RK: Santa, I am so happy to be talking to you, how are you my sister?
SA: I am very well. Very happy to be here, Robert.
RK: I always ask people a very specific question when they come on this show, were you born on the catwalk?
SA: By all means I was!
RK: Santa, you’ve been in the fashion industry for 20 years. My observation is that when the industry exploded, you’re the only one who remained standing. Am I correct?
SA: If you say so. Creatives do take breaks. Some will exit during certain seasons of their lives. But I am happy to be here. I am holding forte for all of us.
RK: That is absolutely admirable of you. Your quality has been going up, is that correct?
SA: Correct, and its quite humbling that coming from you and your esteemed audience. I came in this to win not just as an individual but as a sector. Fashion is powerful.
RK: We have been seeing you in the media and for some reason we think we know Santa, we would like to know you better to know how and where this humble girl called Santa begins her life.
SA: I was born in Kampala.
RK: Wait, you’re a city born like me? Don’t say you also grew up in Naguru?
SA: No. I was born a few kilometers away at Mulago Hospital. Our earlier years were at Kanjokya street.
RK: You’re a ghetto girl!
SA: Hahaha, Kanjokya is different, Robert. But still, I love the ghetto.
RK: Looking back to those days, what is it that influenced or started this dream?
SA: Yes. At about 4, we moved upcountry. My father got employed at Kinyara sugar works, so we moved to Kibale. Shortly after there was a coup and I ended up as a refugee in Southern Sudan.
RK: You’re kidding me Santa!
SA: I’m kidding you not. We moved to South Sudan and there was no fashion there, there was only survival.
RK: First wait, you girl, what year are you talking about; 85?
SA: No. I’m not that young. The war of 79.
RK: You found yourself in South Sudan?
SA: Yes. Imagine the leaving the comfort of Kampala. I had attended MckenziVille for nursery. There I was literally in the jungles of South Sudan.
RK: Can you describe how life was there so we can have an understanding of the journey and the challenges you faced?
SA: My recollection starts from my arrival in Moyo. It was my first time there. And there were bullets raining and bombs blasting. Mummy calling out to me to run t my grandmother’s hut saying the soldiers have come. Daddy had been arrested at Kira road before we were sent to the village.
By the time I got to my grandmother’s hut, she had run off. There were bodies falling and bombs and bullets were going off. All I was seeing was lightening sort of. As a 4 year old, I hid in the maize and sorghum garden. From that point, the next thing I see I am in a camp in South Sudan and then mummy shows and finds me. We had all run north away from the bombs of Uganda.
RK: How traumatic that was! What was life like in this camp?
SA: Life was rough. I remember that we used to walk miles looking for water to drink. We would dig and dig until we found the water. Then we would draw water by the drop from the sand. Most of South Sudan is sandy.
We ate when the UN delivered the food supplies of USAID foods. On such days, people ate to their death. You had biscuits and meat.
RK: What did you do for school?
SA: My mother is a teacher by profession and she home schooled me. I left MckenzieVille in nursery and now I returned to Uganda when I was going to P3. I hope this will not affect my pitches in the future.
RK: No, Santa. This instead has acquitted you. No one is going to judge you. We are learning from you how to scale adversity. I didn’t even know this part of your story at all. Do you know how long you were in the camp for?
SA: I believe it was about 4 years… but I returned to go to P3. During that time when my mother could not handle, I was taken to my grandfather who was a chief who had also run away but had a better life. Then he passed away.
RK: Where is all this?
SA: Still in South Sudan.
RK: So you moved from where your mother was to your grandfather’s but still in Sudan?
SA: Yes. Because he asked for the younger child. I wasn’t the one but I was sent to help mummy ease the trouble.
RK: Is that where you start P3 from?
SA: No. I go and stay with grandfather and he looks after me. I get to taste sugar again. He had found a way of mixing sugarcane juice in porridge. Life was good again until he died.
RK: What happens next?
SA: I am then taken to my uncle and there are these little challenges. One day I am sent to pick water from the Nile. In some parts of northern Uganda, wells dry up in the dry season. I crossover this dry river to pick firewood and then it rains on the Ugandan side and I can’t cross back. I am just a young girl.
RK: So what do you do?
SA: That’s why I am a Strong believer in God, Robert. I remember a tall lanky man showed up, carried me on his shoulder and we crossed. After that, I remember my mum showing up and collecting me.
RK: When you returned to Uganda, did you continue school immediately?
SA: When Daddy was arrested, he was reported dead and we even held a funeral for him but it turned out he had been found innocent. It was the politics of revenge. A priest had picked him and that is how he survived. Dad had been in the seminary, when the priest found him beaten by the road side, he took him to hospital and that is how he survived.
