November, 2014 Issue

In This Issue

8 online articles from this issue. Next

Kiara Kabukuru


Every now and then, one gets the journalistic pleasure of covering a truly inspiring story. Kiara Kabukuru is one of them. The series of fantastically extreme reversals of fortune for this intelligent and articulate woman have been dramatic. It is a life that has been filled with diversity and over- coming adversity and as such, we couldn?t think of a better fit for our an- nual Diversity Issue cover. She shares her story with the readers of Campus Activities Magazine, as she does at campuses across the nation. She also imparts some of the mes- sage she brings to students, many (if not most) of whom will identify with her journey in some way.

Born in Uganda, as a child Kiara ini- tially led a fairly comfortable (if not privileged) life. However, she was a child that came into the world in the very midst of the reign of Idi Amin, a dictator that spared no measure in re- taining his position. This is a person who consistently makes top 10 lists for the most brutal dictators in history and is justly associated with the term genocide, accredited with the massacre of 300,000 civilians. Consider- ing Kiara?s father, the ?Donald Trump Of Kampala? had taken to funding revolutionaries against the regime, her family was in an incredibly precar- ious position. ?I was born in the city of Kampala, but my family were vil- lage people from the rural area,? Kiara says. ?My dad ended up becoming a really huge entrepreneur in Kampala in the 1970?s and started funding rebel groups. It was a crazy place at the time, with coups and political par- ties being overthrown constantly. The guy that he was backing looked like he was going to get into office and stabilize the country, so my father thought he was betting on the right horse, so to speak.?

That didn?t happen in time to help Kiara?s family, though history would later prove her father right. ?When Yoweri Museveni came into power, he did stabilize the country, and he continues to as President today. At a certain point though he was exiled and they hunted down anyone who had certain political alignments. You either escaped, or were killed. Luckily we escaped, thanks to the help of some of my father?s international friends.?

The family didn?t make it out unscathed. ?My father?s brother and many, many other people were killed,? she says. Running and hiding were the first six years of her life, but sur- prisingly she says she remained fairly happy and well-adjusted. ?We were still in a kind of bubble. We were very well taken care of, but outside there were dead bodies about and we?d sometimes have to just leave in the middle of the night. But at that age, it was almost kind of fun and exciting. Or at least it was normalized, and was as fun and exciting as any other 6 year old?s activities. I didn?t take it all in and consider the wider ramifica- tions and consequences of the situa- tion we were in.?

When it was time to make their exit, they didn?t all just go in the family sta- tion wagon to the airport. ?When we did finally get to leave, my parents left first without contact with us. We thought they were dead. My dad?s Uganda to help us, but we had to hide out in Kenya for about 18 months. We discovered that our parents had made it out, but during that time we only had phone contact with them.?

They finally made it to the U.S. when Kiara was 6 years old, in 1981. ?Be- fore we came we didn?t really even know what Los Angeles or even the Unites States of America were. It was all like a big adventure then. Once the day came that we flew here, it was quite a shock. I had spent my entire life in Uganda, with its heat, weather, colors, music, food, dance and of course the war. It is just a completely different atmosphere than say, land- ing in Heathrow Airport where there is no sun and no sky. The red earth I am used to is covered with cement. It felt like being on a different planet and it was hard as a child to under- stand how this could be a good thing.?

That was just the beginning of the cul- ture shock and I?m sure most readers can already see the implications of how well qualified Kiara is to speak on the topics of diversity. ?Things like seeing the first white person ever in real life were, for me, incredible. I must have seen white people before, but what I remember were many In- dian people and of course Ugandans. When I saw a woman with long blond hair and brown tights, I thought she was multicolored. I literally had to walk up to her to understand what was going on. It was an entirely new world that I couldn?t have possibly imagined. To then come to Los An- geles and try to take in the size of this city was immense. I remember get- ting off the plane and looking out over what seemed to be an ocean of cars and lights.?

This was all before tackling the little things like starting school, and learn- ing a language she had never before spoken. ?There were four of us kids and we had to learn English right away. We had to take cross town buses, go to school and completely immerse ourselves in the culture all at once.? Stranger in a strange land couldn?t be a more apt description.

The situation wasn?t exactly ideal for any of them, least of all her parents. Along with their father losing his entire fortune by the time they settled, they were highly wary of the overall effect the move would have on their chil- dren. ?This wasn?t their plan, so they were very protective of us insofar as American culture. It was almost like they were trying to raise us as if we were still in Uganda.?

Perhaps a less jet set place than L.A. would have made her parents more comfortable, but their connection to the U.S. was in L.A. which features a significant Ugandan community as well. ?My father had a friend in Los Angeles and in the United States, and was only aware of two considerable Ugandan communities at the time, one in Mississippi and the other in L.A. He had a really good friend who had moved to Los Angeles and of- fered to help us out. That same friend also stole all the money my father had managed to transfer out, but at least we made it.?

Kiara went from a life of privilege to one of struggle and sacrifice. ?Here is a guy who went from being the Donald Trump of Kampala to pushing grocery carts and doing anything he could to get money to feed our family. my parents were living on nothing for a while, literally not having enough food to eat. My dad had a full-on nerv- ous breakdown and has never really been the same since that happened. It was tough.?

