When nude photos of leading Ugandan model Judith Heard were published
without her consent last year she not only found herself under arrest,
but also under attack in the media and online.
To break this pattern of victim-blaming, she is now urging Ugandan
women to talk openly about sexual abuse – and to show solidarity with
She told her own story to BBC’s Sophie Hemery and Alice McCool on
January 16, 2019. BBC said Heard arrived for the interview in a
borrowed £50,000 dress.
She is a jetsetter and socialite, in London for some modelling
engagements and charity events.
On the surface, her life differs entirely from that of the average
East African. But there is one thing Judith Heard has in common with
many women in Uganda.
Raped in Rwanda
A survey conducted in 2016 found that 50% of Ugandan women aged
between 15 and 49 had experienced physical or sexual intimate partner
Heard, whose pre-marriage name was Kantengwa, has experienced both.
Judith Kantengwa aka Heard in London in the borrowed £50,000 dress
Some of Kantengwa’s earliest memories are of her father beating her
mother, who eventually left home in fear of her life.
As a result, at the age of eight, Kantengwa moved to her father’s
family home in Rwanda – and was raised mainly by her grandmother after
her father was killed in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
It was in Rwanda that she was first raped – at the age of 15, by a
family member at home, on the night before her final school exams. The
next day, after doing her exams, she ran away.
Kantengwa ended up in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, where she took
refuge in a ghetto in the Nyamirambo district – “a very, very crazy
place”, as she puts it. Here she became a performer in a music group.
“Whoever wanted to join would come and you would have a place to
sleep, some food,” she laughs, giving a rendition of her Shania Twain
She wasn’t paid for singing but would “just survive by being nice to
the people in the neighbourhood… to get some beans, some chapati.” The
ethos was: “If I get, we share. If you get, we share.”
At 17, Kantengwa got a job as a waitress in a club frequented by the
rich and famous, and became known as “the beautiful Ugandan girl who
speaks English”. With her earnings, she was able to get her own
Raped in Congo by soldiers
Things were looking up. So when a woman approached her in the club one
night offering her a better life, she felt fate was on her side.
She arranged to meet the woman to travel with her to Goma, in the
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where, she was told, she “might
meet somebody nice… who can take care of you”.
The chance of security was too much to turn down. “I was a little girl
and just wanted to find a better life for myself, and find money, and
one day go and look for my family,” she says.
On her first night in DRC, “wearing a very beautiful blue dress,
spaghetti straps, with a side cut” Kantengwa was taken to a
restaurant, to dine with the woman she’d met, her friends, and the
After dinner, the plan was to go to a nearby nightclub. She wanted to
go with the other women, but they insisted she stay behind and travel
there with the restaurant owner.
She anxiously accepted the plan, though she now understands that
“these were older women, they knew why they had taken me there”.
When the restaurant owner drove past the nightclub, Kantengwa recalls
exclaiming, “No, no, no, no, stop, the club is over here!”
The man explained that because he was married he didn’t want people at
the club see him, and insisted on parking around the corner.
Kantengwa never made it to the club. On the short walk, somebody hit
her on the head and knocked her unconscious. Kantengwa generally tries
not to think – let alone talk – about the incident.
“When I woke up, I had an AK47 on my head,” she says. Two army
officers then raped her, one at a time, while the other held the gun
to her head.
Bleeding and muddied, Kantengwa walked back to the hotel. She guesses
the women “got money from the owner of the restaurant” and then left
her “because I was the trophy, the diamond they had brought for this
After identifying her rapists to the police, she returned to Kigali,
intending to travel from there to Kampala, Uganda, in search of her
mother and sister, and some stability.
With the help of a foreigner, Max (not his real name), who she’d met
on her first night in Goma, Kantengwa succeeded in tracing them.
“He was like, ‘I got your sister, I got yourmother, so now everyone
is fine. I want you to come to Kampala so you can be my girlfriend,’”
She was attracted to this dynamic character, but describes her
relationship as “jumping into another fire… not the fire of being
raped left, right and centre, but the fire of a man that is now
obsessed with you”.
