Former Mbarara Municipality Member of Parliament last month stunned the world with her gripping remarks on global economic disparities, while she co-chaired this year’s Annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.
Byanyima was appointed in May 2013 as Executive Director of the UK Based Oxfam International.
In an interview with BBC transcribed below, she spoke about her early life, education, and role in the bush war that brought the ruling NRM government to power.
She also spoke passionately about her long distance marriage with her husband, former Opposition FDC President Col Dr Kiiza Besigye.
Tell us about your Parents
My parents were school teachers, but later moved on to do other things. My father became the local MP; my mother was an activist in the community and a women’s rights leader.
So was there an atmosphere in the house, of trying to help other people?
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 house because most opposition leaders were coerced and they crossed back to government side, but my father didn’t. We were a center of resisting oppression from government. That’s the environment which I grew up in; resisting violation of human rights.
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.
And it was risky, wasn’t it?
You couldn’t get a passport to travel to the west because most countries in Europe and in 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 was processing 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 the bureau and I handed in $100. The lady at the counter looked around and made some calls and some 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 the 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 am forgiving you because I see you are coming from a difficult situation. Never do it again.
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 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. 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, and out of curiosity really. I was a good student, when I was growing up; I thought that was the greatest thing to do.
What was your ambition at that time?
I knew that I am going to get a degree in aeronautics, but am going to find my way back into what I want to do, which is fighting for social justice.
So you went back to Uganda. What was the political situation you found when you arrived?
After my degree, Idi Amin had collapsed. By that time I had horned political skills. I was part of human rights movements abroad, I had learnt how to protest, how to do diplomatic resistance and I had joined a political party. When I went home, I was really seasoned as a political activist, and a women’s rights activist. So I continued in activism 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 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 waging popular resistance against a new dictatorship. An armed struggle had begun, led by President Yoweri Museveni.
How did your job help you in that?
Very much because with my job; I travelled. I was a crew member on the Booing 707s that we flew. As a flight engineer, I travelled in and out of Uganda, and I could be a courier for the guerrillas in the bush.
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 other things.
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 revels.
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 themselves, 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?
I never had to face combat. All my roles were diplomatic, and political. But sometimes I would go there after a battle has been fought, and I could see deaths, injuries, the bad things of war.
So the political situation changed and you were elected as MP, and one of the issues you espoused was women’s rights. Why did you think at that time, there was need for change in that area?
I was raised by a mother who cared about women’s rights. She left her job and became a stay-at-home wife. She led women in the community, formed women’s clubs, and I heard them in childhood. They championed rights to education, the girl child, I saw my mom fight against marrying off 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 owned a shop, a hardware store; she did all those things women were not supposed to do. When I was elected in parliament, that was one of the reasons. I wanted to lead a constituency that would give girls and women equal rights.
Then you went on to become the AU commissioner and the UN. It was from here that you got the job of International Director of Oxfam. How did you feel when they contacted you?
When Oxfam approached me, I thought, they must be joking. This is a British organization; there must be some British people who can do this. That’s when in realized that Oxfam; this organization that was born in Oxford where I am now, was in fact a global organization. I was excited, I went for the interview, and here I am. In was fortunate.
Does that change the emphasis from being a global organization based in the UK, delivering aid to other countries, to one that’s based all over the world?
Absolutely. You’ve got counties hit by Ebola like Liberia, Sierra Leone. We still need aid to support such countries in crises and can’t balance their budget. But we are also seeing other countries becoming richer, but still having millions of people living in poverty. In these countries, we help those people to claim their rights from their governments.
You say 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 like three times; I go to see him like two times.
That’s not very often
I know for you English people 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 my son who is in a boarding school in the US. But my husband doesn’t find it strange. We Skype and meet.
It sounds to me like you’ve made sacrifices for your family in order to prioritize the important work you are doing.
Yes. It’s a privilege to serve, and this comes with a few sacrifices, and of course one of them is that I can’t have my husband, my son.
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 Pert Meadow. I walk there and watch people’s cows and gardens. I love the countryside.