There was a community church who helped them get their papers in order and employed, Kiara?s father was hired as an accountant for Paramount Pictures and gradually the family adapted and shifted into a more stable lifestyle. ?We were pretty much okay after that.? Things went from good to very bad and back to good for Kiara, and they were about to get great. But, that?s not to say she didn?t still deal with her own set of struggles, some that continued to develop her keenness on the topics of diversity. ?In school, we were definitely different. We were ?The Africans? and people used to call us all sorts of awful names like ?African booty scratcher? and every- one had to tell us that Africans were diseased, we don?t have just fore- heads we have eightheads, we just looked different. We dressed differ- ently, we acted differently.?

The interesting thing is Kiara didn?t experience the typical incarnation of racism. She, like many mixed race children, found herself on the out- side of any one group. ?What was interesting to me is that the African Americans were actually meaner to us than Caucasians or Asians or anyone else.?

Kiara went through an awkward gangly phase as a young girl, and if professional model were a career path you told her she would walk, she would?ve laughed. ?I started praying that I could look like my mother, because she was so beau- tiful and I was kind of awkward and small. Somehow it happened. It seemed like within a year I went from the awkward girl with braces and bad skin to someone approach- ing me about modeling.?

At about 15, Kiara bloomed and everything changed. ?Everyone I should be a model. I was really in- terested in fashion and clothes, even making some of my own. I looked at magazines, but I had no idea how people got there.?

Then a chance meeting, like so many great discoveries, took place and a fu- ture modeling star was born. ?I was 17 at that point and a photographer approached me at a mall. He told me I should really be a model and that he would like to take pictures of me. At that point I had my mind set on being a teacher so I kind of shrugged it off but took his card anyway.?

Events conspired to push Kiara in that direction. ?That same week I lost my job caring for small children at my church. My mom encouraged me to call the photographer and we ended up talking for a while and shooting some photographs. He built a whole portfolio for me and started sending them out to agen- cies around Los Angeles.?

The initial response wasn?t promis- ing. ?Everybody said no except for one person because I am smaller and at that time (pre Kate Moss), al- most all models (runway especially) were 5?10? plus.? Despite that, she got some interest and was booked for a job in New York for Levi?s Jeans. ?I actually had an offer on the table for a 5 year contract with a tel- evision show in Los Angeles when the call came in about the New York gig. In my heart I knew I wanted to travel and this was exciting, it was my chance. My parents were so over-protective and I always had this vision of traveling the world. For me it was more important to go and ex- perience this than to secure the 5- year contract in Los Angeles.?

Kiara moved to New York on her 18th birthday and was soon sent to Europe for a week. ?I hadn?t flown out of the country since I had flown in from Uganda, but I jumped on the plane with 2 changes of clothes, an address and no one to pick me up in Paris. I don?t speak any French but luckily I got to the agency and spent the next two years in Europe doing the rounds between Paris and London.?

It took a few years and being broke for a bit, but her luck finally got her there. ?I was starting to get discour- aged and had run out of money. Es- sentially I had made the decision to give myself another six months. If nothing happened in that time, I would pack my things up and go home and go to college to become a teacher. Luckily, everything happened in that six months.?

She was booked for Gucci, the cover of Vogue, a contract with L?Oreal and more. This roller coaster of success went on for about three years from 1997 to 2000 when yet another cruel reversal of fortunes befell Kiara. She went from living life in a dream to a nightmare she couldn?t wake up from.

?My accident was in 2000. I was just about to sign a huge CoverGirl con- tract THAT week when I was hit by a truck on my bicycle in New York.? We?ll spare you the gruesome details, but the physical damage from being struck and dragged was brutal, and especially devastating for someone who?s current career relied so heavily on her appearance. ?My teeth were very badly damaged but I didn?t have a lot of broken bones. At the begin- ning, my skin was gone, but once I healed you couldn?t really see the physical damage. It did really send me into a long, painful, healing part of my life where I was figuring out what was really important to me.?

Like dwelling not on the fact that her career had been derailed, but the fact that she was here to draw breath at all. ?Even though it was so dreadful and painful, I was so happy to be here. Even in that condition. That was the begin- ning of seeing life in a completely different way for me, and that is really the core of the message that I share with students. Life is incredible. I knew I would rather be here and going through that than not be here at all.?

Kiara went from living a life with some direction to living one with true purpose. ?I realized, I am here on purpose. I chose to be here. Even during my accident I stayed with it, completely con- scious the entire time, I decided to experience the whole thing, I feel like I really did choose. Since then I am just so grateful and so sure that I am meant to be here. I am meant to do something here. All of these things that have hap- pened to me can be shared for the good of as many that can take something from it. In that way, the terrible situation was a major gift.?

Kiara Kabukuru would like to come and share this gift with your students. Whether your goal is to inspire, celebrate diversity, teach overcoming adversity or simply give students some often needed perspective on their own lives, this remarkable woman is the perfect way to accomplish all these goals.

For more information on bringing Kiara to your campus, contact IMG Speakers at (212) 774-6735 or