One on One with Namugenyi Kiwanuka: Uganda's Greatest Television Personality In The Diaspora
Women are very important to the economic development of any African nation. They are the backbone of the home.
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First published: August 7, 2008
"For me, to be Ugandan is to be home." - Namugenyi Kiwanuka
There is something about Namugenyi Kiwanuka and it is not just her blue eyes and her beautiful, large, halo-like afro. She is the girl next door and yet she is not. She is much grander than that. Fans and peers alike are aware of her star-like quality. In early 2008, she was named one of the 20 most beautiful Canadians and honored by Chatelaine Magazine in the publication's 80th anniversary issue. It comes as no surprise then, that she is not only beautiful in the physical sense, but also oozes an inner beauty, confidence and charm that has led A-List celebrities such as Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Britney Spears, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Vince Carter and Cameron Diaz to feel comfortable on her television interviews.
Her accolades precede her. The Ugandan-Canadian, who also has Scottish ancestry, first came into the public eye as a television host/videographer for Much Music, Canada's television music station in 1998. Her coverage was aired on Much News, Rap City and Flow. Namugenyi, who is known by many as Nam, also reported from the red carpet at the MTV VMAs, the Soul Train Music Awards, NBA All-Star weekends, the Junos and many more. She interviewed scores of A-List celebrities as well as underground artists. Namugenyi went on to become the host and producer of the NBA/Sportsnet channel. She was a freelance journalist for BET (Black Entertainment Television), ETCanada as well as Current TV. Her natural interviewing and hosting skills won her many awards and nominations including the Winner, Best Media Personality, and she was nominated for the Favorite Host, Reel Black Awards.
However, perhaps the one area her fans are not quite aware of is her prolific writing. Nam is journalist who graduated from Ryerson Polytechnic University in 1999 and her work has been published in Jane Magazine, Upscale Magazine, Conde Nast Publication, Toronto Star, Hartford Advocate, Chart Magazine, CT Slant and many more. She has also been featured in Maclean's Magazine. Namugenyi is not afraid to cover controversial issues like the stories of female genital mutilation survivors, internally displaced people (IDPs) in Northern Uganda, racism, AIDS, the controversy surrounding the N-word, and the derogatory portrayal of women in some hip-hop videos and songs. She also worked as a journalist for JHR (Journalists for Human Rights).
One of the admirable things about this famous journalist is that she believes in giving back. Enter her charity work. Currently, the famous journalist is the ambassador of the Malaria Bites Campaign, which is affiliated to the Red Cross. In the past, she also volunteered for AMREF and went to Northern Uganda to inspect the IDP camps and to interview the displaced victims. Namugenyi wanted to be one of the first black women to achieve many of the things she did, something she has partly achieved and still pursues. She has most certainly achieved many firsts as a Ugandan woman and she is undoubtedly a trailblazer for Ugandan women and African women at large.
I first met Namugenyi Kiwanuka when I was crowned Miss Africanada 2000 in Toronto, Canada. She was the host of the event, and it gives me great pleasure to see how much she has grown since then. It gives me an even greater honour to include her in the African Women's Week Celebrations. You see, I recently caught up with her and below is how our chat petered out.
Jane: Of course, you are famous for the wonderful work you did as a Canadian television personality at MuchMusic. What have you been up to since being a MuchMusic host?
Namugenyi: I left MuchMusic with a heavy heart but I wanted to challenge myself by trying something new. It was a really hard decision for me because a lot of the people I worked with were like my extended family. In addition, MuchMusic gave me a chance when I was just an intern. I left to host and produce NBA XL on Sportsnet and to also host a magazine show for the CFL called CFL Crunch. I wanted to make history as the second black woman to host a sports show in Canada - which I did.
Jane: When the DownLo show was cancelled, it must have been a hard time for you. What was the best thing about that show for you?
Namugenyi: DownLo was a great show because it focused on the music and was not just about the charts or video rotation. Many of the artists we profiled on the show were independent, underground or breaking artists. We also got a chance to focus on topics that affected the Black community such as racism, the N-word, the politics of the confederate flag, the roots of rastafarism, gun culture and AIDS/HIV. We tried to create a forum to discuss issues that were important to the culture of black people.
