How Tough Childhood Gave U.S. Activist Ngabiirwe

Winfred Ngabiirwe is the executive director of Global Rights Alert, a civil society organisation whose interests are centred on natural resource governance and transparency. She is also the chairperson of Publish What You Pay-Uganda Chapter. On 91.3 Capital FM’s Desert Island Discs with Simon Kasyate, Ngabiirwe shares her life story: –

Who is Winnie? Where were you born?

I was born in the current Mitooma district, Ijumu parish, Rushorooza village. I am a mother to three beautiful kids. I work at Global Rights Alert but I am also a CEO in my home. I run a little bit of businesses here and there so I am an all-rounder.

What made you this jack of all trades? What was your childhood like?

It was fun. I was born in a family of so many kids. We are eight five boys and three girls. We grew up in a peasant home but full of love. We were allowed to do whatever we wanted, within of course the restrictions of the family. We grazed cows, fetched water, and had to do everything that was done in a typical rural home. Between school and home, we had to do different chores to make sure that both your skills for home management and looking after your family are shaped.

Can you share with us what your parents did?

My family is very special considering our village level. My uncles, my other relatives, our neighbours at that time, they never took girl children to school. So, at the age of around 15, I guess my dad was getting a lot of aice on how I have grown up and I could have fetched for him a number of cows [but he didn’t marry me off]. My dad was a P4 dropout. My mum never stepped in school but she speaks very good English.

Is it because of you or the grandchildren?

Yes, it is because of us because she [had] to read the covers of our books. Every newspaper that you would grab and cover your book [with], she would get it and call you to come and help her to pronounce the words and tell her what they mean. She is a very assertive, inquisitive woman and I think I take some of her character.

There must have been division of labour because there were [also] boys in this family.

There was no work for specifically women or men in that home. We [always] shared and helped each other.

Which primary school did you go to?

I started my primary school in a rural school called Kirambe primary school. It was at a church where my father used to preach. Since it was church-aided, we had at least minimum requirements we needed in terms of buildings. The other requirements, they struggled like any other school. I was there for three years and I went to another school called Nyakayimbi primary school. It was six kilometres away from our home so we would move every morning on foot, with no shoes but one uniform. So, you would run to school. And you are carrying food for your lunch.

This food was the leftover [from] supper. We never used to mind. If at times a tractor passed by and gave you a lift, you would celebrate for the rest of the week. It was good experience. We never used to feel bad and at times it rained on us but we still did not feel bad. I remember it was a bunch of girls and boys all going to the same school. A number of girls from my village dropped out because they were getting married. I remember my best friends got married when we were in P6.

What stopped you from getting married?

I never saw myself carrying a baby and digging and therefore I had to do everything it took for me to be different.

And where did you go after that?

I went to a Catholic school called St Cecilia Girls School in Bushenyi. I performed well so I went to Maryhill High School for my senior five to senior six and then I came to Makerere University. So, I came to Kampala and I was mesmerised that that was in Uganda.

Chooses ‘Emirina Ow’e Nsambya’ by Elly Wamala

What was your mental image of Kampala?

At Maryhill, we were all treated the same. The girls from Kampala, the girls from my village, we were all treated the same. There was not a lot of pride from the [Kampala] girls. But the girls had accents so, I wondered, ‘How am I going to survive when I go to Kampala?’ I thought it was a town where everyone had an accent, where everyone [dressed] really decently.

I had a few blouses and skirts so, I was really scared. But I had relatives in Kampala who gave me an idea of what to expect.

When was [your] shoe deacutebut because you were telling us you walked 12 kilometres without shoes?

It was a time in my school when the DEO (District Education Officer] was coming to visit our school and I had to sing and welcome him. I had to borrow shoes from a boy and these were canvas shoes. I thought they were unisex. I put on shoes for the first time in my P5.

You hit Kampala. How was it?

It was exciting. I never felt intimidated. I had a good brother who took me everywhere from the bar to the disco to greeting relatives. We used to stay in Bugolobi there was a nice bar down in the Middle East. He told me, “Winnie you must see everything because you’re going to the university and you will have the temptation to see things.”

Which year was this?

I went to the university in 1999. My brother gave me the exposure. He took me to Club Silk, Ange Noir and to the beach. I used to go dressed like I am going to a party when going to the beach. I would put on my long dinner dresses and high heels or, sometimes, suits, as if I am going to an office.

When you look back, would it have been better for him to have restricted you?

I think he made a really good decision to show me what life is about, especially in Kampala, and to help me make informed decisions. I could see boys with girlfriends. I could see him with girlfriends… , but [they were] not involved intimately. He would say let’s go with Sheila today and another time he would say Ann.

He would say this is what might happen to you. You have to know that when you drink with some guy, you do not have to end up in his bed and do not take it for granted that you could be the only one that guy hangs out with.

At this time, did you have any idea on what you wanted to be in life?

I didn’t.

What course were you going to pursue at the university?

I was supposed to pursue law but Maryhill had not performed well. Coming from a family that was not very rich, I was not sure I could get private sponsorship. So [at] the last hour I changed and took SWASA (Social Work and Social Administration]. I did not know what SWASA was about. I just filled SWASA because it was like if you did not do law, you have to take SWASA… .

I am grateful I did SWASA because there was something in me that had not been discovered.

How were you able to live your life in the best way you possibly could at the university?

