It was the summer of 1967. Oyella Ochan was a young teenager when she came to the United States to perform with the international, multi-racial, multi-cultural singing group, Up With People. I received her message inviting me to the concert in Tarrytown, New York, upstate and across the Hudson River, from where I lived, accessible only by car. I asked a neighbor/friend to drive me and my three year old daughter to the event. Following the outdoor performance, we met up with my sister-in-law long enough to exchange greetings and hugs, after which I didn’t see her again for 30 years.
The third youngest of eleven children, Oyella showed a commanding presence even at that young age. Her involvement with this group* of spirited, fresh-faced young people delivering a message of harmony and unity through their sharing of music, demonstrated her leadership qualities.
Reflecting back to the time of my first meeting with the beautiful young, bright eyed Ugandan with an effervescent personality, and a striking smile that accentuated her dimpled cheeks, Oyella showed me then she was indeed someone quite special!
*I came to understood later, the UWP promoters and supporters (mainly mega corporations), though seemingly operating under the guise of simple goodwill, actually had an agenda of business, political and religious objectives.
More recently, I saw Oyella—known to most as Betty—in the spring of 1997. Now, Mrs. Betty Bigombe and the mother of two children, the occasion was her graduation from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. At her commencement ceremony, Oyella was awarded the degree of Master of Public Administration. She attended Harvard as a fellow at the University’s Institute for International Development in Public Policy.
Prior to that momentous affair, through the years, except when she, her mother and siblings had fled to Kenya during Idi Amin’s reign of terror, I have for the most part kept track of Oyella’s remarkable, awe-inspiring feats. As young adults, it was especially important for my children to know about their aunt, a woman of character. Her endeavors demonstrate a deep compassion for others, having made sizable personal sacrifices to assist those caught in dire circumstances, experienced great losses, and consequently, have exceptional needs.
For eight years, between 1988 and 1996, she served as Uganda’s Minister of State, Cabinet Minister and Member of Parliament. It was for her studies at Harvard that she left those government posts. Following her graduation in ’97, she accepted a position at the World Bank as a senior scientist in the newly formed Post-Conflict Unit.
She had already gained experience in the area of mediating social conflicts. In Uganda, as primary mediator between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, Betty led the efforts to bring peace and end the twenty years of war in Northern Uganda. A war that mainly affected the Acholi Tribe of the north—Betty’s people and their territory, which included her home town of Gulu. Her tireless work to broker peace, at times took the fierce Mrs. Bigombe deep into the isolated jungle in the north, and face to face with the dangerous LRA soldiers and their infamous leader, Joseph Kony.
In 1994, she was celebrated at home when named “Uganda’s Woman of the Year.”
In 1999, former United States President Jimmy Carter, recognizing her canny ability to understand the grievances voiced by both governments, asked Bigombe to lend her expertise and technical support in more efforts to rectify the long-running conflict between Uganda and Sudan.
Additional notes on Betty Bigombe:
She is the founder of the BETTY BIGOMBE CHILDREN OF WAR FOUNDATION formed to help the women and children impacted by her country’s long and deadly civil war.
Bigombe was the recipient of the Geuzen Medal for 2010, a distinguished honor for her “fight for democracy or against dictatorship, discrimination and racism” and particularly for her efforts to end the conflict in Northern Uganda that resulted in the death of thousands, the abduction of approximately a hundred thousand children who were made into boy soldiers, or in the case of girls, sex slaves. In addition, Northern Uganda has had to deal with the displacement of nearly two million people.
In recognition of her role as chief mediator in the East African conflicts, on March 4, 2014 Oyella-Bigombe was awarded the Legion of Honor (Order National de la Legion d’honneur) by France.
Oyella-Bigombe now resides in Washington, DC, and since 2014 has held her current position of Senior Director for Fragility, Conflict and Violence, at the World Bank.
In 2014 Betty Oyella-Bigombe addressed the issue of population overgrowth in Uganda.
Shortly thereafter, in 2014, the news of Oyella-Bigombe’s appointment to her new position at the World Bank is announced, and her subsequent resignation from her Cabinet and Parliament posts, and position as Uganda’s State Minister for Water Resources is confirmed.