Founder of account3 in 1991
for Black History Month we share Her story
Margaret was a woman, she was African, she was a feminist, she was a Black feminist, a lesbian and a co-operator. She kind and she was funny, she was the woman with the visoin that became account3 and she was a lot of things to a lot of people, what else do we know about her? Some will know more than others.
As the second ‘Dare to Lead’ project comes to a close at account3, and Black History Month approaches, I wanted to share what I know about Margaret Mukama and keep her memory alive in Tower Hamlets where she was instrumental in changing the lives of thousands of women over the last 30 years.
I met her in 1980 and I greatly value the 20+ years we spent, as friends and later as colleagues. I wouldn’t say I know her whole story. I know some, definitely not all, so I have asked others that knew her to contribute their memories too. If you knew Margaret you might like to add your memories to this tribute by submitting a form at the end of the piece.
First things first Margaret Biryere Mukama was born in Jinga in southeast Uganda in 1953. She was the oldest child in her family, which consisted of a very sociable, gregarious father and a very pious, home loving Catholic-educated mother. On several occasions I asked their names but Marg, as I called her, was the type of comedian who thought reiteration of jokes made them funnier each time, so she always replied Mum or Dad, followed by peals of her very distinctive high-pitched laugh.
Her siblings were many but I only knew the names of a few. Paul was one, a farmer who, as the eldest son, took over the family land and I knew him for his appreciation of the mini tractor Marg had paid for when she started to earn a decent wage. Fedelis was a sister, a medic, married with 2 children living in a distant part of Uganda. There was another unnamed sister who had seemingly no taste buds but ate copious amounts of red hot chilis whenever she could get her hands on them. She often made her way to the garden and contentedly munched her way through the crop.
Marg loved Jinga, a rural town, situated close to the shores of Lake Victoria close to the source of the River Nile. Located on a plateau at 3,740 feet above sea level where the temperature was mild rarely dropping below 16 C at night and more usually in the high 20s C in the daytimes. Rain was sufficient throughout the year to ensure plentiful harvests and plenty of coffee, milk, eggs and meat to go around.
Small stories of a big life.
Marg was educated by Irish Catholic nuns in the local girls’ school and any questions about those experiences were answered with a special rendition of her Irish dancing and a lilting call of ‘No vernacular girls’. Until that point, I had never heard the word ‘vernacular’ but Marg told me it meant local language or dialect, and that the powerful tend to stop people speaking in their mother tongues, as a form of control. The British Empire was famous for this and many other types of control. Margaret spoke English, Luganda and Swahili and a smattering of the other 70 languages spoken throughout the country.
Margaret told me that although the town was populated by a mixture of peoples of African, Asian and European decent, most girls in the school where Black African, those of an Asian heritage went to a separate school and most Europeans were packed off elsewhere when they reached school age it seemed. The only white girl in that school was a girl the same age as Marg who went by the name of Mary Long whose parents worked in an NGO and wanted to keep her close.
Margaret said she had fun growing up. She told me stories of going from house to house, eating different types of food from the mixed communities in her locality, a place where the door was always open to neighbours. She celebrated Eid, Easter, Diwali and numerous other faith-based festivals. She told me of the beauty of Lake Victoria, of the falls and of the fishermen that plied their trade on that huge and bountiful lake. She grew up loving Jinga but knowing she was different from most of the other girls she knew. She knew she was unsafe if unmarried and hoped to live in Europe where she might find others like her.
Margaret was clever. She did well at school, she loved reading and longed to go to university, she grew up hoping to study in the U.K. Having been given a cow for her birthday at a young age she had been doing business selling milk for long enough to understand finance.
Soon after the infamous Idi Amin took over Uganda in a military Coup, having learnt his trade fighting for the British in Somalia and Kenya, he declared himself President and expelled the Asian population from the country. Margaret’s dad’s boss, an Asian, gave him the keys to the farm that he had previously managed, before being expelled. The family suddenly became more affluent but this was not to last, as the military plundered what they wanted and ordinary people were bullied and coerced into ‘letting it go’. Margaret was forced to join the army of children used and abused by the militia.
Marg finally got a scholarship to a university in the south west of England, and in 1972 she left Uganda arriving with only a blanket to a freezing London, landing at Heathrow too late to get the hostel space that had been arranged. She was alone and scared but happy to be where she might be safe.
