'She was a rainbow': Friends paint fuller picture of Mercy Baguma

After outrage at her death in Glasgow, people who knew her recall her vibrant spirit and devotion to her son

Mercy Baguma loved colourful lipsticks: red, blue, purple – the brighter the better. It was a reflection of her personality, says a close friend. “Mercy was a rainbow,” she said. “She had such a vibrant spirit. As a friend, she would always put you first. She really was the best of the best.”

Baguma, 34, was found dead in a flat in Glasgow at the weekend next to her distressed one-year-old son, prompting outrage as reports circulated that she and the boy had been “starving”, the latest victims of a brutal asylum system.

But as the week has progressed a more complex picture has emerged. Through speaking to close friends and associates, the Guardian has pieced together a fuller picture of Baguma as a mother, a friend and a daughter, whose father was a former Ugandan MP. Above all, a person, rather than a symbol of systemic failure.

The friend who described Baguma as a rainbow first met her in 2014 at the Calabash, an African restaurant in Glasgow city centre where Baguma was a popular member of staff until her immigration status changed and she was barred from working or claiming benefits.

“Mercy was a hard worker and she paid every single tax. When she wasn’t working she got support from family and friends. I just don’t recognise these reports that she was alone and starving.”

She recalled nights after work with Baguma when they would bring food home from the restaurant and watch a film together. “We were all about the African food,” she said.

After Baguma’s son was born, everything changed. “She was devoted to him. He was so happy and healthy and she made sure he had everything he needed.”

Becky Duncan, a photographer, was asked by the Refugee Survival Trust in Glasgow to take portraits of Baguma and her baby in July 2019 after Baguma agreed to help with their campaign material. She also got to know Baguma at the Wee Welcome group run by the charity.

“It’s a lovely group that’s open to everyone. They sing some songs, the kids play with toys and the mums have a cup of tea and a natter. She went regularly and it was obvious that she was well liked, well supported, and giving support to other mums.”

She was an easy subject to photograph, Duncan said. “Mercy was beautiful. Every time I saw her she looked impeccable and radiant. Mercy really appreciated and understood what the Refugee Survival Trust was doing, and helping them with their campaigning was her way to give back.”

One photograph, taken on the airy top balcony of the Briggait, the city’s fish market, shows Baguma holding her baby aloft, her long braids spilling down behind, as mother and son look rapt into each other’s eyes.

“I was really awestruck by how great she was with her young baby,” Duncan said. “I’ve got two young ones myself and I know how hard it can be. I remember meeting her once when she was on the way to visit friends for the weekend. Everything was so neat and perfectly packed. I was smiling at her thinking: wow, she’s doing so well in spite of everything.”

All of those who knew Baguma, even in passing, remark upon her warmth. Her friend Bridget, who set up an online fundraiser for her funeral expenses that has amassed more than £45,000, said: “Her smile made everyone so welcome and comfortable.”

Mercy Baguma
Mercy Baguma photographed at a restaurant by her son’s father (date unknown). Photograph: Supplied

Baguma is believed to have arrived in the UK as a student in the mid-noughties. The daughter of a well-established Ugandan family, she studied at a college in Paisley. Afterwards she went through immigration and asylum processes and, like many caught in the “hostile environment”, it appears that at times she endured hardship despite being willing and able to support herself.

During this hardship, Baguma was supported by family, friends and a number of charities, which all emphasise that it was a mutual process, with Baguma keen to give back to those who helped her. It is also clear from those who knew her that her child was much-loved and well provided for.

Nonetheless, there were inevitable strains and stresses, and the agencies helping her say it became clear this summer that she was struggling with the effects of hardship, and that owing to the Covid lockdown she had fewer places to get support.

Eve, an outreach worker with Glasgow’s grassroots, migrant-led support group More, spoke to Baguma in late July. “She spoke about feeling overwhelmed but not isolated: she said that she had good friends and a support network. Her concern was for her baby’s welfare, and about how powerless she felt because she wasn’t able to work to support herself, and how lockdown was exacerbating that.”

Baguma’s elder sister, a human rights lawyer living in Uganda, released a statement to the BBC in Kampala on Thursday in which she expressed concerns about the media reporting of her sister’s death, in particular some suggestions that Mercy or her child had been starving. She cautioned against jumping to conclusions until the full facts had emerged.

Another friend said parcels of African food of the kind seen being delivered to Baguma during lockdown in a widely shared charity video were sent not only to people in extreme poverty but to many others struggling to source specific foodstuffs during the pandemic.

Police Scotland have said they are treating Baguma’s death as “unexplained but not suspicious”. The Crown Office has received a report and the death is under investigation by the Scottish fatalities investigation unit. Bridget said that although her friend was known to have health problems, her death was sudden and unexpected.

While the circumstances of Baguma’s death, and her relationship with the asylum system, remain unclear, those close to her are anxious that she is presented as a person rather than a victim.

Her family in Uganda hope to bring her home for burial, but face practical difficulties as the principal airport in Uganda remains closed because of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Mercy’s son is said to be thriving. A friend of the family said he is learning to walk.

But he will be reaching out for other hands for balance.


Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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