Asiimwe's Passion Is to Talk About the Pearl of Africa [interview] (

Stephen Asiimwe

STEPHEN ASIIMWE is the chief executive officer of Uganda Tourism Board. Simon Kasyate hosted him on 91.3 Capital FM’s Desert Island Discs recently, where he shared his life story.

Good evening and welcome, Stephen Asiimwe.

Good evening, Simon.

Who is Asiimwe, where, when and to whom was he born?

I was born in the 1960s, in Mulago hospital, around the time some very interesting political events were taking place. That was after the Kabaka had been sent out of the Lubiri. My father was the late Geoffrey Bikwatsizehi. He worked from the 60s and retired in 1993.

He was a banker; he worked for the then Uganda Credits and Savings Union, which later became Uganda Commercial bank in the late 60s, and was then bought by Stanbic bank in the 90s.

And your mother was?

My mother was a humble lady; she chose to stay at home with us – she was what you would call a stay-home mum. We were looked after very well. My mum was up early; she made sure we had breakfast and knew where our clothes were placed for school.

How many children were you?

We were seven children. I was the first born in the family of four boys and three girls. My brother who followed me passed on in 2007; now we are three boys and three girls. But we were really far apart, between me and my last sibling, I was a 60s kid; he was an 80s kid.

How was your childhood like?

I grew up literally in almost ten towns in Uganda, from East to West. I could speak many languages. I speak Kiswahili; we had Kenyan neighbours in the early 70s. I could speak some Luo; I speak some Rukonzo, Rutooro; I also speak fluent Lusoga.

My dad worked in Mbale; so, I could pick up a lot of the Gisu language. My dad [also] worked in Masaka, in Kabale, in Fort Portal; he literally set up the banks in western Uganda.

Did this movement from town to town destabilise your socialisation?

I think for me it was an advantage more than anything lost. I remember one particular year in 1978. We were living in Kilembe; I went to a very nice school called Namuhuga preparatory school. Whenever we moved, the first thing my dad did was to get us schools.

My dad always insisted that the best [thing] to invest in was not business but education, and I honour my parents for that. So, if it meant living in a hotel for some time, we would do it. Then we swung into Kampala and I go to Buganda Road, which was then Norman Godinho Junior School. We were barely there for two months when my father got another transfer to Jinja.

So, I go to another school called Victoria Nile. And then in another few weeks I had to swing back to Namuhuga and back to Jinja and then my dad was done with us – he took us to boarding school, me and my brother. So, I went to Mwiri PS. In one year, I was in Namuhuga Preparatory, Buganda Road PS, Victoria Nile PS and Mwiri PS.

Now, what that meant is that in one year, I met close to 50 friends from each school and I still remember most of them. And it has paid off because in business it’s who you know that matters; not only in business but even in social life. Whenever I move to a new town, I remember names, faces and compounds, and for me that has been a big boost for my social life.

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At what level did you join Mwiri primary?

That time, in 1978, I was in P5… There was a lot of kiboko; we were caned for mathematics, it was very competitive; survival for the fittest. It was a very competitive school; it was the best school that year – in 1978, we had the best student in the country.

Mwiri held me in humility and also helped me to get out of that mummy’s boy and daddy’s boy [situation] where life was much easier. It really sharpened me.

At this point in life, did you have an idea what you wanted to be in future?

At that time I had a thing about news, and I must pay tribute to my father. Way back before that, my father brought papers at home and when I was a young boy, about six, seven or thereabout, I remember I was intrigued by this page one picture of Idi Amin, with his son Moses, who used to wear the same fatigues as his father and had a small pistol by his side.

So, there was always that excitement by kids in my class to see this time what Moses Amin had on page one. Idi Amin liked to move with his kids or his wives but you know, like growing up, there is always this thing that sticks around and excites you.

So, I liked to go in [the newspaper], then I would also read inside, and then we used to have Muhammad Ali; he was the biggest boxer and we had all these footballers… and there were those nice little cartoons of Ekanya.

That time we had this newspaper called Voice of Uganda and it was exciting; it was a large newspaper. But overtime, I picked up this thing about Radio Deutsche Welle and then we got to understand. The news came in and we were always excited about what’s happening in the world.

