I‘m Kavuma – manager-ticha – founder of Triplets Ghetto Kids and Triplets Foundation
When I graduated as a maths teacher in 2007, I knew I had to do more than simply teach inside the classroom. I had been a street kid and I was passionate about reaching those boys and girls. They needed a good Samaritan, just as I had done.
I was born in 1985 in Butambala in an especially violent time in our history. A 6-year civil war was just coming to an end after a war with Tanzania that had ended a military regime that had run the economy into the ground. Hundreds of thousands of people had been killed but I was lucky, we were about to come into a long period of peace. Still, I wasn’t that lucky: My father died when I was very little and there was no money left behind. My mother was on her own now, so I went out to the street to hustle from when I was very little just like lots of other kids and adults. Hustling is basically figuring out a way to make a bit of money. You might pick through rubbish dumps and sell anything you could find as scrap, you might sell fruit through car windows or perform some kind of dance or song in the street for donations. Hustling teaches you a lot of lessons and it makes you fast. Hustling is dangerous, you learn to see warning signs and you learn to run for any escape route you can find.
Life was a strategic game against poverty. Kids like me looked death in the jaws many times. Not all of us made it but it trained the ones that did, we don’t expect life to be easy and we don’t give up without a fight. In Uganda, when we say ghetto, we’re talking about a whole range of different experiences, there are different levels of difficulty and different generations. After the war we lived in shanty towns built from rubbish and wreckage rising from the mud and dust. Back in those early days, we reused and adapted everything we could find a use for. The shanty towns were ingenious feats of engineering and creativity. Electricity and clean water? Haha, they were a luxury!
In the dry season the dust would be everywhere all the time. Your nose would dry up and bleed, your eyes sting and your skin get irritable. In the rainy season, the dust was gone but the mud and the puddles arrived, some puddles were so huge they took up whole streets and you couldn’t see how deep they went. I’d see cars or bikes drive into them and get stuck or groups of shouting men slipping around in the muddy water trying to push a car out.
Photo of floods in Kampala by Edgar R Batte cortesy of Daily Monitor
The rain would wash homes away and you would see people pulling their possessions out of the wreckage and starting again from scratch. You tried to keep dirty water as far away as possible, it attracted mosquitoes carrying Malaria. But the rainy, hot conditions brought them in their millions, at some point you’d start feeling the first symptoms.
As the years went by, parts of the shanty towns transformed into more permanent homes. Some areas became slums and others slightly better. People went to great lengths to set up small businesses like shops, taxis, boda boda (motorbike taxis), the struggle to build our lives with our own hands taught us to find any way possible to make our lives that bit better.
“The shanty towns were ingenious feats of engineering and creativity.”
Kids in Kampala. Photograph by Brian Wolfe on Flickr
I figured out that education isn’t simply going to school, it’s being ready to learn. I couldn’t afford even the cheapest school fees but my ghetto life was teaching me every day. Hope isn’t something abstract, I believe it shows itself in practical ways. My curiosity drove me to ask questions when I had the chance. I got better at asking the right kind of questions that would get me more informative answers. I learnt how to think about what had brought me good and bad results and try and minimise the damage. My friends and I would plan and organise, try things out and help each other get back on our feet when our plans went pear-shaped. I still see that same entrepreneurial spirit among the street kids these days.
Playing football was our great release. I loved football: the skill, the concentration, the teamwork and the strategies. But I also love football because it changed my life for the better.
One afternoon, I was 10, we were playing and I got control of the ball and scored a goal. Suddenly I heard a shout and a man was standing on the side of the pitch calling me over. He told me, ‘You have 3 chances to score again as I watch.’ I scored again, and again. When that was over, he presented himself:
‘Kayita Musa’, he said, ‘I’m a teacher and a football coach’.
I could see I had impressed him, then he asked:
‘Would you like to go to school?’
I can still feel how the tears gathered in my eyes and I heard my own voice say, ‘Yes’.
This is not a picture of the memorable moment because none of us had mobile phones with cameras back then. Photo cortesy of Seth Doyle via stocksnap
Kayita took me to school and paid for my education through primary school. That first day I made a firm promise that I was going to do the same for a child when I grew up. Thanks to my soccer skills I could to go to secondary school and to college without paying fees. At college I joined the music department and discovered dance.
In 2007, I graduated from college as a teacher. Although life in Kampala had been free of war for 30 years now, children were still hanging around in the streets, going through the same cruel lessons of their own ghetto. Children with no hope, pushed into hustling for a few coins, I could see myself all over again and I knew it was up to me this time. I managed to convince the headteacher of the school I worked in to allow some children in and charge the school fees to my salary. Over that time, I lived on half of my salary and the rest paid for their education.
I spotted a bright little 7-year-old, he had a lot of energy and he was so quick-witted. When he was hustling, he did it with a big grin and an air of self-respect. I saw he had talent and that his smile was so contagious he made even the grumpiest of observers chuckle.
‘Will you be my manager?’ he asked me, ‘Because I’m gonna be a star and I’ll need a manager.’
‘So, what’s the name of this rising star?’ I asked him, a bit gobsmacked but impressed by his persuasiveness.
‘Alex will do for now,’ he told me, ‘Alex Ssempijja’.
There was no holding him back. As fast as I taught him to dance, he practiced and he nailed it. It wasn’t always easy but he pushed on ahead with that conviction he had, he needed no encouragement. At the same time, I had him going to school and our schedule was intense.
Alex with Ron Stamina in 2012
In 2010, I met a singer with a fast-growing fan base. He’d grown up facing the same kind of problems as me and we became friends. That year he had his first really big hit and his professional career went from strength to strength, it was so encouraging to see someone I identified with taking that step. My friend is now internationally known as Eddy Kenzo and is credited with being one of East Africa’s most successful stars. Alex danced in a few of Eddy’s videos after his initial success and in 2013 he let me choose from 3 of his new songs one I could use to make a video. Do you know which one I chose?
Of course you do. Alex brought a new friend along, he was just 9 years old but he had a shadow hanging over him that gave him the eyes of a grown man. It was around that time that I came across two brothers performing on the streets for donations, so the three new boys began training with us, I now had a small dance troop: Alex, Ada, Fred and Isaac. Alex and Fred developed this comic plot where they were competing with each other to dance to the song and then Ada and Isaac connected with it. But there was one element that was still missing and I had a pretty good idea of who I had in mind. You know who I’m talking about, right?
You got it: Patricia. We had no real chance to rehearse with her, I gave her some instructions and the rest was her own improvisation and we shot the video Sitya Loss in one take.
A friend of mine uploaded the video to a YouTube channel and a week later he told me:
‘The video has gone viral!’
‘Is that bad?’ I asked, completely confused. I hadn’t the faintest idea what he meant and I was worried.
‘No, no! It’s really good!’
He chuckled at the perplexed look on my face, I had never been a friend of anything viral, was I about to start now? The Sitya Loss Kids became a pandemic. People weren’t seeing street kids as a problem to ignore or feel sorry for, they were crazy about them. Who could explain this international madness that these 5 children were causing?
I love how music and dance can be used for good. Uganda has faced its own challenges and we’ve survived them but dance, song and rap have helped us to build a better life for ourselves. Not only that but they have created a national brand. Many people in the world have had first contact with Uganda through Eddy Kenzo and Triplets Ghetto Kids and this is the beginning of a unique brand for our country. Our culture is alive with young, energetic talent. I can’t teach all the children in Uganda, but now there are many who are teaching themselves. They get videos and they learn from them, building a unique style. It’s a beautiful thing.