For the last fourteen years, thirty-two-year-old Agnes Nakyajja has battled her maternal uncle and a large majority of her family for the rightful ownership of her property, bequeathed to her by her mother. Several sessions of mediation and a court battle later, her property still remains in the custody of her uncle who insists that women do not have the power to inherit land.
Before her death in 1992, Agnes’ mother, Betty Nakalema entrusted all her property with her younger brother, Samson Wamala who was to hand it over to her children Agnes and Richard then five and three, when they came of age. At the age of eighteen, Agnes went to her uncle’s home to ask for her mother’s property. By the time of her death, Betty Nakalema had accumulated property including a 6.5-acre plot in her ancestral home in Rwabakoba and a Kibanja in Bitabago, three cows, two fishing nets and assorted household items.
“My mother died in 1992 when I was five years old. My brother was three but he died when he was still young. Before she died, she had land, some had been given to her by my grandfather and she had bought another plot in town. She left her property in the hands of my uncle who she asked to keep it safe until we were old enough. I was taken to my grandmother’ who raised me.” Narrates Agnes, seated on a cemented verandah in front of her one roomed house in Bitabago, Rakai district.
“I was stuck. I had stopped in P.7 and could not get a job yet I needed to support my grandmother and other cousins. I expected him to understand and hand over my mother’s property which would have helped me have a start but he refused. Another uncle, my mother’s older brother helped me and we went to court in Kalisizo. He had a part of the family, some other uncles and aunts who supported him and he even presented a will in court but they chased it because it was forged. He said that women do not inherit land and that is why my mother had given to him.”
The falsified will presented by Samson Wamala declared him as the heir of all Nakalema’s lands and his two sons the caretakers of the cattle, fishing nets and household materials. It, however, declared all the remaining belongings as Agnes and Richard’s.
“If indeed it was true that Betty had left all her wealth with her brothers, how come it is only one of them who got all the property? Why did we all not partake of this land?” said reverend Kiwumulo, Agnes’ uncle. “He took all her belongings for his children and himself and even when we took him to court, he falsified documents which he hoped would declare him owner of the property.”
In a 2015 ruling at a court in Kalisizo, the grade one magistrate asked Samson to hand over all the property to his niece and pay damages that amounted to UGX 300,000, with immediate effect.
“I was very happy. I had grown up poor and had not gone too far in school due to lack of school fees but I knew that my life would change now that I had something.” Says Agnes.
Her victory however, was short lived when her uncle rejected the court’s decision and appealed to the Masaka High Court, where the case has never been concluded. Three years later, the case remains unresolved leaving Agnes, the widowed mother of two in despair.
The laws of Uganda, including the Succession Act provide for rights of women and children to inherit property however, women and children’s right to inheritance are often violated, largely due to the patriarchal nature of the society. Agnes, like many women and children in rural Uganda face a constant challenge where their property is grabbed by relatives in the event of the death of their parents.
“I feel stuck and I do not know what to do. I have no more hope in the legal system to return the property to me because it has been three years now and I cannot be too sure that my uncle did not delay the appeal on purpose.”
To survive, Agnes works digging in people’s gardens daily for a fee that ranges between UGX 3000 to UGX 6000, depending on the land and the season. If the courts in Masaka rule in her favor once again, she intends to sell off the Kibanja Rwabakoba and cultivate the second plot of land.
“The Kibanja is right next to my uncle’s property and he hates me. I cannot even pass through his compound without him accusing me of wanting to cause trouble. I plan to go as far as possible and begin a new life for my children and I.”