The violence in Uganda was escalating when my parents fled to Kenya on foot, trekking through the woods of Mt. Elgon. I was swaddled on my mother’s back because I was the youngest, while my five siblings were carried in turns by dad and his friend.
The new regime (The National Resistance Movement or NRM—the same administration ruling today), was settling in and violence was still rampant. We arrived in Kakuma refugee camp where we lived for two years and then my dad was offered a scholarship to study theology in the U.S.
For five years, I enjoyed broccoli, spinach, mustard greens, kale, collard greens, pizza, hamburgers and plenty of cold milk. My list is full of vegetables because mum always cooked them for us. I think she also ate lots of them, because she grew up eating lots of vegetables back in Uganda.
I enjoyed crunching raw carrots. Mum liked to slice a full bowl of cucumbers and eat them as she watched Whitney Houston videos. I always joined her eating the cucumbers. It was fun sitting in her arms and sharing a plate.
I never saw mustard greens. There was no broccoli—not even carrots or cucumbers to crunch on.
When my dad finished his theological studies at Bloomsburg University, we returned to Uganda. It was a chilly afternoon when we arrived at Entebbe International Airport. Dad kissed the ground and threw his hands to the sky thanking God for returning us home. He hated the fast and busy life in the U.S. He had eight children to cater for, classes to attend and a wife who needed his attention.
In Uganda, President Milton Obote had been overthrown and a new, more promising regime was in power. As we drove to our village, Kilayi, I saw bursts of blossoming matoke (a type of East African highland banana), monkeys begging for food, rare lime green plants, cattle feeding on spring grass, crystal-clear waterfalls—so much beauty for an eight year old to witness.
But life would quickly become hard and monstrous. Our backyard looked like a jungle. The porch and front yard were a mess. We slept on mats made from crushed bamboo. We had to learn to cross flooded streams and rivers while balancing on a single wooden pole.
We became natural wayfinders like the rest of the children in the village. We ate slippery green leafy veg, matoke and purple yams. Sometimes there was no sauce to accompany the food and so we ate the yams and the matoke with dissolved salt. I never saw mustard greens. There was no broccoli—not even carrots or cucumbers to crunch on. And definitely no pizza.
For two years we lived like this until we moved to a new village. There were carrots and cucumbers in this village but none of the other veggies we’d had in the U.S. Mum got some seeds and started growing carrots in our garden.
Little did I know that our country was beginning to adopt new food trends. A few years later and you could order spinach salads, an apple pie, delicious hamburgers and lots of other American dishes from restaurants. Awed by the new food revolution, the curious me decided to find out what sparked the trend.
It turns out a British teacher played a part. Locals remember him only by his first name, Simon, who they say was hired to teach at Ambrosoli International School more than fifteen years ago. He saw the need for foreign fruits and vegetables in Uganda and shared the idea of growing them with his friend Matovu Elia, a local farmer.
Matovu bought into Simon’s idea, imported seeds, prepared his garden and began growing strawberries, blueberries, broccoli, baby spinach and other fruits and vegetables. When the plants were ready, Matovu and Simon began a basket market at Ambrosoli International School’s compound.
Their targets were the parents of the students of the school. The parents were happy. They flooded the school every Friday and even brought their friends along. The demand for the foreign fruits and vegetables was so high, the two men couldn’t possibly serve everyone.
The time came for Simon to return to the UK, but Matovu continued serving the produce. He later joined a group of farmers known as the Namulonge Hot Culture Farmers’ Association—a group of vegetable growers who shared the same passion.
He raised money, bought two acres of land in Lugazi town and started growing the fruits and vegetables on a bigger piece of land. For the people of Lugazi—folks laboring under the burden of little or no income and ill health—the new acre of fruits and vegetables has had a profound impact.
Today, Matovu is the biggest supplier of fruits and vegetables to high-end hotels and restaurants in Uganda. He even supplies Serena Hotel, one of the most respected five-star hotels in the country.
Matovu began growing strawberries, blueberries, broccoli, baby spinach and other fruits and vegetables.
Besides supplying to hotels, Matovu holds three farmers’ markets across Kampala city each week. One happens at the U.S. Embassy on Fridays; another at Prunes Restaurant, an upscale spot uptown, and another at Ambrosoli International School, the place where everything began.
