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My truth: Amina Ali

This is one hell of a life’s story told by a very strong woman. It is one of the longest stories narrated to me, not only in one of our local language “Luganda” but also filled with emotional breakdowns because of the memories that flooded her mind. – Andrew 

Amina when she was selling bananas

Born in the year 1972, Amina does not seem to recall the actual dates of her birth to her mother and father who she identified as the “Sabiti’s”. She along with her only brother are from both parents who lived and met in the West Nile region of Uganda on the border of three countries: Uganda, Congo and Sudan.

Amina was originally born in Uganda but later had to move due to political insurgencies in the mid 1970’s. This resulted in the  family moving back and forth from Uganda to Sudan. Her life even became harder because her father was a soldier so she only saw him a few times. During one of the insurgencies, they were forced to move to Sudan where she lived with her mother along with her younger brother Hassan. Her family lived there a few months in Sudan (a town called Yeyi), during the insurgencies during the reign of the leader she remembers as Gen. John Garang. Gen. John Garang was one of the army Generals of Sudan who were fighting to gain the leadership of this country between 1980-1990.

Amina broke down at this point in her story as she told me that this was one of the last times she saw her mother. On that day, her mother woke up early to go work in the next town and never returned. Her mother got caught up in the raids by Gen. John Garang. It was hard for her and her brother to know what was going on because they were young and they did not have a radio at the time. She only saw people running and when Amina asked, one of the people told her to run for their lives because war had started. The people told them that President Museveni had sent a military truck to take back all Ugandans who were in Sudan. She ran back into the house, grabbed a few clothes and ran into the truck. Luckily enough some people in the truck knew who they were so they let them in. They were told that the truck would go to Uganda and would drop off people in the districts that they wanted but the final stop was Bombo at the Military Barracks. 

As planned the truck set off just before the war reached “Yeyi”, the town in which they were at the time. When the truck passed the border, people started to jump off right from Arua town at the time (the names have changed because of the recent division by the Ugandan government) right till Bombo Barracks. Amina and her brother’s stop was the very last stop, which was Bombo, because that’s the only familiar place she could remember since her father was a soldier. At this point, Amina remembers that she was about 14yrs of age. This memory stems from an event that happened to her while she lived in the Barracks. The family that received Amina didn’t treat them well at all as they were treated like outsiders and at the end of it all, Amina was forced into marrying one of their sons. 

Living with this family was one of the many hard times she has gone through in life. One thing Amina remembers is that she and Hassan did all the chores, cooked food but even with the food she cooked, they were served last. It was even worse when she cooked fish or meat, this family would serve as many servings before they were invited to eat. On a number of occasions they only ate soup. Things only changed a bit when they forced her to marry their son, where at least she was given a separate room since they had to be given some kind of privacy. Amina would be given better food and she would share with her brother. A few months later, just before she turned 15yrs, she got pregnant with this man and she gave birth to a baby boy. She broke down yet again because of the memory of being taken to the hospital. The “Muzungu” Western Doctor told them that, “..this girl is too young to give birth”. Luckily enough for her, she was able to give birth without any challenges and complications. 

Amina and her daughter Hamu

Amina described the type of man that married her as being ridiculous and a drug addict. He was not working and he kept stealing food from people’s gardens. She didn’t realize this at the earlier stage because Amina said, “..either I was too young to realize this or I was naive”. (At this point we cracked and laughed a bit because of the word “Naive” because a few months ago, there was a story making rounds on social media of a pastor who slept with his maid and the maid used the word naive. This was the light moment in our conversation.) She said that her husband would always bring food at home only at night or very early in the morning and she was not allowed to prepare this food in the open. She started hearing rumours about someone who was stealing food from people’s gardens. Amina started to fill in the gaps and realized he was the one stealing food. From this time on, Amina and Hassan would never eat the food he brought. 

