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12 January 2022

Winnie Byanyima Q&A: “I’m a nomad in the way I have lived and worked”

The diplomat on the nuns who taught her, the joys of safari and why she looks up to Michelle Bachelet.

By New Statesman

Winnie Byanyima was born in Uganda in 1959. She was her country’s first female aeronautical engineer and later served as a member of parliament. A former head of Oxfam, she is currently the executive director of the UN’s Programme on HIV and Aids.

What’s your earliest memory?

Walking three miles to school as a little girl. I didn’t like coming home in the hot sun.

Who are your heroes?

The nuns who taught me – they were so smart and kind – and the people I’ve worked with on challenging inequality. Max Lawson, Oxfam’s head of inequality policy, is totally uncompromising. He takes no prisoners and fights inequality intellectually, with out-of-the-box thinking.

What book last changed your thinking?

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. This book is set in Uganda in the 18th century. Our traditional religion, until colonialists came and Christianity took over, was the worship of our ancestors. She brought back to me our original faith.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Michelle Bachelet, who led Chile twice, and each time pursued a feminist, socialist agenda. She pushed further on higher education, social protection and progressive taxation – all the things that equalise society.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

I’m not a specialist in anything. I’m a nomad in the way I have lived and worked. But if there’s one issue that I could answer questions about, it would be African women’s rights.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would love to have been an adult in the Sixties, in one of the countries of Africa, when we were newly independent. They were times of great hope.

What TV show could you not live without?

You’re going to laugh at me: Last of the Summer Wine. It’s about these three old men, and as I watch – and I’m getting older too – I see how their youth never leaves them. They still have their funny ways. They never quite stop living and doing little exciting things.

Who would paint your portrait?

Michael Armitage, a Kenyan-British painter. I love that he paints about Africa, about Kenya. He uses our colours – all sorts of greens. He remains truly an African painter, and I love that about him. 

What’s your theme tune?

“Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“Let it go.” I don’t remember who gave it to me, but I have a block with that message on, and I keep it on my reading table.

What’s currently bugging you?

The callousness of some, supported by their governments, holding on to knowledge about a Covid-19 vaccine that can save lives.

What single thing would make your life better?

To listen and accept what I hear from others.

When were you happiest?

Whenever my son and I go on safari together: we connect with nature, we go mountain biking, we do long walks, we see mountains and rivers.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A concert pianist. I play a little bit. But I think to play for others would be something I would love.

Are we all doomed?

No, not at all. There is a lot of pain in the world. But ultimately I believe that life is a gift. We can make this a safe planet. We can make this a just world, a world where everybody lives happily.

[see also: Steven Pinker Q&A: “I’m still alive because I’m a serial series binger”]

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage