Imagine you were living a happy simple life with your companion and your two kids, when you are both attacked in your house, while you sleep and are severely wounded. Imagine you survive and he doesn’t. Imagine that, while you are still grieving and trying to figure out what happen, you are arrested, tried and sentenced for his murder. And not any sentence, the death penalty! What will you do? Will you powerlessly accept your fate, or will you try and fight to clear your name? But how? Who will listen to you in this country that has already sentenced you without listen to your plea?
You will forgive me for so unceremoniously introducing today’s story with this gruesome scenario, but I can’t find any way around it. In this case, I believe it’s only if you know how close she was to the gates of hell that you will be able to appreciate her journey back to the land of the living.
Today I am inspired by Susan Kigula of Uganda. Susan was born in 1980 in Masaka, a town of 100,000 inhabitants in the Central Region of Uganda. Masaka is located near the equator, by Lake Victoria, some 140 kilometres to the south-west of the country’s capital Kampala.
Susan and her three brothers and five sisters had a happy childhood. Her parents raised them to believe in themselves and to have big dreams in life. However, when she was later faced with hardship, she was to realise her family life was nothing like wat the ‘real’ world had in store for her.
“My happy childhood didn’t prepare me for what was to come in adulthood.”
When she was old enough to live on her own, Susan moved to Kampala, where she found a job in a small gift shop. That’s where she met Constantine Sseremba. He was 28, about ten years older than her, and had a young toddler, a boy, from a previous relationship.
They moved in together and had a daughter. They lived in a small one bed-room apartment in the neighbourhood of Kawempe, they didn’t have much, but they had a happy life, Susan recalls.
“We loved each very much. We would go to the cinema and the park and people would tease us. They would call us twins because we were so in sync. We were not rich, but we were happy that we had each other. We saw the best in our situation and we didn’t dwell on the negative.”
Picture perfect life, wouldn’t you say? Yet, this very uneventful life was going to take a tragic turn to the worst, in the most unexpected and unexplained way to this date.
I must warn you, the details I am about to share here are not for the faint of heart. Parental control advised!
It was a Sunday, July 9th, 2000, a very ordinary day by her recollection. They had dinner together, they were in a good mood, laughing like teenagers, the way they always did. They put their two young kids to bed before they too went to bed too. They all slept in the same room, her companion and their two kids.
Their housemaid, a young woman called Patience Nansamba, was sleeping on a mattress in the living room.
At around 2:30 in the morning, Susan was abruptly awakened by a blow to her neck with a sharp object.
“There was hot blood, that came out of a wound, the sheets were soaked with blood.”
There was too much blood in the bed, she knew it wasn’t just hers. As the room was too dark to see anything, she lit a flashlight and her first reflex was to check on the kids. They were fine. Then she heard her companion Constantine, groaning in pain.
“Constantine was down, his neck was severed.”
She was still trying to make sense of what was happening when their housemaid Patience stormed into the room and told her that she had just seen two people running out of the apartment.
“My vision was blurry, and I was unsteady on my feet as I made my way outside to alert the neighbours to come help us. I saw a couple of figures running away, but they could have been anyone at this point, I can’t be sure they were my attackers.
She hadn’t realised she had run out of the house half naked till someone handed her a blanket. She was too weak to try and run after the men.
“I was still bleeding and then I passed out.”
Susan woke up hours later. Her father was at her bedside and she was lying on a hospital bed, feeling the sharp pain on the back of her neck. The first thing she was told was that Constantine had passed away and that the families had made arrangements for him to be buried the following day.
She inquired about the kids and she was told her family was looking after her one-year-old daughter and her partner’s three-year-old son had been taken by his own relatives.
It was slowly sinking in that life she had always known was over. Last night’s events kept turning in her mind, but she couldn’t make sense of any of it. Who could have done this? Nor her nor her partner had enemies, at least none that she could think of. But then again, this didn’t wasn’t a burglary, nothing was stolen.
The next morning, she managed to get up and go to the funeral, after which she was driven back to the hospital.
