Sunday, 16 June 2013

How I found my sister after 30 years

Eight years ago, I set out to find my sister who had been lost to us, thousands of miles away, for over 30 years.

Here is the full story.

The Background

In the early 1970's we lived in Uganda for a few years. It was the chaotic time of the Dictator Idi Amin. My late father had been posted to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, a few years earlier to help establish Ugandan Television (UTV). I went with him and spent a few jolly years living in Kampala, swimming at the hotel with the only circular swimming pool I have ever seen and making friends at Kitante Primary School.

Whilst there, my Dad had a relationship with a young Ugandan lady and as a result a baby sister was born. I saw her once, when I was about ten years old and she was a tiny baby. But we left the country soon after as Idi Amin's regime took hold and foreigners were increasingly unwelcome.

Time and distance took its toll. My father lost contact with his daughter and her mother, thousands of miles away in a pre-internet, pre-mobile phone war-torn world. How hard he tried, I do not know. As for me, I hardly registered that I had a sister in Uganda. Life moved on.

Fast forward thirty plus years, to 2005. I am living in London with my own family. I had just left one role and  was starting to plan my next venture. Having recently turned 40 (seemed old at the time, but now I look back at the young lad of 40 that I was and sigh) I was quite reflective. London is a multicultural city and there are many Ugandans living here. It occurred to me that for all I knew my sister could have emigrated to London and I might walk past her on the street. Or she might be fighting for survival in a refugee camp somewhere. I decided that I had to try to find out what happened to her.

I mean, how difficult could it be?

The Search

Step one was to gather all the background information that I could. I contacted my dad, who lived in West Africa, and told him what I wanted to do. What could he tell me to get me started?

"Well" he said "her mother's name is Betty and the mother's sister worked at a bank in Kampala"

Right, I thought. Well, that's better than nothing. Marginally. After all there are only 34 million people in Uganda and I'm looking for a girl. So if she's there and still alive that's just 17 million women. I'm looking for someone in their 30's, so that narrows it down again. I probably only need to ask a couple of million women if their mum's name is Betty and their Aunt worked in a bank 30 years ago and that's it. Job done!

To be honest, there were a few other fragments of data to work with, but not much. But fortunately in the intervening years between my sister's birth and my search, a chap called Tim Berners-Lee had done something very useful. He invented a thing called the World Wide Web.

I think it would have been impossible for me to even start on this journey without the Web. Where could I have possibly started, sitting in London searching for a young woman in a country six thousand miles away? But the Web gave me a window to look through. Thanks, Tim!

However, despite this amazing tool, the first few months were pretty fruitless. Keep in mind that social networking was still fairly new. Facebook was only a year old and even I hadn't heard of it, let along the handful of internet users in Uganda at the time. Twitter was still a mere twinkle in Jack Dorsey's eye. All we had to work with were websites to browse and email to reach out.

So I browsed and I reached out. I reached out and I browsed. I browsed some more. I met some interesting folk along the way but nothing that seemed to be leading me any closer to my sister.

Then I had a breakthrough.

The Breakthrough

There are billions of internet users worldwide. I sometimes wonder how many people are looking for other people at any given time. It would make a fascinating interactive map. People might be looking for each other. Or a searcher might be being searched by someone else. And that is what happened to me.

Whilst I was busy searching for my sister, an old primary school friend from my days in Kampala was searching for me!

As I continued with my fruitless search, I stumbled across a alumni website for my old primary school. That in itself was pretty amazing - a small primary school in Kampala, Uganda having a list of old boys and girls on a reunion website. What was even more amazing is that there was a class photo from my year (1971 I think) that I had never seen before and I WAS IN IT!

And what was quite staggering was that one of my old friends, who I had not see or spoken to for over 30 years, had posted a short paragraph that included a sentence along the lines of "I wonder what ever happened to Tom Ilube after he returned to London?"

I was incredibly excited. I took action. On 26th June, 2005 I sent an email to my old friend that started

"....old boy,

How are you? I was surfing around the Kitante Primary School web site looking to see if I could remember any of the names from 30 years ago and imagine my delight when I saw you and read that you wanted to get in touch.

Only last week I was telling my son about my best friend in Uganda  who was so strong that he could make his belly hard and however hard I punched it, he didn't flinch ! Then I tried it and let my son 
punch me - I almost fell flat on the floor."

My friend and I caught up with each other online and shared stories about friends and families. Then we started to talk in earnest about my quest. My friend decided to help me and got to work.

Is it Her?

I won't retrace all the steps that we took from that point onward, but we exchanged a lot of messages back and forth as my friend followed up various leads. Finally on 3rd August 2005 I received the following email

"I have good news for you and your Dad! I have “found” your sister, Winnie, and her Aunt Mary. The sad news is that Winnie’s mother Betty is deceased-died sometime last year."