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How was Mwiri and where did you go next?

This is now 1979, 80; we are into the war time. In 1979, it was bad; Kampala was down, Idi Amin was running eastwards, the central and the west had been cut off. Many parents, especially from Kampala and Jinja, started to flee eastwards and some went as far as Kenya. So, we found ourselves with about 30 other kids at school.

My parents are not picking us up, everybody is going, and there are about 20 roadblocks. At school, there was a curfew, so school ends at one o’clock; we have a break and then we go to prep in the afternoon. And now resources are down, one meal a day; it’s tough. I am with my kid brother and my dad believed that you had to stay at school.

My mum gets a small dingy special- hire taxi, drives up to school and packs us away, and this was six o’clock – curfew was 6:30pm. We had to go through many roadblocks; my mother bribed – in spite of her conscience.

She said I have to save my kids even if it means whatever. So, we go home and my father asks her, “Why have you brought these kids?” And my mum says, “It was terrible; I had to get my kids out of that place.”

And I am forever grateful to my mother for that but my father never took the argument any further from that because a few days after that, he was on the spot because the soldiers began looking for him. There was a man called Mariamungu; he found my dad in the bank and demanded money.

My dad naively said, “Look, do you have an account, how do I get you money?” He did not know who he was joking with. This is a guy with blood-shot eyes; he has chains of bullets around him and bodyguards who had been on bhang – they did not want to hear any nonsense.

But my dad played them cool. He said, come a few hours from now, I will sort you out, and he never came back. He took off and hid in some neighbour’s place for about two days. These guys looked for him everywhere; they couldn’t find him.

Three days later, Jinja was liberated and we started a new dispensation. Shortly after that, I sat for my PLE. Mwiri College, which was the senior school of the Mwiris, had a cap of 40; the best 40 students from the primary [section] were given leeway. Obviously my first choice was Mwiri College and I found myself in Busoga College Mwiri, Wills house and there was now freedom to do what you want…

So, you get there and it is freedom unprecedented.

This was the time when the disco era began; reggae was coming out. You are looking at the early 80s. We sported afro puff and we even accentuated: you put in oil and then hot-combed it; it was a very big thing.

I was a very skinny guy… I was there for only one and a half years. Again there was a lot of political stuff happening. Many of the teachers left the school; many of them went off to Kenya. Mwiri had this mixed political thing; there was that UPC-DP divide and my dad took me to a very interesting school called Namasagali College.

So, I arrive at Namasagali in 1982 and it was around the time that Namasagali was at its hottest. I was from a boys’ school and I entered this mixed school; there are all these girls in shorts and a disco on Saturday. Boy!

Namasagali was also a very interesting turning point for me; it was a school where people expressed themselves. What happened in Mwiri is that I got in and we were very young, and there were big boys, guys who were in their late teens. But with Namasagali, we were really like contemporaries and I found many of my former schoolmates; the Buganda Road guys were there, Victoria Nile, Mwiri primary, but this time in a mixed school.

Secondly, I loved sports and Namasagali had everything… I swam, I played tennis. I did play tennis but I had a really bad game. The swimming part is the best. So, Namasagali was a school with a very interesting curriculum, both in class and outside. We did a lot of drama; every time we came to Kampala or Jinja to do shows, the whole city just shut down at the National theatre.

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So, which university did you join?

I first did a diploma in education actually. My early training was education. I did that for two years and then taught a bit at Mbarara High School, then joined Makerere University in the early 90s.

I was teaching English language and History at Mbarara. In my free time, I liked to teach International Issues. At Makerere, I studied Political Science and Sociology. Again Makerere was a free place; we went out and did all sorts of things.

That was the time when the current generals were getting married. So, we went to these big parties; I was a party animal until something happened to me. Something happened at university and I began to soul-search; I hit a spiritual dimension which started to question my life. I began to think about life, about consequences of some of this partying stuff. And one thing led to another.

