The youngest child in a family of six, Naava Nabagesera was born to a middle-class Kiganda family. The fact that her mother is the daughter of the late kabaka (king) Daudi Chwa (father of Kabaka Mutesa II) of the Buganda kingdom means that Nabagesera is of royal descent. However, since the Buganda monarchy was abolished in 1966, this aspect of her lineage carried very little significance in Nabagesera's formative years. Despite the fact that her mother was raised in the palace, she does not hold any diplomas or degree certificates. However, she has established herself as a very astute businesswoman. Nabagesera's father, who passed away in 1988, was an administrator and worked in the civil service as a district education officer.
In primary and secondary school Nabagesera held a series of responsible positions, such as prefect, school timekeeper, and head of the debating society. During her first year of law school at twenty years of age, she was married and in the same year bore a set of twins, which earned her the honorific title Nnalongo. Having a family to raise made it hard for Nabagesera to join campus politics, let alone pursue her law degree, and it took a lot of determination and hard work for her to complete the course. She attributes her resolute spirit to her mother:
My mother has been a major influence in my life. She's a very vociferous woman who takes on challenges. She takes on any kind of job that can earn her a living and does not lie back and say, "I'm a lady." I've never known my mother to stay at home. She told me that if you want to go for something do it the best way you can; if you really have conviction that you can do something, just go all the way. She's a very active woman and has headed many organizations such as YWCA - she's one of the pioneers of that organization.
After obtaining her law degree and completing the bar course, Nabagesera was employed as a legal associate in a small law firm in Kampala and worked there for a year. She spent 1993 doing voluntary work as a legal adviser in a local nongovernmental organization called the Association of Women Lawyers (Federacion Internacional de Abogades, FIDA). Her work in the FIDA legal aid clinic exposed her to the realities of gender oppression and subordination suffered by Ugandan women, especially the indigent. The following year Nabagesera set up her own chambers, thus adding to the handful of female-owned law firms in Kampala.
In the first year of their marriage, Nabagesera's husband had to leave Uganda for England and has lived there ever since. For over ten years Nabagesera has virtually lived the life of a single mother, although her husband contributes to the financial well-being of the twins, who occasionally spend vacations with him in London. Nabagesera's decision to join the race for a parliamentary seat in 1996 was primarily to secure a national platform from which she could "fight for the women's cause more effectively." Her decision to join national politics was supported by a number of friends and well-wishers who provided moral and financial support during her campaign. Predictably, Nabagesera's long separation from her husband became a major issue among the electorate during the campaign period:
The question I was asked everywhere I went was, "Are you married?" As if it is a legal qualification that an MP has to be married. This question was normally raised for female and not male candidates either as a challenge or merely as an insult. But well, I surmounted that because ... Can you believe that I sometimes had to produce pictures of my wedding to convince the electorate? [Laughs.] Yes, I had to do it because many people couldn't believe that I was a married woman and some were saying that I wasn't even a mother; they'd say, "She doesn't look like she has kids." It was so absurd, but since I was a new figure in politics I felt the need to convince the people that I was a "credible" and "eligible" candidate by their standards.
With the restoration of the monarchies (abolished by Obote) by the NRM government in 1993, people of royal descent began to openly proclaim their ancestry. Nabagesera was no exception, especially since she was contesting for a constituency that falls within the geographical parameters of the kingdom of Buganda. The hitherto silent middle initial N suddenly crystallized as the royal name - Naava - and acquired first-name status. Everywhere she went during her campaigns, Nabagesera was introduced as "Princess Naava," attracting many royalists among the older electorate.21
Reactions to Nabagesera's candidacy were fraught with ambivalence. Although her campaign poster put many people off, they were at the same time attracted to her. Her campaign team consisted mostly of youth - men and women in their twenties and thirties. Generally, women seemed to be drawn to this candidate because she was a new figure in politics who promised to fight "for women's rights and development," as her campaign poster declared. Male supporters, on the other hand, were often heard making comments such as, "There is no way we can deny our vote to such a beautiful woman." Such remarks suggested that Nabagesera's physical appearance, as much as (or more than) her intellect and other credentials, was an important factor in luring a cross-section of her supporters to her campaign. She was acutely aware of this problem and explained how she minimized attention to her femininity, her looks, and her sexuality:
First of all I don't shy away from dealing with men. By directly dealing with men all the time and exposing them to your intellectual capacity you develop some kind of "brotherhood" with them; you know, a brother/sister kind of relationship. So by working closely with men they realized that I had something upstairs (pointing to her head) to offer. ... they begin to see me not as a vulnerable woman but as an individual.
Such a response is demonstrative of an important factor in Uganda's politics. It illustrates how female politicians often have to consciously strategize on ways to detract attention from their femininity and sexuality in order to compel the electorate to focus on and address real issues. This is in contrast to male politicians who are inclined to accentuate their masculinity (e.g., virility, aggressiveness, and toughness), since it is perceived as a bonus in the world of politics. But for men, intellectual capacity is presumed or at least is not questioned prima facie.
Nabagesera waged her campaign around the single issue of women's rights. She counterbalanced her inexperience in politics with two major arguments: (1) her legal training and professional experience were ideal for her to take on the job of legislating and policy formulation and (2) the years she spent in FIDA working with oppressed and abused women put her in a position to fully understand and appreciate the plight of Ugandan women. All she needed was the necessary votes to allow her do something about it. However, even though her major campaign message was the emancipation of women, Nabagesera also understood that she had to appeal to men, since they constituted the majority of the electoral college. Therefore, she was always careful to assure her listeners that her motive was not to upset the status quo, emphasizing that women must always give men the respect they deserve.