Ssemusu Richard, Matovu’s brother, work’s with Matovu as his marketing manager and supplier. I met him at one of their farmers’ markets at Prunes hotel. Before we could chat, a European woman walked in to pick her vegetables. She was dressed in classy denim jeans and a cute white top. They exchanged pleasantries and one of Ssemusu’s assistants lifted two boxes of produce and helped the woman to her car.
I asked Matovu who his customers are. “They are mostly NGO workers, some Asians and Ugandans who have lived abroad. And the woman you’ve just seen is a long-time customer. She always comes here on Saturdays.”
Ssemusu has worked with his brother for a decade. He started working with him while he was still in his first year at high school. Now he is completing his bachelor’s degree at Makerere University Business School. After that he plans to start his own vegetable business. “This is all I’ve known,” he told me. “The money we get is what pays my tuition, our sister’s tuition, and even takes care of our elderly mother. I don’t plan to do anything else except to sell fruits and vegetables.”
According to the World Health Organization, at least 3 million people die annually due to low fruit and vegetable consumption. Although Uganda is second to Kenya in producing plenty of fruits and vegetables, a report by Archives of Public Health, which studied Uganda’s dietary habits, discovered that fruit and vegetable consumption in Uganda was low. Of the cohort studied, just 12.2 percent consumed five or more servings of fruits and/ or vegetables per day in a typical week (about the same as Americans) and the study’s authors said there was a need to develop and strengthen policies that promote adequate consumption of fruits and vegetables in the Ugandan population.
Diseases such as cancer, diabetes, HIV, malaria and tuberculosis are on the rise in Africa, yet the antioxidants found in the plenty vegetables and fruits grown on the continent can help prevent and fight the progress of these diseases.
The study’s authors said there was a need to develop and strengthen policies that promote adequate consumption of fruits and vegetables in the Ugandan population.
The problem—as established in a study published in the FASEB Journal in 2016—is that many of the traditional fruits and vegetables are being replaced by exotic ones because of the high demand for these fruits and vegetables in the western markets. But the study’s authors say these imported vegetables are more expensive and less adapted to the region’s climate. As a result, the average East African consumes little vegetables or none at all during periods of shortages of domestic fruit and vegetables. So they’re not getting enough antioxidants and vitamins in their diet.
Naiga Francis is yet another farmer who brings her organic eggs and chicken to sell at the various farmers’ markets, including the one at Prunes. Although they assemble their produce at the same markets, Naiga’s mission and target market are different from that of Matovu and his siblings.
Naiga began what she calls an organic nutrition movement. Her target clients are Ugandans but also other people that care about eating healthy. Naiga rears chicken and sells both the eggs and the meat. She gives her animals organic feed and doesn’t use vaccines or antibiotics like many of the other farmers do.
Naiga’s eggs are yellow yolk eggs; the type that many people prefer because they are tastier and offer better nutrition such as beta carotene, vitamins A, E and Omega-3s. “Ten years ago, Ugandans didn’t suffer from diseases like diabetes and obesity. Now it’s becoming prevalent and it’s because of unhealthy eating,” Naiga explains.
In 2016, in response to growing awareness of healthy diets globally, Uganda’s national agricultural research organization began training vegetable farmers in Uganda to grow Asian vegetables. The results are already evident. Chinese cabbage is doing the rounds in groceries. There is a lot of amaranth, Szechuan eggplant, cauliflower and others.
Although the Ugandan staple foods are grain, stewed bananas cooked in banana leaves, meat, yams, mushrooms, ground nuts, and sauce, Ugandans also enjoy English, Italian and Indian dishes. This partly explains why most of the Uganda restaurants are influenced by English, Asian and Italian cuisine.
It’s been twenty two years since I returned from the U.S. and I enjoy living in Uganda. The food now is fresh, the water is clean, the cost of living is low and the people are hospitable. Since I’ve returned, I’ve only eaten refrigerated meat three times, since fresh food is readily available. And the beauty of this country is that if you fall in love with its food, you can buy a piece of land for as low as $3,000, start growing your own food, and sell the surplus.
Last new year I began a new routine of eating five portions of fruit every day as a way to keep healthy and add more years to my life. But I also realize that the wide variety and abundance that I can afford may not be as available to others in my country who need the valuable nutrients they offer. My bounty may lead to their scarcity, which is something that my country needs to address.
Esther Muwombi is a freelance writer, based in Kumpala, Uganda, and mother of two girls and one boy. She has been writing for the past 11 years and enjoys telling stories about her beloved Africa. When she's not writing, she loves to relax by the beach with her family.