She was still there being treated for her severe wound when the police came to see her, some three days after her partner’s burial. She first thought they were there to inform her on how the investigation was going, but that was not the case. Or in a way that was the case, when you think about it: they had concluded that she had murdered Constantine, with the help of the maid, and they were there to arrest her!
Before she could understand what was happening, the police took her from the hospital and drove her straight to Luzira Maximum Security Prison to await trial! The infamous Luzira, by the name of the neighbourhood where it is in the outskirts of Kampala, is the largest penal institution in Uganda. It hosts both men and women, who are either awaiting trial or purging their sentence.
While she was waiting for trial, Susan learned that Constantine family had shared with the police that her partner’s son had told them he witnessed her and the housemaid murder his father.
What? How could that be?
“I was naive in that moment. I thought, ‘Obviously all of this is a mistake. The poor young boy is traumatised and confused. I’m innocent and of course people will see that.’ I had no idea how the legal system worked.”
She was so sure of her innocence and certain the court could only free her, she didn’t even hire a lawyer, though she didn’t have the money to get one if she had wanted to.
That was a huge mistake. In September 2002, two years after her arrest, Susan Kigula and her housemaid Patience Nansamba were found guilty of the murder of Constantine Sseremba, solely based on the testimony of her late partner’s son, who was five-year-old son at the time of the trial!
Susan and Patience claimed their innocence, but no one listened to them.
The murder conviction came with a mandatory death sentence! The court matter-of-factly informed them that they would be hanged for their crime.
Yes, you are reading right. Susan and Patience were condemned to death by hanging on the testimonial of a 5 years old boy, who was only three at the time of the events.
When she was handed the sentence, Susan looked at her parents, who were holding her daughter Nemata, now three years old, and burst in tears!
Life in prison was tough for the 22 years old mother, who had seen all her life crumble before her eyes and her kids taken away from her.
“Every day I would wake up and think, ‘Is this the day that I will be hanged?'”
The prison was overcrowded, and Susan shared her cell with three other women.
Susan doesn’t like to talk about the details of her life in prison. It was an ugly life, nothing more you can say about this. Plus, what would have been the point to complain? She was on death row and every day that passed with her sentence carried out was a gift, a loan on life.
She wasn’t alone in her situation. In her block alone, there were another 50 women on death row. And strangely, these companions of misfortune became friends, talking about everything, from life, their ids and even their impending death.
“As I got to know the women I began to learn that many of them, like me, had been wrongly accused of crimes. Some were guilty but none of them deserved to be sentenced to death because the crimes they had committed were crimes of passion, they told me. Some of the crimes were a result of years of sexual and physical abuse by partners. I became a leader among the prisoners. I decided, ‘We have to do something. We have to change our attitudes.’ So, I started by forgiving the people who put me in prison. I encouraged the other women to do the same. Then I decided to get to work.”
Susan started by organising different activities meant to uplift the spirits of her fellow inmates; a choir, netball matches and even a dance troupe.
When she learned that the men, who were detained in another part of the prison, could study while there weren’t any such programs for women, she asked the prison to allow them the same privilege, if not for all at least for a few of them. When she told prison authorities the courses she had in mind – History, Economics, Divinity and Management – they asked her how she planned to operate a school without teachers.
“Let me try and be the teacher to start with.”
The prison accepted, possibly thinking this would not work, but Susan was determined to see it through. The 24 years old convict gathered used textbooks donated by families.
Seeing how determined they were, the prison wardens connected them to the school in the men’s prison, which started sending the women study notes to help them.
Their classroom? A tree in the prison yard.
Imagine, inmates in a maximum-security prison in Uganda, in the Great Lakes region, taught by a 24 years old inmate on death row, studying under a tree with donated books and notes from fellow inmates in the men’s wing?
Nope, I am not making any of it up.
With her newly acquired self-education, and the confidence gained helping others study, Susan made an important decision: instead of passively sitting and waiting to be executed, she was going to stan-up and fight for her rights.
The 30 something Susan was no longer the naïve young widow who had put her fate in the hand of a system she had thought would have listened to her in a fair and impartial manner. She knew it wasn’t going to be an easy fight but what did she have to lose?
