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Winnie Byanyima is a leader
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Winnie Byanyima is a leader
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"A continuous thread in my life is indeed that desire to make a difference, not just for me but for others. The desire to never just accept a situation as it is."
8 November 2017

Winnie Byanyima is a leader

Interview by Mele-Ane Havea
Photography by Siddharth Khajuria

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.

This story originally ran in issue #53 of Dumbo Feather

MELE-ANE HAVEA: I’m wondering if you can start just at the beginning and tell us your story.

WINNIE BYANYIMA: Oh my story. It’s a normal story for people from my part of the world. I was born in Uganda. I was born to teachers, my mother a primary school teacher, my father a secondary school teacher, just before the independence of my country from Britain. And I grew up fairly privileged for my village, because my parents were teachers and most of the people in my village were rural folk, nearly all the mothers had zero education, were illiterate. And men were also mostly illiterate or with maybe a few years of primary education. So we were like the better-off people in the village. But when you look at it from a global context, it was a very simple life. We lived in a house that had no power. We didn’t have running water. We went down the river to fetch our water. We did our homework by kerosene lamp. I left home and went to university and came back and then found power. I mean, my parents got power after I’d left home [laughs]. I would walk to school; it was a two-and-a-half mile journey there and back. So it was a very rural, simple life,

This story originally ran in issue #53 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #53 of Dumbo Feather

my parents were very grounded in social justice. They had a motto, which was a political motto of the party they belonged to, “Truth and justice.” They insisted that we were truthful and that we stood up for justice.

So that’s the home I grew up in. Then the country began falling under dictatorship and repression soon after independence. In 10 years it fell under Idi Amin, who was a brutal military dictator. So all that time as I was growing up, Uganda became a country known for the violation of human rights, for repression, and our home was a centre for resistance. My dad could speak up against authorities, and women would come to us with all kinds of issues like violence in homes, dispossession, widow inheritance, custody of children. And women ran to our home. Men ran to our home. They asked my father to help them, to go to courts, to police stations, to land offices, claim land. And I saw how my father was always there for people. And when I’d ask him, “Why do we have so many guests at our home? Why do we spend the whole afternoon cooking and serving all these people?” He would get very angry. He’d say, “You have to do it. This is not about you, this is about other people. We are here to serve this community. When they come, we must do everything that we can for them.”

So that’s my background. First of all being fearless and standing up for justice, and secondly never tiring serving community.Community and home were one and the same. And I left the country fleeing Idi Amin because I had gone to university and exercised my voice. My father had taught me to speak out and to stand up for what is right, and I did that, and I got in trouble with the military. So my mother had to help me across the border one night, and run to Kenya. And in Kenya we got the help of other refugees who had already fled Amin, and I ended up in England. Declared myself a refugee and yes, the British people accepted me. The government and the immigration officials interviewed me, and after a couple of weeks they allowed me to live in the country. Two months later I got a scholarship from a refugee agency to continue my studies at the University of Manchester. So I was given a second chance by Britain having fled a brutal dictatorship, and that’s an important issue for me today. Seeing so many rich countries turning their backs on refugees really hurts me. I want to mobilise everyone to stand up in the face of their governments and tell them, “This is not humanity.” Poor countries are receiving refugees. Rich countries are turning them away. What’s that? Eh? It’s shameful. This is one of the biggest issues for me today. That 65 million people are forcibly displaced, are moving around the world running away from danger. Fleeing. And rich countries are selfishly saying “no”—cutting deals behind their backs, sending them back. With poor countries like Jordan, a quarter of the population are Syrian refugees. One out of four people.

In Uganda, we now have more than a million South Sudanese refugees and we are one of the poorest countries in the world. We say, “Come, share, we have nothing but come and share what we have”.

They are allowed. Because they are fleeing. So those are the things that shaped me. I arrived in England an angry teenager, I was very, very angry to have to flee the university I loved in my country, to leave my parents and my family. One prayer I always had was that God keep my parents alive. I wanted to see them again. The one thought that most destabilised me was to think that my mother or father could die in Uganda, and I’d be in Manchester, and I couldn’t travel there to bury them. So there I was, angry in Manchester. But again this country, Great Britain, gave me something important. That anger could have been channelled in destructive ways. But at the university I found positive ways to channel my anger. I joined organisations. I joined the anti-apartheid movement and we were picketing, and protesting to end that racist system of apartheid in South Africa. I joined a pan-African movement that was also active in agitating for the independence of Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. So I got involved with African students from all over the continent, and even European students were involved in anti-colonial struggles. I joined women’s organisations. I joined the Labour Party of Britain and became an activist on the campaign of a man called Gerald Kaufman who was my MP in Rusholme where I lived. I got into organising, into activism. I joined a human rights organisation that was bringing together Ugandans in exile and we learnt how to write to the United Nations to expose the regime of Amin, to go to Trafalgar Square and demonstrate before the Ugandan Embassy to express our anger. We did a lot of diplomatic and political activity to resist the dictatorship back home. So I was learning political skills, I was engaging and making a difference and feeling powerful. Zimbabwe became independent when I was still a student.

