Interview: Uganda’s Gaetano Kagwa Says Big Brother Africa was His Launch Pad
In 2003, almost out of the blue, Gaetano Kaggwa shot to fame after appearing on the maiden edition of Big Brother Africa and making a stint on Big Brother UK. Gaetano recently returned to work with 91.3 Capital FM.
Ahead of the launch of the 2014 edition of Big Brother Africa, he relives his journey to the limelight with Simon Kasyate on the Desert Island Discs programme.
Welcome to Desert Island Discs
Thank you for having me on the show, Simon.
For those who might not know, who are you?
I was born here in Uganda in the 70s. Without giving my age, though you can google it. I was born in Mulago hospital but I hail, pretty much, from Masaka. I was born to Mr John and Jane Kaggwa. My mother is [deceased] but my father is alive and kicking. Many people mistake him for my uncle who passed away but he was also my father. So, Gaetano is a Ugandan, a son of the soil, so to speak, and thrust into the limelight by chance.
Come on, not by chance. You worked hard. It didn’t come on a silver platter.
Well, I mean the initial…. Maybe I wasn’t on people’s mind. I was just the average Joe. And then after I came out of Big Brother in 2003, things changed.
You must have obviously positioned yourself in a place where this chance hit you… the kind of childhood you had would probably explain the person you are.
Depending on how you look at it, I was either fortunate or unfortunate because I left Uganda in the 70s; that was Idi Amin’s time. We ran [to exile] like many Ugandans did at that time.
We ran to Kenya and my father got into some business dealings with a relative of ours and we moved to Lesotho. I did my high school from there, after which I was very fortunate to be able to go and study outside the continent. I went to the USA.
But, even then, hailing from Masaka and studying in Lesotho, clearly you had a silver spoon in your mouth.
(Laughs) It wasn’t a silver spoon, Simon. It was a bit rusty.
At least it wasn’t wooden; it was metallic. Let’s get down to the Kaggwa household. You were living in exile. At that stage, how was the home setting?
I was very fortunate I am not the first born. I had two brothers before me, then myself, then a brother, sister and a brother. The youngest, unfortunately, passed away a couple of years ago in the early 2000s; so, in a sense we are now just five of us. I had that sibling rivalry thing going on. My parents tell me I was very naughty but I tend to disagree. I was perhaps the most obedient of them all.
Wait a minute. If, in your assessment, you were the most obedient, how rusty were the other guys?
(Laughs) Oh my goodness! I do not know. Just by chance, I think. My sister who follows me is the only girl and I used to make sure I protected her until this day. She may be married today but there’s a guy in her life. Even in my speech on her wedding day, I told her husband, ‘Dude, she might be your wife but she is my sister’.
Growing up, did you have an idea of what you wanted to be in terms of career, ambition and things like that?
In school times, I was not quiet. [I used] to be kind of a joker but on the academic side… my father wanted me very much to go into business because he was in business. So when I went to college, that is the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, I started doing courses that would lead towards business.
But after my freshman year, I called my dad and told him, ‘I can’t handle this. I am thinking more in [terms of] arts and law.’ Surprisingly, he agreed. As soon as I shifted and started doing arts courses, I was actually on the dean’s list. I was doing very well.
Plays Exodus by Bob Marley
I am sure this is where you cut your radio teeth…
Yes. After the whole BBA experience, I came back. You know, for a while I had lots of events and lots of people trying to get my attention but, you know, I was new; I was naïve.
So, you return to Uganda and start pursuing your law degree at Makerere, and then…?
And then there I was in my third year, trying to understand the law of Uganda and what it was about. Then my cousin, [Suuna], came and told me about Big Brother and convinced me to get the papers and I went, got them and I signed them and, like they say, the rest is history.
What was it about you that he believed that you would make it?
I do not know what he saw. But when we forgot the forms, my cousin forgot to fill his out… If he had, maybe he would have ended up going instead of me.
You fill up these forms and throw them in there with what level of optimism?
None. Actually, I remember when I was filling out the forms, my cousin called me again and said, “By the way, I have actually got the forms here that you gave me. I am going to rush and go because tomorrow is the final day for handing in the applications.”
Then I said, “Bannange! I am hung over now and I forgot to fill out these forms.” So I filled out the forms [while nursing a hangover], to be very honest with you.
