Unstoppable. When unfortunate conditions happen to a family’s bread winner, say loss of job or at worst, death, many children drop out of school. Petronella Acen, however, defied all odds, searched for jobs and operated small businesses to complete university education at the age of 19. Tonny Mushoborozi shares her story.
A year after joining Kyambogo University in 2014, her father lost his job. Petronella Acen and her siblings (five), dropped out of school. Because her father no longer had anything to keep in him Kampala, it was only practical that the family joins their mother back in the village in Lira. Their dream to study in good schools in Kampala had temporarily been shattered.
It was time to regroup in the village and make new plans. However, Acen did not want to go back to the village. There had to be a way to get back to university and finish her degree, she thought to herself. She convinced her father that she would be staying and keep running a small retail shop that the family had.
Fending for self
“I sat in that small shop waiting for a handful of clients and thinking of ways of raising tuition. Living alone in Kampala at 19 while paying my own bills and needs was straining. But I wanted to finish my degree and I knew I had to get a job as soon as possible,” says Acen.
In 2016, as she went about job hunting, she went to SafeBoda Company. Regardless of her age, she, she says she gave assurance to her supervisor that she would perform if she was given a job opportunity.
“All I needed was training. Luckily, I managed to convince the panel. I joined SafeBoda and after a short training in marketing, I started work as a street marketer.”
Her job was to convince boda boda cyclists to enrol with SafeBoda as riders. Her other assignment was to interest boda boda users to download the SafeBoda app and use the service. Acen says she started making money to pay part of her tuition at Kyambogo University.
After seven months, luckily, a job opportunity for customer service operator presented itself at Safe Boda. “I applied, sat interviews and I got the job. I was waiting for such an opening because I knew the customer service team works in shifts. This was a perfect way to negotiate for shifts, to allow me to attend school and work at the same time.”
Although she was able to work from 2pm to 10pm, five days a week, she could only attend lectures between 8am and 12noon and rush for her work shift. This meant that she had to involuntarily miss out on some lectures and sometimes tests. What made sense to her then was the fact that her tuition was paid and she could comfortably sit examinations.
A tough childhood
“I grew up closer to my mother than I was to my father. My father worked fulltime in Kampala, for different organisations and he was always away. We grew up with our mother, working on the farm in the north. My mother taught me the value of hardwork and always emphasised the need to give my best to whatever I did. These are some of the wise sayings that keep me going even when the going gets tough.”
“As long as I was in the company of my mother, we were working on something. From making local brew to working in the garden or taking on several other odd jobs, we had to raise our own pocket money. She taught us at a very young age that if any of us needed something, we had to work hard for it.” “When I joined boarding school at O-Level, my mother always transported me on a bicycle to school at the beginning of the term. It was a six-hour journey. She was unstoppable.”
“So, from a young age, I inadvertently developed a thick skin. In my Senior Six vacation, my mother went to nurse a close family member in hospital. In the absence of both our parents, my siblings and I had to take care of ourselves. On top of doing home chores, we had to work on people’s farms to raise the money needed to run the home. I had to take on a job at a local primary school as a teacher. All these taught me the essence of hard work, perseverance and discipline.”
Her love for modelling and fashion
Acen reminisces the times she played with dolls she made from banana fibres. She remembers vividly how she used to make tiny dresses for her dolls. As she grew older, she realised that she had irresistible interest in fashion.
“In magazines and newspapers, I always looked out for fashion sections. One day, when I read about Alek Wek, the US-based Sudanese model, her story sparked my love for modelling.”
My journey in Miss Uganda
“Growing up, all I knew about Miss Uganda was fame, fashion and showbiz. But the stories about the twins- Joselyn Nyangoma and Jaqueline Nyakato moved me. I wanted to be a part of this great fraternity someday.
When I grew up, I read about the Miss Uganda foundation, the charity work and corporate social responsibility and realised there was more to the pageant than meets the eye.
One day, when I read about Alek Wek, the US-based Sudanese model, her story sparked my love for modelling. One thing led to another and I ended up in a modelling agency, when I was in senior five. I juggled modelling with the school.
In life, I met different people and got to see the plight of the under-privileged. I lived it and it is not fun. I really want to help lift someone up. I felt that I could work on something with the foundation if I made it through Miss Uganda auditions.
I went for the auditions without any knowledge of beauty pageants. Modelling and beauty pageants are miles apart.
I was a runway model. I did not know what to expect but before I knew it, I had made it through the auditions.
The three-week boot camp was tough and intimidating. The girls were all smart, all beautiful and intelligent.
It takes courage and family support for one to go through the competition.
It takes utmost strength to deliver beyond expectations and stand out. Miss Uganda judges look out for qualities that are literally hidden.
At the end of the campaign, I came fourth in the whole competition. I am proud of the position I scooped.
It was all worth it. Now I am a better person. I am more confident, more graceful and wiser.
It was after university that I merged my two passions into a business. I spend my days designing unique outfits for my clients. I look out for better opportunities, but my fashion shop is the baby I am nurturing now.
I plann to reach out to the needy girls in my home region. Even if I touch the life of just one girl, I will be a happy woman. I can imagine how tough it is but I am ready for the challenge.”