with Karen Floyd
Raised in Rwanda and later in Uganda, Judyth Nsababera is an ambassador to Uganda with a passion for involving women in work through the United Nations peacekeeping missions. In 2005, she founded Project Hope for Africa, a 501(c)(3) non-profit youth development organization.
Judyth Nsababera, you are an ambassador to Uganda?
I am an ambassador without a portfolio, which is called a roving ambassador. I currently work in Uganda, and I assist the president in creating policies that reduce bottlenecks in service delivery. I get the title of ambassador from that work. So, if the president is trying to get some kind of policy passed, I am there to make sure there is a smooth transition for the policy, basically.
How did you obtain this formidable position?
Wow. So, I will go back a little bit. I came to the U.S. 17 years ago and studied public health. I then went into organizational psychology. I have held many jobs, but the origin of what brought me here was when I started a nonprofit that helps kids who are affected with HIV/AIDS. I was traveling through Africa with Project Hope for Africa, and we were creating sustainable public health initiatives.
This was a time where HIV/AIDS was such a big issue in Africa and in my country, Uganda. Traveling around for so long helped me really connect to my roots and really understand that there was a need for me to go back home and be able to tell the story of Uganda. When you hear about Africa, there tend to be horror and gloom stories. But we have such amazing stories out there as well to be told. This is how and why I started to do this kind of work.
The Vision for More Women Peacekeepers
Soon, you are embarking on a global tour of third world countries. Can you tell us about what you wish to accomplish?
The tour’s purpose is to tell the story about how powerful women’s roles are in conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and creating sustainable peace initiatives. Through the United Nations, every member state gets to send peacekeepers to war-torn areas.
Most of the time, we wait to see a newspaper article, like from The New York Times, showing a child being pulled out of the rubble or some kind of tragedy. But this tour is about telling the “behind the scenes” stories of women who are making a difference.
The reason I am bringing the story to the public is that we need to engage more women. And how do we get more women involved in peacekeeping? Let us show the value.
My thinking is that there is no way you can create sustainable peace if you cut out 50 percent of the population. We need to get more women into the peacekeeping missions. When a war breaks out, women, children, and the elderly are the ones most affected.
I am not saying that women do a better job necessarily at handling these particular situations, but in times of war, there is a lot of abuse of women. Who is better to talk to, if it’s not another woman?
That’s the most important thing. So, the tour is devoted to telling the story and the value of what women bring when they come into peacekeeping in India, Nigeria, Uganda, and Rwanda. Their stories will be told through a documentary where the viewer can see the actual value that women bring and hopefully, this will also inspire other women.
“The tour’s purpose is to tell the story of how powerful women’s roles are in conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and creating peace initiatives.” – Judyth Nsababera
Is there a reason you did not mention any northeast African countries like Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, or Egypt?
We are only looking at countries that contribute to peacekeeping currently. We would like to inspire other countries that do not have any boots on the ground to send women peacekeepers. When you think of North Africa, we definitely need more women who are Muslim, who speak Arabic, to go out there and work in this type of environment.
Obviously, there’s a cultural problem in terms of how to engage the women out there. Hopefully, with this story, once you see what women are doing, it will inspire other women. I will give you an example. My mother was always concerned about me traveling, whether I was going to South Sudan or going to any other war-torn country.
I started to make little videos and send her pictures, and slowly, she started to see the value. For families who work in the peacekeeping area, whether it’s a spouse or a parent, once they know what their loved one is doing in the field, and the value they bring to these people who are affected, it’s much easier to let them go, and the work is so much more rewarding. I’m not cutting out North Africa or Yemen, or any other Muslim or Arabic countries. I would love to go there.
What defines “peacekeepers”?
The peacekeeper has a wide array of definitions. It can be a woman in the military, or police, or a civilian woman working under the United Nations flag, trying to create peace in an environment that’s been affected by war.
Tell me a little bit about your friendship/relationship with the president of Uganda.
He’s like a father. I went to school with his daughters. My mother was a police officer in the Ugandan Government. She is a big reason why I am doing this work.
I saw firsthand the value of having a woman in a leadership position in the police. My mother was the inspiration. When I speak about having more women in peacekeeping, decision-making positions, I know because I had my mother as a living example.
