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From refugee, to house girl then CEO

Trendsetters By LUCY MARONCHA
                        LILIAN NAMULEJE                   (Photo: Courtesy)

When she came to Kenya to seek refuge from Uganda eight years ago, she had nothing other than a seconday school certificate. But now, LILIAN NAMULEJE, 27, is counting her many blessings. She shares her remarkable story with LUCY MARONCHA 

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Had anybody suggested to Lillian Nabuleje, 27, that in less than eight years she would be the executive director of a flourishing event-planning company, and pursuing her PhD in a recognised Kenyan University, she would have probably been offended for a joke taken too far.

When she came to Kenya in 2004 as a refugee from Uganda, Lillian had nothing other than a high school certificate.

However, time has passed so fast for Lillian that she can only sit back and look at her transformed life with a big smile.

Not only does she own a thriving hospitality firm, but is also a lecturer at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology where she is also pursuing her PhD.

She shares her remarkable story:

“I grew up in Bulaago village in Eastern Uganda. Life was never easy for my family. My father was a peasant farmer and could not take care of all his nine children. I know what it is to sleep hungry and go to school with no shoes and with tattered clothes.  I managed to pay my fees through kind donations, otherwise I would have dropped out,” she shares.

After high school, Lilian was invited by an aunt for a church function in Kenya. Since things were bad at home, she decided to settle in as a refugee. Little did she know that the visit was the beginning of a turbulent journey towards better things ahead?

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As fate would have it, when she landed in Kenya, she fell sick and had to be hospitalised.  Her aunt offered her a place to live as she recovered.  But things took a different turn when she got better.

“For some reason, my aunt slowly turned me into her house help. I would do all the cooking, cleaning and laundry while my cousins who were grown up just watched TV. I just persevered because I needed the accommodation. But deep in my heart I knew I could be more than a domestic worker,” Lillian recalls.

Unbearable life

With time, living with her aunt became a nightmare.

“My cousins would steal and maliciously destroy my personal effects. I was also overworked and they treated me like a slave. I hated it,” she says with a tinge of sadness.

Life became so unbearable at her aunt’s place that Lillian was forced to look for employment in the same estate.

 “I decided enough was enough and I would rather be a house girl in a place where I would be paid,” she says.

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Much as she became a domestic helper Lillian knew that she was set for bigger things and never lost focus. She saved every coin from her meagre salary to enable her join college. With time she was able to save enough and enrolled for computer classes.

Marrying her job with studying was not easy but she had to work smart to satisfy her boss and college tutor.

“I would do my work and finish by eleven o’clock so that I would head to the college. My dream was to study and become an important person regardless of how small I started,” says Lillian.

She later realised she could no longer manage to balance housework and education and started to looking for other means to raise her fee.

Lady luck fell her way and she was introduced to Catholic nuns who would engage young refugees in simple jobs and would reciprocate by assisting them with food and other basics.

“I quit my job as a house girl and went to live with the nuns. I would wash and clean for them and tidy their houses. I was getting a bit more money,” she says.

With her little savings, she rented a small house in Nairobi’s Kawangware and would walk for more than five kilometers daily to the nuns’ residence.

“One of the nuns developed a soft spot for me and offered to train me on how to make rosaries. She even bought me beads to make my first rosary,” she recalls.

She would sell the rosaries which fetched some good cash. With this money, she was able to complete her certificate course in computer studies.

Armed with the certificate, she got a job as a computer trainer in a small cyber café but this was not to last long.

“Some people were jealous of my work and they incited my boss to sack me.  But I never lost hope,” she says with resilience.

 She was later introduced to a Catholic priest who later offered to help her acquire a diploma in Computer Science.

To cut on costs, the priest helped her relocate to Kasarani where the church was hosting 12 other refugee girls in a two-bed-roomed house. This is where her talent was spotted.

“My leadership qualities were evident and I was made the prefect of the group.  Being the house head, I drew a duty roaster as well a few rules to ensure the house remained intact as the girls came from different backgrounds and had different beliefs and lifestyles.”

Academic journey

 Lillian’s patience and leadership qualities compelled the priest to continue paying for her college fees until she graduated. She later completed the diploma and the priest offered to pay for her degree in the same course at a public university. This was the beginning of her academic journey.

The day she set foot at Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology, she vowed to go up the radar until she acquired her PhD.

Getting there was, however, not a walk in the park.

“The priest only offered accommodation in the shared house, a weekly Sh200 stipend and the university fees. To cater for my other needs, I started selling juice and chapatis to my fellow students.”

She also rented a small shop outside the university where she set up her business.

Things started getting better for her as students started making huge orders for chapatis and juice during parties. From this humble beginning she has carved a niche in the hospitality industry. With time, her orders grew and decided to register her small business. That is how POA Event Organisers — a hospitality company was formed.

Word went round about her services and orders came streaming in. Now the business located in Juja is doing so well she is smiling all the way to the bank. She has employed five permanent employees and 200 casuals. And what is the secret to her success?

“Patience. Patience. Patience. Nothing comes easy in this life, but if you know you are destined for greatness, you will be patient, work hard and wait for the appointed time,” she says.

From what she earned from her business, she enrolled for a degree course in the same university and later for master’s degree. She is now a lecturer and a Phd student at the same university.

Her advice to young jobless graduates still searching for jobs?

“No youth should sit back and blame the government for their misery. If you are determined, nothing is impossible. If I sat and pitied myself, I couldn’t be where I am today. My thirst for education and my determination have seen me come this far,” she says.


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