To those of us who immigrated to Canada in the 1990s, Namugenyi "Nam" Kiwanuka was our introduction to Canada. She was a smart and engaging celebrity MuchMusic VJ. As if being a new mother is not occupying much of her time, the Ugandan native has used whatever time she has left fulfilling the promise of her Canadian citizenship by bringing attention to worthy causes all around the world.
It has been a while since you were on MuchMusic. What have you been up to since?
For a while, I was a columnist for BBC's Focus On Africa Magazine, a dream gig. I also recently moved back to Toronto after spending a few years in the United Kingdom, the States and Africa.
How did you end up being a VJ?
My former boss, Denise Donlon, encouraged me to become a VJ and with Moses Znaimer's backing, they took a chance on me. I was really shy and terrified to speak in front of big groups. When I was in high school, I delivered a class speech and I didn't realize I was looking at the ceiling the whole time. That's how shy I was. I started at MuchMusic as an intern while I was studying journalism at Ryerson University.
I worked behind the camera in several roles and my supervisor Sheila Sullivan gave me my first paying job as a graphics operator for Electric Circus. And before I knew it, several years later, it was one of the shows I had the opportunity to host.
Your time on MuchMusic must have been a wonderful experience. When you look back on those years, what were some the highlights?
I had a blast working at Much. I laughed like I never laughed before, and I felt loved and cared for like never before. The highlight for me was working with kind, talented and good people. The crew gave everything they had into what they were doing and everyone treated each other as family. It was incredible. And deciding to leave was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make. It's been a blessing to see so many people I used to work with whenever I'm in the building.
How is motherhood treating you?
Motherhood is great. I never saw myself as someone's mother -- I can't even keep a cactus alive -- but I'm really glad I trusted myself and did it. Now I want a village!
You have been involved in many charities over the years. What are some of these charities and why are they important to you?
I volunteered with War Child Canada while I was at MuchMusic and in the past few years I've worked with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) and the Canadian Red Cross. I really enjoyed working with JHR because I'd been given a chance to share my skills with journalists from Sierra Leone. I lived and worked in Freetown, the capital city, and volunteered as a media trainer. Unfortunately my time there was cut short because I became ill with malaria.
Even though I almost died from the malaria, looking back now, it was a gift because my illness led me to work with the Red Cross. I was an ambassador for a program called Malaria Bites. I travelled to Mali with them and documented the distribution of mosquito bed nets to families with children under the age of five.
It was a surreal experience to see mothers lining up at the crack of dawn to get nets that cost what we spend on coffee at Starbucks. The nets cost less than $10 but they were cherished and treasured because there is no vaccination for malaria. I was proud to be Canadian because, as a country, we helped to save the lives of millions of children through Malaria Bites.
Have you been back to your native Uganda since you left as a child in 1983?
Actually, the first time I went back home to Uganda, I was in university, before I worked at Much. I went back with my whole family and an extended Ugandan community. I think there were 40 or more of us on the same flight. We hadn't been back since we fled during the war. I remember tears just spilling from my eyes as the plane touched down at Entebbe Airport. When I walked onto the tarmac, I bent down and kissed the ground because I never thought I would see my home country again.
What advice would you have for someone who might want to emulate such a career?
When I left Much, some people thought I was fired, because why would anyone leave such a great job? But I really felt like I needed to see more of the world and I needed to use my talent as a voice for people back home. It was bumpy at times but I would do it over again. The past five years have been full of adventure and I've acquired a lot of knowledge that I would have missed out on if I had stayed in my comfort zone. I used to read the BBC's Focus on Africa magazine when I was in university and prayed that one day I would be writing for them.
If I had stayed, I would have missed out on this dream of writing my own column for a pioneering magazine, which has always given a voice to Africa. Sometimes when I see my name on the masthead, I think I'm seeing things. So, in short, trust your instincts, even when everyone and everything is telling you the opposite of what you believe and never allow fear to be a deciding factor. In fact, I find the more afraid I am of something, when I do it, I find a bigger reward. Never take no for an answer.
Nam also recently did a TedX talk at Ryerson. See the video below: