Margaret Nakanjakke was born in a small village near the start of the Nile River, in a tiny hut with no electricity. Her mother had 22 pregnancies and 16 children. In Margaret’s words, “you can see how big my family was, so my father was always struggling. I know what it means to sleep hungry. I know what it means to go naked. I know what it means to go without a blanket … Maybe someone would give us an old blanket, but it would be full of holes. We would cover up, but we could feel the coldness coming through. I would gather the two dresses I had and put them down to sleep on. The next morning I would wash them and put them on, because I had to go to town. It was too hard.”
She also shared the real stress such a large family caused her parents, saying, “the day breaks, and I would see my father seated … but he would not lift his head because the tears were rolling down. The family was too heavy for him.”
Margaret’s mother, who never attended formal school, tried to stop having children. During the births of her last children she almost died. But Margaret’s mother needed her father’s signature to get a tubal ligation, and because he was very religious, he refused to give her permission. Instead she tried a local traditional of tying a thread around her waist. It did not work.
Margaret started working at 15 to help support herself and her family. She would sell banana leaves, eggplants, and plantains by the roadside in order pay her school fees and help her family. She did all this while trying to attend school. She would walk 6 miles every morning to “dig” or farm for other people for money. Then she would rush to school, often missing some of her classes.
Part II: The Pregnancy
It was while she was away and school that a boy started showing interest in Margaret and asking her to date him. She ignored him for a long time, but in her words, “the girls, they started telling me how I was missing out on things – First, I’m poor, the boy is handsome, other girls are going to take him … But they did not tell me about protection.”
“The first time I gave in, I got pregnant. I was hurt so much. In my village, people respected me, because most girls failed to reach Senior 4 [high school] … most of them got pregnant and dropped out … Now I was pregnant. My family felt humiliated. My mother cried.”
When they found out she was pregnant, her parents kicked Margaret out of her house, because, according to Margaret, when you become pregnant while still living at home in Uganda, you are not allowed to eat food out of the same pot, drink water from the same drain, or sleep under the same roof.
Margaret was so ashamed and desperate that she tried to take her own life three times. She swallowed poison and even threw herself in the river. But she survived.
Just before she was about to deliver, Margaret’s mother talked her father into letting her back into the house. But shortly after the baby was born, Margaret’s father took the baby and away, against Margaret’s wishes, and gave him to the parents of the baby’s father.
She would not see her son again for another 10 years.
Part III: Margaret’s Empower
In the meantime, Margaret had to move out and find a job. She landed a job as a janitor for Reproductive Health Uganda, a job that would eventually transform her life.
Although she started cleaning floors, she began picking up a number of reproductive health and rights facts. As Margaret puts it, “I started learning about reproductive health and my rights. I started learning about contraception, and I thought, ‘oh, I wish I had known about this.’”
She proved to be a fast learner and eventually earned a sport as a community health educator, focused on counseling young people and sharing her own story in order to connect with them. “I was talking to them, but I was also absorbing it for myself. And I started feeling, I am me, I can own my life. I can make decisions for my life,” she explained.
For the first time in her life, Margaret understood the connecting between sex and pregnancy, explaining, “… If I had known about at least condoms, or the pill, I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant …. Because I didn’t want that. It did not occur to me that I was going to get pregnant.”
When asked why reproductive health is so important in Uganda, Margaret said, “It is very important because … it makes people realize what they want for themselves … I grew up fearing my father … Now because of RHU, I know he’s my father, but he does not have to make decisions for me, decisions I don’t want. That is why [reproductive health] empowers people, especially young people. I go into schools, and a flock of them come, they want more [information].”
Margaret attributes the rights she learned about at Reproductive Health Uganda for giving her the courage to reunite with her son.
While she was separated from her son, she was so desperate to see what he looked like and how much he had grown that she would stand outside his school and watch him play in the school yard through the bars. One day she got up the nerve to call out to him, but he did not recognize her. Margaret cried and begged the school officials to let her talk to him, but they refused.
For several years Margaret would sneak to his school and watch him grow from afar, until he became a teenager and began asking his father about his birth mother. Her son’s father eventually relented and let her see him.
As Margaret puts it, “He was so reserved, but … now we are very close. We are the best of friends … He tells me and ask me everything in life.”
Part IV: Margaret’s Second Chance
Margaret eventually got married to a man she loves and had two more children, which she planned, using Depo Provera, a three-month contraceptive shot. She shared with pride how open she is with all three of her kids about reproduction and sexuality. “I teach them to be open, which I wasn’t with my parents,” she explains.
Margaret was also able to go back to school. She studied at night after work, after she had cooked dinner and put her kids to bed. She eventually sat for her Senior 6 exam, the equivalent of graduating from high school. Not only did she pass, but she received one of the top scores in the country and was featured in the newspaper.
When asked what message she would give to U.S. policymakers, Margaret said, “The people down here, they are capable of being anyone … but they need help. Ignorance is the worst disease …. In certain countries where girls are not empowered, they don’t have information, and then they are blamed for what they have fallen instead of helped … If the policymakers consider that, I tell you, our girls can go far.”
Margaret’s life was transformed by the information and empowerment she received through Reproductive Health Uganda (RHU). She is now using that information to improve the lives of thousands of young Ugandans by giving them the tools they desire to avoid unintended pregnancies, stay in school, and live healthy, productive lives.
Margaret’s work, and the work of RHU, is in jeopardy because funding from the U.S. and international donors is not keeping pace with expanding needs and could even be cut. RHU is beginning to increase user fees to in an effort to offset the decline in international support, but this remains a difficult task in a country with an average household income of only $90 per month. At least in the short term, Margaret, and the many young people she and RHU serve, will continue to rely on support from the U.S. and the UN to ensure they have access to the contraceptive information and services they need.
“The people down here, they are capable of being anyone … but they need help. Ignorance is the worst disease …”