Incidentally, during her stay in the Barracks, Amina was approached by several ordinary men and military men. Amina described herself as a beautiful and hard working girl. One man who approached her started giving her food from time to time also turned out to be a victim of Amina’s husband’s theft. One day he took Amina to his garden and gave her a portion of the garden. He was so kind that he gave Amina permission to sell some of the food if she ever needed money. 

Now this is not the story that made Amina breakdown, it was the fact that the appearance of this kind man was so terrible but she accepted him because of the things he did for her. It was absolutely terrible that he had holes in his trousers, shirts and even his underwear. She was so embarrassed, she said, but he was much better than the thief she was forced to marry at 14yrs of age.

Soon after, her drug-using husband was taken to Kampala as his Uncle helped him get a job as a guard and cleaner. His uncle who was working in Kampala knew someone who needed a helper, so he decided to come pick him to go work for the Indian man. A month later, the Indian gentleman got leave from his work and he went back to England. Just a few weeks in, Amina’s husband decided to rob the whole place and when the Indian man came back, his house was empty and the front door was broken. He looked for Amina’s husband’s uncle and he was put into a military prison. Amina received the news because the arrest of her in-law led to the eventual arrest of her husband so she had to go Kampala, a place she had never been at the time.

Fortunately, she was able to go to Kampala and locate where her husband was being held. She went to the prison daily until she was told what to do. She went to this Indian man who was transferred back to England and the case was eventually dropped. This led to the release of her husband and he came back to his parents. During this time, Amina was still seeing the different people who would eventually help her escape. She planned with one of the army men who told her to get her documents signed so she could escape and go look for her mother, who she heard had gone to the Congo to look for them. Her husband found out and more to the “bad news” she got pregnant for the second child and this hindered all the plans. Amina went on to stay and had her second child. 

Amina gave birth just after she had turned 18 years of age. She continued to pursue an exit from her forced marriage. This is because her husband didn’t change at all, so she had to go. She finally managed to escape and went to Kampala and settled in a place called Namuwongo (This is the slum area ISEE started its work in 2014 but this was almost 10years before.) 

She came into this place leaving her two children behind. At this point yet again she broke down because she moved here without knowing anyone. She had no place to sleep so she would walk the whole day until night came. She was looking for a housemaid job and for over a month she was not able to get a job. She would walk in the evening and look for any little shed where she would sleep until morning. She went countless nights without meals. She would pick dumped agricultural produce and cook them with sticks and pieces of charcoal.

Amina met another young man at that time. She was so desperate and he had a one room house so she moved in with him. She was in a place where she would take whatever was given to her. His family was so bad and just like the first one, she was not given food. The father of the guy only offered her a papyrus reed  shelter which they called home for a long time. After a few months, Amina was pregnant for this man but he was worse than the first because he sniffed fuel too. He would get high and would oftentimes forget where he was and what he was doing but she had no choice.

After giving birth, Amina’s father in law would only let the child come home for meals and Amina was never allowed to come to the main house. Her father in law would send his other children to pick up the child in the morning and bring her back in the afternoon to sleep. This went on for a long time. Amina finally got a trader who offered her second hand clothes that she would sell on commission. She sold these clothes and eventually saved enough money to rent her own house. All through this time, she made friends who fed her. Amina’s friends would always collect their lunch leftovers knowing that there was someone who would eat the food. The food was almost disgusting because she would literally see the finger curves on the posho and cassava bread as she ate. 

Amina accumulated enough money to move out but she was forced to leave her child behind which was one of her greatest regrets. She had no authority and because of  this, Amina had no influence in keeping her child. She went on to sell the clothing and continued to collect as much money as she could. This is when she met the most recent man she had before their separation about 7yrs ago. He had absolutely nothing except the two shirts and trousers he had. She tried to reject him for months but there was this friend who kept telling her to give him a chance.