It was 1981 wasn’t it?

Yes! That was the year I was finishing my degree. So the university gave me what I needed as a young girl angry at being torn apart from my family, going to a strange country, but finding my voice through activism. And I’ve never looked back. First I was a victim, but then an activist who could become an important actor not only in my country but later on the global stage. So I was lucky. I’m a survivor.

Well when I hear your story, in addition to it being one of resilience and survival, what sticks out for me is the transformation of a feeling of disempowerment to feeling empowered through action. And obviously you wanted to make a difference and so after being in the UK I understand that you went back to Uganda and you became a member of parliament. At that time, you must have thought that working in government was a powerful way to effect change. But more recently you’ve left government and decided to lead Oxfam International, a not for profit organisation. And I’m really curious as to why it’s that form, that organisation, that you now choose to be able to be an activist within?

Yeah, that was a journey too. First of all, what is a continuous thread in my life is indeed that desire to make a difference, not just for me but for others. The desire to never just accept a situation as it is.

So when I finished university, at that time change was happening in Uganda also. And I’ll cut this story a bit short—I eventually was part of a movement that liberated our country. I joined a political movement that sought to restore democracy and human rights in Uganda. We won a liberation war. We brought in a lot of positive change. We wrote a new constitution. I was elected into an assembly. And in that assembly I mobilised the women who I elected to form a caucus with to introduce strong women’s rights provisions in the constitution. And we did. We won that. We managed to put in quotas that would give women at the local level a voice in all local governments. Today Uganda has more than 42 percent women in local government decision-making. Almost equal. And about 30 percent in the national level parliament. So that came through our change in the constitution, we created grassroots structures and brought power back to people through local committees. Did a lot to transform our country. And I was part of that change, and I was excited and it was exciting. Bringing the excluded into political decision-making.

Women, young people, people of disabilities, all those, we brought them into the political process through mobilisation and law.

But as time went on the leaders of our political movement became interested in remaining in power and started manipulating the rules, cheating in elections, tolerating corruption—I grew disenchanted. I found myself opposing them. We had made a revolution together, we had liberated our country, but I found myself speaking truth to power again, exposing corruption, exposing rigged elections, telling them that what “you’re doing is wrong.” And this space became narrower for me. The more I spoke, the more the regime got scared, the more they tried to close in on me. I was in and out of jail. It became really tough.

So why do you think that happened? Because it sounds like all the structures were set up with such a clear purpose.

But as I said, the leaders who had initially come to empower a population founded a political process where people want change, they want to bring in new leaders. So if you have returned power to them, you have to accept it when they say, “Thank you very much, we want a different leader.” But the leaders were not ready to accept the voices of people.

Despite being part of the group who had brought the empowerment.

They had brought the empowerment but they were not ready for that empowerment to send them to retirement! [Laughs].

What is that? Is that just a human thing?

It is. It is quite human. That you begin to believe in yourself. You believe you’ve brought the change and you believe that you are needed to continue bringing more change and more change, and you don’t respect that people have a right to tell you, “Thank you very much, we’re going to try somebody else.”

So it’s human.

How do we overcome that then? What’s the solution?

Rules, setting rules and allowing rules to work. I mean, in our case we had rules and they started revising them and changing them. What I learned from that is that the work of building active citizens who can assert themselves had not grown enough. We need to do more of that.

To hold up the system?

Absolutely. That’s why I went back to civil society. That’s why I chose to leave the political space and go back to citizen action. I could see that we needed to do more work building the power of citizens who can then check those whom they elect and who come to power. So I won three elections. I was in my third term, and I’d never lost a seat but in the middle of my third term I resigned and went to take up a job at the African Union. Now the African Union I saw as an important platform because it was setting standards for Africa. Standards for democratic governors, standards for accountability, standards for environmental protection, standards for agriculture investment. It was setting norms. Human rights standards, an African commission for human rights. I saw this as a very powerful platform where I could take some of the issues I was really struggling with and push for them through the political space in Uganda. So I went, I worked there and I focussed a lot on women’s rights in my role. We made some progress on ratifying the protocol on African women’s rights—that was something I feel very proud of. And then I moved on.