Max supported Kantengwa financially, but in return expected her not to
go out alone. He banned her from having a phone or working. “I had to
obey his rules,” Kantengwa says. “I had no choice.”
Her outings involved been taken by Max to see her sister, or
accompanying him to high-end restaurants, bars and clubs.
It was at these events that Kantengwa began to build up a social group
– and get noticed by Kampala’s fashion and photography circles. But
this infuriated Max.
One night he pulled out a gun in public and proceeded to beat her when
they got home. She ran away to her sister’s, but went back to Max when
“As a young girl you think, ‘He’s fighting because he loves me.’ But
when I think about it today I’m like, ‘Oh wow that was a very abusive
relationship,’” says Kantengwa.
She finally ran away after Max slept with her cousin – but then had to
hide from him. He would regularly drive round to look for Kantengwa at
her sister’s house, forcing them both to lie low and pretend that
nobody was in.
With Max gone, Kantengwa could finally relax. She moved into a house
with a group of female friends and would go out dancing in clubs until
five in the morning.
Marrying American tycoon–
Simultaneously, her modelling career took off. She enjoyed the
independence this brought her, so when – at 19 – she caught the eye of
a wealthy 54-year-old American, Richard Heard, she initially brushed
Heard knew what to offer, however. Kantengwa’s mother was seriously
unwell at the time.
He said he’d take care of her. He also offered to pay Kantengwa’s
sister’s university fees, and to support the whole family.
“I was getting attracted to the way he treated me,” says Kantengwa.
With years of violence and insecurity behind her, she felt now was her
chance at “finally having peace and having a good life without
She felt the financial stability would allow her the freedom to do
work she loved, and the idea of “somebody who was taking care of me”
Marrying a rich white man thrust Kantengwa further into the spotlight,
however, and exposed her to a blast of public criticism.
“I was judged by the public as a gold-digger,” she says. “I was bashed
in every corner.”
While Kantengwa and Heard had three children together, one adopted,
and “a very nice house and cars”, she says she was still not free.
Her husband didn’t want her to go out on her own, she says, and she
felt trapped “having to live every day saying to myself, ‘Oh, I cannot
dress like this because he won’t like it, I cannot write this [on
social media] because he won’t like it.’”
After an 11-year relationship the couple separated and Kantengwa says
she now looks forward to expressing herself “without constraints”.
The publication of the nude photographs – downloaded, she believes,
from a stolen computer or telephone – is just the latest in a long
line of abuses she has suffered at the hands of men, she says.
She has been silent about them for many years because she has been
“scared to be embarrassed and humiliated”.
“We are judged for this, so you keep it to yourself and end up getting
your mind messed up psychologically,” she says. “I’ve decided to tell
my story because I want to be a free woman. I don’t want to walk for
the rest of my life with this heavy stone.”
But Kantengwa’s problems arising from the publication of nude
photographs of her have exposed her to more criticism than ever.
The shots first emerged in 2013, but were republished last May,
leading to her arrest in August under Uganda’s strict new
Although able to travel, she is currently on bail waiting for a court
date to be set, and faces a possible two-year sentence.
The Anti-Pornography Act initially tried to ban mini-skirts. “So many
people have judged me,” she says, “the media has bashed me.”
On Instagram she has more than 160,000 followers – and while some stay
loyal to her, others now dissect her choices in life on social media,
leaving disparaging comments.
Last May when the photos were leaked, one commenter accused her of
publishing the photographs herself “to show off”, another described
her genitals as “abnormal”. She now finds herself attacked on
everything from her intelligence to her weight.
“Some people look up to somebody but they don’t know their story,”
observes Kantengwa. “Or some people end up judging you, and you ask
yourself: ‘Do they know what I’ve gone through to be where I am?’”
Still, Kantengwa, who has noted the power of the #MeToo movement,
hopes she can inspire women and girls to come out and tell their
“They are fighting because men are making us fight,” she says. “Women
want validation from men, but we should give ourselves validation.”