While I was working at the United Nations, and I was walking through the hallways, the president saw me and recognized me. He is somebody I completely admire. I grew up in Rwanda, and then, I went to Uganda.
What he did for Uganda, getting us out of the conflict and progressing as a nation to where we’re at right now, is absolutely amazing. I completely admire and support all he has done to propel women and to give women a chance in Uganda.
Do you have any recollection of the genocide in Uganda?
Yes, I do. I started to have bad dreams, and I would call my mom and ask her, “Hey, did this happen?” And she would reply, “Yes, that happened.” Today, I really credit my mother for raising us up in an environment like that because she did her best to shelter us. I think those life experiences made me who I am, very strong.
I do have some memories of what happened. I think, for me, the strongest memory is watching a town go from no military to full of military and not being able to move freely. Those are the main images that I remember. I was still very young.
There was a great deal of violence against women. I find it remarkable that you were kept safe.
I believe it’s the power of the woman. It’s my mother, my parents, my relatives. Everybody just worked together to make sure that we were safe.
What was her (Judyth Nsababera’s mother’s) position in the police?
She was a Senior Superintendent of Police. It was one of the highest levels that a woman could achieve at that particular time.
Did your family have any connection with Idi Amin?
No, when people ask me about Idi Amin, I have to read about it and hear the stories like anybody else. I wasn’t born. My mother worked during that time, so she knows.
“So, my idea was to simply show what women are doing in a peacekeeping mission, to inspire women. It is where my passion comes from.” – Judyth Nsababera
She navigated through a predominantly male-dominated career choice but also a violent political landscape. What life lessons did she instill in you?
My mother is very strong and very independent. I see myself in her, and I see a lot of the things that I do, come from her. She had seven children. She was married. She decided she wanted to have a career, even though my father was able to support her.
She shared a story that they offered to pay her the same amount of money if she went with my father to wherever he was posted. And she said, “No, I want to stay here; I want to work,” which allowed her to maintain her lifestyle, even after my father passed. She was a tough woman, but loving. That is where I get it from.
How do you manage intense travel and personal relationships?
I don’t know if I manage. I really enjoy what I do. I really love going to new places, listening to stories, and then bringing them back and creating policies that will actually be helpful for the places that I visit. But I would like to see myself as a mom one day, to be able to pass on what I’ve learned.
If you would have asked me this three, four years ago, maybe I would not have answered this way. But I’m in a place where it would be exciting to share some of the stories that I’ve learned and pass the knowledge. My good friend recently had a baby, and I’ve spent a lot of time with him. He is such a joy. It has changed my thoughts.
Is there someone in your life currently causing you to examine your next steps?
I see my friends who have had children earlier, and it’s amazing. I wouldn’t change not having a child in my twenties. I would not change that. I think I’ve acquired more patience, more knowledge, and understanding. But I come from a culture where I get home, and they ask, “Oh, when are you having the children? When are you having kids? You need to stop traveling. You can’t do this job because you’re not married.”
Where do you see yourself living permanently?
I love New York. New York is a wonderful place, but I don’t know. It just really depends on where love takes me. I will follow my heart for sure.
What is your post within the UN?
When working with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, they would talk about the need to increase the number of women. It just seemed like a no-brainer. Why was it not easy to just get more women engaged in peacemaking? Women were having difficulty passing entry exams to be a woman police peacekeeper, which became a deterrent to other women. So, my idea was to simply show what women are doing in a peacekeeping mission, to inspire women. It is where my passion comes from.
The Pain of a Peacekeeper
Passion often stems from pain. What is a dark memory that molded you into the strong woman you are today?
I was abused as a child. That was pretty bad, and I have been able to shut that memory out for a very long time. I think it had to be just a few months ago that one of my good friends said tell me something you’ve never told anyone before. I was like, well, I was abused as a child and da, da, da, and I just kept going. He was silent, and then he brought up some other topic. So, we just kept on going, and I felt like a big weight was lifted off. It is a really terrible memory to go to because it shaped who I am.
Judyth Nsababera, what do you want to be remembered for?
I would like to be remembered for being a good friend and a good person. I was thinking if I passed, or if I wasn’t here tomorrow, what would I like to hear. I would want to know that my friends thought that I was there for them, and I was supportive. I want to be remembered for really telling the stories of women.
This article was first published on Sep 1, 2018