When I got the opportunity at Oxfam I could not believe how lucky I was. Because here is a global platform where I’m less constrained by governments. I can work with citizens directly. We can raise money and use that money independently to assert, to tackle power, to speak firmly to business, to speak firmly to governments, where I can mobilise a voice of people from as far as Fiji and Colombia in Latin America, Burkina Faso in Africa-can pull those voices together to speak powerfully to President Trump or the President of China. I mean it’s a very powerful platform. So I’m there because I want to make a difference for people living in poverty and that is one of the most powerful platforms one can have to…

Activate community.

Yeah. Because it’s about people claiming their own power. It’s not about the powerful doing them a favour.

It’s ordinary people claiming their power, balancing the power of the big corporations and governments.

So this is the space where I love to be! [Laughs]. I’m fortunate. I’m so privileged.

And so Oxfam is a very old organisation, the world looks different now from when it was first set up. I’ve heard rumours that you intend to shift the headquarters from Oxford to Kenya. Is that part of the new Oxfam in 2017?

Oxfam was founded in 1942. It was in the middle of the Second World War. And some Oxford professors felt that it was just not right for them to have plenty of food in England while people were starving in Greece, in Belgium, when Hitler was in power. They felt they had enough food; they could send it across the enemy line and help those people to eat also. And Churchill said “No.” His view was that if people in the area Hitler controlled were hungry, they would rise against Hitler. So he didn’t allow Oxfam to take food there. The simple idea acted as a revolutionary idea, that people should not be used as a weapon of war. That they are not responsible for Hitler—that they have a right to food and we can take them food. It was that humanitarian principle of neutrality, of independence, of meeting need, and addressing need. Human need. Those humanitarian principles were being articulated by these people and have remained at the core of what Oxfam is. We are still a humanitarian organisation. We go out there and we save lives and we don’t care on which side of the conflict you are, we just want to save humanity. That’s one. Two, we challenge power. Those professors challenged Churchill and said, “No, you can’t do this.” So Oxfam was born with that voice, that mission of challenging those who are in power, not accepting this injustice of the status quo. So again, we remain a very vocal organisation that speaks power to the powerful, and supports and amplifies the voices of ordinary citizens to the powerful. So we speak to the United Nations, we speak to the powerful governments of the G7, the G20, we speak to multinational corporations. We put pressure on them to do justice to small producers in their supply chains, to workers in their supply chains. So that advocacy, or that campaigning strategy of Oxfam remains who we are. And we are taking the headquarters to Nairobi. That’s part of a big reinvention of our organisation. We are doing it because we are seeing the importance of increasing our legitimacy as a global organisation.

We want to stand in solidarity with people living in poverty,

most of those people are living in the south. They are also in the north. But they are mostly in the south. Oxfam started in the north, it was born in the UK. It came to Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain—in the north it grew. But now we are growing more organisations in the south so that we are really a balanced family that’s truly legitimate and authentic in our voice. And we will have a base that’s called the headquarters that is somewhere in the south where most of the battles are being fought. That is the idea.

And has that been a controversial decision? How has it been received?

It was a tough decision because at one level there is psychologically a sense of loss for those who have always held the headquarters near them. That was there. And there’s also a challenge with jobs because some jobs are lost in the north and others are created in the south. So there’s excitement in the south and a bit of a sense of loss in the north. But Oxfam people are mission-driven. So we took the decision and we have worked for it, worked towards it consistently, and now we are almost there. I can’t say that it was so controversial but it was one of the tough decisions we had to make. But we made it and we have seen it through. We are almost there.

When will it be finalised?

Sometime this year. We are in the final stages of negotiating a host country agreement with the Kenyan government. Once that is ready, we will be ready to go.

It will be really interesting to see how being proximate to the people that you are working for, and with, will change the organisation.