She made her way to Plymouth and took to university life ‘like a duck to water’. She studied but found it fairly easy and that left plenty of time for fun trekking around Devon and Cornwall listening to hard rock and hanging out with the with the lesbian and gay society. The life suited her and soon she moved into a small cottage with a gay friend Paul and Julie, the woman of her dreams. Years passed slowly but comfortably as she got a job as an accountant at Plymouth Docks. She later joined the audit team where she honed her calculator skills. She had the fastest fingers I had ever seen when it came to adding machines.
Marg yearned for life in the city and eventually she and Julie moved to London when Margaret got a job at a telephone company where she was an accounts manager, costing jobs such as digging holes and laying cable. The job brought enough money for a decent life but bored the pants off her. Most Monday mornings she spent in the photocopy office where she copied a novel and put it in a folder which looked like a work folder, allowing her to read, as and when she liked. It was no problem so long as the work was done on time. The work took her no time at all. Fast fingers.
Marg and Julie lived in a flat on the 21st floor in Ponders End. Luckily the train station was at the foot of the building and brought her directly to Liverpool Street station and a night bus ran through the small hours to get her back home after nights of clubbing. Lesbian bars in London were springing up all over the place and Marg and I made the most of them.
Her weekends alternated between dancing in the London lesbian and gay centre and other clubs around the city and weekends participating in feminist writing workshops where she planned to write a best seller- styling herself the ‘African Catherine Cookson’. She always had a notebook in her bag and while she scribbled copiously the patient Claudine McGuire carefully deciphered the words and typed them onto mountains of floppy disks, using newly accessible and fashionable Amstrad double disc drive. All the while we volunteered at the Women’s Link, a training organisation in The London Women’s Centre Wild Court in Camden. Margaret spotted that the location of such a centre made it inaccessible to many women across London. She was thinking local.
After some time, Marg got a job in LAGER (lesbian and gay employment rights), a job which took more of her time but gave her more links to her communities, the Ugandan community and the lesbian and gay community both of which soon became enmeshed in the horrendous onslaught of the HIV and AIDS epidemic. At the same time many women were arriving in Tower Hamlets from a rural area of Bangladesh, Margaret saw their plight, alone and suffering a kind of culture shock, she empathised and worried how they would be treated. She gave up photocopying novels and decided to do something for women in Tower Hamlets.
She called me one day at my work. My job as a computer programmer was interesting enough and paid well but it was not fulfilling. The totally straight, white, male team made it very challenging. I jumped at the chance to do something more positive and joined her as a volunteer doing my day job in Wembley and hotfooting it to Bethnal Green, as early as possible each evening. For the following 10 years we worked together, often night and day, to build our own skills and knowledge and shared what we knew with east London women.
First we set up account3 to support local women to find work and training. The large numbers of Bangladeshi women coming from Sylhet to join family members had nowhere to go. We tried to change that with drop-in sessions, ESOL classes and other training with social and professional meet ups. Childcare was provided to make job search easier. Once account3 was established with projects and staffing and a tiny free office in St Margaret’s house, we wondered what else we might do. We set up a driving Instructors course and over 5 years trained 84 BAME women to become driving instructors. They went on to set up their own co-operative Women in Tuition which operated for a number of years. At this point in time there were very few women instructors and according to the DSA, who said they didn’t keep records of ethnicity, ‘only one back woman, Sharon’. Later using Margaret’s financial knowledge and European funding we were able to support the development of 100 women owned businesses in a project voted the ‘best Objective 2 project for equalities and inclusion’ by Government Office for London. We got most support from joining the National Women’s Training Network allowing us to access European funds ring fenced for women’s development.
Marg and I later supported a few Ugandan community members, notably Maryland and Charles, to set up Positive Care Link (PCL) to take Ugandan food to homes and hospitals. The HIV and AIDS virus was ripping through Uganda and the Ugandan community of east London at the same time as it decimated the gay community worldwide. The NHS was on the back foot and listened when we said at least we can give people who are dying the food they grew up with, the food which gives them comfort. It was the first time that the NHS had supported, en masse, culturally appropriate food for patients both in hospital and at home. Initially food was cooked in small batches by volunteers but pretty soon a new commercial kitchen was established and transporting the food became the key work, creating jobs caring for the sick and debilitated communities of east London.
When she died, suddenly, I felt like a rudderless ship, it was very difficult to carry on but with the support of the account3 team we managed to get through the troubled water and acccount3 is still there with a great team to help it on its way.
Margaret was a visionary, a co-operator, a people person who worked hard to establish wide partnerships and positive relations with all sections of the community. Pretty soon she was well known amongst the community, the council staff, and across the care and health sectors. She worked hard to make account3 a success and dreamt it would make a difference providing a kind and positive welcome to Tower Hamlets for new arrivals, a place of good will to meet others alike and different. Cohesion and sharing were at the heart of the vision.
