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‘Little Kampala’

With students pioneering the way, 1,500 Ugandans now call Waltham home

Many Ugandan immigrants, like nurse's aide John Mulinde, live frugally and send large amounts of money back to Uganda to help their families and towns. Many Ugandan immigrants, like nurse's aide John Mulinde, live frugally and send large amounts of money back to Uganda to help their families and towns. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / August 20, 2009

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On a humid August night, a man with a microphone in one hand and a cardboard box in the other cajoles money from the crowd before him.

As music plays from speakers rigged beneath the trees, he names one man and one woman sitting in the metal folding chairs and entreats them to dance - or remain seated and drop money into the box.

This is a Ugandan wedding meeting, a gathering to benefit a young couple who plan to marry but need help paying for their celebration. When the days grow warm, it is a familiar scene in Waltham’s Prospect Hill Park, where dozens of local Ugandan immigrants gather on most weekend afternoons and evenings.

Sometimes they raise money for a wedding, or to send the body of a recently deceased relative home to Uganda, or they meet just to talk and grill beef over the barbecue pit.

They come from nearby towns, but many live in Waltham, which has an estimated 1,500 Ugandans who have settled in the city whose mills and factories once lured other immigrants looking for a better life, according to Frank Musisi, president of the Waltham-based Ugandan North American Association.

Their culture and their entrepreneurship permeates their new home - from Karibu, a Ugandan restaurant serving up cassava and matoke (green bananas), to Sisters, a hair salon that caters to the Ugandan community.

“Waltham is really another Little Kampala,’’ said Aisha Nakato, who came to Prospect Hill Park with her 5-year-old daughter one recent Sunday night. Nakato, a single parent who is half Ugandan and half Kenyan, moved to Waltham from Cambridge after her divorce to raise her daughter in the Ugandan community.

The Western Union on Moody Street, where Ugandans line up to send money home, posts the exchange rate between the dollar and the Ugandan shilling. On Sundays, worshippers meet at a handful of churches that preach in Luganda, the most widely spoken language in Uganda after English. One of the largest is St. Peter’s Anglican Church of Uganda, which meets in the stately Christ Church on Main Street.

Late on Saturday nights, the Moody Street club Rendezvous fills with Ugandans dancing to music from their home country, speaking Luganda and drinking water or beer at tables around the dance floor. Roberts, a club down the street, also attracts a large Ugandan crowd.

Musisi said the first wave of Ugandans came to the United States in the 1960s, after President John F. Kennedy created scholarships for African students to study here. Many of the students ended up at Harvard and other universities and stayed after they got their degrees. Then, during Idi Amin’s bloody dictatorship in the 1970s, more Ugandans fled the country, and many landed in Waltham and Boston.

“When you come from Uganda, you look for people who can help you, and Boston was pretty much the going area,’’ said Musisi, a former Waltham resident who now lives in Los Angeles.

Since US and local census figures do not detail specific countries of birth, it is difficult to find an official tally of local Ugandans. But Musisi estimates that about 10,000 live in Massachusetts. In Waltham, a city of about 59,000, one-fifth of its residents were born outside the United States, a number nearly double the state average. The city that lured Irish immigrants more than a century ago now has many African and Latino immigrants.

John Mayanja came to Waltham in the 1970s, when relatively few Ugandans lived in the city. A sister who studied at Harvard Law School lived there, and he joined her when his family fled Amin’s regime. More Ugandans followed over the years, attracted by cheap housing and public transportation.

“Waltham was the most affordable area as opposed to Cambridge, Brookline, Brighton, where you have large student populations,’’ he said.

Mayanja, an engineer now retired from Verizon, said that starting in the 1990s he saw a large wave of Ugandans arrive in Waltham and Greater Boston looking for better jobs.

“There is a much bigger influx of Ugandans now than ever before leaving the country,’’ he said. “Unfortunately, Uganda has not really seen meaningful progress. There are no employment opportunities. People are forced to leave.’’

Many of the Ugandans who arrive in Waltham work in nursing, often starting as nurse’s aides and gradually earning more degrees and better jobs. Some of the young women dancing at Rendezvous one recent Saturday night said they took nursing classes and worked during the days. At night, they sought out nurse’s aide jobs.

“Most people when they come from home, it’s the quickest way to earn money,’’ said Deborah Namande, who began working as a certified nursing assistant after she arrived in Waltham in 1990. “I say that because when they come here, they go for an assistant nurse’s course. It’s not a decent pay, but good enough, as opposed to working at McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts where you get minimum wage.’’

Namande, who now lives in Lexington, eventually got a master’s degree at Northeastern University and works as a clinical data manager in oncology research. Like many Ugandans, she regularly sends money back home, paying for the children of relatives to attend school. She also owns a hair salon there, where her niece works.

“I don’t think we have those words, extended family, for us,’’ she said. “Everybody’s family. We have big families; we tend to support almost everybody. That’s why people have to figure out a way to live here and support people back home.’’

Many Ugandans who come to America live frugally and send thousands of dollars back to their native country, creating projects to help those they left behind. John Mulinde, who lives in Waltham and works as a nurse’s aide in Winchester, created a program in his native village to counsel students about AIDS.

“I see people who have HIV, women and girls and boys,’’ he said. “I say, ‘I have to something for them.’ ’’

Wilberforce Kateregga came from Uganda to Waltham a decade ago and eventually started a small cleaning company called Multi Works International. But he couldn’t forget the young children, made orphans by AIDS, back home.

Kateregga used $250,000 of his own money to build a boarding school that now has 300 students. He’s trying to raise another $300,000 for another building with classrooms, a library and a laboratory.

Kateregga named the school after his new hometown: Waltham College.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.