The 1990s were the Golden years of my life. That is when I made an infallible mark in feminist history and in the women’s movement. They were years that transformed the entire course of my life and laid the foundation for my political and leadership career. I met the most incredible women in the African feminist movement and also participated in numerous feminist advocacy activities that changed my perspective and impacted the lives of many women on the African continent.
In shaping my political destiny, the African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI), organized by Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA) in February 1999, in Entebbe in Uganda, was extremely fundamental. It was the most memorable and life changing event, that turned me into a passionate feminist leader, who has been able to serve even beyond personal aspiration.
In June 1996, when I was recruited as the Executive Director of Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET), a leading women’s advocacy coalition, I plunged into that role, as the first and only member of staff of the network, without any prior leadership experience in NGO management. Previously I had been a teacher and journalist, holding a Masters’ Degree in Development Studies from the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague, The Netherlands; a Bachelors’ Degree in Education and a Post Graduate Diploma in Journalism. None of these trainings and previous work experience had prepared me for the required leadership at the Network.
UWONET had been founded in 1993 when women in Uganda prepared themselves to participate in the fourth United Nations International Women’s Conference, held in 1995 in Beijing China. Three years later, equipped with the Beijing Platform for Action, UWONET opened its Secretariat in Kampala and I was appointed to head it and also implement the Beijing resolutions. Without any sense of direction, I felt I was swimming against an enormous tide in a very turbulent sea. My employers expected me to translate the Beijing Platform into an UWONET programme document and also offer the Network the appropriate leadership, so as to effectively engage the political and policy leadership in Uganda, at the East African regional level and internationally.
At the time, the politics of Uganda was very exciting. A new Constitution had been promulgated in 1995 and numerous gender sensitive clauses had been included. The parliament was very vibrant, with very many acclaimed women activists such as, Eng. Winnie Byanyima, Dr. Miria Matembe and Dr. Speciousa Wandira Kazibwe, who then was the Vice President of Uganda. These women were not only part of the Women’s Movement in Uganda, but most of them had worked tirelessly in the Constituent Assembly, between 1994 and 1995 to engender the Ugandan Constitution. They were a gigantic resource to me as the head of UWONET and to the women’s movement across the country.
In the first three years of opening the UWONET Secretariat, the network was literally working on everything that affected the lives of women, ranging from the advocacy against the armed conflict in northern Uganda at the time; advocacy against domestic violence; recognition of women’s land rights; the need for a Family Law in Uganda; better education opportunities for the girl-child; and better health services for women, with a particular focus on Reproductive Health. At the regional and international level, we were engaged in the Debt Campaign and the campaign against the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) and also involved in the discussions for the revival of the East African Community (EAC) and the drafting of Treaty for the establishment of the EAC.
This meant that while I was expected to offer leadership and management to the network, I was at the same time globetrotting in Europe, the United States and within the East African region. I was literary an expert on everything. But amidst all this I was also someone’s wife and a mother to three young children, who all, desperately needed me to be at home, showering them with love and care. My parents that had sacrificed a lot to educate me also expected my commitment to them as I climbed the leadership ladder, let alone my in-laws. I had to strike a balance in my life, which was another titanic task. Unfortunately I did not know how to do it or where to find help.
Sometime in 1997, I met this incredible feminist sister from Zimbabwe, Hope Chigudu, who is also a Ugandan. I can vividly recall how she looked at me in dismay, wondering what I was up to. In her characteristic, no nonsense manner, she advised me to attend a leadership training programme, in order to become more effective, as a feminist leader. Her advice was well taken, but I felt I did not have the time to attend any training programmes and at the same time accomplish all the work, I was expected to do as a manager, wife, mother and a daughter to my aging parents. Here I was, acting as a “Super Woman”, yet wearing myself out and spreading myself too thin to make any impact.
A year later in 1998, as we were tussling it out with the Ugandan government to restore multiparty democracy in the country and grappling to form the Uganda National NGO Forum, of which I was again the first Chairperson, a very good friend of mine, Algresia Akwi Ogojo, who was the first Executive Director of AMwA, advised me to attend a leadership programme organized by her organization, within Uganda. For three years, I had worked none stop, without leave or any break. I was overwhelmed and extremely exhausted. Although my employers and the donors were impressed with my work, deep down in my heart, I knew I was just gambling with leadership. I took the offer made by AMwA and that became my turning point.