RK: That’s a miracle!
SA: So I returned to Kampala to join him, wide eyed, and found that Daddy was staying at Grand Imperial Hotel. The only five star hotel at the time. I spent some time with him before I was back into community and school.
RK: You posted a picture of yourself standing outside a one room structure where the vision of Arapapa was born?
At a time like this when we are struggling with issues of covid and all, we need to hear from people like you that these things can be weathered. First of all, where was it?
SA: It was in Muyenga.
RK: You were in the rich neighbourhood of Muyenga?
SA: Somewhere there. I think it still exists. I actually took that picture about 5 years ago. I wanted to show it to my girl. It’s somewhere behind Hotel International.
RK: When the does the dream for fashion and design start?
SA: That dream started when I was reunited bulungi with my family. Mummy had a sewing machine at home. Daddy was travelling. He returned with some videos where I saw the sound of music. Maria was my favourite. I knew I wanted to be like her.
For fashion, I was always sketching, I was beaten for it. I think the sewing machine that mummy owned that she used to mend our clothes and make us little flora dresses inspired me. I knew that I wanted to be wherever the best clothing would be. I sketched them and had mummy make them for me. Or she would take me to the tailor as long as I could have them long.
RK: When do you take the first actual step into fashion?
SA: I will call it a stage. I took the very first stage in my S6 at Progressive Secondary School in Bweyogerere. I was rapping in school.
RK: Santa, you’re what?
RK: What was your stage name?
SA: I was just Santa and I rapped.
RK: You’re just performing?
SA: Through school, I was becoming a performer. It was becoming clearer that I wanted to do more of the arts. During my secondary school I was so small. I had all these nicknames skeleton, longido name it. But also Progressive had all these shows where I joined as a model and that was the first time my small body had found a place where it was praised.
But the big breakthrough came while I was working as a waitress at Kampala Casino. That was a little bit before I went to my kazigo in Muyenga. I worked as a waitress. My bosses Mr Bob Kabonero and Samuel were very exposed people. I was their favourite waitress I guess. One time we had an event to celebrate us the workers. And we were each asked to come up with an entertainment piece. I modelled.
All of a sudden, all these people were coming to stare at me. They were cheering me on. I was the centre of attraction. And this was genuine. I was just propelled to the centre stage. From then on I started modeling. The modeling gave birth to the fashion.
I would take my sketches to a one Salongo in Kiyembe and he would make these beautiful fabrics. You wouldn’t know that they were from Kiyembe.
RK: When does Arapapa start?
SA: Arapapa starts around 1997, at fashion school. I was bored at the fashion school. I have a short concentration span. In my first year at the fashion school, I was made a consultant. I was no longer at the same level with everybody else.
Meanwhile I was a disappointment to my parents because my parents had spent a lot of money on me and they had expected me to do something “serious”. At least a teacher, their first love. But I was not about to waste my time. I was not interested so I ended up in fashion school. So I am a disappointment to say the least.
So I had to separate myself from my family. I was a daddy’s girl and he was so broken. And everyone blamed it on him.
I had to promise myself not to disappoint my parents. I had to separate myself from all the noises that were not in agreement with me. I run away. To a cave where I could be alone.
RK: What effect was the noise having on you?
SA: I am a bad girl. A disappointment. Ungrateful. Just a failure. There were so many of those.
RK: So you felt you needed to get out of that noise to get clarity of thinking.
SA: At that time it was not as clear as you put it. All I wanted was to go somewhere I was accepted.
RK: And where was that?
SA: In that little kazigo.
RK: When you get there, how then were you able to find your way?
SA: I was a waitress, I could pay my bills. By the way, also working at the casino was a big disappointment to my family, my clan and everybody that cared. So there were a lot of things said, I didn’t want to break more of their hearts.
Also around that time, my parents had retired and were moving upcountry. My dad was sick and he chose to go back to the village. Mummy had gone ahead and had asked daddy to take me along. But I pleaded with him to leave me behind and he agreed. He gave me some money and made me promise him that I would never let myself down.
He left me some money to get around. To survive, I had to take on odd jobs.
RK: When does Arapapa become a business of its own?
SA: While I was doing the odd jobs, by the time the salary came in, I used to make a lot of money in tips. my European bosses loved me. And the clients loved me too. I loved my job. I served with a distinction and even went an extra mile. I collected so many tips.
But then, I became a problem for giving my best. “Is this your father’s business?” I used to get that all the time because was excellent. I wanted the right thing done.
RK: They had a wrong attitude.
