Sometime in August 2018, Ugandan musician turned Member of Parliament, Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, was detained. His arrest, torture and detention sparked a worldwide campaign to have him freed trending under the hashtag #FreeBobiWine—probably fuelled by what was considered a gross violation of human rights in this day and age. Throughout his ordeal, our attention was drawn to a stoic presence in his life in the form of Barbie Itungo Kyagulanyi.
Barbie, the slim, beautiful wife to Bobi Wine with perfectly, chocolate skin, relentlessly pushed for her husband’s release never once showing any visible signs of fear or defeat. Through her Facebook page and an interview she gave, she kept fans and constituents of her husband up to date with his situation whenever she could. Her posts especially were part of her efforts in letting the world know what was going on and why everyone else needed to keep adding their voices, to pressure the Ugandan government enough to release Bobi. And after what seemed like an almost fruitless back-and-forth, he was finally released and allowed to travel abroad for further treatment.
Barbie’s unwavering support for Bobi Wine made me all the more curious to know who she was, particularly before the campaign. I searched for articles online, on her relationship with this young revolutionary with such a huge following in Uganda, prior to becoming his wife and found out that they had met while she was in her late teens. Their love story intrigued me enough to keep searching and, with every article, I came to learn how they had started with little and built a life together, overcoming all odds to become the power couple they now are.
And while I had always been conversant with Ugandan artistes and their music, I had not really paid much attention in the past to Bobi Wine’s songs in particular. It was through reading these articles that I discovered that, even in his music, he had always been socially conscious and a fearless critic of the current Ugandan regime. It was almost like, in addition to entertaining, music had also been a preparation for what was to come for Bobi Wine and Barbie had always been by his side as his destiny gradually became clearer.
The love story of Bobi and Barbie was not so much because of how well their names rhymed together and the many pictures they had taken together as their family grew, but rather on the fact that they seemed genuinely willing to stick by each other through thick and thin. Perhaps the most audacious thing that could easily have been dismissed for a love-struck, young woman’s gimmicks was Barbie’s decision while still dating Bobi to get a large tattoo of her boyfriend on her back with the inscription “Forever”.
Now that we have an idea of how much this couple has been through and their motivations, we can generally agree that Barbie knew every implication of getting herself permanently inked with the image of a man she considered her soul mate. But my interest in her was not solely because she had led the public life that many of us may secretly crave. It was in how as a once celebrity wife, she had now managed to additionally package herself as a mother and wife to a politician and a radical one at that.
Barbie wears several hats. She is a Businesswoman, Philanthropist, Once Columnist on parenting, a Fashionista with an impeccable style and a Writer with a published autobiography, Golden Memories of a Village Belle. How she manages to juggle all these roles together, is a testament to just how self-driven she is. With all these titles, she is equally a representation of many things.
Barbie goes against the widely believed and probably misguided notion, in East Africa especially, that Ugandan women are subdued and ultimately denied a voice. I kept up with her after the release of her husband and his return to Uganda and realized that her focus had shifted to the business she runs at their One Love Beach Busabala, in a move I interpreted was meant to allow Bobi resume his job now that he was safely back home. It was indeed glaring evidence that while she came across as urban and liberal, she had not quite forgotten what her culture dictated as the role of a wife in a marital union.
Refreshingly, she was not retreating to the background because she was not supposed to be heard. She was seemingly refocusing her energies on what had equally suffered from lack of adequate attention during her husband’s arrest and detention. And it was not too long before she was back on her social media pages, sitting on panels all aimed at empowering the girl child. Recently, with every unfairly canceled concert of her husband’s where he was slated to perform, she has not shied away from adding her voice, to express her displeasure with what appear to be efforts to silence him.
The best thing is that Ugandans seem to largely appreciate the gem they have in Barbie. And as Bobi carries on with his cause, I am sure that he is emboldened by the fact that he has a woman by his side, who firmly believes in him and is willing to stand by him come what may. It may not have been easy for Barbie to adjust to her husband’s new status, but with the formidable strength she has openly exhibited in the face of extreme challenges, I believe she is perfectly prepared for whatever destiny awaits the Kyagulanyi family.
Lorna Likiza is a Kenyan Writer, French Tutor, Contributor at Watermelanin Magazine and Co-Founder of the Online Literary Platform, MeharaLit. Her Non-Fiction and Fiction pieces have appeared on Arts and Africa and Ile Alo respectively. Her Children’s story was longlisted in the Golden Baobab Prize 2018.