What is on these forms?
Age. Sex. Who are you? Where were you born? What do you like? Hobbies; that kind of thing. So, I fill out the forms, handwritten, so when I hand over the forms, I was actually enumerated (laughs). So when I filled it out, I think I was very honest with my answers; that kind of laisses-faire [attitude]. And before you know it, “Ok, come for the very first interview,” and they cut and people go.
There were many people and remember this time I was at campus and not working; so, I was like ‘proggie’ (laughs), jumped on my bike and I went through the different stages and they flew us to Kenya, me and two other ladies, for the last interview. So, we come back and I am in class on campus and the lecturer is in and my phone rings and it was a message simply saying, “Gaetano, you have been chosen to represent Uganda in Big Brother Africa.”
So, I am seated in class and the lecturer is talking but I wasn’t getting anything because I didn’t expect to get this thing. I do not know what even Big Brother is about. I had been told stories but I didn’t [know], and then what was I going to tell my parents?
Then my good friend, who you also know, by the way, called Byaru is the only person I told amongst my friends. I ended up telling my family members but he is the one who said, “Gae, take only the money that you have now and forget about school.”
But Byaru is very terrible company.
Yes, he is a terrible man. He was sort of a big buffer because all of a sudden I started getting these memorabilia: Big Brother Africa hats, caps, name it, and I would give them to Byaru because I didn’t want to get associated. So, many people believed it was Byaru going, kumbe it was me. To cut the long story short, I was being flown to South Africa.
Wait a minute, before you go to South Africa… at what point did you tell your father about it?
Now this is where it gets a bit more interesting, because my father was still in Lesotho. I was in Uganda under the guardianship of my uncle. So, I told them and I never told my dad in Lesotho. So once these ones had [approved of the decision to go], I didn’t tell my dad.
What did you tell them?
I told them I was going to Big Brother and they didn’t even understand what it was. Then these guys flew in a crew to film me at home. They were like, ‘Hmm, this is [un]usual stuff”. My father in Lesotho only found out when he switched on the TV and saw me [on Big Brother] (Laughs).
What are some of those Gae moments that you look back to and may want to share with us that you remember?
There were few key times. For me entering the Big Brother house, I was given the honour… to [enter] to the Big Brother house… first.
Now I was really nervous… so, I entered, looked around the place and I went and got a beer for me to calm down. The next highlight for me was when we were in the house and then Lucky Dube came into the house.
While you’re in there, what was going through your mind?
You know, when you are in the house, you are in a cocoon. You do not know what is happening outside the house. All you have is a mental image, memories, fantasies and imagination.
It was only when we were about to finish Big Brother Africa that the production allowed us to do a phone-video conversation with somebody that we knew. I was over the moon but they were not allowed to tell us what [had] happened out there.
Tell us about your relationships in the house?
There were 12 of us, some of who I am still in touch with. [Others] I am not, but they are all alive. Many people always ask me about my relationship with the housemate from South Africa, Abby, and what started off as genuine sort of interest and flirtation developed into something a bit more, and we did have a relationship in the house.
Occasioned by the fact that there were no other viable alternatives or it just simply grew [and] even if you had met outside the house you would still have dated her?
I think if we had met outside the house, maybe circumstances might not have pulled us together. But if we had met, we would possibly have a relationship of significance of course. In the house, we laughed and fought.
So, you know that the world is watching every move but somehow… you find yourselves in a situation that could be best described as quite erotic..
Like I said, you are in that house, you never knew what was happening all the time. There was a time we had a conversation wondering if people were watching the show; so, what we were doing was for us. When Big Brother says ‘People, here is some booze, an activity plan to do it’, it was for us. So what people saw, hmm, those were theirs.
Did you ever take time to review some episodes of your stay in there?
I saw clips here and there but I have never sort of sat down and analysed the whole thing.
Is it a memory you don’t want to carry with you all the time or …?
No, not necessarily. I do have a scrapbook of newspaper clippings done by a good friend of mine which tell the story, which is very nice. And I have one or two old tapes which I need to convert to DVD and, of course, conversations with people who I once in a while meet at functions; stuff like that. So, that always keeps it fresh. Other than that, I have moved on.