This man was so poor that he didn’t even have a house, so Amina had to pay rent for the first few months. He later got a job and they started to live together harmoniously. The one thing that she rejoices over is the fact that he was the only man she settled with for more than 5 years. It was through a friend who connected her to a shamba boy job and he worked there for years. They helped them build a house in Namuwongo area but sadly the house was destroyed by floods. Namuwongo is a very highly populated area and most of it is a swampy area so one day it rained so heavily and the house flooded to a point where they had to put the kids on top of the cupboard. Her husband reported late to work and he was fired immediately. 

He later got a job with SHUMUK, a steel rolling mill where he worked for several years. He developed a good relationship with his bosses who eventually gave him a loan to buy and build where Amina currently lives. They helped them shift from the Namuwongo area to Bwaise where they had built a house.

At this point, Amina had 5 children. Amina and her husband worked hard and paid up the loan they got from his work to buy the plot. The house they lived in was built by a charity organization that she had enlisted to get support for her children in school. This organization supported only 3 of Amina’s children but she divided the money between all the children and worked and topped it all up for them. She sometimes would use this money to buy food for her family.

Amina lived with her husband for more than 10 years until they separated. She says that she really doesn’t know what happened but they grew apart and he got another woman who he had 2 more kids with. After he left, life became very hard because at this point he was the breadwinner. She struggled to sustain her family but at least would manage a meal a day and would also get money to send her kids to school.

All this struggle challenged her relationship with her first 2 children who felt left out and forsaken. She says that until today they blame her for not being able to fight for them. Amina yet again broke down saying, “…I had no economic firepower to fight for them, I was never going to have a chance to raise them well if I went with them. Their father’s family would not let me.” 

“I am who I am because I have fought to be here. My family was so poor and I never had the opportunity to go to school at all. I am not educated at all. This is why I struggle to make it in life. I have done all sorts of things to stay alive. I have washed clothes for prostitutes, washed blood in sheets and clothes to get money to buy food for my children. I have prayed over and over to Allah for my children to not end up like me. Due to this poverty, my brother caught HIV and AIDS from his work. Recently, I had to ask one of my friends who has blood type “O” to donate his blood because my brother was severely anemic. He eventually accepted and the treatment has greatly improved my brothers’ immunity. 

“I was fortunate to meet ISEE Solutions in 2017 through another organization called HEYFU (Health Empowered Youth Focus Uganda). HEYFU is a health centered organization that helps the authorities to reach out to women in the community with health services. They had been moving through our community telling us about this new opportunity. I must confess that when they passed my house, I was busy making chapati for students at the nearby secondary school and mosque. 

“There was one lady who is my neighbor who actually filled in the form for me and I gave her my picture. Now they wanted passport size photos (we actually don’t require this – ed) but I didn’t have any so I gave her a full photograph, she recalls.

“It is amazing how things work out sometimes and I received a call the next day seeking a face to face interview. I quickly ran to the lady who filled in my form but on the contrary, she had not received any calls just like many other women.

“I quickly realized that this could be my opportunity and I dismissed my conversation because I realized this woman was getting upset,” Amina noted. 

“The next day, I went to the HEYFU offices and surely there was a team of muzungus waiting to meet us. They asked me a few questions and they promised to call me back again and surely they did. A few months later, Andrew met with me and we went to town to purchase plates and plastic chairs and tables for my restaurant business. It was unfortunate that it took me a while to get ready but when I was finally ready all these items were given to me.

“I prepared a wooden shade that housed my restaurant and I started cooking food for my customers. The first few weeks were not as good but I stabilized and eventually started making money. 

“It was unfortunate that my father in law who remained on our property after his son left started acting up and eventually started affecting my business. Along with his son, they performed witchcraft on me and I fell so sick that I almost died. 

“I have gone through such a cycle of misery,” she lamented. “If it was not for my children, I would have given up. My father in law eventually died about a year ago. ISEE Solutions had given me another chance to do banana business on top of the many businesses like snack making which all failed too. I used all the money from my banana selling business to prepare for his funeral and the remaining bananas were eaten by mourners. 