I was in CCE and I had a couple of friends from high school. We were like a group and we looked out for each other. Like any other person, I went out I dated and studied and I really did what I was supposed to do. I was a well-behaved girl, I can tell you that.

Chooses ‘All of Me’ by John Legend.

So, what is it about this song that you chose?

For me, it shows you that no one is perfect. There are ups and downs and if you have decided to love someone, you will love them. You will love their bad side and help them to get out of that. If you’re going through a difficult situation, you work with them to get out of it and if something is good, celebrate. I send it to my husband.

So, what does Global Rights Alert do?

GRA works on human rights issues, as the name suggests, but we focus mainly on issues around mining around oil and gas.

But oil and gas is a new phenomenon. Is it a new organisation?

The organisation started in 2007, around the time oil was discovered. We came in at the right time to address the issues that were emerging as the oil sector [grew] issues to do with [the] kind of legislation [we are] working on for our oil, gas and mining sector.

We look at issues of human rights and how can men and women position themselves to benefit economically from the sector so that the economic rights are realised? We also look at how we can develop a very sustainable sector without violating people’s rights, especially the host communities in the Albertine [graben].

After the university where did life take you? Did you easily find a job?

I started by volunteering with a charity in Jinja, Student Partnership Worldwide, for over a year. I was paid Shs 100,000 a month and given accommodation. It was not about getting money it was about getting better skills. I almost got a good job after the university but a human resource person in one of the big organisations I will not disclose asked for something that I thought was stepping on my human rights.

He asked me to sleep with him. My appointment letter was ready, but he said, ‘the appointment letter is here but we first do something. Let’s go to Makindye, there is a really nice hotel there’. I had bounced like three or four times and I didn’t know why I was bouncing. I just walked out and I realised the world is harder than I thought it was.

What gave you the [thick] skin to resist?

I believed in myself and I knew I could get something that I rightly deserve and something better that was out there for me. If it happened today, I would have slapped him. This thing of exploiting young girls and boys because they are vulnerable should stop.

Chooses ‘Aye’ by Davido:

Winnie, at this point you are also growing old and you are possibly beginning to meet somebody you want to start your life with…

I met my guy at university. He is my best friend. He is someone who really makes me happy. He is proud of me and supports me.

How did you meet this guy?

I have something in me that wants to look out for the best so, when we finished high school, we were in the same year. He was the best in the region and I was second. I went to the university and I was like, ‘who is this guy?’ I went to see that guy and I think, for us, it was love at first sight. He was also looking for this girl who almost beat him. He is a very handsome guy and he has the brains.

Through friends and relatives with whom we were at the university, we came to meet. We became friends. He had a sense of humour that would knock [me] off. We talked and we were friends for like three years and then started dating towards the end of the university.

How about this all talk about dating someone the same age as you [that] you possibly cannot make a wonderful couple? You never realised that kind of challenge in your relationship?

For me, we are friends first and that is the most important thing. There is nothing that can beat friendship. We connect so much. We have the same ambitions almost. This age, for us we’ve never talked about it. We connect so much and I guess that’s what makes us a beautiful couple and definitely we are going to grow old together.

When you got married, how are you able to balance work [and] marriage? Many people do not usually strike that balance successfully.

One, I said I do some businesses. He is my business aisor he understands what I go through. He is helping me. We talk so, that’s not a problem. In terms of my work with Global Rights Alert, he is really supportive. We speak openly and I tell him where I am going so, we haven’t found a problem.

For children, there are certain things I must do for [them]. I must be the one who wakes them up every morning, bathes them, take breakfast with them and take them to school. That’s a must as long as I am in Kampala. In the evening, I also must read for them stories when I am available. When I am not available, my husband is such a good man to them and steps in and does that.

Sometimes it is very difficult, sometimes you go home and you are exhausted.

Are there same challenges that you may wish to share with us just to educate us who may think it is utopia out there?

It is very challenging because work demands a lot. You’ve been in office and you are exhausted and [when you] reach home, you do not want to hear someone screaming. I have a very supportive family. My husband’s relatives give me a helping hand. We have at least three or four girls so, they help make the girls and the boys feel at home.

There are restrictions on how many hours we watch TV at home. I also want them to make balls out of banana fibres, things to make them move out of the Kampala ‘fridge-supermarket’ kind of life.

Chooses ‘Greatest Love Of All’ by Whitney Houston

Was that the moment that gave you impetus to go into full-blown activism for rights?

There is so much that I have not shared. As a young girl, I went through attempted rapes. Being the only one girl studying in the village, relatives tried to set you up with some random guy. I could really see it was going to be difficult for me to accomplish my goals if I didn’t become g. That shaped who I am today, what I do, the passion that I have and the issues that I look out for.

Some people argue that in the world of NGOs, you have financers who determine how you operate. How are you able to balance the whims and fancies of you financers and the reality on the ground?

I am not getting money from one if they are not buying my plan that’s one thing. They should like what I am going to do and the way [I am] going to do it. It also goes back to being assertive and putting your foot down and saying, ‘This is what I am going to do. Please come and we do it or go.’

Where do we see Winnie in five years?

I will be a successful businesswoman. I will be planning to hand over Global Rights Alert to the young ladies and gentlemen that I have. I want to retire very fast. I also want to be involved in charity work beyond Global Rights Alert. And I also expect to be the best mother for my children.

If you were marooned on a desert island and you were given a choice to pick one person or one item, what is it that you would go with?

Maybe my phone. But in terms of people, my children come first so, I will go with my children.

Source : The Observer

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