What an email bombshell. Can you imagine opening that?

At that stage, we were not certain this was the right lady. Similarly they were quite skeptical about this so called "brother" hunting for her after 30 years. It sounded all very dubious to them and they were naturally cautious.

But I had made my friend a promise. I told him that if we found my sister, I would fly down to Uganda immediately to see her.

The family we had found was headed by a Reverend Canon. He was very protective of his family and took a lot of convincing that we were genuine. We also wanted to be sure. But within a few days both groups were convinced and with my heart in my mouth I made preparations to travel to Uganda to meet my sister.

A Meeting In Masaka

I flew to Kampala, Uganda in late August and started to make arrangements to travel the 80 miles out of the capital to the town where I was told Winnie and her family lived. Immediately after the meeting, when I got back to Kampala that evening, I made notes of exactly what happened. So rather than rewrite history, I will repeat exactly what I wrote at the time, for the record. This is how I met my sister...

On Sunday 28th August we prepared to visit Masaka to meet Winnie.

The car, driven by Vincent, a Buganda man in his fifties, arrived at 9am as requested. My friend and I finished breakfast and we proceeded to stage one of our mission - shopping for groceries.

When visiting a traditional Buganda elder (Canon Wamala, Winnie's grandfather is 90 years old) one cannot go empty handed so another senior Buganda friend of Raymond had helped prepare an appropriate shopping list. Rice, flour, tea, sugar, bread, soft drinks were all procured at Metro  and at ShopRight, the large South African-owned supermarket.

Next stop was GabaRoad to pick up Mr Nsubuga. Mr Nsubuga, an old friend of my father and UTV colleague, himself a Muganda and steeped in tradition was to be the leader of our party and was representing  my father.

We then went to buy gifts. These consisted of a GSM mobile phone with phonecard for Winnie, a bible for the Canon and various traditional attire for the Canon and Aunty Mary, Winnie's aunt who has acted as Winnie's mother since Betty's death two years ago.

The gifts, in addition to the childrens clothes and handbag brought by me from London were declared 'very good' by Mr Nsubuga.

The four of us set out and we called Winnie's cousin Irene (Mary's daughter) to tell her to be ready for us to pick her up. Irene lives in Kampala but was to follow us to Masaka, having previously accompanied my friend to visit her mother Aunt Mary a few weeks earlier.

On the way to pick up Irene, an important discussion on protocol took place. It was conducted in Luganda but my friend translated for me. The issue was 'who are the gifts actually from and therefore who will present them?'

After some debate it was decided that the gifts were from my father himself to the Canon Wamala and that I had 'carried' them from Afuze [my father's village in Nigeria] via London. Therefore the gifts would be presented by Mr Nsubuga to the Canon on behalf of my father, whilst making reference to my role as the courier.

However it was also agreed that the mobile phone and the clothes from London were gifts from me direct to my sister, Winnie and these would be presented by me.

The car stopped to pick up Irene and we set out, Mr Nsubuga with the driver in front, my friend, Irene and me in the back, and a large pile of provisions and gifts in the hatchback boot.

As we set out for Masaka proper, my friend asked Irene to phone her mum, Mary, and let her know that we were on our way. A serious Luganda debate ensued between Irene and Mary, followed by another loud Luganda debate in the car. It transpired that Aunt Mary was claiming that my friend had not officially told her that we were coming and therefore nothing was prepared and the two hours that it would take to get to Masaka was not nearly enough time to prepare.

My friend, who had taken the whole exercise to heart and put so much effort to organise everything was mortified. He insisted that he had told Canon Wamala on the phone and had tried to reach Aunt Mary five times. However Irene was dismissive of her mother's grumblings claiming that it was just nerves, that Mary knew perfectly well that we were coming and that of course they would be ready. Indeed this proved to be the case.

Finally we were off, on the 2 hour drive to Masaka, west of Kampala. All seemed to be going well when suddenly after about an hour we heard a loud noise as we were speeding along at 80kph. A burst rear tire! Fortunately we had a jack and spare, so my friend single handedly changed the tire whilst the driver, Vincent and Mr Nsubuga helpfully supervised him.

Off we went again, this time at a modest speed. We passed the big concrete sculptures by the roadside signalling the line of the equator that I had had my photo taken at more than 30 years earlier, and somewhat later than expected we neared Masaka. One more stop to buy the last item, 10kg of beef from a roadside butcher and we were nearly there.

Actually we were not going to Masaka town itself. Our destination was a small village called Kako, about 2 miles outside Masaka and high up in the hills, overlooking Lake Victoria. We wound our way up past the little village of Kako and continued until we ran out of houses. Finally we arrived at the last house in the village, the home of Canon Wamala.

As our car drew up, people ran around at the back of the house. The front door was open but no-one could be seen. We stood respectfully by the car on Mr Nsubuga's advice whilst Irene went inside to signal our arrival. Then a middle aged lady smiling broadly came out and formally invited us in.

