By Patty Huston-Holm
When I think of Molly Nantongo, I think of dancing. The tiny gap in her front teeth is one way I pick her out from hundreds of Ugandans I’ve met. Both of those things – dance and space evident when Nantongo smiles – have played an important role in her still unfolding achievement.
On a Saturday morning in August 2022, from a couch in my Uganda Christian University (UCU) Tech Park apartment, Nantongo explained the role. A 2015 UCU alum with a Bachelor of Social Work and Social Administration, she sandwiched in time to talk just five days before her flight to California, USA. Our conversation was punctuated with laughter, hope from despair and bites of chocolate brownies.
I met Nantongo in 2016. In addition to the meager salary that she got from performances with a troupe at Uganda’s Ndere Cultural Arts Center, she got some shillings from me for private dance lessons between shrubs and hanging laundry in the side yard of where I lived at UCU. Her young 20-something moves were a sharp contrast to those of her much older but eager-to-learn counterpart.
We laughed then and with Dr. Kukunda Elizabeth Bacwayo, then dean of the UCU School of Research and Post-Graduate Studies, enroute home to Mukono after watching Nantongo dance with Ndere Troupe one Sunday night in Kampala.
Nantongo was piecing together earnings from three jobs: a professional dancer, an occasional private dance teacher and teaching assistant and tutor for undergraduate students in the university’s foundation courses. At that time and still, she had visited more of USA’s 50 states than me.
“I’ve been in about 95% of the United States,” she said. She got there before age 15.
In 2002, Nantongo was one of four children living with a single mother, a former Hutu in Rwanda, in the Kampala slum suburb of Kirombe. Missing school and food on the table were an accepted way of life that the then 10-year-old filled with “cracking jokes” and dancing. One such day, she and a girlfriend jumped gleefully onto a political campaign truck filled with music blaring from loud speakers. They laughed and danced, oblivious to those seeing them, before jumping off to make the 35-minute walk from home.
“Mom was bitter,” Nantongo said. “She caned me.”
Nantongo ran away and slept the night on some steps where a sex worker scooped her up, made her tea with milk and, despite the child protests that her mom would “beat me to death,” took her home.
There, she learned that she had been noticed on the truck.
“They were looking for the dancing girl with the gap in her teeth,” she said.
That organization, now known as Undugu Society of Kenya, helped Nantongo finish primary school. Another organization, Empower African Children, got her to the United States as a member of the Spirit of Uganda Various Artists – Spirit of Uganda: 2008 Tour Album Reviews, Songs & More | AllMusic “Because I could dance,” Nantongo explained, adding, “Plus, I had a story to tell.”
Her moves were natural until age 15, when there was formalized instruction to be ready for travel, do shows internationally and raise money for vulnerable children like her. The 2008 USA tour with 11 girls and 11 boys was six months in buses and planes.
“The organization called me ‘Maureen’ and taught me how to jump and move my hands in different tribal dances,” she said. Her favorite dances are from northeastern Uganda, namely the Karamoja region, with a particular affection for war dances without drums.
As Nantongo told of her journey, she shared that her siblings weren’t totally left behind as Empower African Children assisted with education. And she never took her support for granted. Working hard as she did in the years after getting her bachelor’s degree was both rewarding and giving back. She helped students understand health and wellness and world views in the UCU undergraduate foundation courses.
Alas, like for many, Covid was a hardship. A degree meant little without a place to teach, and dancing meant little without an audience to dance for. Nantongo started a passion fruit business to support herself and her mom, age 52, who struggles still from a stroke in 2017.
A year into being a street seller, a friend suggested she apply for a scholarship opportunity through the American Embassy. Without much optimism as one of 60 candidates for one slot, she participated in the two-week orientation – raising her hand and smiling a lot. She was chosen for a two-year master’s program in social welfare at the University of California in Berkley.
Once there, she applied for a $10,000 “Davis Project for Peace” grant – one designed to help Ugandan youth (ages 14-20) who are victims of Covid shutdown impacts, including pregnant-out-of-wedlock girls. The 15-week project, entitled Ntongo Skills4Peace, took place through mid-August 2022 with assistance for several thousand youth.
“If we don’t do something now, these girls will end up in prostitution,” Nantongo, turning age 30 in October, said. “I’ve been using the grant here to focus on vocation skills like catering and tailoring, hair dressing and welding for these vulnerable.”
As Nantongo is wrapping up her final year in California in 2023, she has her sights on working for USAID, UNICEF. United Nations or World Bank, with her forever passion to help the poverty vulnerable as she once was.
“I want to start mentoring sessions for children who have been born and raised in the slums to give them hope and connect them to different resources that can help them attain their goals,” she said, smiling to show that gap in her teeth that she doesn’t intend to plug.
As for dancing?
On this Saturday in August, Nantongo pulled up a video on her phone. It shows three students in Berkeley, California. In it, she is dancing with a young man from Kenya and a woman from China. And all three are laughing.