When young Gordon Kayaza walked around with a herdsman, who said he wanted to buy his father's land, little did he know he was in the presence of a man who would one day be president of Uganda, as reporter Joseph Batte found out.
Here is the story you probably already know about President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. He was a serious revolutionary who led a rag-tag band of scruffy-looking revolutionaries, raided a barracks, stole a handful of guns and later captured power.
His other well-documented escapades also include evading capture and having close shaves with death - once in Malukhu, Mbale, in the 1970s and later in Luweero during the peak of the bush war in the turbulent 1980s. He famously recounted all these exploits in his autobiography, The Mustard Seed.
Lesser known about Museveni is this: he was also an escape artist extraordinaire, according to Gordon Kayaza one of the wealthiest farmers who lives in Rugaga, Isingiro, just a few kilometres away from the Tanzanian border. And another thing that should be added to his resume is: master spy.
Kayaza came face to face with Museveni, the spy, in 1979 just weeks before the combined forces of exiled Ugandans and Tanzanian forces attacked Uganda to overthrow the tyrannical regime of Idi Amin.
During his covert mission, Museveni spent almost a week in the makeshift home of young Kayaza. On completion of his mission, he even asked young Kayaza to escort him back to Tanzania, only to abandon him there. Kayaza has never forgotten that day.
The journey to Rugaga to track down Kayaza is one of the most unpleasant ones I have ever travelled. It is very far and the stretch between Mbarara and Rugaga is dusty and bumpy in many places. We are covered in fine red dust from head to toe. Worse still, the insides of our stomachs are so nauseatingly shaken up that as soon as we arrive, four of us stumble out of the car and throw up by the road.
My guide, Twesigye, is waiting for me. He zips me through Rugaga's vast fertile banana plantations on his boda boda. I ask what he knows of Kayaza's escapades with Museveni. He says the tale has become folklore in Isingiro, especially here in Rugaga. "Folks here say he had a gift of disguising himself, by some accounts, as a shamba boy, and when the authorities got to know about it, he would change to a fish monger!" Twesigye volunteers. Kayaza's modest house. He says: "I am not going to ask him [Museveni] for money; the money i make is enough."
I meet Gordon Kayaza at his wholesale beer shop. He is dressed in an ill-fitting T-shirt. He appears humble and speaks in soft tones. Twesigye tells me Kayaza is also generous and devoted to his family. He is very shy of publicity (he almost turned down the interview, he had to call Kampala to verify that I was who I claimed to be).
He offers me a ride on his boda boda to his home - a comfortable storeyed house he constructed in 2002. He gives a hilarious play-by-play account of his adventures with the handsome herdsman who later ended up being the president of Uganda.
His narration makes for delicious listening:
Kayaza says he is 46 years today. He was born in Kisorooza, Bushenyi, to Zebuloni Kabananikye and Cedilla, a Muganda. "I do not know the exact date I was born because my mother abandoned me when I was still very young. All along I grew up knowing my stepmother was my real mother. I did not meet my real mother until I was getting married."
Kayaza loved to study, but unfortunately his father had other ideas. "After P1, he pulled us out of school to look after cattle and goats on his farm at Lwekiziba. I have never gotten over the pain of being forced out of school yet my father was a wealthy man. I don't know why he did that to all of us. I really loved to study."
The family soon relocated to a place called Buhunga Bukanga in present Isingiro district, near the Tanzania border. Kayaza's hardworking father cultivated a lot produce which was sold in Tanzania. At the time, the situation was tense between Uganda and Tanzania and there were soldiers camped at either side of the border. Because he was big and tall, the Tanzanians were suspicious of him; they thought he was Amin's agent on a spying mission.
Herdsman looking for land:
At that time Kayaza's father lived in Rugaga, while the children were in Buhunga where they had constructed a tent. We stayed there to watch over the crops to scare away wild animals, especially elephants.
One day, a man dressed as a Muhima herdsman, paid them a surprise visit. He was dressed up like a real herdsman with a cotton sheet (Omutanda-Omunagiro), wrapped around him and thrown over his shoulders.
"He said he was looking for a piece of land to buy. He sent me to my father, who in turn instructed me to go and tell my grandmother to first study the herdsman before I take him to Rwengyiri and show him the piece of land he (my father) was selling," Kayaza relates.
After inspecting the land, the herdsman, who it turned out was really Yoweri Kaguta Museveni in disguise, decided to spend a couple of days with Kayaza in the same tent.
"He would spend the whole day in the wilderness and return in the evening with firewood and some poles which he said were for the 'house' he planned to construct on the land he planned to buy from my father. Some days he would remain at home chatting up my grandparents and sisters. On others he took me along with him to the bush. At the time I felt like I was his bodyguard."
