For Henry Kisitu ’12, family is everything. When he was just 3 years old as a boy in Uganda, Kisitu’s parents passed away – his father was killed, and his mother died from illness. “Losing your parents at that young age is not easy, especially in Uganda,” Kisitu said. “It’s really tough.”
His aunt and uncle took in Kisitu and his brother, Charles Morgan Kisitu ’11, to live with their five children. (Henry and Charles Morgan's other two brothers needed to move elsewhere.) From ages 4 to 19, Kisitu lived with his aunt and uncle.
That childhood trauma – and his grandmother, Margaret Lutaaya (aka Jajja) – inspired Kisitu to start the long path from Uganda to the University of St. Thomas. He was introduced to St. Thomas by Charles Morgan, and just like his brother, Father Dennis Dease helped facilitate Henry earning a scholarship.
“(Dease) has been an incredible mentor and leader in my life,” Kisitu said.
Kisitu’s grandmother also is the inspiration for his line of wellness tonics, Jajja Wellness.
“She was very business-minded,” Kisitu said.
After noticing Ugandans weren’t staying hydrated, Jajja would put water in a bag and sell it for the equivalent of a penny. His grandmother then expanded to selling juices, upon which the Jajja Wellness recipes are based.
“She would talk to me for hours about business,” he said.
But she also was there for him as a little boy.
“When my parents passed away, I don’t remember anybody carrying me on their back or lifting me up, but I remember her carrying me to the hospital when I was sick," Kisutu said. "She’s the only person I remember carrying me when I was a kid.”
Excited and scared
On a cold day in 2007, Kisitu made the journey 8,000 miles from home to St. Thomas.
“That was the first time I had ever been on a plane. I was excited, scared, yet happy,” he said.
A fellow passenger added to Kisitu’s anxiety by telling him that “Minnesota is the coldest state – you're crazy to go over there.”
Upon arrival in Minnesota, Kisitu realized the thin jacket he was wearing wouldn’t do. “I told my aunt, ‘It’s like living in the freezer.’”
Since his English skills needed improvement, Kisitu went to Saint Thomas Academy for six months. He then started at St. Thomas in 2008, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in general business management from Opus College of Business as well as a master’s degree.
Kisitu credits St. Thomas with connecting him to the business world, but he also developed a personal connection while at the university.
Kisitu added to his family when he married fellow St. Thomas alumnus Alexandra Kisitu ’08, ’13 MA. The two then moved to Hawaii so she could work on a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Hawaii.
Launching Jajja Wellness
It was in Hawaii that Henry decided to revisit his grandmother’s recipes and launch Jajja Wellness. In 2016, a friend of his was visiting from Uganda and got sick. “Can you make that stuff that you used to make?” the friend said. Kisitu concocted a pineapple ginger juice, and his friend’s cold and sore throat went away soon thereafter.
Encouraged by the response, Kisitu decided to launch Jajja Wellness in honor of his grandmother, who had passed away.
The Kisitus moved back to St. Paul after Alexandra completed her master’s degree. Henry has been selling his wellness tonics at Twin Cities farmers markets to rave reviews
Reflecting on his childhood, Kisitu is very thankful, despite the challenges.
“Thank God I went through all that, because it made me mentally ready and steady, and I can be more persistent,” he said. “Having a family stabilized that … My wife and kids have been very supportive.”