It was a show that did not celebrate bling or perpetuate the stereotypes of girls in bikinis with champagne being spilled over them. Andrea and Petal, the two producers and I, worked hard to create a positive show but in the end, because we were on at the same time as American Idol, (with TV it is all about ratings) it was canceled. Nonetheless, I loved every minute of that show.
What about Da Mix?
I only hosted a couple of episodes of DaMix. No one could replace Master T. No one. I only filled in until DownLo and MuchVibe were created for me.
Who were your top five favorite interviewees at Much Music?
Andre 3000, Vince Carter, Alanis Morissette, 50 Cent, Britney Spears
You went from being a MuchMusic VJ to hosting and producing NBA XL. That is a big jump. I mean from music straight to sports! What led to that transition?
I always produced when I was at MuchMusic because I started out as a videographer. I would shoot my stories and produce them as well as present them. I loved basketball and MuchMusic was kind enough to assign me the NBA All Star weekends. In fact, when NBA XL was created, I started hosting the show while I was at MuchMusic. Therefore, the transition was pretty easy. Being on camera was not something I grew up wanting to do. It just happened with the encouragement of my former boss, Denise Donlon. Growing up, I was very shy and uncertain of myself. Therefore, the last thing I ever envisioned for myself was to speaking to millions of people. Once I started, however, I improoved with time. I really found that I was good at it and loved interviewing people at the top of their game.
You are so good at it that people still talk about it. There were rumours that you were working for BET. How true are they?
Thanks. I did work for BET for a bit. I co-hosted a couple of episodes of the MADD Sports show but it was canceled. I shot a couple of pilots with them but then I decided to go work in Sierra Leone with JHR (Journalists For Human Rights).
We miss you Nam. You are missed on the air, not just by me but also by many of your fans. Why aren't you doing any more television gigs?
That is sweet of you to say. Writing has always been my first love and I have been spending a lot of time doing just that. If God wills it, who knows what the future holds?
What about movies? The camera definitely loves you and you have got it all - beauty, brains and body. Is that an interest of yours? Of course, this comes from a biased Ugandan who is proud of having someone represent her on Canadian television. However, as I was asking, is it an interest of yours?
You are very, very kind and leave me humbled. A very good friend of mine is an actress and I respect her so much for what she does. I think I would make a terrible actress. What is funny though, is that a while back, when I was still in university, I was cast as the lead for an indie movie called 'So You Want To Be A Female DJ?' I auditioned against other girls and surprisingly got the role. Then one day the producer disappeared and we never heard from him again. I guess that was a sign!
We want to see you on magazine covers and all that jazz. When is that happening?
I try to keep a low profile but I was named a Woman To Watch in 2008 by Chatelaine magazine in its 80th anniversary issue. It was very cool to receive that accolade from a magazine that celebrates the achievements of women and has been for almost a century! My writing has been published in a couple of magazines, which ironically, is more exciting for me than being on TV. For me, writing is very personal and whenever something I have written is published, I feel very proud.
Ok. I read your article in the now defunct Jane Magazine called "I am so over hip-hop guys coming on to me." You pretty much explored the disrespect and vulgarity that tends to be directed towards women by some hip-hop artists. It must have been challenging to have to step up when you are quote on quote, part of the industry as an interviewer and host. How bad was it?
I wanted to call the article, "Respect My Mind, Not My Booty." I was part of the industry but I think I always carried myself in a manner where I did not disrespect myself. I used to get flak from viewers saying that my clothing was not sexy or trendy enough. Or that I did not wear name brands and bling and I was too natural and needed to wear more makeup and to relax my hair. I always tried to remain true to myself and to not cave in to peer pressure. This was really challenging because everyone wants to be liked and accepted.
See, the thing is, for the hundreds of thousands of women/girls that were/are like you, you know, trying to remain true to themselves, you were a role model. Therefore, it is good you stood your ground.
Thanks. In addition, I wanted to add that because the industry is dominated by men, come-ons were a part of the job. As I said in the article, the attitudes of some of the guys put me off hip-hop. It became exhausting trying to explain oneself. If someone saw me interviewing Jay-Z or 50 Cent, they assumed I was sleeping with them because how could I say no to them, right? Wrong, my dad raised me and he always taught me to stand up for myself and not be treated badly by anyone or to be used by men. A couple of my friends dated celebrities and were treated badly. I do not care what a person does for a living. Just because you are a celebrity does not give you the right to mistreat or disrespect me.
