A month before Uganda’s 55th birthday, FORBES WOMAN AFRICA spent an afternoon with Janet Kataaha Museveni, the First Lady and Minister of Education and Sports, and heard about her life’s journey and her country’s future.
The Nakasero State House is a green lung in the heart of Kampala not far from the city’s raucous, chaotic traffic.
Past the grey gates, red brick walls and rigorous security checks, armoured, multi-purpose vehicles come into view. They lead up to the State House, and further, down a small unassuming pathway to the right, the residence of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.
On the balmy Saturday afternoon in September that we are there, this is a tranquil universe of flower beds, manicured lawns and tall, swaying trees. We are first welcomed to a banquet room at the State House, showcases here filled with awards, certificates, crystal, portraits and porcelain.
There is a simple buffet set up at the far end of the long white linen-topped table for people both inside and outside the room in the airy corridors that also have seating. They look like staff on a lunch break, as everyone helps themselves to plates of steaming rice, boiled spinach, chicken and matoke (a banana dish).
It would seem hospitality is a norm here. Anywhere in Uganda, any interaction is preceded by an invitation to what will be nothing but a sumptuous meal. The Ugandan pineapple, the sweetest in all of Africa, will be offered too, and so also hibiscus juice.
The ubiquitous hibiscus, the chirping birds and the calm afternoon breeze here at Nakasero are a far cry from the life Uganda’s First Family and the people led in exile, during the country’s painful years of political turbulence and tumult in the last century.
For a country of about 42 million, celebrating its 55th year of independence, this is a quiet moment in history.
As it prepares to fulfil its goal of becoming a middle income country by 2020, and tap into new opportunities in oil, agriculture and the services sector, this is a country that will never forget its past in a hurry.
“That was the life we led,” says Janet Kataaha Museveni, Uganda’s First Lady and Minister of Education and Sports, just before her exclusive, on-camera interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA and CNBC Africa, in a short sentence alluding to those long years away from her country and her husband, when she had to muster courage and conviction to stay in exile with her four young children.
The First Lady is in a colorful traditional floor-length wrap dress, tall and statuesque as she appears on the lawns. The years have been kind to her. She is soft-spoken and has an air of quiet dignity, as she unravels what it means to be a wife, mother, First Lady and minister.
In her book, My Life’s Journey, published in 2011, she recounts most of it, in a lucid, evocative way. She had started writing the book on her 60th birthday in 2008.
Born in the district of Ntungamo in southwestern Uganda, she recounts “beautiful lands with hills and valleys, streams and rivers” and an idyllic childhood.
Her initial – and rather humorous – encounters with President Museveni leading up to their wedding – which he almost couldn’t attend – in 1973 in England, and the years of hardship when she lost her brother and mother, and lived fearing death and danger in exile in Kenya, Tanzania and Sweden, make for engaging reading.
The future frightened her, but she never lost hope she would come home to Uganda. She later talks about it at our interview.
“I believed and prayed and hoped Uganda will one day be free. That was a hope that truly had to stay in my heart so I could manage day by day and as you have read [in the book], it took many years waiting for that hope, but it happened one day.”
The young Museveni brought laughter back into her life. She says in the book he gave her a sense of purpose.
After a drawn-out civil war, Museveni eventually became President of Uganda in 1986. But she says she never aspired to be First Lady.
“Indeed, when he became President, I was made to know that now as the wife of the President, I have to serve as the First Lady,” she tells us during the interview.
“It was very difficult for me because I was a private person. I wanted to do my voluntary work privately and quietly and live a private life but it’s not possible. Somehow, you’re drawn into politics and public life, and slowly I accepted to be what the public would want me to be and it’s a learning experience.”
She has a Bachelor of Arts in Education from Uganda’s Makerere University and a Diploma in Early Childhood Development from Sweden. She previously served as the Minister for Karamoja Affairs in the cabinet in 2011 and as elected Member of Parliament representing Ruhaama in Ntungamo.
Since mid-2016, she has been Minister of Education and Sports.
Not just politics, she’s also involved in philanthropy. She founded and has been patron to Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO) that cares for war-related and HIV/AIDS-affected orphans in Uganda; and the Uganda Youth Forum (UYF), an NGO that engages the youth for purposes of character and behavior formation particularly with regard to HIV and AIDS prevention.
Known as ‘mama’ by Ugandans, she is regularly seen at forums advocating for women and the girl child. Recently, on International Day Of The Girl Child, before a mammoth gathering, she launched the Gender in Education Policy to provide inclusive and equitable quality education and sports for all.
The First Lady says Uganda’s women are successful as doctors, lawyers, nurses, entertainers, farmers, teachers and in commercial enterprise. In March 2017, the Mastercard Index of Women’s Entrepreneurship (MIWE), revealed 34.8% of businesses in Uganda are owned by women.
