Rhoda Kalema is a story of commitment, courage, character and triumph as a girl, a woman, mother, and grandmother to many young women in Uganda. Rhoda is quick to mention that this story not about her but that she is just a branch that came out of people that mentored her over the years.
Born in 1929, the patriarchal society was no hindrance as she had a father that believed in her and the strength of the girl child and Kings College Budo shaping her early years.
Inborn traits, her allegiance to God but also commitment to make a difference in the lives of the people that were around her gave her the resilience to carry on against all odds. She shares with us her amazing story.
“A strong women’s movement emerged in 1946 when I was completing S.6, the government then was supportive there was very good coordination between the government and Women’s movement in the 1950. At the University, I joined the Uganda association of University Women a place that laid a foundation for my quest for leadership. In 1956 I joined the Uganda Council of Women (UCW) when I came back from further studies at Edinburgh University in Britain.
By the time I joined, UCW had formed a subcommittee on the status of women that consisted of four ladies; Sarah Ntiro, Mrs. Esseza Makumbi, Mrs. Winifred Brown, Barbra and myself as secretary. This responsibility was my first challenge I had all the reasons to be scared; I had a young family and was young but Mrs. Brown reassured me that I could manage.
Working with these young women renewed my commitment to woman’s development and empowerment up to today- this became my creed. My passion was tested, when the Amin’s regime turned rogue, I was exiled, my husband disappeared, I was heart broken but this did not hinder me from my mission.
When I came back from exile, I joined the UPM Uganda Patriotic movement in 1980 because I saw a country that needed to be rebuilt, I was sick and tired of the insanity that I was seeing – my children deserved to grow in a sane world- at that time it was an illusion my yearning was that history does not repeat itself.
During the elections of 1980, I contested for Kiboga West seat, but I lost to John Bossa- there were no affirmative seats then.
Museveni opted for the bush, I stayed home although I was UPM, this did not go down well with the government then, I was arrested on the 12th February 1981 and released on 25thMarch 1981. I decided to lay low; I didn’t want to leave behind a young family. At the end of the War, I was still lying low.
In 1989, I offered myself for the NRC- National Resistance Council this was the parliament then. It came at a time when the NRM wanted to expand to include the Ugandans that had stayed at home because at first it was for only those that had gone to the bush. I stood for an election and I won in my term of office, During my term in office, I lobbied for Kiboga to become a district then getting a district was not as easy as today. It was passed by the resolution of the NRC.
My involvement in the Constitutional assembly was landmark for me. I stood for the CA seat with eight men and defeated all of them. I got two thirds of the entire vote. I didn’t give my voters money neither did I promise them anything because they knew that I genuinely cared for them and they voted me into office.
In my term of office, I concentrated on being a leader rather than a politician. I mentored other women- Hon Ruth Nankabirwa is my fruit and I am proud of it. When I bowed out of the political arena she stepped in and for the last 18 years she has been serving this nation.
One day, Winnie Byanyima invited the women to meet in a caucus in one office in the building, at the end of one session; she introduced the women to democratic governance. She had appealed for funds from the international community, which funds had been offered for this cause. It took very little convincing for all of us to realize this was a great opportunity and that the timing was perfect and so at the International Conference Center building in Kampala on one afternoon the women of Uganda Birthed the Forum for Women in Democracy- our sole purpose was to have a just and fair society where men and women equally participate form decision making- we were a powerful force to reckon. By October 1985, the constitution was done and promulgated on the 8th of October we had successfully pushed for the affirmative action policy was enacted. The women’s movement grew stronger. Indeed FOWODE was a great answer to the women whom politics was new venture.
When I retired from active politics my mind was set to look out for young well educated women in my district to join the leadership trail and be able to take over from me. I had succeeded when one of them joined the NRC in 1992 and another to join the new parliament in 1996. Aili Mari Tripp in her book Women in Politics says,
“…You know when a door has been opened, that person opening the door should put her foot down there and let the door remain open until the others are in, to bring the others forward…”
My story is long I don’t even know how package it but I have advice for the women that are in politics today; the women must be servant leaders and selfless with a mission to uplift the lives of the people that they lead. The people they lead must be a priority -political parties are secondary. When they go to parliament, they must look at the country as a whole; the well-being of the people economically and socially. Women leaders must revive the community centers that gave the illiterate women a chance to learn how to read and write and other kinds of informal education. They must mentor young women to interest them in taking up leadership positions. They must inculcate a culture of honor into the young women by being exemplary. It is their duty to fight teenage pregnancies and other evils that affect the girl child. They must identify young women leaders that will take over from them. The women in politics today have the duty to honor the labour of the brave women that came before them.
And to the girls, I have noticed that majority girls of this generation carry a low self-esteem, I blame the poor education system that only focus on passing examination. The government must give a holistic education that gives the girls confidence to take on responsibility. The parents must teach their children how to be independent and not leave the responsibility to the teachers only.”
Rhoda is a true legacy that has defied the barriers of tradition, patriarchy, civil conflict, power struggles to leave a mark.