Mele-Ane on meeting Winnie...
I meet Winnie Byanyima, the global head of Oxfam International, on a dreary Melbourne winters’ day. She is in town for a conference, and although it is a last-minute introduction, she manages to find time to meet me for a conversation.
Winne cuts a powerful and striking figure; she’s tall and regal in stature but as we sit down to talk, I can feel she is tired. She is in the middle of a busy schedule of speaking engagements and meetings, and apologises for having to cut our meeting time short to prepare for a conference call at 10pm that night. I get the sense this is a fairly typical day for her.
Winnie is no stranger to hard work. She grew up in a small village in Uganda with no electricity, doing homework by kerosene lamp. She has been forced to confront and connect with power at various points in her life: fleeing the country under Idi Amin’s dictatorship as a teenager, and then returning years later to serve as an MP and help bring democracy and liberation to the country—joining the national resistance movement run by Yoweri Museveni (now the long-serving president of Uganda).
Today, she is head of Oxfam International, a 75-year-old organisation that has been working to fight poverty, often in Africa. Interestingly, she is the first African female leader of the organisation (or of any international NGO for that matter). This in itself strikes me as profound; to me it represents a huge shift with great potential. What would the world look like when those who are “disadvantaged” and whose “problems” need to be solved could stand in their own power to create the solutions?
During our conversation, I can see that Winnie’s power lies not in the position she holds but in the way she inhabits it—with compassion, empathy and connection. Her way. It reminds me that opportunities for leadership sit within each of us, no matter where we find ourselves or what we might be doing.
I understand that Winnie’s motto, “Never just accept a situation as it is” would be tiring to uphold—that it would be hard to fight to belong in spaces that have traditionally excluded you. It certainly explains her tiredness when we sat down. That said, as we delve into the conversation and she talks about her motivation and inspiration, her tiredness is replaced by what I can only describe as power. The kind of power that makes you bigger in its presence, not smaller, and allows you to be in your own power when you’re next to it. I’m left deeply moved and wondering what the world would look like if this was the effect we all had on each other.