I arrived in Entebbe for the training, a day after it had begun, equipped with my laptop and ready to do my office work during the training. I had also made a conscience decision that I would rash back to my office in Kampala, about 28 kilometers away, to ensure that all was in order. In the training room there were 27 other young women in middle and senior management positions, from different countries in Africa, including Seychelles, Mali, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tunisia, Gambia, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sudan and Burundi. The room was full of feminist energy and I was immediately immersed in it. This is where I was meant to be. The most amazing common factor amongst all of us was that we were all overwhelmed women leaders that desperately needed to have balanced lives.
We had an astounding programme with an expert faculty of resource persons. My most memorable and life transforming lessons were got from Jerusha Arothe- Vaughan, who trained us on Personal Empowerment, Leadership and Management, and Human Resource Development. There was Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi and Patricia Macfaden, who exposed us to African feminism and the theory and practice of feminism. We were taught about our sexuality, sexual health and wellbeing, self-care and overcoming our fears. In order to test that we were good students, for the first time in our lives, those of us that could not swim or had never been anywhere near the swimming pool, plunged ourselves into the hotel swimming pool, one night, hence overcoming the fear of water and forever the fear of failure in advancing feminist leadership.
For the entire time of the training, I never attended to my office work, never missed my office or even my family. Three weeks later, as I received my certificate of attendance, I was a completely transformed feminist leader that was ready to take on the world. I had learnt how to gracefully say “No without feeling guilty” to things that I did not want to do and also learnt the power of delegation. Having attained that delicate balance in my life, at a personal level, in 2000 I conceived, after having failed for many years and in February 2001, I gave birth to a healthy bouncing boy. Thanks to AWLI, the balance in my life had also balanced my hormones.
I now became the tigress, an animal that I had always silently admired and yet I was not so sure of how I could confidently display the tigress in me. I was now proud to be described as a maverick, who would not dance to the beat of anyone's drum. People began appreciating me as a woman that was courageous, strong, and authoritative and one who was not easily influenced by the opinions of others. At times because of my impulsive nature, I was unpredictable and a daring force and up to date, I definitely stand out in a crowd. For all intents and purposes, I became an extremely confident woman who ferociously and persistently worked to attain both her personal and professional goals.
Over the years I have perfected the characteristics of my animal totem, the tiger, being strong willed, in that once I have made up my mind there is no changing it. However, I do take the time to balance all possibilities before deciding on my next course of action. I enjoy getting to a quiet place to retreat when things get stressful and tend to easily blend in or camouflage in social situations. I would also say that I have got that natural charisma, which often attracts many people towards me.
Two years after attending the AWLI, I was elected as a parliamentarian to the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA), where I represented Uganda and the East African Community to several high ranking international meetings. My son was only nine months old and I globetrotted with him, having learnt from Akina Mama wa Afrika that motherhood was not an excuse for inefficiency or an inability.
Currently I’m a consultant and a trainer in gender, leadership, the media and human rights and I have published several documents on these subjects. I have trained parliamentarians in Uganda, Burundi, South Sudan and Kenya; trained several NGO practitioners, journalists and also compiled the National Action Plans for the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security for Uganda and the South Sudan.
I have also participated in the struggle for the restoration of Uganda’s democracy, being at the forefront of the campaigns for the reinstatement of multiparty politics in Uganda; resisting the removal of Presidential term limits from the Ugandan Constitution and granting President Yoweri Museveni life presidency in 2005; participated in the campaign for free and fair elections, between 2012 and 2015 and I was the deputy spokesperson of The Democratic Alliance (TDA), a coalition of political parties, civil society organizations and democracy seeking citizens that was committed to challenge and end Museveni’s dictatorial rule, prior to the 2016 general elections.
On the whole, I can confidently say that I have become what I’m because of the empowerment I received from AWLI; the continued engagement with AMwA as an Alumni and the support I persistently receive from the feminist sisters in the incredible network of Akina Mama wa Afrika. I have mentored several younger women into leadership and I’m a woman leader, who strongly believes that leadership is learnt and is perfected with practice.
Hon. Sheeila Kawamara Mishambi remains a motivational power house and a world changing African woman feminist who is successfully doing what she can with what she has, and using her influencial brilliance to encourage more women to dedicate their passion into bettering the lives of women nationwide.