“I think women feel called upon to participate in taking care of their families and because many of them will not go for employment in public life, they employ themselves in business and they are doing very well,” says the First Lady.
“In many areas, it’s women who are doing business. Many of them are in agriculture but they are also in food processing, sell food in the market places, they are in commercial enterprises in towns, even in rural towns. So you find many women are the ones managing commercial enterprises in the country.”
Her three daughters are successful in their own right too, but heap praise on their mother when we meet them. Diana Kamuntu, the Musevenis’ youngest, an entrepreneur in tourism, calls her mother her role model. The middle daughter Patience Rwabwogo, a pastor, extols her mother’s commitment to family.
Natasha Karugire, the eldest of the three, a designer turned filmmaker, has seen her mother closely the years she was in exile: “She was very resourceful, always doing everything she could to make sure we were clothed and eating… she didn’t have lights or electricity, but we survived.”
Irene Kauma Tewungwa, who has been the First Lady’s Principal Assistant for the last eight years, says of her boss: “Working with her is a privilege. It’s hectic work but her personality makes it interesting… She is a very authentic person. When she is serving, she is genuinely serving the people, and not doing it for the cameras. Everything she does is anchored in her faith in God.”
As we wind up our cameras at the end of our meeting, the First Lady turns to me, and says softly: “Thank you for coming here and letting me tell my story. God bless you.”
Q: It is often perhaps wrongly perceived the First Lady is a mere shadow of the President or plays a supporting role. How have you managed to rise above those perceptions?
For a long time, I agreed with that perspective. I supported my husband for the largest part but the change came and I felt called upon to directly serve the people myself. I’ve always wanted so much to be able to participate directly to serve the people because, first of all, I am grateful that my family, having lived a very difficult life in Uganda, managed to come back home safely, and I wanted in a way to say thank you to God because for me, my whole life is directed by God. So I felt I had a debt to pay, I needed to help somebody else and so that’s how I felt called upon to go and serve in public life. And I had to go and represent my family constituency in Parliament and that’s how I came out and started something different, not just as the First Lady but as an Ugandan woman, and to serve the people I believed I owed it to.
It was not understood initially, but eventually people realized that First Ladies also have the right to serve their country in their individual capacity… I still support my husband’s work from time to time. I still participate in some of my voluntary work that I used to do before, but now I also have the contract with the people to serve them.
Q: You recently finished a year as Minister of Education and Sports. Uganda has one of the fastest-growing youth populations in the world. Where do you see them headed?
We have a challenge with employment presently, and are focusing on giving skills to our young people. We have now many public universities and a big population of young people come out of them annually. But also a large percentage does not get employment straight away and that’s because many of them really train to do white-collar jobs in our economy, but those jobs are not many. So we are focusing on skilling them so that they are able to employ themselves. So we are hoping we’ll get a critical mass of them to become truly skilled and be able to provide their own employment and employ others. We are hoping many of them can still go to agriculture and industrialization. We are a country on the move and expanding our industry base, expanding our service sector, and so we are hoping that many of our young people become skilled themselves, then they can enter those sectors and be employed and also employ others.
Q: There’s much talk about the oil economy in Uganda, and young women becoming entrepreneurs in that space. Are you looking at developing that?
Yes, we are planning and trying to really start an oil industry complete with its refinery, and so we know that a good number of our young people will be trained in the oil industry.
Q: What are the efforts to empower those in agriculture and bring them into the formal economy?
We are now working with some partner countries that help us train young people for commercial agriculture… so we are having some of our young go out and train and come back to train others, to start farms where others can train from in Uganda. Because then we can provide a lot of food and we’re hoping that we can be the food basket for this region. And if that can employ more of our young people then that’s what we are trying to do.
Q: As Uganda celebrates 55 years, where is the economy headed?
Fortunately, our economy has been growing – many years in the past, it has never grown at less than 6% or 7% per year – so we are hoping it will continue, and if we expand our industry base, because we are still an agrarian country basically. We are moving to industrialization and hoping we will grow our economy more, and indeed the oil industry, our real estate and services sector. We hope all those put together, our economy will continue to grow. We are a young country, so we think we have a good trend we are following right now.
Q: You set up the Uganda Women’s Effort To Save Orphans. What are your continued efforts to improve the plight of orphans and women in need?
My time now is the challenge. Because the Ministry of Education is a huge ministry, I spend a lot of my time at the ministry, but I still try as much as possible to make some time to work with the NGOs I founded because we still have those very vulnerable families and children who need our support. But I have a big support group in those NGOs that continues with the work, and so just from time to time, I meet with them, I have some input in their work but basically they are now continuing with the work I used to do with them.
Q: Uganda has always opened its doors to refugees. With an influx of one million refugees from South Sudan, how are you dealing with that challenge?
