Winnie Byanyima is the current Director at Oxfam, the first time the position has been taken by an African.
The former Member of Parliament for Mbarara Municipality in Uganda has held other leadership positions in various organizations including African Union Commission, United Nations. Today, she is in her third year at the UK -based International Organization, Oxfam.
Ms Byanyima’s life has not always been rosy. In her teenage years, Byanyima arrived in the UK armed with $300 escaping from the oppressive regime of Idi Amin in Uganda. A little while after arriving at the airport, she came to learn that her cash was fake.
Luckily, she found her footing among the Ugandan community already established in the UK and was able to pursue education. She graduated in aeronautical engineering and went back to Uganda to join the resistance -afterward, she became an MP.
In an interview with BBC, the wife to Kiiza Besigye speaks about her early life, education, and her role during the bush war in Uganda that put President Yoweri Museveni to power.
She also speaks passionately about her long distance marriage and her family that currently lives in three different continents.
Transcribed below is the interview detailing her life that inspires women, young girls and men too to pursue their dreams to the highest level possible in spite of challenges that might arise in the way.
Although her parents were school teachers, Ms Byanyima says that the late moved on to do other things. Her father became a local MP while her mother was an activist in the community and a women’s rights leader.
BBC: So was there an atmosphere in the house of trying to help other people?
Ms Byanyima: Absolutely. When I was growing up in the 60s, there was a growing dictatorship. The government that had taken power at independence became dictatorial. My father was on the opposition. So many people whose rights were violated came to our home because most opposition leaders were coerced and they crossed back to the government side, but my father didn’t. We were a center of resisting oppression from the government. That’s the environment which I grew up in; resisting violation of human rights and dictatorship.
I wonder what effect that had on you as a child.
Oh, a lot. First of all, I really learned to stand up for myself. My parents always taught us to stand up for what is right. You don’t have to get killed but you must not compromise your values.
What sort of things did you do? Did you take action yourself?
Not when I was a child, but certainly yes: through school debates in class, I often was a different voice. Children were learning from their parents that they had to make concessions and agree with the dictatorial regime. I learned that you had to speak the truth and you had to say it in the most respectful way. I really got into heated debates with students, teachers; that’s how I grew up.
What was it that led you at the age of 17 to come to the UK?
I was at the university as an engineering student at Makerere. Many people were being rounded up, students, professors were vanishing, and I too became unsafe. At one point I sat with my parents and a decision was taken that I needed to get out of here very fast. My mother got me across the border and we followed other people who were escaping.
Was it difficult to get across the border?
It was risky. First of all, you couldn’t get a passport to travel to the West because most countries in Europe and America had severed relations with Idi Amin. So to get a passport, Amin had made it difficult. My mother went and got me a passport from a little illegal shop that processed illegal travel documents. That’s what I came with. I declared it as soon I arrived in England.
And you came with a small amount of money that your mother gave to you, didn’t you?
Yes, we crossed the border at night, really risked getting shot by Amin’s soldiers. We got into Nairobi and there were exiles who had already set up homes there. These helped us to get a visa to the UK and again we went back to the black market and bought $300. There was no bank offering foreign currency. She put in my hands as I was leaving, and I landed with it in London.
What happened when you tried to change it into Pound Sterling?
(Laughs) That was terrible. I was at the airport and I went straight to a bureau and I handed in $100. The lady at the counter looked around and made some calls and certainly a big tall policeman arrived, took the money and said to me that I had fake currency.
I started to cry, I explained that in Uganda you cannot get money from a bank; we had bought it in the black market, and couldn’t have known it was counterfeit.
He saw me crying and saw this pathetic girl, and tore it up and said, ‘look! this is a crime, you could have gone to jail for 7 years, but I’m forgiving you because I see you are coming from a difficult situation. Never do this again.’
For one policeman to look at the situation and make a good judgment and see that I was not smuggling currency, I was just a victim, I thought that was a great thing.
You didn’t have any money. How did you manage to establish your life in the UK?
There was already a large community of elite Ugandans who had escaped from Amin’s brutal regime. They had services, they helped each other. When I arrived, they showed me where I could apply for a scholarship; I applied and got one from a refugee agency – The World University Service- I will always be proud, happy and grateful for what they did for me. They paid for me to go to Manchester University and really that’s what changed my life.
That’s when you studied aeronautic engineering?
I did. Out of curiosity really. I was a good student when I was growing up; I thought that must be the greatest thing to do.
What was your ambition at that time? What did you see unfolding as your career?
I knew right there that I am going to get a degree in aeronautics, but am going to find my way back to what I want to do, which is fighting for social justice.
So you went back to Uganda eventually. What was the political situation you found when you arrived?