SA: Yes. A wrong attitude towards work. But for me, I took my job seriously. What that did for me is that I got promoted very quickly. And that too became a problem. And sometimes I got dismissed. A gang put me in a corner and I didn’t know how to get myself out. This happened twice and I could not stand seeing that happening again. That drove me to create my own place where I could not be fired.
But at the time fashion and modeling were not a common thing. So it was hard to push. One day I was introduced to this lecturer who was John O’Connor who had a business clinic which dealt with specific industries and businesses. So I was taught the basics how to draw a business plan, project planning, and other short courses.
I then applied them in my Arapapa dream.
RK: Santa, Arapapa has made 20 years, what are the highlights you look back to?
SA: I will say John O’Connor’s belief in me propelled me on. We drew the business plan together. I was the youngest in class. He made a big deal out of my project as the first modeling agency. When I had that business plan ready he said he believed in me and that it was going to work out.
And then I met a business person who was interested as well. He had the money and the connection at the time that I did not have. I sold my business plan idea. I went and worked for someone else for about 15 months. We did not agree on some things and I chose to leave. I am very stubborn when I know I am right. I do not allow to take a fall when I shouldn’t. I apologize but by no means do I take on anything I have not earned be it positive or negative. Because of that, I left. And Arapapa happened.
Unfortunately, even my former boss will tell you that I was not there looking for contacts. I protected and defended the business.
RK: So you went back to Arapapa?
SA: There was no Arapapa before. What was there before was on only a dream.
RK: You’ve built the business for over 20 years, what are the things that worked for you?
SA: I am very sure of what it is that I want in most cases. I had this burning desire to achieve this vision. And this vision had now matured into a national phenomenon that was lacking. A celebration of Uganda’s diversity. The ethnic groups. The people. And that brought about that name Arapapa. Arapapa stands for butterfly. The butterfly embeds all those beautiful things that define us as Ugandans. I then turned this into the clothes I was making. Remember people already loved the clothes I was making with Salongo in Kiyembe.
I looked for what was lacking quite honestly. And what was lacking for me was a beautiful story about my country. And I am born of very patriotic people. My parents participated in the independence day in their own ways. We are the family you will find wearing Ugandan colours on independence day.
That hunger to give a very beautiful story that I was not hearing about Uganda was powerful. I needed to tell that story. Everywhere there was the Amin story and HIV yet I could also see there was an opportunity for fashion and modeling which could change the trajectory for us as a nation.
RK: And so you decide to tell your story through your clothes. What are your design characteristics and what do they say about Uganda?
SA: First of all, my vision has built certain values as well. There are things I could not put in words but I needed an inspirational story to tell them. My clothing had to be distinct and bold. I wasn’t coming into this to beat around the bushes. I wanted Ugandan signature fabric and I found it. Then I created the designs inspired by what was going on traditionally.
I was about 24 or 25. I was not going to wear the busuti at that time. I needed to be stunning . I need something outstanding, vibrant and free. Then I had to make some very simple yet distinct cuts that could get tailored into clothing. And once we launched the rest is history.
RK: That’s the history we want you to teach us, how were you able to be consistent to last for all these years?
SA: First of all self belief. I will not go back to the vision. I believe in God. Once you tell God what it is that you want, the universe comes together to serve you. God commands everything to work for you because regardless of the turbulence, going back and forth, my kazigo, the vision at the end of tunnel was there and I could not let go.
This revelation was given to me and not to the people around me so they did not see it. They did not believe it. And that is okay. So I believed in myself and in my capacity that I would do it. I then agreed with God. I then went the extra mile to teach myself those things that I was not taught in fashion school.
RK: You became a learner.
SA: I always tell my mentees that you may be the most excellent tailor, doctor or pastor or whatever you are but if you do not have certain values key of which is going the extra mile, you won’t stay long. Believe you me, I had to die to self. It was no longer about me. I had made promises and I had to go an extra mile to make this happen.
RK: So you talked about belief, vision and commitment to go the extra mile, what else?
SA: The passion. Even as we speak of the 20 years, it’s been miraculous getting here because if any sector that has been hit is fashion because we are considered as luxury in times like these. We all need clothing but not my kind of clothing. you can chill in your simple T-shirts but you can’t come to Santa for a bespoke piece.
RK: How did you know I am a t-shirt person?
SA: I just gave an innocent example. Robert, if I didn’t have the passion for my work, I would be down by now.
RK: You said that the fashion industry is worth trillions of money. There are young people listening to you here wondering, do they have a future? Should they believe like you? What do you have to tell them?