You have touched a hot topic. Given all the debates that have been held in the past 5 years regarding the disrespectful portrayal of women by some hip-hop artists in magazines such as Essence and even BET itself, do you feel that things have changed?
I do not know if things will ever change because I find that positive women of color are rarely celebrated. I had a debate with the former editor of XXL Magazine, which features a column called Eye Candy. I asked him why he never profiles women who do not take their clothes off for a living, such as video directors, writers, journalists, and there was not really an explanation. Hip-hop culture or the definition of what it is now dictates how young black men and women see themselves. I think that as a people, we need to attach the same amount of weight we do for the achievements of athletes, musicians and actors to doctors, teachers and engineers. I am so happy that Barack Obama is in the position he is in and I love the fact that he is married to a smart, beautiful and accomplished woman. They are an example of what our community is all about and hopefully, more examples will be celebrated rather than the girls who write books about what athletes and musicians they have slept with.
Now, on to another topic. Your hair made you a fashion icon. You have always sported a signature afro style. Why do you think that it attracted as much attention as it did?
I do not know. Growing up, I never knew what to do with it. Like I said, I was raised by my dad and when I was younger, he used to braid it. I never relaxed it and I used to wear braids in it. It is who I am. I just love being myself. I would get emails from people saying I should relax it. Why? This who I am, take it or leave it. We should celebrate our differences and beauty instead of trying to alter it to blend in.
I am shocked that people would be asking you to relax your hair. I am sure people like Nicole Kidman and Angelina Jolie do not receive letters asking them to have afros or dreadlocks. I find that is the equivalent of the emails you received. But it is great to see that you stood your ground because there are many other women in your position and to see you on television with your natural hair was a beautiful, encouraging, empowering, embracing thing. That was great of Much Music and of you. I mean, you were just being you, and it seems simple enough, but in the process, you were empowering loads of women.
You mentioned in your communication that you currently reside in the UK. What is there?
Just moved to be with my future husband.
You have been doing loads of charity work. Can you please tell us more about it?
Over the past year, I have been volunteering with the Canadian Red Cross as its campaign Ambassador for Malaria Bites. It is a program to promote malaria awareness and to encourage Canadians to donate $7 nets. I contracted cerebral malaria when I was volunteering with Journalists For Human Rights in Sierra Leone and I almost died after a doctor treated me with a banned drug. I think it is really important for people to know about how preventable malaria is, that it is the number one killer of children under the age of five and the challenges that people in Africa face in seeking treatment once they contract it. I wrote to the World Health Organisation and I was shocked to find out that pharmaceutical companies continue to manufacture drugs that are banned in the Western world and they then ship them to Africa and other developing nations. If a drug is banned in the US, it should be banned in Sierra Leone. If it can kill someone in Canada, it will kill them in the Gambia. It is frightening to know this goes on and it is frustrating to see our continent besieged by counterfeit drugs and banned medication.
How did you get involved with AMREF?
I was in Uganda to visit family and volunteered to travel with AMREF to Northern Uganda to see the IDP camps and to interview those displaced. I wrote an article for the Toronto Star about what I saw. My family lived in a refugee camp in Kenya during the Idi Amin era and I was really shocked to see what life was like in the camps. I was expecting it to be similar to what I knew it turned out to be very different. It was heartbreaking to see fellow Ugandans live in such fear with so much uncertainty. It was incredible to see how close the communities were and how important family was. As Ugandans, we cannot forget about the North because we are all one people and need to take care of one another.
Northern Uganda's IDP Camps
Very moving. I suppose we can all imagine the perks of being a celebrity. What is the down side to it?
No downside really. You just have to balance work with family and if you are going through something, you cannot think about it until you are off camera. I was terrible at that.
Did you ever imagine that you would one day become a recognizable figure on people's television sets?
No. Not all and I am grateful to the people at MuchMusic who saw something special in me that I otherwise would never have discovered in myself. I was always shy and introverted as a kid and in my teens had an oily face full of acne.
That is hard to believe! You have been asked before what it means to be Canadian. I am going to flip the script and ask you what it means to be Ugandan.
