The Dokolo Woman MP once went on a hunger strike as a child to get what she wanted and, at 75 years old, is still fighting at the continental level to better the women’s lot.
One of Cecilia Atim Ogwal’s early childhood memories is a hunger strike, because she had been blocked from a primary school’s mathematics competition.
The child, who in adulthood was nicknamed “The Iron Lady”, says this mathematics competition provided the foundation for her fairly successful public life, as it set the basis for her understanding the value of tenacity, debating in a civil manner and being true to one’s self.
Seventy-six in June, Ogwal has had a long and fairly successful political life. As Woman Member of Parliament for Dokolo District, she is one of very few older women still occupying a political office in Uganda today.
The country has the second youngest population in the world and according to the bureau of statistics, if all Ugandans were to be lined from youngest to oldest, the person standing in the middle would be 16.7 years and most likely female.
With a very young population, youthful leadership for Uganda would make sense. And President Museveni, 77, seems to appreciate when it comes to appointing female members of Cabinet. Of the 36 female members of Cabinet, only five – Rebecca Kadaga, Anifa Kawooya, Victoria Rusoke Businge, Janet Museveni and Joyce Ssebugwawo – are over 60 years of age.
But Ogwal, whose current passion project is the Pan African Women Organisation (PAWO), sees a problem with this. She sees the limited number of older women in politics as part of an intentional disenfranchisement of that segment of society, something she says has been going since independence.
She says African women were the first to join forces in a continent-wide push for independence. But that as soon as most countries got independence, these women would be discarded by ruling parties. She says this practice is alive today, even for ruling parties like the National Resistance Movement (NRM).
As an individual, however, Ogwal has done well, managing to stay around when most of her contemporaries have long retired.
When Ogwal became Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) assistant secretary general in 1980, she was in the same league as Mary Okwa Okol of the same political party; and Juliet Rainer Kafire and Maria Mutagamba of the Democratic Party (DP). She is the last woman standing in the sense that no other female politician who was fairly prominent at the time is still active.
Ogwal started her political career in UPC where, just like in most of Africa’s post-independence political parties, the space for women was largely found in the women’s leagues.
In these leagues, women were hostesses for leaders whenever political parties had functions, celebrations or rallies. But Ogwal was never meant to act as a hostess, something she had found out early in her life, when she was a Miss Uganda contestant in 1969.
As she tells it, the journey to that Miss Uganda contest had its roots in the already referenced school mathematics competition. Before Ogwal decided to register for it, only boys had participated. As such, teachers at Ngeta Boarding Primary School didn’t allow anyone at the girls-only school they taught at to participate in what they thought of as a lost cause.
“But I always enjoyed mathematics, because that is a language we would speak with my dad,” she says. From the interactions with her father about mathematics, she says, she picked a parenting tip on getting one’s children to take interest in important subjects that society might have framed as difficult.
No competition, no food
For the love of mathematics and the belief that she could compete and do even better than the boys, Ogwal, who as a child had health problems that necessitated either being close to home or being looked after by an elder sister, refused her food.
The refusal to eat got the school worried and after a chat with her class teacher, she was allowed to register for the competition. She says her teachers were pleasantly surprised when, at the end of it all, she won the competition, opening the door for many other girls to participate.
It also boosted confidence in her abilities and a few years later, when she was at Sacred Heart Secondary Gulu for her Ordinary Level education, she dared to participate in an essay writing competition where the odds were heavily set against her.
She says the English essay writing competition, organised annually by the British tea marketing company Brooke Bond Tea, had always been won by students in schools around Kampala and its surroundings.
But in 1963, Ogwal broke that monopoly when she won the essay competition, studying at a new school in Gulu that hadn’t yet even registered with the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB).
As a consequence of her winning the English competition, Ogwal was invited by Joan Cox, the Gayaza High School Headmistress, to join her school. As a Roman Catholic, during a time when religion played a major role in where schools children were enrolled, marriage and politics, Ogwal’s father only allowed his daughter to join a Gayaza High School following the intervention of a minister from Lango sub-region.
The minister, Ogwal says, promised Ogwal her father that Gayaza High School guaranteed the daughter a chance to join university, something that wasn’t certain if she went to Trinity College Nabbingo, which was her father’s preferred choice because it was for Catholics.
From Gayaza High School, Ogwal went on to become one of the first four women in East Africa (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) to study a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Nairobi.
The essay writing competition also came with a hefty financial prize. This allowed Cecilia Ogwal to afford plane tickets, while her classmates such as Matia Kasaija the current Minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, and Francis Mwebese, the Minister for Trade, Industry and Cooperatives, took the long train ride to the University of Nairobi for their undergraduate education.
The Miss Uganda contest
Buoyed by the luxury she was afforded after winning the English essay writing competition and encouragement from Lameck Ogwal, her fiancée at the time and later husband, Ogwal entered the 1969 beauty pageant that was also sponsored by Brook Bond Tea.
“It had nothing to do with the global Miss Universe contest. It was purely a Ugandan context and the goal and purpose of that was to promote tea drinking,” she says.
At that point, Ogwal says she thought of herself as a Brooke Bond Tea baby, and was happy to participate in activities to promote the company. She, however, says while her fiancée thought she was beautiful enough to do well in this competition, only the theoretical part on encouraging local consumption of tea worked out.