I’ll tell you something. Because sometimes people have thought that this move to take the headquarters south is merely symbolic. It is not. It’s symbolic, which is important, but it is also substantive. I can see already that our voice is going to change significantly. Already it is changing. The fact that I became the head of Oxfam, “I”, an African woman, hmm? Born and bred in one of the poorest countries in the world. My perspective on the world is totally different from, say, my predecessor who’s an Australian man. We share the same values but I come with a different life story and different perspectives. So that already tells you that something’s going to change when we have more people from the south working in the headquarters. Because that will happen. We will have more people working on media who are from the south. We will have more people in the campaigns department who are from the south. The stories they will be telling, the perspectives that they have will be something new and fresh, eh? That is additional to the voices we have had of our very smart people from Oxford, from the Netherlands, from Spain! This will be a fresh dimension that is adding to the Oxfam voice. So if you are on the streets of Nairobi and you are on the streets of Oxford every day, the stories you tell are different! You know? In Nairobi on the streets you’d be seeing poverty around you constantly! [Laughs] it’s a different reality. So I think that moving our headquarters to Nairobi is going to add perspectives of the south, our voice is going to be sharper in terms of its articulation of poverty, how it hurts, how it is affecting people in their daily lives. It won’t be things that we are reading in our inboxes, it will be things we are seeing and experiencing with people on the ground. So I’m seeing a substantive difference. The balance of our staff will also be better. Because right now most of my staff are European. Because we are in Oxford. Because it’s difficult for people from the south to get the visas and want to come to work there. Now we will have more people from the south and we will have some people from the north with visas to live in the south. So I’m excited about it. It’s going to really change Oxfam in an important way. Because it’s not just about the move. We are also doing things around how we recruit, how we increase the gender diversity, how we increase the diversity of people from different regions. All that is part of the same change.

Can we talk quickly about gender diversity? You’re a strong African woman in leadership.

“Strong” I don’t know, but “African woman” I am. [Laughs]

Okay. I say “strong”! And it’s a beautiful thing to see and so rare in our global leadership—in government and corporations. I’d like to talk to you about women in leadership and feminine leadership. You’ve talked about fighting for equal rights in different contexts, in the pan-African context, in Uganda in the constitution. But what about in leadership? What do you see as the potential and the power of feminine leadership? For our world. To heal what I think are open and big wounds that the world is dealing with.

You know, this is something that I have been reflecting on, working on, following for a very big part of my life. When I was a young girl I didn’t… how can I put this? I had a father who pushed me all the time to challenge the rules about girls. He would just keep provoking me on this. So he’d be like, “You can do mathematics? Nah, they say girls can’t do maths. You can’t do it.” Then I had to do it! To prove to him that as a girl I could do maths, I could do science, I could do this, I could do that! So I grew up challenging the rules that discriminate against girls, alright?

In your action in life.

Yes, in my life, and it was my father provoking me. And even my mother was a role model. She was always breaking barriers for women and girls, doing things that girls didn’t do, that women didn’t do. She opened a hardware store. She did many things that were unusual for women. But the result of that was I was always observing how the rest of society perceived me when I broke those rules. And I found that I became a real rebel, and I liked to shock. And I really enjoyed challenging men and women and provoking them to think about equality. This became part of my life from as young as 12, 13. And I grew up always challenging communities to think about the biases they have against women. Now later on, as I became a leader, I started also to see how I lead differently from men. This became an important issue for me to reflect upon all the time. I wanted to be a leader but I wanted to be a leader in a different way.

In an authentic way?

In a different way. I wanted to be a leader who is not the standard of leadership. Because a leadership standard is set by men and for men. ’Cause leadership was men. Whether in politics, whether in the school, whether at the university, men led.

I found that wanting to be a leader, I didn’t want to do it according to the rules of men. I wanted to do it differently in ways that made sense to me.

So this became an important journey for me in politics. I was challenging the revolutionaries I was working with about women’s rights. I read everything I could find about revolutionary women. I read about women in the Chinese revolution, the Nicaraguan revolution, the Mozambican revolution, trying to understand how you can liberate a country without liberating its women? What is the real contribution that we can make to leadership? So this question became important for me. The leadership of women. And how we can lead differently. How we can refuse to lead the way men have defined leading. And it has been a very interesting journey for me. In parliament, I found that not only did we challenge the way the work was done, but the rules of parliament themselves, hmm? The times we meet, the rules of how you speak, the rules on how you set up committees, all that stuff we questioned. Not only that, we questioned the content of decisions. What is political and what is not? I remember one time one woman coming on the floor of parliament. She had very little formal education. But she was nevertheless elected by her people. And she was supposed to be talking about the budget for roads. And you see the rules are—again, this is about men and how they set rules—that she must speak about the allocation of the budget for roads, talk about where the money should go and where it shouldn’t go. And so on and so on. But she got up and got emotional and started crying and she was saying that women in her constituency were dying in childbirth because the roads were so bad and there was no public transportation that women could take from their homes to the maternity centre. That they would stand by the road and die in childbirth, the whole day they can’t find transport to take them there. And the speaker was ruling her out of order, saying that she’s off topic. And I found myself standing up and saying, “No! She’s in order! What’s out of order here?” He said, “Oh, these are not the roads we are talking of in this budget and she should focus on the allocations.” You know. I started working with the women’s caucus, I was the chair, and insisting that well, we got the evidence,

we put evidence on the table, but we don’t rule out the emotions, the anger, the pain, the stories of people on the floor.

