Santa was born into privilege. Her early childhood was spent playing with children of affluent Ugandan elite in the upscale slopes of Kololo Hill in Kampala. However, at 4, her family experienced a harrowing episode which would drastically alter her life.

In 1981, Uganda descended into a prolonged guerrilla war which cast an atmosphere of anxiety and terror over the entire country. Millions of Ugandans lost their lives and enforced disappearances were rife; thousands were abducted from their homes at gun point never to be seen again. Santa’s home wasn’t immune to the horrors of the war for long. One chilly night, her father was kidnapped from their house by gun wielding men they believed to be government soldiers. Aware of her husband’s expected end, Santa’s mother hastily arranged for their escape and overnight, they left everything behind to face a new life in an Internally Displaced People’s camp in Moyo, Northern Uganda.

Moyo was no safer than the home they had left behind in Kololo. A few days after their arrival, their grass thatched houses were torched by soldiers leaving them with no option but to flee again, this time into Sudan. Ironically, Sudan was as well engulfed in a violent war and they found themselves trapped in a barrage of bullets and bombs.

“I was surrounded by war on all sides,” she narrates reflectively, “I watched children starve and some choke to death due to thirst,” Also, for the very first time in her life,  Santa would find herself eating wild leaves for food and drinking filthy muddy water in order to survive.

Rising From Ashes

With a new government in power and relative peace restored in Uganda, Santa’s family found their way back home. But like most families, they had to start from scratch. The war years had left the country’s infrastructure in shambles and destroyed all their livelihoods.  To make ends meet, Santa did everything from being a waitress to trying out modelling which wasn’t a very much approved or lucrative profession in the country at the time.

She got her major breakthrough at 23 when she was appointed General Manager in the very first modelling agency in Uganda. However, her victory was short lived. A disagreement with her boss left her jobless again, an experience which she confesses somewhat threw her off balance. She nonetheless found the courage to forge ahead amidst the turmoil. At 25, she decided to start her own enterprise which she called Arapapa, a cloth line specialising in making distinctive Africa themed ware.

But as expected, with  her new venture came new challenges. At the time, the Ugandan population was deeply obsessed with imported clothes. Also, cheaper second hand clothes had just made their debut on the local scene giving Santa’s initiative minimal opportunity to thrive. However, being the fighter that she is, she did not relent. She worked tireless to ensure that each and every customer she received would find her work meticulous and come back another time or even recommend others to her shop. The trick worked. Gradually, her local customer base grew to include celebrities and politicians who also publicly endorsed her brand.

Last year, Arapapa celebrated 17 years of existence. What had started as a modest source of livelihood for a distraught young woman has grown into a multimillion dollar international fashion brand with outlets in Europe, America and Africa. Arapapa has also earned Santa international recognition and diplomatic roles.

In November 2015, she was appointed by the Uganda Tourism Board as an official Tourism Ambassador for Uganda. The same year, she also received the Lifetime Fashion Icon Achievement Award, Uganda’s most prestigious award in Models showcasing Santa’s creations. Photo: Abryans

fashion. Santa was as well awarded the Pioneer Ground Breaking award by Uganda Women’s Entrepreneurs Association, ICON and the International Labour Organisation.

Last year, she won the 1st Prize Presidential Accreditation Award from the president of Uganda in appreciation for pioneering Uganda’s fashion industry and modelling careers in Uganda. Santa’s works have been featured on world renowned media channels such as CNN, BBC, French TV, USA-Online TV, among others. Her brand was also selected by the Vogue Italia Magazine to showcase at the Launch of the UN Fashion for development initiative.

Photo: Abryans fashion