Plays Roses Are Red by Bobby Vinton
How did you feel when your name was announced and there were four other contestants waiting for the prize. Did you feel like it was a wasted 106 days?
For me, it is an experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I was lucky enough to go to the Big Brother UK, then when I came back to Uganda, I went for Big Brother Nigeria; so I have been in three Big Brother houses.
You end up in England. Did you know where you were going?
No. When they took me to the diary room after we had a competition to make a cocktail which I won (laughs)… The person who was supposed to go is actually Bruna, but Bruna was evicted that night. [Big Brother says]‘…so you are runner-up and runner-up you are elected, if you want to, to go to Big Brother UK.
I was blindfolded from the house to the airport. They took off my blindfold to stamp my visa and blindfolded me again. On the plane, when we were about to set off for safety reasons [they removed the blindfold] and they told me under no circumstances was I allowed to talk to anyone on the plane.
They blindfolded me at landing in England and they took the blindfold off in the car that was tinted black with black curtains. Next thing I knew, we were in Big Brother house UK and they told me “Relax, enjoy, we shall let you know when to pick you up.”
How did you feel when there was a mammoth crowd waiting for you at the airport on arrival and they drove with you all the way back to Kampala?
Hee! Simon. I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting only my folks, friends and the usual chaps. But when we were on the plane they told me, “Gae, do you know there is a big crowd waiting for you at the airport?” I thought it was the usual folks kumbe; it was unbelievable.
When you see this crowd, what goes on in your mind?
There was fear, apprehension – “What do they expect of me?” (Laughs) – a bit of excitement. And the trip from Entebbe to Kampala took five hours.
It was pure love and happiness and I tried to give the same back. That time, I came with Abby. They took us to Sheraton and decorated my bed. Apparently, there was a president who was supposed to leave that day and he couldn’t leave because of the traffic; so, I made the president stay another day.
How did you transition from the aura of celebrity to normal?
I do live a normal life. I do try to keep a level head. Nonetheless, I still think it is very important not to get carried away in the aura of all of these things because then you cease to be yourself. You are not a god or superhuman.
The positive side of it? It has helped open doors for me; accessibility was unlimited. To this day, people still come to talk to me but, even then, at times I am worn out but all they want is two minutes and if these two minutes will make them happy, I give it to them.
How was it that you were able to zero down to this one lady and marry her?
I could not have married a more beautiful, more understanding and more virtuous [woman]. I mean, I run out of adjectives in my life. The woman who (stammers) captured my heart and whose heart I captured; I met her through my brother after Big Brother.
I got very sick and had a ruptured ulcer; so while I was in hospital in Kenya, my brother Tendo came, and Tendo is very good friends with my wife. They were doing a blood drive and he called and told her we need blood and she came and gave blood.
That is the first time I saw her and even though I was on my sickbed, I noticed her. But because I was too weak to do anything, I didn’t. I got well and came back to Uganda and the next time I see her, she was going out with Tendo and I said ‘let me come along with you guys.’
That is how we started dating. That night, we exchanged numbers. And each time I went to South Africa to shoot my Studio 53, I passed Kenya on my way back because that is where she was working – she is a journalist – and I would spend three days. Before I knew it, one thing led to another and now she is Mrs Kaggwa.
Let’s take you to Big Brother, you guys didn’t go into this thing for free. Money?
Back then, in 2003, they opened for us accounts in South Africa and every week you managed to survive in the house, they wired money to your account. It wasn’t much but you make the money when you come out. It was about $100 a week.
Are you doing as well as you thought you would?
I am doing [well] enough even though now I am based here in Uganda, I could be earning more; I am always looking for ventures but some doors open, some doors do not. But I must say the position I am in today wouldn’t have been possible if I had not laid a foundation back then.
Any regrets for not continuing with you law degree?
No, none at all.
Ten years from now, where do I expect to see you?
I never want to look over my shoulder for people who have wronged me or I have wronged. I want to look forward and enjoy my friends and family, possibly have children. I am working on it.
Would you go back to Big Brother house again even if as a legend?
I was doing an interview recently and they asked that question and I said I would go back if it was Big Brother Universe; so, it would have to be something very different.
If you were marooned on a desert island and you were given chance to take one person/thing, who/what would it be?