Such an incomplete picture.

Exactly. So we brought children’s stories in the parliament, we insisted on budgets for girls and special facilities in schools, because they were dropping out of school in adolescence because of a lack of private toilets, things like that. Things that were never talked about we brought on the floor of parliament. So for me, women’s leadership is about bringing those issues that the status quo, the men’s world, didn’t consider putting on the table. They may even be issues about the elderly or about children or about women’s lives, but putting them on the table too and making them legitimate. That was so important for me as a feminist. But also the style of working. Refusing controversy, refusing this adversarial way of working, and wanting to seek consensus. Let me tell you about some research we did that was so interesting. It was, again, a feminist woman observing us, the women in the parliament and how we were working. She asked a question to women parliamentarians, at that time there were about 60 of us. She asked, “Why is it that you don’t speak on the floor of parliament?” Because out of 60, only about seven or eight were making regular contributions. But she observed that they were speaking in the smaller committees. So she asked, “Why aren’t you speaking on the main floor of parliament but you speak in committees?” And one by one the women said, “Well, I usually want to say something but by the time I have asked for the floor somebody has already said it. So I choose to keep quiet.”

Then she asked the same question to the men, why they speak on the floor of the parliament. And they said, “Well, I have to say something because I must go on the record.” Men felt they’ve got to get on the record and be heard. Be in the history books and be recorded by the media. So you could see that men and women were in the same parliament but responding to different rules. So as you can see I’m animated by this because I have seen—and I’m not saying that men are always bad in how they behave, many men are also feminist in how they operate—but the status quo has been defined by the culture of men. Hmm? And they have created adversarial politics for example, adversarial boardrooms for example. They have created, separated, what they call “official” from what they call “personal,” and depersonalised issues to the extent that they make decisions that lack humanity many times. So women often humanise the issues, we insist on bringing examples, on bringing the pain there. And I think that’s important. And yeah, we surface issues which men don’t know about because they are not part of their lives. Like childcare [laughs]. Like abuse. Like violence in homes. We make these issues political. I remember in our parliament when we first talked about violence against women. I mean, men were raising their hands and saying that this is private, we shouldn’t be discussing it. Yes! I remember that far back! That violence was said to be private, and why are we discussing this? Wait a moment! [Laughs]. It’s an issue, it’s crime. So yeah, I think there is something about feminist leadership that is important to bring into leadership. And I have tried to go into feminist spaces and learn and be supported and be nurtured because I know where I’m working. I’m in a minority. Even in the NGO world, I am in a minority.

So I draw my strength and my energy from women’s groups that I belong to. I get affirmed there. I cry there. I get good ideas there. And then I can be a leader out there and tackle issues from a different mindset.

But if you don’t have spaces where you belong, you can’t be transformative. You end up sucked into a very, very male way of leading. I’m talking so much…

No, I love it! That last point is a really wonderful one to end with, and one that I’m going to reflect on—about belonging in order to go into spaces where you maybe, quote unquote, “don’t belong,” to create a space so that you do.


But it’s hard work and it requires enough sustenance.

You need it. You need it. Otherwise, you cannot survive. Because it’s a stream, and it doesn’t change easily. So even if you are in Oxfam, or in any bureaucracy, if you want to be transformative, you have to have a reflective space where you get reenergised and then you can walk against the mainstream. Otherwise, you just flow with the mainstream.

You have no grounding.

This is it. So for me, my women’s organisations, they’re so important to me. And then I have feminist friends who are just a part of my life. The people I surround ourselves with is so important to me.

Mele-Ane Havea

Mele-Ane comes to Dumbo Feather with a varied background, from corporate law to community and human rights law, with an Oxford MBA thrown in for good measure. At business school and the Skoll Centre for Social entrepreneurship, Mele-Ane became enamoured by the idea of social and responsible business, and the power of story-telling. When not rallying the troops at Dumbo Feather, she works on a number of projects that promote the idea of business as force for good, in particular with the B corporation movement.


Photography by Siddharth Khajuria

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