After my degree, Idi Amin had collapsed. By that time, I had honed political skills. I was part of human rights movements abroad, I had learned how to protest, how to do diplomatic resistance and I had joined a political party. When I went home, I was already a seasoned political activist, and also a women’s rights activist. So I continued to participate in political groups and I also took a job.
What job did you take?
I took a job with the Uganda Airlines as a flight engineer. This wasn’t a very highly scientific job; it was just a technical job. I took it because at this time I had agreed to serve in the National Resistance Movement, which was now waging popular resistance against a new dictatorship. An armed struggle had begun, led by Yoweri Museveni. I had decided I am going to support his struggle against dictatorship and violation of human rights.
How did your job help you in that?
Very much because with my job, I traveled. I was a crew member on the Boeing 707s that we flew. As a flight engineer, I traveled in and out of Uganda, and I could be a courier for the guerrillas in the bush. For a number of years, I supported the armed struggle.
What sort of things were you bringing in and out of the country?
Medicine, supporting our injured combatants, finding them homes where to be, passing on information and things like that.
It must have been a highly dangerous work.
Of course, it was risky, and at some point, I was discovered. I had to very quickly go on the underground, and leave my job and go to join the rebels.
So you went to live in the bush, didn’t you?
What was it like?
It transformed me because for the first time I was living amongst peasant people, rural people. I had grown up in a small town in a middle-class family, and now I was face to face with the majority of our people. I began to understand how they lived, how the elite political system had crushed them; it really radicalized me.
Did you find hardship living in the bush?
I had to learn how to survive like everybody else. It was a situation where everybody shared what was there. We had the means to organize, tents where to live, food; it was very basic.
Did you come under attack yourself?
I never had to face combat. All the roles I played were diplomatic, administrative and political. So I was never in the front line. But sometimes I would go there after a battle has been fought, and I could see deaths, injuries, the bad things of war.
So then the political situation changed again and you were elected as an MP, and one of the issues you espoused was women’s rights. Why did you think that was so important to make a change in that area?
I was raised by a mother who cared passionately about women’s rights. She left a job as a teacher and became a stay-at-home mom to raise us. During that time, she led women in the community, formed women’s clubs, and I heard them from my childhood organizing around the big issues of women at that time. They championed rights to education, keeping girls in school, I saw my mom fight against parents marrying off their 13-year-olds, and I grew up passionate about women’s rights.
My mom was a role model. She never accepted barriers of culture and tradition. She went out, opened a shop, ran a hardware store; and did all the things women were not supposed to do. But she did them to make life better for us. When I was elected to parliament, that was one of the reasons. I wanted to lead a constitution that would give girls and women equal rights in a democracy.
You went on to work for the African Union Commission and then United Nations. It was from there that you got the job of International Director of Oxfam. How did you feel when they approached you?
When Oxfam approached me, I thought, they have to be joking. This is a British organization; there must be British people who can do this. That’s when in realized that Oxfam; this great organization that was born here in Oxford where I am sitting now, is, in fact, a global organization that British people gave birth to. I was excited at the opportunity, I went for the interview, and here I am. I was fortunate.
You said they are truly global, does that mean a change in emphasis from being an organization based in the UK, delivering aid and charity to other countries, to one that’s based all over the world?
Absolutely. You’ve got countries hit by Ebola, like Liberia and Sierra Leone. We still need aid to support such countries that are in crises and that can’t balance their budgets yet. But we are also seeing many of the countries becoming richer, but still having millions of people living in poverty. In those countries, we hold hands and help people living in poverty to claim their rights from their governments, because their countries are becoming richer.
You said that you are in Oxford, but your husband still lives in Uganda on the farm that you own there. How often do you see him?
We see each other like four or five times a year. He comes to see me about three times; I go home like two times.
That’s not very often!
I know for you English and European people, you have these small nuclear families and you are so tight and together 24/7. We Africans see families differently. A family is bigger than a man, his wife, and children. There’s a father, a grandfather, relatives and we don’t have to always live together.
Don’t you miss him?
I miss him. I miss him very much, and I also miss my son.
Your son is in Boarding School in the United States
My Son doesn’t find it very strange. In fact, he is so happy to be where he is- he won a scholarship. We skype, we phone, we meet now and again.
But it sounds to me like you’ve made some sacrifices to your family life in order to prioritize the very important work that you are doing. Is that a fair characterization?
Yes. It’s a privilege to serve, and it comes with a few sacrifices, and, of course, one of them is that I can’t have my husband, and my son around me all the time.
What do you do when you get a day off?
I love your countryside. I am really a rural girl from Africa. I walk. 5 minutes from my house there’s something called Port Meadow. There is a commons land with people’s cows, I just walk there and I look at the cows and people’s gardens. I love the countryside.
Image credit: World Economic Forum