Each one of us has scars, some are physical others are emotional. Twenty four-year-old Aisha Nabukeera’s scars catapulted her from an ordinary childhood to a poster child for overcoming abuse. As she celebrates yet another milestone she recounts her journey so far and her plans for the future.
Night of horror
Nabukeera recalls the night of the fire with so much clarity and becomes teary recounting the incident. “On the evening of February 2, 2006 my stepmother called me into the house and handed me a dress that reeked of kerosene which she ordered me to put on. I tried to point out this fact but she just gave me a stern look and told me to simply put it on.
A few minutes later she ordered her children to get out as she handed me a paraffin lamp commonly known as Tadooba and told me to light it. I remember the flames that licked my dress and my body started to burn. I decided to run out of the house. My aim was to take a dive in the well that was behind our house. Then I saw a man in an Arsenal team jersey who responded to my cry for help. At that point, my step mother came with a bucket of water which she poured on me,” Nabukeera recounts.
Now in taking some time to reflect on the way circumstances progressed after the attack, Nabukeera says that night was when her fortunes turned for the better. “Of course at the time I could not see it. I was angry, afraid and feeling hopeless but now that my way of thinking has changed, I realise that the incident hurt me a lot but it opened doors for me. I have met a lot of interesting people experienced things I would not otherwise have been able to,” she observes.
Discovering her worth
One of those unbelievable experiences is contesting in the Miss Uganda pageant in 2015/16 which she entered almost a decade later. By this time Nabukeera had blossomed into a beautiful, intelligent and passionate young woman. Although her participation was met with varied opinions, Nabukeera pressed on and was among the last ten beauties in the contest. “At the time I entered the contest I looked healed to the world but the truth is I still needed to heal some more. My uncle (Frank Gashumba) always told me that my scars must never determine how far my life goes; a lesson I had learned by then. I even took pride in my scars as they were proof of what I had overcome, but I was still battling with those moments of self-doubt. I would have episodes where something triggered those moments of hopeless and abandonment; I would withdrew into myself and start treating people with suspicion,” Nabukeera explains.
Nabukeera says the Miss Uganda boot camp experience equipped her with skills that empowered and boosted her self-confidence. “I now move and talk with confidence because I believe I have a right to be heard and have something worthy to add to every situation,” she adds. Yes Nabukeera is definitely a very confident and articulate young woman but thankfully she is without the vanity and braggadocio characteristic of her peers. Her social media accounts are nothing but an expression of her life’s work and dream to give back to society. “I love being part of society but I am a private person, I would rather enjoy my life than get lost in creating the idea of the perfect life I am not living on social media,” Nabukeera states.
In 2009, she joined Horizon College of St. Lawrence on a compassion scholarship offered by the school’s owner Lawrence Mukiibi. She completed her O-Levels at the school, scoring Aggregate 31 and she later joined London College of St Lawrence for her A- Level offering History, Geography, Economics and Sub-Maths. She scored 15 points and joined Uganda Christian University Mukono for a Bachelor of Social Work and Social Administration.
Now after her graduation, Nabukeera looks back at the way her life has turned out with gratitude and awe.
“For a long time I was angry at my stepmother for trying to ruin my life. Now I believe her act of malice became the greatest gift of my life. Looking at the circumstances I was born in, I believe I am one of the luckiest people living now,” says Nabukeera getting misty-eyed.
Born into an extended family of more than 10 children, she observes that she has been able to attain higher education than any of her siblings.
This she does not take for granted and she has big plans to give back to a society that embraced and supported her for all these years.
“My dream is to help improve the lives of other children in my circumstances. I want to fight child abuse using the passion and experience of my life. Stop telling abused children that their pain is not a big deal that there are people worse off than they are. No one should ever belittle someone else’s suffering,” urges Nabukeera.
Her passion to pursue her goal of social work majorly influenced her choice of course at university. And she chose the university because she wanted a place that did not have things that would distract her from her mission.
“My friends used to talk about how strict UCU was as cautionary tales but for my uncle and I, that was what we were looking for in a university. There were some adjustments needed on my side concerning the dress code but after that I settled in and enjoyed my stay at the university,” Nabukeera recounts.
Nabukeera credits all her lecturers for mentoring her especially Doris Birungi who took her under her wing and provided counselling and guidance that was above and beyond her professional duties.
As groundwork to her life’s calling, Nabukeera started a foundation, the Aisha Nabukeera Foundation that aims at helping children in need. “I have not been able to do as much as I would have liked because of my schedule but now that I have finished school I will get that going once again. My motivation is to make sure that no child ever gets to feel the pain, frustration and anger I felt as a child,” she says.
“My biggest lesson has been inner strength. Throughout my life, I have had to understand the importance of overcoming adversity and continue to be strong on the inside. I have learned that strangers can be more helpful than family. I remember after the arson attempt, my close family just abandoned me, it was a stranger who took pity on me and built me into the person I am today.
“I also believe that there is good in everyone and in every situation if you are wise and patient enough to see it,” she reflects.
“Help people even when you know they will not help you back,” Nabukeera shares.
It has been a long journey of pain and misery since I was abused as a child. I cannot say much about what I went through except to treasure and appreciate those who stood by me,” Nabukeera adds.
Asked to point out the biggest milestones in her life, Nabukeera says everyday she wakes up alive and well feels like a milestone that should be celebrated. “Once you realise how easy it is for everything to come to an end you appreciate life more never taking any moment for granted,” she adds.
However, of all those precious moments some stand out more for Aisha Nabukeera.
Going back to school
“This particular topic brings tears to my eyes. It makes me very emotional because it is by far the best thing that ever happened to me. After the arson attempt most of my family abandoned me. Going to school was just out of question for me. I was treated as a hopeless case and so I lost all hope. I thought it was the end of my life which made me so bitter and angry at the world. That was until Uncle Gashumba came into my life and assured me that I would go back to school.
I always think of my first day at school as the first day of my better life. Getting a scholarship at St Lawrence Schools and Colleges from the late Prof Lawrence Mukiibi (RIP) also really changed my life.”
Miss Uganda pageant 2015/2016
“Joining the Miss Uganda pageant was not about me; it was about showing every young girl out there who feels overwhelmed by the uncontrollable circumstances in their lives, that all is not finished. I wanted them to learn from my experience that life has many twists and turns; some may not be easy to navigate but they will get a break, things will get better. And I wanted that young girl who is ashamed of her scars whether physical or emotional to know that those scars make them stronger, more interesting people. It was also a rewarding experience for me; I met amazing young women and learned valuable life lessons.”
“Growing up in Masaka, the only thing I wanted was to have a university education because I knew this was the only thing that would make a difference in my life. I always dreamed of that day when I would put on that gown and be part of those happy graduands. For a while there, I felt I would never live to see this day but now that it has happened it is indeed a dream come true.”