The inspirational women of Uganda

Thursday August 7 2014

Prudence Ukkononika (C), the proprietor of

Prudence Ukkononika (C), the proprietor of Belle Wines. Photo | Morgan Mbabazi  


When Dorah Nalunga Sseruwagi received an e-mail from Century Entrepreneurship Development Agency (CEDA), a non-governmental organisation founded and headed by Rehmah Kasule, requesting her to nominate a woman who was making a difference in her community, she did not have to think twice about whom to choose. It was Benedicta Nanyonga.

“She has uplifted the standard of life in the Kinawataka slum area by teaching the community how to clean up their environment and also use locally available materials like used drinking straws to make handicrafts, which they in turn sell to earn a living. This has created employment for many low income earners who had previously been redundant,” Sseruwagi wrote.

“This is inspiring to the many unemployed folk in the communities where we live. It also inspires me not to look down on any job because from this humble straw-making, madam Benedicta has been recognised nationally and internationally for her innovation,” she added.

Ms Nanyonga heads the Kinawataka Women’s Initiatives (KWI), a community-based organisation she founded in 1998 to organise and empower women in her community who had no means of economic sustenance through environmentally conscious economic projects.

KWI is mostly known for its assortment of woven products made out of used drinking straws.

Such are the inspiring stories behind two books, Footmarks by Gorettie B. Bamwanga and CEDA’s The Inspirational Women of Uganda, that tell the story of and celebrate high achieving Ugandan women, shining a light on 127 Ugandan women who have triumphed over personal, political, societal and cultural obstacles to better themselves and those around them.

The stories of Nanyonga, together with that of Maria Baryamujura, an expert in community tourism; Rev. Diana M. Nkesiga, the vicar of All Saints’ Cathedral; and Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the pioneering conservation veterinarian, feature in the two publications.

Footmarks is an ambitious compilation, that profiles 87 women from diverse backgrounds and professions who are either pioneers in their fields or have left a mark in their chosen fields. The majority are public figures and household names in Uganda, making the 500-page coffee table book read like a “who’s who” of Ugandan women.

Think of First Lady Janet Museveni, Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga, Queen of Buganda Sylvia Nagginda Luswata, musician Joanita Kawalya, or activist Miria Matembe.

Others are chief revenue collector Allen Kagina, Kampala City boss Jennifer Musisi, Mbarara University deputy vice chancellor Prof. Pamela Mbabazi, HIV/Aids activist Lydia Mungherera, or Tereza Mbiire, a pioneering female entrepreneur who has been immortalised in song.

On the other hand, CEDA’s The Inspirational Women of Uganda, largely focuses on ordinary women, the “unsung” heroines as it calls them, who are more grassroots oriented, where, in the absence of multiple national and international networks available to their “celebrity” counterparts, their impact has come through sheer relentless effort powered by dogged belief that within their means they could make a difference, however small, in their communities.

The sum total of what is tangible that these women have achieved, is marked by the number of orphans they have put through school, and the various economic empowerment initiatives through which the less fortunate have boosted their self-belief, reduced dependence on their partners and, in effect, gained economic freedom.

It is in what is intangible, however, where the full extent of these women’s achievements can might be found. How, for instance, do you measure the effect of counselling of thousands of individuals and couples and, subsequently, the stability derived from it? How about the mental and psychological impact these women have had on those who look up to them?

Ms Bamwanga, who founded and co-ordinates Mentors’ Team Africa, a counselling and mentorship business, tells the story of a young and restless socialite, who adored Susan K. Muhwezi, one of the profiled women, because of her looks, fashion and poise.

Ms Muhwezi is a senior advisor to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni on trade and Agoa, among the many hats she wears.

“To the socialite’s mind, Muhwezi was successful because she was beautiful and proud. Therefore, to be like her, she, too, had to dress expensively and be arrogant since she was already pretty. But when she eventually met her idol, she was blown away by how down-to-earth, soft spoken and humble she was. She found it difficult to believe it but knew that certainly she couldn’t remain the way she was and still be like her,” explained Bamwanga.

Nevertheless, the 127 women profiled in Footmarks are, by no means, the only inspiring ones in a country where women make up 51 per cent of the population and support the bulk of the productive economy.

At best, they present a fair snapshot of the multiplicity of lives and the vital trade-offs women across Uganda have to make regardless of their station in life even as they work twice or more as hard as men to impact their communities in a country where true gender equality remains a pipe dream.

As Dr Aisha Bataringaya-Sekalala, a pioneering orthodontist profiled in Footmarks puts it, with a tinge of humility, “All over this country are women who have survived against all odds, raised families in harsh conditions of war, poverty and disease. So to say that my journey to this station of my life is a ‘must-read-one-of-a-kind-mind-blowing-story’ would be a lie.”

Footmarks and The Inspirational Women of Uganda have been in the works for five years. Bamwanga said she conceived her idea 10 years ago after countless counselling sessions with young people, mostly girls. She learnt that most of them had no mentors, had even never heard of mentors and those who knew and needed them, did not know where or how to find them.

She did not know how to actualise her book idea until four years ago when, while watching a programme on a Kenyan TV station featuring Susan Githuku-Wakhungu who was discussing her own compilation, Life Journeys Seeking Destiny: Conversations with high achieving women in Kenya, that mirrored what Bamwanga was struggling to come up with.

“I immediately searched for her contact, made an appointment and took a flight to Nairobi to meet her. I learnt a lot from her and discovered we had a lot in common. For instance, we both love compiling things,” said Bamwanga.

Upon her return to Uganda, she framed the question that would guide the compilation. That is, “Who and why would you like to be mentored by among outstanding women in Uganda? Then, she identified ways of disseminating it, hired young women as collaborating writers who would, symbolically, drink from the wells of the trailblazers (some of whom they adored themselves) and started off her project.

CEDA’s directory, on the other hand, was born out of the organisation’s mentoring work in schools where, often, students rarely mentioned Ugandans they wanted to emulate, said Rehmah Kasule, its founder and head.

“During one of the mentoring sessions at Nabisunsa Girls School, we asked the girls about their career plans and to give an example of the person they looked up to in that field. All the girls who wanted to become doctors looked up to Ben Carson, an American doctor who became famous for his groundbreaking work separating conjoined twins,” Ms Kasule writes in the book’s preface.

“In Tororo Girls School, a number of girls feared to become lawyers because they didn’t know any famous or successful Ugandan woman lawyer,” she added.

For Kasule, these revelations were astonishing. As she saw it, they revealed how, “In Uganda, despite the positive achievements by women, women’s contribution and success is underplayed. This has led to the negative perceptions whereby young girls feel that there are no female role models in Uganda to look up to.”

The idea behind both publications is to introduce and make available mentors whom young women, can approach, feel, touch, and seek direction, support and inspiration from, instead of the media-based foreigners they obsess about but who are far removed from the forces and realities that shape and influence their lives.

“We believe that the spirit of patriotism starts with being able to celebrate the successes of our own. The moment we are not in a position to do this, we will continue to look at the foreign figures as our role models and mentors, which is quite far from reality because we are exposed to quite different environments, resources and opportunities,” said Charity Byarugaba, a programme officer at CEDA who worked on the directory.