This was also the time when the Aids scourge was at its highest, very terrible. I lost literally a quarter of my classmates to the scourge. And one day on holiday, it was an Eid day; I read a very interesting book that had been in our shelf for many years. The book was called God’s Answers To Your Questions.

It questioned life here and after, but more importantly about why we live and why we exist. And one day, while visiting a friend of mine, a lecturer at Makerere University, Dr Aaron Mushengyezi, who had been a born-again Christian for many years, I gave my life to Jesus Christ. I became born-again on April 3, 1992 and there was a complete U-turn in virtually every part of my life.

You have been at university, haven’t you met a lady you fancy at this time?

When that U-turn came, I really had one relationship with God and that was different. But my other passions continued; I was a very good sportsman and then I got into campus politics and became a hall minister. One of the things I still remember is that I made many friends who have now become very important points of contact in my later life.

How did you find journalism as it were those days?

Shortly after we finished campus, I joined The New Vision as a freelance reporter by day and a proofreader by night; I had two jobs. I really wanted the money.

We had typewriters; we used to call them nyumba-ya-chuma, and you would hit it until there was a ring at the end. You make a mistake, you whitewash. I did that night job for about a year and then joined the mainstream editorial, somehow I climbed the ladders very quickly and became a sub-editor.

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So, when did you meet the love of your life?

I met a very interesting lady around 1997, she was from another church but we met at a fellowship through her sister. This lady called Molly later became my wife and we wedded in 1997, and we had a very interesting time together in church; we prayed together.

Those days we had a checklist and I kept ticking every box; she just was the right person: good person, sense of humour – I wanted a woman who laughed. Her sister was a very good friend of mine. So, I told one of my friends to marry her.

I used to be the chairman for my best friend and my wife was the chairperson for her sister. And so during the time, when we were comparing notes about the wedding and kuhingira, I was like why am I going very far; this chairperson is really the kind of person, and it didn’t take long. It’s called a divine appointment. With Molly, we are blessed with two fantastic boys.

And how did you start The East African Business Week?

I did 10 years with The New Vision and I felt that 10 years was a good training ground. But again one of my projections was that it was always good to do private work.

So, with the training, the grounding and the exposure, we started a newspaper called The East African Procurement News; that was way back in 2000 – me and my friends and a proprietor, the American Procurement Company. We set up shop in three countries – in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. That was the time when the East African Community was [re]emerging.

I had seen the confederation coming; actually back then it was called Cooperation – in the days of the three Ms: Moi, Museveni and Mwinyi. We did that for two years but then the paper moved into magazine publishing. I had been very passionate about newspapers; still, I am. In 2005, we then started The East African Business Week and that became my paper.

How did you land the chief executive officer job at Uganda Tourism Board?

Again I did another 10 years, 1993 to 2003 was time with government; 2003 to 2013 was another 10 years. What happened in those years is that I went beyond being just a journalist to a manager and to being a marketer, and I also had to tune my IT and branding skills.

One of the things I used to write about, passionately, was tourism; I particularly looked out for tourism stories, for that uniqueness we have as a country. I was the first person to publish a report by the World Bank on how tourism was the next thing that was going to transform Uganda.

You see, tourism is an invisible export, you are talking about an experience; tourism is experiential – it is not something you touch or hold, it’s implemented by good services, good stories, and then when you get in there it’s an experience. Beyond that experience, it turns into an investment and creates jobs and many economies of scale.

So, when the opportunity came up, I said, look guys, I have my skills, I have my exposure, I have my experience, and because I had worked in all the other five countries, I could learn from what the other countries had done well and what it is we could sell as a country. And so there was an advertisement at the end of 2013, we sat for interviews and as they say, the rest is history.

Now you are the chief executive officer of Uganda Tourism Board, what do you bring on board?

First of all, I believe that God has a plan for everybody; every one of us there is a purpose for which we were created. The moment you discover that purpose, then you live life with a passion.

My passion is to talk about this beautiful country. My passion is to tell the world, to tell Ugandans to love their country, to exploit their country, to explore their country, to experience their country.

If you were marooned on a desert island, but before that happens you are given a chance to carry with you one person or one item, who or what would that be?

It would be my wife. My Bible is a constant.

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