Amina and her empty banana stall

“I went back to ground zero and started living on scraps that life offered me. At some point the pandemic hit early 2020 and Andrew sent us money from ISEE Solutions for food and somehow we survived. 

“It was from the second lockdown that my husband also died from wounds sustained from police brutality. He was arrested and beaten after one of the Army Generals was shot at leading to the death of his bodyguard and daughter.”

Amina’s husband was arrested because he was riding a motorcycle called “boda boda” on which the suspects of the shooting fled. It was unfortunate that Amina’s husband was riding back home through the area where the General was shot. He was arrested and eventually tortured as a suspect. After failing to get any information from him they let him go. He tried to seek medical attention but during this pandemic, most doctors were not attending to some patients because of the fear of the virus. It was unfortunate that he later succumbed to these injuries after two weeks of suffering.

Amina received the news of his illness about a week after he was beaten. He was unable to speak or even attend to himself. As the official wife, the brothers of her husband pushed her to find him and she eventually did. She said, “…I had no problem with him, he only woke up and left us in the house. It is true that he was still the father of my children so I had to look for him.” Amina continued to narrate that in the last phone conversation they had, he said, “…please find all means and come pick me, do whatever it takes because I don’t want to die like this.”

Amina got a motorcycle rider who searched for him and brought him home. He was so dirty and hungry that she had to wash him and help him brush his teeth. “After he was clean, I cooked for him and he thanked me.” 

“It was later that night at about 3am that he started to find difficulty in breathing and unfortunately, he did not make it to morning hours. He stayed in the house till morning. I tried to call his relatives and none of them showed up.” They told her to deal with the situation because it was during the lockdown days and no cars were allowed to move. 

“I had absolutely no money but people started to collect money and they were able to get a truck that transported his body.”

Now in the Moslem culture, if someone passes on, they are supposed to bury them immediately before 4pm. She struggled to find transportation but he was taken to his ancestral home where he was laid to rest the following day. No one wanted to help because the entire village thought he had died of Covid but she presented the letter she got from the local authorities presenting the cause of death. 

After his burial the entire household fell sick including Amina herself. During this time, she was fortunate to receive the funds that ISEE sent her and this helped to foot some of the bills alongside buying food.

“I have since been trying to work on my health and also regain my business. We have faced a lot of stigma which has greatly affected our relationship with the community and my business too,” she said. “I have decided to now lay low for the moment because I can’t afford to lose more money in business. I will restart when the community is ready for us. I am lucky that school has not yet started so none of the kids needs school fees. I have a few grandchildren that keep coming around so I will spend time with them.”

Amina with her grandaughter

Amina would like to open a grocery shop eventually and has found a location that requires work but she feels has potential.

Amina’s future grocery shop?

I asked her what words of advice she would give to fellow women out there? She said, “I would like to encourage my fellow women to work hard and never give up. I have been through the thick and thins of this life, from not having where to sleep, no food, no clothing and everything that you can imagine. I have done unpleasant things to a point where I almost wanted Allah to take my life because of the pain I was going through. As women we have a higher calling to raise our kids the way we want them to be raised and right now the best I can give them is an education. In the absence of parents, they can get something to do unlike me who lost all my parents at a young age and I had no relatives to help but I have thrived on the mercies of strangers. People I don’t know, people I have never met. I will give an example of you people, you have helped start more than one business, you have provided me food like during Christmas and you have even given me money. I am sure before this conversation none of you knew me but now you know. 

“I want to thank you for believing in us and me in particular because I have tried so many businesses and Andrew keeps joking with me when I fail. Then he keeps coming back looking for me, encouraging me to never stop. 

This is part of my story. Thank you.”

Amina’s truth translated from Luganda by: 

Andrew Echel

Director of Programs, Uganda

ISEE Solutions Society

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