Growing up as kid in Uganda was tough because we were always called mzungus (whites) and coming from a poor family, we were looked down upon a lot. I think it is incredibly sad that people judge others for what they have instead of who they are as people - are they kind, considerate, caring people as opposed to what car they drive, and where they live? So, as a kid, I always felt as if I was not worthy of being Ugandan because people, even some in my extended family would make comments about my skin color and eyes. Some of my uncles on my mother's side said my brothers and sisters would be servants to their kids because of our colour. What an awful thing to wish for innocent children.
And here you are, years later, being not only named one of the 20 most beautiful people by Chatelaine, a mainstream Canadian magazine but also a very well known and respected television personality. Isn't it ironic?
Yes it is. Even when I claimed my Ganda name, Namugenyi instead of using my Christian name Mary, a cousin of mine said I had ulterior motives since I worked in the entertainment industry. Actually, when I first started at MuchMusic, I used to get emails from viewers saying I should change my name because it was too hard to pronounce and it was weird. I am proud of my heritage and culture and want to celebrate it. Uganda was the place where I gave my first breath and where the foundation for my life was laid. I have my jaaja's (grandparents') blood, my father's blood and my mother's blood - I am Ugandan through and through regardless of what some may think of my color. For me, to be Ugandan is to be home.
I am glad you kept your Ganda name. I remember the first time I saw it on television; I was excited because I thought, wow! That is undoubtedly a Ugandan name, and the fact that she uses it shows pride in where she comes from. I felt really proud to see a fellow Ugandan achieving so much!
What are the things you love most about Uganda?
Matooke (plantains) and more matooke! Ground nut sauce. Fanta Orange from a bottle. Silk nightclub. Eating grilled tilapia in Entebbe with my hubby-to-be. Visiting my auntie, cousins, and little sister. More eating with family. The sun, the water and how friendly most people are (even though some are not). The potholes, the smell, the traffic in Kampala and without exception, every time the plane lands at Entebbe, I cry because I'm overjoyed to be back home.
What places would you recommend to tourists visiting Uganda?
Of course to the source of the Nile. If they meet anyone Ugandan, they should try to visit that person's native village to see how simple and joyful life can be. Night clubs - since there is a place for everyone's style. National Theatre or Buganda Road for crafts. Masaka to take some pictures at the Equator and Bon Appétit restaurant for great local food. Drive to Soroti, a place I think is one of the most beautiful in Uganda.
What are you most passionate about in life?
To become a better person and to use my life for the benefit of others.
Your Facebook profile indicates that you are engaged. I guess that is going to break the hearts of many men. Do you care to elaborate more on the good news?
Not really. I am a private person.
Sorry guys. Do not send me any emails asking for her contacts or about her. She is taken. Ok. Some trivial questions. What is your favorite television show?
The Simpsons! Moreover, I am not ashamed to admit that.
Funny. And your five favorite books?
Cannot choose five since I love reading but some of them are: The Alchemist, One More Day, Veronika Decides to Die, What is the What, Lucky, Siddhartha and The Bluest Eye.
What music are you listening to now?
A lot of Bob Marley, Miriam Makeba, Old School hip-hop and the Ting Tings.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
Traveling the world, meeting new people, laughing with my friends, family and enjoying each day as it comes.
Any words of wisdom?
I do not know if it' counts as wisdom but from my experience, I think anyone is capable of achieving anything as long as they do not give up on themselves. Sometimes, even family does not want the best for you, so be mindful of who you ask for advice. Always ask, 'why?'
Thanks Nam for the interview. I am sure people who have missed you will feel like they are getting their dose of Nam now.
You are welcome!
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Remembering the long walk to freedom
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Interview With Nam
The Skinny on NBA XL
Urban Music Ambassadors of 2001
Arrival Story - Nam Kiwanuka
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First published: August 7, 2008
Jane Musoke-Nteyafas, poet/author/artist and playwright, was born in Moscow, Russia and currently resides in Toronto, Canada. She is the daughter of retired diplomats. By the time she was 19, she spoke French, English, Spanish, Danish, Luganda, some Russian and had lived in Russia, Uganda, France, Denmark, Cuba and Canada.
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting including the 2007 Planet Africa Rising Star Award and the 2008 African Canadian Women Achievement Award. Her first book Butterflies of the Nile was published in May 2008. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.