Margaret was a warrior, an accountant, a writer, an innovator, a fan of Meatloaf, an African woman, a lesbian, a lover of fun, a dancing queen and a very good friend.
Marg always said the key to knowledge is to ask many questions, I did and sometimes I got answers from her, which means I can share them with you. When I knew I would be compiling this piece I asked others for their memories and these are the answers I got:
Androulla Kyriacou, Neighbour and friend
Margaret was a lot of fun she worked hard but she enjoyed herself – I remember hot nights when I couldn’t sleep. She would drop Toni home after working half the night and they would bring us all an Ice cream – magnum was my favourite. We would sit on the balcony looking at the sky and licking.
Christiane Victorin – Tower Hamlets Resident, Businesswoman, Fashion Icon and Artist
Gentle, calm, no panic with Margaret
There was not much she didn’t have an answer to
She would often tell me to come to account3 at St Margaret’s House where we would ‘find the answers together’
Hilary – Local Authority Officer
When I think of Margaret I think kindness, fun, intelligence, charisma, sexy, empowering
She was all of them and more
Mary Kelly – Social Worker and Activist
Margaret was London to me in the late 80’s, when I arrived first from Dublin
She was older than us
She was kind to us
She took us out to eat.
She took us to the London Lesbian and Gay Centre-opening the fire door so those that couldn’t afford it, didn’t have to pay to get in.
She partied with us. I made her listen to Shirley Bassey songs. We spent rainy nights in Soho doing the walk of shame with the sunrise.
But I remember also having talks with her about her experiences of being a child in the army in Uganda and being forced to fight. About the impact of that on her and her family. As we talked her tears silently fell… the only time I saw her cry.
I saw Toni and Margaret setup account3 in the early 90s. Supporting women to have a voice, to have finance and to make a difference. My last memory of them together was in a tiny office in Bethnal Green, Toni typing away and Margaret being all over the place. How many women’s lives changed from their idea to support women An ‘Eff You’ to Thatcher’s government of no community. Both Margaret and Toni were the women they talked about in the ‘clause 28’ anti-lesbian and gay, government sponsored hate.
When Margret died it was so sudden, we were shocked. She was so young, how could anyone, so young and we thought healthy, just die like that?
She was a rogue
She was kind
She was calm
She was hyper
She was passionate
She wanted the best
She left the world a better place
I’m glad I met Margaret
I’m glad we spent time together
I often think of her, and I want people to know about her
She was all the greys, a true Black Lesbian icon
Don’t forget about Margaret.
Don’t forget about having dreams and don’t forget about living your true life.
Rif Sharif – Friend and Fan
I remember I used to think Margaret was an introvert until the plenary of the first UK Black Lesbian Conference. She read out the story she had composed in a writing workshop there. It was how she read it - she held the whole audience entranced - and everyone was laughing when she dropped the punch line. It was an amazing short story about getting revenge on a cheating partner with a hilarious and unexpected twist in tale. I told her she should get it published.
Margaret and I came in and out of each other’s lives, through work, socially and activism. On a personal level when I went through some life challenges and became quite introverted Margaret started inviting herself to my flat on New Year’s Eve. It was a time when everyone else was out partying but I didn’t want to see people. She just turned up each year and stayed till after midnight. Just the two of us. We called ourselves ‘The Anti-Social Bastards Club’. One year she even brought Scrabble. When other people started noticing this pattern, they thought there was some secret party going on and they wanted to join us – some people just can’t take a hint!
Once she was walking towards me on Cambridge Heath Road, and although I was looking straight at her and smiling, she ignored me. I thought she must be pissed off with me for some reason, so I stopped her and asked what was up. She laughed and said she hadn’t seen me which I found unbelievable as I was right in front of her. She explained she can’t see far in front of her without her glasses, and she often chose not to wear her glasses outside so she didn’t get distracted by people. A typical untypical-Margaret choice in the world.
Shahanara Begum – Lawyer
I had the pleasure of working with Margaret Mukama during my early years of community development work. Her strength, resilience and perseverance were hard to match and still lives on in account3's legacy and the thousands of women's lives she touched over the years.
I was fortunate to spend my first day of induction shadowing Margaret when I started my job at account3 over 20 years ago and accompanied her in a meeting she chaired involving over 30 organisations - I was amazed to see the love, admiration and respect she commanded from everyone in that board room.
Margaret and Toni, the two founders of Account3. The two people I always considered my mentors and the greatest female leaders in our community that I've come to know, love and respect. It's hard to talk about one of them without mentioning the contribution from the other - these two women dreamed big and account3 delivered big! Their determination, creativity and work hard at grassroots level has helped to transform the lives of many women. I am pleased to be one of these of people.