Canon Wamala, a slight but steady old gentleman greeted us whilst seated and told us to sit down which we did. Another old clergyman was in the room, eating, but said nothing. Then the lady who invited us in (who later turned out to be another of Winnie's aunts) reappeared with a girl and the two of them, smiling broadly, knelt down and shook hand with each of our party, remaining on their knees the whole time. This turned out to be the traditional manner in which Buganda women great menfolk.

The atmosphere was cordial but at this stage neither Mary nor Winnie were present and those present waited patiently to be told who we were and why we were there.

Mr Nsubuga rose to address the Canon. He started speaking Luganda but the old man stopped him and said in very clear and fluent English, that it was important Thomas understood so Mr Nsubuga should speak English.

Mr Nsubuga introduced us one by one, leaving me until last. He then outlined the history of the situation, leading up to my friends visit recently. He stated that due to circumstances beyond his control my father could not be present himself but that he had requested Mr Nsubuga to speak for him.

The Canon and other people listened keenly and with great interest. Canon then called for Winnie. A group of three young women came into the room and dropped to their knees to greet the visitors.

I whispered to my friend"which one is Winnie?" but he did not know. Then Canon pointed at one of the ladies and said "Winifred, that man there is your brother. Your father has sent him. Go and greet him"

Winnie detached herself from the group and came forwards silently. She knelt before me and greeted me softly in the traditional style and with little emotion showing on her face. Then I asked her to stand up and I stood up and gave her a hug in the traditional style of a brother! At this she broke down and began to sob quite intensely.

I patted her on the back and she held on tightly - obviously this display of emotion was not usual and there was a real mix of emotions on her part. The audience watched with approval and appreciation. Several later confessed that tears came to their eyes.

After that, the ice was well and truly broken and everyone relaxed. Winnie sat between me and my friend on the sofa. Then Aunt Mary came in. She knelt to greet too but unlike the other ladies her handshake was very firm, her voice strong and confident and she looked you straight in the eye.

Mary remarked that it was an interesting co-incidence that Tom had chosen to sit in exactly the same spot on  the sofa that he had sat on over 30 years before when he and his father had visited the house to see baby Winnie, and this was acknowledged by the group as being material and entirely appropriate.

Mr Nsubuga then rose to signal that we present the gifts but Mary insisted that we eat first. A buffet of traditional dishes emerged and we treated ourselves to matoke, pumpkin, chicken, greens and groundnut stew. Again it was noted with approval that both Winnie and I did not finish eating out chicken legs.

I then produced the photos I had brought and Winnie studied them with great interest. She also looked at a copy of the Ilube family tree that my father had prepared in 1997 and that I had updated with Winnie's name. She asked what village in Nigeria her father came from and which tribe he belonged to. I sketched a rough map of Nigeria, showing Benin City and Afuze, my dad's village.

Winnie's desire to know some of these details was significant as my friend later explained. In Buganda customer ones origins are important and even ones surname depends on where the father is from. Buganda names are clan-based e.g. all Nsubugas are from the same clan.As Winnie's father was not known the Canon had assigned her a 'free floating' Buganda surname, Namasoke, which is easily recognisable to other Buganda as not belonging to any clans.

The visiting party then returned to the car and ceremonially carried in the gifts. Mr Nsubuga formally described and presented each item in turn, all of which were warmly received.

Now Canon Wamala made a speech. He spoke in Lugauda at length and at the end Mr Nsubuga summarised in English. The Canon was extremely happy to have lived to see this day. The family greets Engr Ilube and thanks him for his many gifts. He welcomed Tom back to his home after over 30 years. He requested that when the time is appropriate Winnie travels to Nigeria to meet her father and thereafter what her future holds is up to her and her father.

Thereafter photos were taken at the front of the house. Two of Winnie's three children, Noelle (aged 6) and Moses (aged 6 weeks) were brought out from the back to meet their new Uncle Tom.

Finally as the evening was drawing in, goodbyes were said and the visitors drove back to Kampala, arriving home well after 10 pm.



So, there we have it. After over 30 year and with the help of the Web and serendipity we found our sister. Eight years later, Winnie's situation has changed considerable. She has a house and her children are in school and well look after. She traveled to Nigeria to meet her father and other siblings there.

Sadly the old Canon Wamala died shortly after. But I am told that he said, towards the end, he was content that he had lived to see Winnie reunited with her father and the other side of her family and he was happy to rest in peace.

As for me, sometimes you do things that you think with hindsight "gosh, what was I thinking, that could have turned out so badly". But this didn't. It turned out well and I am pleased. I did okay.


Jenni said...

Oh Tom, you did more than OK. You filled in a hole for her that was empty, and she probably thought would be empty for the rest of her life. What an amazing gift.

Abby said...


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