Kayaza's father was suspicious of the Muhima herdsman. Sometimes he [Museveni] would sit there pretending to smoke a pipe.
Kayaza reflects that it was a clever ploy. To any inquisitive person, he would pass for a herdsman with his son. The sight of a Muhima herdsman in the company of his son would throw any security operatives off his trail. Sometimes he would just sit there and pretend to be smoking a pipe. The mental image of Museveni, dressed up like a herdsman, pipe stuck in the corner of his mouth, still amuses Kayaza.
But he says the disguise did not fool his father, who went to Buhunga and secretly observed Museveni. My father told us he looked too intelligent for a herdsman. That is why he refused to meet him face to face.
Escape to Tanzania:
After some time, Museveni said he was satisfied with the land and decided to go back to Tanzania to fetch his luggage and money to pay for the land. He even convinced Kayaza's grandparents to let the young man escort him to Kakyiri. "I remember that day very well. Earlier on in the day, my father had gone to the market to buy slippers. Unfortunately, both sides were of the left foot. Museveni put them on and even took my sister Jovia's omwenda (traditional cloth) which he wrapped around himself.
"The journey took us through Nshororo, the lowlands (Oruhita), down to River Kagera. Museveni held my hand and helped me to cross over to the Tanzania side because the water level was up to my chest.
"We crossed and entered into a camp which I later learnt was at a place called Katooma. We found the occupants eating lunch. They invited to us join them. Museveni refused. He asked them: 'Has anybody left my luggage with you?' To which they replied in the negative. "Museveni seemed restless and kept wondering where his luggage was. He told me to stay there as he proceeded to the next village to search for his luggage.
But he told me that in case he does not return, I should find my way back home. I did not expect him not to return; we were supposed to go back to Uganda so he buys our land. I waited for him." Kayaza says he was horrified when it dawned on him that Museveni was not coming back. I decided to find my way back to Uganda. On arrival back home, he shared the story with his family. His father was the only one who was not surprised.
"He knew the 'herdsman' was up to something else, and not what he claimed to be," says Kayaga, adding that the old man's suspicions were confirmed a couple of days later.
The truth unveiled:
They soon heard a lot of unusual rumbling noise over on the Tanzanian side, and later concluded that they were probably troops as they readied to attack the country. In less than a week, the 1979 war had started.
The Tanzanian forces first attacked Kasumba, and people leaving near the border fled. After capturing the areas around, the liberators held a public rally at Rugaga trading center and Kayaza was to make a shocking discovery.
"I went to attend with my father and to my shock, the Muhima herdsman who lived with us in our tent, who I used to escort, who wanted to buy our land and who abandoned me in Tanzania, was the same man who was addressing the rally.
"I recognised him. He was not as big as he is today. His frame was slightly smaller. He was a handsome man, with a prominent forehead, and a moustache and spoke Runyankole with a little stammer. "That is when we realised our herdsman looking for land was actually a spy on a relatively dangerous mission. We think it included spying on my father who the Tanzanians suspected of being Amin's spy."
The same herdsman would surprise them, years later, when he captured power and was sworn in as the country's president. Kayaza, here with his wife, says all he wants is to shake President Museveni's hand. That's his dream.
Kayaza looks back at that incident with bittersweet thoughts. He says it is difficult for him to knock back the feeling that he was used as a pawn in a dangerous game.
One of the main reasons he is breaking the silence is because he wants President Museveni to remember those people who helped him along the way during his struggles. "I feel hurt that he never went to find out what happened to the family that hosted him. Mostly, the question I often ask myself is: Does President Yoweri Museveni remember what happened to that young child he abandoned in Tanzania? Does he know whether he is dead or alive or whether he made it safely back to Uganda?
"On the two occasions he has been here, I tried to get in touch with him. I came very close, but on both occasions, I was frustrated by his security people. "I am not going to ask him for money; the money I make is enough for me. All I want is to meet him and shake his hand. I will have achieved my dream." No one could have foreseen this Muhima herdsman who came seeking a piece of land to buy would later become the president of Uganda.
The reality is that Museveni had no choice. The logic was clear, his FRONASA group was part of the Tanzania forces that was about to invade Uganda. They needed intelligence on the enemy positions before the war. He had to create cover for his covert operations and breaking it would jeopardise his mission. Museveni usually quotes an interesting Luganda proverb - 'ensi egula mirambo', loosely translated as 'the end justifies the means.'
To achieve one's goal, certain sacrifices have to be made. Kayaza was a cog in the revolutionary wheel. Today, he understands it, but still believes that a handshake with the young man he abandoned in Tanzania would do the President no harm.