Baroness Manzilla Pola Uddin
Margaret Mukama was one of the leading pioneers of Tower Hamlets. Her legacy as an activist as well as co founder of Account 3 is a remarkable history which has and continues to empower, train and support a whole generation of women. She was loving and fun, always able to see the best in ourselves, I am and remain forever grateful for her immense contribution to the wellbeing of our communities, throughout some of the most exciting period of Tower Hamlet’s history. Margaret was heroic in her presence and gentle in her ways, never without the requisite smile. She was a comrade, friend and a sister and it was a privilege to work alongside Margaret and Toni.
From the Office of the Baroness Uddin
The song has ended but the memory lingers on. This famous quotation by Irving Berlin reminds me of her. Margaret, someone in my life whom I truly admired and to date I miss her a lot. Walking down my memory lane I still remember the day when I approached Account3 as a client looking for a job. I met Margaret Mukama for the first time in my life. She had a dynamic personality and was to assist me with the preparation of my CV. Later I was lucky enough to be selected to work for account3 and Margaret trained me to do my job while also encouraging and guiding me to complete my BA (Hons) in Business and Finance. Margaret was a very kind and a thoughtful person. While training, she was very stern but after the office hours when we used to socialise, she used to crack jokes and had a great sense of humour! She had a heart of gold, I must say. She was an extremely helpful person, and I was lucky enough to witness her shaping the future of so many women in front of my eyes. I was one of those fortunate people she supported, and I am proud to say she, amongst others, played a crucial role in building my career and my future. I am who am I today for her and Toni Meredew in Account3. It was my honour to know her in person. My soul pays her homage.
I met Margaret shortly after arriving in London in the late 80’s. We had mutual friends and, I don’t know if it was the shared experience of being educated by catholic nuns or the fact that I arrived in London with just a backpack and a copy of the female eunuch in my pocket, we became firm friends.
That was the summer Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ became number one, we would listen to it in the Fallen Angel on a Tuesday night [Women’s night], surrounded by so many different women. I asked her once why she came to London, she replied, ‘because the streets of London are paved with Lesbians’.
Margaret may have had fast fingers with the calculator, but when she discovered I had fast fingers with a typewriter [one of the skills I brought with me from Ireland was touch typing], she put this skill to good use transcribing her writing, she liked nothing more than to chat about her stories and the characters and plot development.
Margaret asked me once, if I saw her walking down the road towards her, would I see a woman, or a Black woman. I replied ‘a woman’ and I believed my answer. Now I’m not so sure, those were the days of liberal politics that dictated skin colour was irrelevant, it was the person and relationship with that person that counted. I believed that and yet racism existed in the late 80’s just as it does today. Of course Margaret knew that and yet, she was kind, long before it became fashionable to be kind. She understood it took time to understand the ways of the world.
I’m not sure I’ve met many people with the thirst for life that Margaret had, the phrase working hard and playing hard does not even do her justice. She had such an energy about her, she was curious about people and the world, she wanted to jump in and engage, she knew how to hold a room full of people and she was a diplomat. If she felt the injustice of the world [and she did] she put it to action and I found this so admirable. One of the biggest ways she put it to action was in the formation of Account 3. In the early days, Mary Kelly and I got involved in a survey Margaret had commissioned in the Globe Town area. Margaret prepared us for the experience, she explained we would be speaking to mainly the sons or husbands or fathers of the women [who we wanted to speak to]. Margaret understood the cultural intricacies and respected them, even if they offended her feminist self. Rather than be offended she found a way around it, she was a very creative visionary and she got the job done.
As a friend, there was none better nor more loyal. You know the phrase ‘they would help you carry the corpse across the room’? That was Margaret [not that she ever did]. I knew I could always count on Margaret, she would be there for me when I called and that is a rare friend indeed. From laughing until the tears came to having adventures, Margaret was the woman to do that with. Life became a whole lot duller and poorer the day she died and to this day I grieve the loss of my old friend.
Nowadays, when I meet people from Uganda I do that embarrassing thing of saying ‘I had a friend once from Uganda, her name was Margaret Mukama.’ It was only through saying this that I discovered Mukama can translate as King or God. On hearing this I thought, well that is just typical of Margaret, she kept that quiet. I’d like to think she continues laughing hysterically and hatching plans to address some of the injustices of this world still – somewhere out there in Mukama realm.
Margaret Biryere Mukama died in January 2002
Rest in Peace your work lives on