Interview: Mark Köhler and Romina Wilke Köhler

Reams can be written about the political unrest in Uganda in the 1980s, and still not be enough. However, for Swiss-born Mark Köhler, managing director of ROKO Construction, this period equates to a glorious childhood when he played a lot of hide-n-seek, along with his family. This was a ruse by his parents to keep him silent and entertained, when faced with a politically volatile situation.

Mark’s father, one of the founders of ROKO Construction, Rainer Köhler, worked with a construction company in Ghana, but harboured dreams to start his own company. He toured Africa, and loved Uganda. He invested all his savings in 1969 and started a construction company along with another Swiss national, Max Rohrer. Their inception was modest, which included them sleeping in their office. They had staked too much in their business to leave the country during the Idi Amin exodus two years later, hence they shifted focus to private and church-related construction during the time. They maintained a low profile and continued living in Uganda. The Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrine and the Mityana Shrine stand testimony to their work then.

While Mark and his siblings were born in Switzerland, their mother devotedly brought them to visit their father in Uganda during the vacations. In 2006, after Mark completed his Masters in Economics, he returned to Uganda with his wife and infant to take up the baton.

ROKO Construction has been part of the Ugandan tapestry long enough, due to which it is often considered local. Symbols of their impressive portfolio are peppered all over Kampala, including the US Embassy, Acacia Mall, Village Mall, Bank of Uganda main building, NSSF workers’ housing, and also outside Kampala, such as the Imperial Mall at Entebbe, the International Airport and Marriot Hotel in Rwanda, International Airport and German Embassy in South Sudan. His sister Brigitte is part of the business too.

For Romina, Mark’s wife, it was easy to accept Uganda as her new home although it required a change of habits and notions, but she says it also enriched her and the whole family with new values such as the high importance of family and friends.

“I loved the climate in Uganda, it is fantastic, but it also meant trading four seasons for one,” says the loquacious Romina, who is also the Honorary Consul of Switzerland in Kampala.

While there was a stark difference in demeanour and working styles between Switzerland and Uganda, she saw it as a field of opportunity. “The potential to make a difference in Switzerland was less than in Uganda. Every time a new building is completed the whole family feels very proud. It is nice also to show the children that the buildings ROKO built 40 years ago, like the Bank of Uganda or the Martyrs’ Shrine, are still nice. The kids like to see what their Grandfather built and love to go to work with their Dad to see how fast buildings grow”.

The proud Girl Scout has been making a fair amount of contribution to Uganda too. She has founded two big scout groups in Uganda, in addition to sustaining two schools in Wakiso, along with her husband. Mark is also on the Board of Directors of an orphanage called Kids for Africa.

Romina and Mark, along with a few other parents, are also in the process of starting a new secondary school in Kampala. “This is our attempt to beautify the only home we know, Uganda,” she says.