania. Big mistake. It was probably the worst place in East Africa for a visitor to stay. Immigration was terrible. If you do not bribe them you do not stay, I do not pay bribes, so we were asked to leave."

We hired a lorry and packed all our property on it. But after crossing over to the Kenyan border, the driver sped off and left us with nothing. He then called us and bragged that there was nothing we could do about it, we should leave him alone.

"We forgave him, hoping the blessings would boomerang to us. And indeed it has come to pass. We are healthy. We are in love and are happily living in beautiful Uganda."

Finding home in Uganda

The couple came to Uganda by road in 2007 through Busia border. Booker's very first impression was that the people were more courteous and friendlier than the Kenyans and Tanzanians.

On arrival, they first stayed in a hotel, but with her love for the countryside she was not content staying in the city.

One day, looking at the map she saw a place called Masaka near the lake.

"I pointed it out to my husband. I said: 'honey look at this place, there is water nearby, a lake and everything else.' We prayed about it. We always pray about everything. We went there and found this nice little house and bought it.

"Next we went to immigration and told them we wanted to retire here. They said, 'We do not have a retirement plan for you in Uganda. In fact you should leave the country immediately'. I said: 'What are you talking about? We have just arrived. We are going to appeal.'

"At the time Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda was the internal affairs minister. He called back and said: Welcome home to Uganda, plant coffee and stay. He asked: ' Are you Africans?' I said 'of course we are.'

"One of the things we were told back home was that whenever you go to Africa and you feel a passion for the people. That's where your ancestors are buried, that is your home. That is where your roots are, whether you know it or not.

"In Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, we did not feel it. But once we crossed the border and entered Uganda, it was different. I told my husband, 'I feel I have reached home.' He said: 'I feel it too.' And we know because we suffered genocide - we lost our mother tongue, we do not know which our tribes are."

My next question is about her faith. Is she a Rastafarian like Bob Marley?

"I am not a religious person, I am a spiritual person. I believe in the word of God. And that Jesus rose. I was baptised the second time in River Jordan in 1999. I just believe that when you treat people right, worship God, you will have the eternal life that He promised us to have through his son Jesus Christ."

Child of the Sun

Our conversation moves on to the dangers of ultraviolet radiation that forced her to start Mtoto wa Jua.

Her passion has always been women and children, but when she saw Ugandan children walking about with all the hair shaved off, she was alarmed.

She set up the NGO to sensitise people about the dangers of ultra-violet rays from the sun. She shared the idea with Dr. Osman Lukwago at Masaka Hospital who encouraged her to go for it.

"Uganda is equatorial. You are directly on the equator at zero latitude. This means the sun is directly overhead. Because you live in the tropics that also means you have less ozone layer to protect you naturally and this is made worse by climate change. It means UVRs are coming directly through. The sun gives us light and the heat you feel, but it is these ultraviolet rays that you do not see or feel that cause the damage.

"World Health Organisation has done the research, I am only repeating what they tell us. They say level 11 on the UV index is extremely dangerous. Uganda is always above 12," she explains.

She argues that by around 1:00pm everyone should have a hat and sunglasses and wear something long-sleeved to protect the arms.

"People with dark skins believe that it is a muzungu problem, but there is an increase in cancer deaths in Uganda. Why is that so?"

Booker says shaving hair off the head is a legacy from slavery, while bleaching oneself is a manifestation of neo-colonialism.

"Who told you that black is not beautiful? You need to let your woolly hair grow because it helps absorb those ultra-violet rays. The dark skin helps absorb some of the rays.

She noticed that while white and Indian children can keep their hair, the African child has to be bald-headed, including girls. "They tell me about lice, but I do not buy it. This is institutionalised abuse of the African child," Booker says.

She argues that children whose hair has been shaved off have their brains overheated. "God gave us hair to protect, insulate and regulate the temperature of our brain. Booker adds that people have called her crazy for her campaign, but she will not stop since it is a God-given mission.

In Uganda for life

Why would a person swap the good life in America for a tiny poor third world country like Uganda?

Booker says it is the beautiful country, the humble people and the good weather which makes Uganda a more desirable place to settle.

"For us it was love at first sight. The soils are highly fertile, providing suitable land for crops. "Once you are outside the you realise how difficult it was living there with all the prejudice and high cost of living.

Most people in Uganda complain about food being expensive, but what they forget is that the food here is fresh and organic and relatively cheaper."

"I have no intentions of going back to America. No way. When any of my relatives calls I usually tell them straight - I tell them come over to Uganda, but we are not coming back to America.

I am pleased to spend the rest of my life in Uganda. I finally found home. I am going to die here."

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