SA: I am going to tell them to believe and believe and believe. I am not the best fashion designer that ever walked the streets of Kampala. I learnt that Maama Mbire too was in this sector. Sarah Kizito too. I stand on shoulders of these great women. I used to model for Sarah Kizito at Lady Charlotte. But the thing is they laid a foundation, they did what they could. I came to build on that. Young people should know that there are people like Santa and luckily now, we have the Uganda International Fashion Week, we have built a huge industry that they can now hold on to. I am not sending anyone to demand or have any entitlement towards anyone. But if you have the dream for this, I am going to ask you to believe and believe. And as you do, put your best foot forward.
Robert, I was on a webinar and I was thrilled to meet people in the field of textiles in this country. There are professionals in the science of textiles. I am very surprised.
RK: Are there people in the banana fiber businesses?
SA: Yes. There are. Today more than ever before I believe that we can do this. We are going to achieve immensely. We have guys who went and studied these things. They have returned with degrees and PhDs which we cannot afford to put to waste. Because for me I need 100% Ugandan not juakali stuff. Stuff that can compete on international platforms where Arapapa showcases at. I have showcased with the best.
There is nothing that beats an identity.
RK: From where you are, why should anyone hope that there is a future in the fashion industry in Uganda especially seeing as the world has been on lockdown?
SA: Like I said earlier, the industry is a three trillion dollar industry worldwide. The fashion industry is the biggest employer in sub-Saharan Africa only second to food. Forget about covid and the lockdowns, should this economy open up again. We are the future. None of us showed up for this meeting naked. It’s food and then clothing.
Eve Zalwango: Having lived in the creative industry for long, how would you advise a parent with a child who wants to join that world?
2: How do you deal with withdraw as a creative yet the industry does not allow you to take that break?
SA: The creative child must be encouraged. If my parents especially my mother had encouraged me would have saved us all the pains we went through. I encourage all of us to listen in on our children.
On taking a break. I wish I knew earlier that I could take a break, plant my garden. Let us allow life to happen sometimes. The heart and the body always tell us but we don’t listen. Go on and take that leave.
Mary Apolot: Santa, how are you directly supporting young people interested in design?
SA: People think that for us to want better for our country, we have to be bribed. No, some of us were born like this. I have been a barber, a makeup artiste, a tailor name it. Every time I couldn’t afford a service, I did it myself. At Arapapa, we have always looked at the Uganda International Fashion Week as our corporate social responsibility. We never had the money in the bank but something had to be done. Some had to step in. I had to sell of my personal stuff to be able to do these things and use that to create something that can now be referred to as an industry. Most players today will indirectly or directly point back to Arapapa as their starting point. The good thing with this industry is that you empower one and that one empowers like 50 or 100. We are self-recreating.
Now I am going a step further, through the projects I have done with Uganda fashion week, enterprise Uganda, Arapapa and all these other platforms, I have been pushed into the mentorship space. And here you are inviting me to speak at 360 Mentor. We are going to make things happen. Luckily, I have a wealth of knowledge now. I am powerfully launching in the mentorship space.
Dennis Ogwang: How shall we convince these parents to appreciate new pathways for children?
SA: It’s quite sad and unfortunate, if I must say that parents that are called to shepherd an individual choose to live this individual’s experience on earth. It’s just simply wrong. You’re breaking the next best person. What if Dr Ogwang had been beaten would we have covidex here?
My mother had to go on national TV to apologize for having to redirect the course of my life. she apologized and advised parents to listen to their children. She said if she had listened to me, she would have let me go to Namasagali and let me do whatever she wanted.
Parents please listen and believe in your child.
Rose Nanyonga Clarke: How do we change the narrative where young girls in the fashion industry starve themselves to death because the fashion market demands that they must be a certain size to be able to fit in certain clothing to go on a catwalk, how are you advocating for a healthier approach?
SA: The issue of modelling has been here time memorial. It may not be about to change because we in Africa have allowed the world to dictate our life. We will keep complaining about the consequence until we do something about it.
It goes back to the individual; what are you trying to be? My dream to walk the catwalk came to an end when the scout said that my body looked like it could gain weight. Never mind that at that time I was very skinny but I was denied the chance basing on a future assumption.
Ten years from that day, the same scout found me in Tanzania and he took me on as their next project to promote. I reminded him and he apologised. So if you are bigger or plus size, stay the course.
Rk: I would like to thank you Santa for all the time you have spared to be with us today.
SA: Thank you Robert for having me. Just so you know, all lights are going to be on Uganda as we celebrate our 20th anniversary. All our partnerships are coming around. We have the biggest media agencies in the world coming here. We are so excited. 400 channels. 31 satellites. We are taking Uganda to all the markets where we need to be in.
RK: Santa, it is because of people like you that I run the #360Mentor, great things happen when people like share your stories. Thank you.