Seven young men sit around a table covered in textbooks. They have an animated conversation in a room where bookshelves line the walls. It could be a study group meeting at any university library around the world. But these students are noticeably thin, with identically shaved heads and matching blue-and-white-striped shirts.These law students are inmates in a Ugandan prison.
Susan Kigula was one among the prisoners.She had a sad flashback to her imprisonment.
Kigula was born in the Central Ugandan cattle-farming town of Masaka, about 134km (84 miles) south-west of Kampala.
Growing up as a daddy’s girl she used to tell him that she wanted to work in a bank because Kigula thought that was a good job and she would be strong and independent if I had a good job. She had a lot of dreams back then because her parents made her believe that all dreams could come true.
She and her three brothers and five sisters enjoyed a sheltered middle-class upbringing, centred around a close-knit church community.
Susan’s happy childhood didn’t prepare her for what was to come in adulthood.
Kigula had been working for a couple of years in a small gift shop in Kampala when she met Constantine Sseremba, who, at 28, was ten years her senior.
Susan With Her Husband And Daughter
They moved in together. The apartment was small, just two rooms, but Kigula says it was ideal for the family, which included Sseremba’s young son from a previous relationship. They soon had a daughter of their own.The family were not rich, but we were happy that we had each other.
On 9 July 2000, the young family ate dinner together. Kigula and Sseremba, his son and their daughter, retired to bed. They slept all together in the only bedroom. Their housemaid, Patience Nansamba, was on a mattress in the living area next door.
Kigula says that she was woken up around 2.30am by a piercing, flashing blow to the back of her neck.There was hot blood oozing from a wound there. The sheets were wet with blood. It wasn’t just mine.
Because the main lights were off, she couldn’t immediately take in the scene or see what was happening to them. She sat up dizzily on the bed in confusion But later she found Constantine was on the floor, groaning. His neck was cut.
She was unsteady, and she made her way outside to alert the neighbours to help them. She saw a couple of figures running away, but she was not sure they were their attackers.
She made it to a restaurant outside and sought for help.She was still bleeding, and then her vision started blurring. Kigula woke up hours later in hospital, the wound to the back of her neck still throbbing, to hear that her partner had died. She was told that her family were looking after their one-year-old daughter Namata and Sseremba’s relatives, with whom she had a frosty relationship, had taken his three-year-old son into their home.
It dawned on her that up until that moment she had lived a happy life; a happy childhood, a successful relationship, a good job. That was all gone now, she thought.
Then, three days later, Kigula, still receiving treatment for her extensive neck wound, received a visit from the police. To her amazement, they charged her with murder and took her straight to a maximum security prison on the outskirts of Kampala, to await trial.
Sseremba’s family said that her three-year-old stepson had seen Kigula and the housemaid kill his father
She was naive in that moment thought; She stated that the poor young boy is traumatised and confused and cried that she was innocent.She had no idea how the legal system worked.
She didn’t hire a lawyer. She couldn’t afford one and, anyway, she was confident in the justice system.
The murder conviction came with a mandatory death sentence. The women were told the method would be hanging.Kigula looked at her now three-year-old daughter, sitting with her parents, and burst into tears.
Susan suffered a lot in prison.For the first few weeks of imprisonment Kigula then aged 24, and the 50 or so women in her section would talk to each other about their impending death, about who would care for their children outside.
As she got to know the women she began to learn that many of them are like her who had been wrongly accused of crimes.She decided to do something for them and her too.She asked the prison administration if a small group of them could take courses in History, Economics, Divinity and Management at the secondary school level.
The Acting Commissioner for Welfare and Rehabilitation asked Kigula how she planned to operate a school without teachers.She started to teach herself.They used textbooks donated by their families and the prison wardens connected them to the school in the men’s prison, which started sending the women study notes to help them. They held their classes under trees.
Another motivating voice came from Alexander McLean, the young British founder of African Prisons Project, who took some days after obtaining the degree in law.He saw that Susan was dynamic, she mobilised and motivated people.She had great humility – she would kneel down to speak to the prison wardens, which is the custom at that prison.
In 2011 Kigula and a group of other prisoners, supported by African Prisons Project, became the first Ugandan prisoners to take a correspondence course with the University of London, studying law. She helped dozens of inmates get released from prison.
In 2009 she led a death penalty petition, in the Ugandan Constitutional Court, with 417 other death row inmates, challenging mandatory death sentences.
It was at this moment, in November 2011, that she called out to her stepson, using the word “sorry”. But Kigula says this was not a confession – as the press chose to interpret it – it was an expression of regret for what he had been through. She still proclaimed her innocence, pleading not-guilty to murder for the second time, but the court – and the media – were not convinced.
The High Court reduced Kigula’s sentence to 20 years, and with four taken off for her time on remand, Kigula was released from prison in 2016.
She was in high joy when she saw her daughter after 16 years.
Susan With Her 19 Years Old Daughter
After her release, Kigula has new goals.
She wants authorities to reduce the sentence of the remaining 417 inmates from her petition – although dozens were released, like her, some are still behind bars.
Working with Alexander McLean and African Prisons Project, Kigula plans to establish the world’s first prison-based legal college and law firm, where prisoner lawyers would represent peers who can not afford legal help.
Susan was the first female inmate to study and graduate with a Diploma in Common Law, followed by a Law Degree (LLB).
Susan’s self-confidence made her success, and she has been a real hero to many women out there.