In 2006, Susan organised a petition challenging Uganda’s mandatory death sentence. In the landmark case now known as ‘Susan Kigula and 417 Others vs Attorney General’, the petitioners, all on death row, aimed to abolish capital punishment by declaring it unconstitutional.
The verdict was rendered by the Supreme Court of Uganda on 21 January 2009. Though the highest court of the land did not abolish the death penalty, it did however rule that a sentence of death should not be mandatory in cases of murder, and that a condemned person should not be kept on death row indefinitely – if a convict is not executed within three years, the sentence is automatically turned into life imprisonment!
Therefore, the Supreme Court ruled that death-row inmates could go back to the High Court for retrial!
What a victory!!!!
Susan didn’t lose anytime and asked for a court date to appeal her sentence.
It was a highly emotional moment. Her stepson was in court, he had so much grown! He was 14 and completely estranged from her. During the trial, she turned to him, fell on her knees and begged him to believe her, that she did not kill his father.
“You know that I do love you so much? I’m your mother!”
She also begged her late partner’s family to believe her. The courtroom was completely silent, you could have heard a fly.
The High Court didn’t overturn the verdict, but it considered her good character and the fact that she had no previous convictions and reduced Kigula’s sentence to 20 years, and with the four years taken off from the time she was detained awaiting trial, Susan was to be released from prison in 2016.
What do you do when you’re in a maximum-security prison, waking up every day thinking that you were going to be executed, and then you were suddenly told you could go home 5 years from now?
Susan decided to take on yet another challenge: she decided to study the law. In 2011, 9 years after her death sentence and 11 years after her imprisonment, Susan and a group of other prisoners enrolled in a correspondence course in Law with the University of London! They were the first Ugandan prisoners to ever do that!
Even before they completed her degree, Susan became the ‘in house counsel’ to her fellow inmates, with other prisoners and even prison staff routinely coming to her for legal advice.
Who would have thought so?
Susan didn’t stop at giving advice on the go. She started a legal clinic in prison and started helping fellow inmates with everything legal, bail applications, writing memorandums of appeal, teaching them how to represent themselves in court, if they couldn’t afford a lawyer, etc.
She helped dozens of inmates get released from prison, before even completing her University of London degree!
On August 19, 2014, she graduated with a diploma in Law of the University of London!
“I decided to study law to acquire knowledge with which I can advocate for the rights of the less privileged having realised that the poor face ‘miscarriage of justice’ in the judicial system. I have big dreams of setting up a law firm upon discharge. Many innocent people end up behind bars because they lack legal representation. I am determined to leave prison a learned woman so that I fight for the rights of the underprivileged.’”
Susan entered prison at 21 years old without any formal education, she was released at 36 years old with a Law degree!
“The first time I set foot outside the prison gates as a free woman, it was like I was walking on the moon! I could not believe what was happening to me. What I felt was a mixture of feelings….anxiety and excitement!! But excitement ruled it all. I thank God for giving me the opportunity of seeing the outside world again.”
You would think that she took a moment to rest, take care of herself, put all of this behind her? No, not this freedom fighter.
Since her release, she has been working this the African Prison Project, the organisation founded by Alexander MacLean. She works with women and youth in her community as well as prisoners in Uganda and elsewhere in the world, empowering them to be their own best advocates.
She’s also been busy touring the world to tell her story. A couple months after her release, she was invited as a guest speaker at the 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Oslo, Norway. In July 2016, she was in Sweden speaking in various meetings about the plight of children of prisoners and in October, she was in France to Celebrate the World Death Penalty Day and commemorate at France’s 35th Anniversary since it abolished the death sentence.
She has spoken to University and High School students, officials and non-officials alike, motivating and inspiring them on how to make better choices in life, not giving up their dreams and becoming good leaders in society.
In November 2017, the Community of Sant’ Egidio in Italy invited her to attend a ‘No Justice without Life’, an event against the death penalty, that took place in Rome and other Italian Cities.
Looks like she is unstoppable now!
Susan Kigula is didn’t just change her country laws, nor did she just free herself from jail: she gave her daughter a chance to have her mother back in her life. Susan lives with Nemata, who is 19-year-old.
“My daughter calls me her hero. That was all I needed to hear after 16 years away from her.”