It’s not just South Sudan, it’s also Somalia, and it’s a big challenge. But we have opened our doors to them, and accept them to come and share what we have. We share our education system, health system, they use everything we have just like Ugandans but that indeed [overwhelms] our own system and that’s a challenge. So we are trying to raise awareness in the world that those willing to give us some support should support our refugees through us, so we can expand our service sector, so as we serve, the communities that house the refugees will also serve the refugees… We cannot forget there was a time when we also needed support and people opened their doors to us. So now it’s our time.
Q: Uganda had some success in reducing rates of HIV and also ending child marriage, and you work very closely with OAFLA (Organisation of African First ladies Against HIV/AIDS)…
Our work in Uganda was to educate young people so they know how to protect themselves from HIV, because when we first started facing that pandemic, it was a major challenge. So what we needed to do was to give education and information to our young people, that the best possible way to protect themselves is to make sure they don’t open themselves up to premarital sex, and those who are married to be faithful to their partners in marriage, and not to allow themselves to have more than one spouse and also for those who live reckless lives, to make sure at least they use condoms.
And that changed people’s lives very quickly, especially young people, and because of that, the reduction came down so quickly and made a tremendous impact on the young population. But after some time, we also slowed down – we believed everybody now has a story, they got the drugs, and so we relaxed – but people still suffer from HIV and AIDS, and therefore because of that, we continue to educate young people especially.
Q: Neighboring Rwanda has 63% representation of women in Parliament. Are there any policies in Uganda to increase the number of women in cabinet and the private sector?
Yes, we have a big percentage of women in politics. At least 33% members of Parliament are women, and in cabinet, it is 35%. We do have a big number of women leaders in leading organizations of government. It is our government’s policy to promote women’s leadership and it is happening. So there are certain areas that can only be represented by women in politics and Parliament.
Every district must have a woman representative, in addition to constituency members of Parliament. So most of the women come through that and they are also free to compete at the constituency level, that’s why we have a big percentage of women in Parliament. But by and large, I think we have a huge percentage of women leaders now and considering our population, that also increases the number. Smaller countries like Rwanda have a big percentage in Parliament, but because their population is smaller, the numbers are not as big as those in Uganda.
Q: You say in your book, My Life’s Journey, through your years of hardship, you relied on Africa’s extended family system. Do you see that in society today?
It’s not as strong as it was unfortunately. People have become more self-centred and they do their own business, and the extended family is not as strong as it used to be. Our lifestyle has changed, people just know their small family, that is it… Our generation knew a lot about our extended families – they were stronger, they really relied on each other for support, for livelihood, for everything.
Q: Do you think Africans are saying their stories enough?
No, but I’m hopeful it will happen. I am really hopeful women would see the need to tell their own stories to their own children, just like I did. I didn’t [initially] think there was a need for me to talk about my life and bring it into public. In fact, I believed very strongly my life was mine to keep and perhaps share with my own children, but I was convinced at some stage that I wrote my own story and I have heard from many women lately they want to do that. I’m hoping more and more women will do that and our population, now that we are stable, can also begin to read because we were not a reading community. We just used to hear word-of-mouth stories but I’m hoping now there will be time for people to read and it will compel them to write their own stories too.
Q: You have three daughters. Do you see any of them taking to politics?
I would like you to ask that question to them directly. I would like to hear that answer from each one of them.
Q: In the book, you mention the President’s indefatigable spirit and sense of humour. What is it like working with him?
I work very closely with him. It’s motivating to have him around because you watch and see how he works and works, all the time for many hours, and so it just gives you the drive to see that you just can’t be tired. Because this person is continuing (laughs), you must also have that strength to go on, and so it is always a challenge to learn from what he’s doing, and attempt to do what you see him do all the time.
Q: Do you get time for yourself, between work and family?
I really do work long hours through the week, but I struggle to keep the weekends for myself. Many times I fail even at that. As you can see, this is the weekend and I’m right here (laughs). But when I can get the weekends, I am with my children and grandchildren, but it’s not always possible.
Q: Do you have any regrets, anything you would like to change?
No, because my public service started very late in life. I have done what I needed to do, I was very happy to serve where I felt called upon, but in the shortest time I have served in public life, I feel gratified that at least I have also added my own brick on the building of my nation… I think it’s a duty for every person to do something for their country.
Young countries like Uganda need each one of us, each individual Ugandan ought to do something for Uganda and unless we do that, we can’t really educate our children about what they are required to do. If we want to see Uganda become better, we must be willing to do something that will make it better than it was yesterday. So I don’t have any regrets, I just pray I can be used by God for as long as I can to serve my country, to make it a better place than I found it. That’s my mission.
Q: You have a deep faith in God, what was that life-changing moment for you?
It’s a special place when I found God because it changed my life forever… I lived a big part of my life without knowing God, and I regretted that when I found Him. I was fortunate to be able to tell my children my own experiences and I believe it helped them make their own decisions about their lives.
Q: And as you have said in your book, the best years are yet to come?
I hope that. At my age, I hope that!