The practical components, which included brewing, serving and making tea attractive for anybody who was not used to drinking the beverage, proved difficult for the girl who believed in presenting her raw self to the world.
“You were judged on the gentility and softness with which you address your guests, or family members when serving,” she recalls.
Ogwal says that at the time, one showed their gentility, hospitality and femininity by kneeling with grace, things she found difficult to do.
But she was not always contrarian. Just like so many women her age or older, Ogwal stopped eating chickening when her in-laws complained that she would starve their son, but kneeling for strangers still didn’t come naturally to her.
“I have always thought that kneeling down is something I shouldn’t do for just anyone,” she says.
In addition to not kneeling at the competition, Ogwal didn’t bother with using a soft, seductive voice, as God blessed her with a deep voice that she has used over the years, to contribute in parliamentary debates and get ministers censured, oppose the one-party system under which Museveni ruled for 20 years until 2006, and to speak out at the global stage in support of Pan Africanism.
At the Brooke Bond Tea beauty pageant, Ogwal recalls that there was also the problem of her looks, because at the time, people were considered beautiful if they had Eurocentric looks, which meant silky hair and fair skin.
People like Ogwal, with their dark complexion and black kinky hair, were at the time not considered beautiful, and as such, so many black women bleached their faces and straightened their hair.
“There was this cream called Ambi which many people used to bleach their faces and bodies because they wanted to look brown,” she says.
Ogwal, who is a pageant aficionado of sorts, says the measure of beauty has been changing over the years, and the pressure to be fair-skinned and have silky hair isn’t as intense now.
She says the change to view women of colour as beautiful started before 1970, when the Miss World pageant finally conceded that people with dark skin and kinky hair could be beautiful too. Miss Grenada was in 1970 named the first black woman ever to win the Miss World contest. Global protests over Miss World prizing Eurocentric looks over all other looks had preceded the event.
Since then, Cecilia Ogwal says things eased to even allow women in Parliament to wear hairstyles that are not necessarily white, such as what is commonly known in Uganda as kyangwe, which is short African kinky hair that is messed up to form loose dreadlock.
Ogwal also cites the case of former Miss Uganda Quiin Abenakyo, who represented Uganda at the Miss World pageant in 2018 and was among the last five finalists. At the airport, while Abenakyo was heading for the Miss World contest, Ogwal offered her advice.
“I prayed for her (Abenakyo) right there in the airport’s (Entebbe) VIP lounge, said be yourself and tell your story as an African and that’s what she did,” says Ogwal.
How she made it
According to Ogwal, prayer and being authentic and without any airs is how she has lived her life. She says being true to herself cost her business as she was punished for her outspokenness against NRM and Museveni’s attempt to impose what she calls dictatorship onto Ugandans.
She believes her greatest work was in the Constituent Assembly, where she worked alongside 48 other members of a loose coalition known as the National Caucus for Democracy (NCD) to make as much noise as was possible to ensure the NRM didn’t completely close up the space for political opposition.
“We debated on the matter of the political system, you remember the NRM argument was that it was a Movement System meant for everyone. We debated on this platform in pursuit of a multiparty political system, because we thought politics must be competitive,” she says with pride written all over her face.
The caucus, which was chaired by the late Prof Dan Nabudere, came together in 1996 to form the Inter-Political Forces of Cooperation (IPFC) to support the 1996 presidential bid of former DP president Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere.
Once the general election was over and Museveni had been declared winer amidst protests by the Ssemogerere side, the few opposition members who had made it to the 6th Parliament, who included Ogwal, joined outspoken Movement members such as Winnie Byanyima to spearhead the fight against corruption and censure some ministers.
Ogwal, who had defied former President and UPC leader Milton Obote to participate in elective politics under Museveni, says participating in this process was important, even if she registered some personal sacrifices.
One such sacrifice, she says, was the decision to reject Museveni’s offer to become Vice President. She was also later forced out of the Lira Municipality seat, when Obote’s family returned from exile following the former president’s death in 2005 and his son Jimmy Akena chose to compete for the seat and beat Ogwal, who had represented Lira Municipality since the constitute assembly in 1994.
Luckily for Cecilia Ogwal, Dokolo District had been carved out of Lira District in 2005 and it became operational on July 1, 2006, allowing her to return to Parliament as district woman MP shortly after she had been ejected by Akena.
Ogwal credits Miria Obote for starting the tradition of celebrating March 8, as Women’s Day in Uganda.
On her attitude towards different opponents, including President Museveni whom she has praised a number of times, Cecilia Ogwal says: “In politics we don’t have the enemy side, but we have the opposite side. That is, you always have to talk because being aggressive may make things more difficult, while accommodation can deliver better results.”
Accommodation, she says, is a lesson she learnt from leaders who went to Lancaster in England to negotiate for Uganda’s independence.
“That’s why the forefathers of this nation Uganda, agreed to sit in Lancaster, recognise that we had different interests and cultural backgrounds but it was more important to gain our independence,” she says.
Those fore fathers she says understood that preserving monarchies and interests as people of different cultural backgrounds was important, but these differences could be put aside for a while to form a United Uganda.
“Uganda was birthed from a decision to negotiate our diversities,” she says.
She says this is a lesson that the political parties of today have to keep in mind, as talking and compromise is the only way Uganda as a project can succeed.