Tribute to East Africa’s Women Ambassadors

The Whitaker Group and The Africa Society of National Summit on Africa convened US policy, business, and NGO leaders to celebrate East Africa’s current four women Ambassadors to the US from Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya — a milestone achievement. Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana of Rwanda, Ambassador Liberata Mulamula of Tanzania, Ambassador Oliver Wonekha of Uganda, and Ambassador Jean Kamau of Kenya embody the remarkable rise of East African women over the past decade who are increasingly populating the halls of power and are on the dynamic edge of the region’s growth.

These women Ambassadors are expected to have a significant impact in shaping US-Africa policy. Their ascendancy parallels the emergence of East Africa as a regional powerhouse and hub for progressive development. Though their backgrounds vary, a common thread that binds these Ambassadors is a common commitment to advancing their countries in the areas of agriculture, technology, power and partnerships. All the Ambassadors spoke about the importance of dispelling misperceptions and ensuring that there countries were portrayed correctly in the US. Building awareness of their countries’ positive achievements is critical as the Ambassadors prepare for their Presidents to be hosted by President Obama in August, and as they mobilize new partnerships and resources in the US.

“They bring with them intellect, ambition, a hard-earned respect, and a heart for the continent they all love and represent…These women are up to the challenge,” said Rosa Whitaker, the President and CEO of The Whitaker Group, who, with Bernadette Paolo, President and CEO of the Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa, hosted the event at the former home of James Monroe, the 5th President of the United States.

“In the course of history there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a higher level of consciousness. The women we are celebrating today and many of you present here this evening have helped us reach that time both in the United States and in Africa,” Ms. Paolo said.

When asked about the challenges they have faced on their journeys to prominence, the Ambassadors shared riveting and personal stories of tragedy and triumphs.

Ambassador Mukantabana spoke about how, after losing her family to the Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990’s, she had to overcome her grief to become a leader in the nation’s healing and resurrection. Even as she embraced the safety and security of her College teaching position in California, she helped found the Friends of Rwanda Association which established a school for Rwandan social workers to deal with the aftermath of the genocide. “For me the biggest challenge has been to balance my work and my family obligations,” said Tanzania’s Ambassador Mulamula. “You need a very supportive husband, and my husband has been at my side supporting me throughout the journey.” That journey has taken the Ambassador to the highest echelons of both government and civil society. She arrived in Washington directly from the office of President Jakaya Kikwete, where she was his senior personal assistant. The Ambassador was also the first Executive Secretary of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region and Ambassador and Director of Multilateral Cooperation in the Tanzanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ambassador Wonekha of Uganda recalled the challenge of making the transition from her rural childhood at Mt. Elgon on the border with Kenya to her career in politics as a Member of Parliament. “In Uganda, going to school as a girl was a big challenge,” she recalled. “I was the only girl with six younger brothers and in Uganda if you are a girl you are expected to marry to help provide to send your brothers to school. Fortunately my parents were teachers so they sent me to the best schools that were available. I got employment in government as a teacher. To be employed as a woman was a challenge. Then I entered politics, and in Uganda, politics was considered a man’s domain. In parliament, as a woman, when you stand up to speak there is man tugging on your skirt to pull you down.”

She credited Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni with opening the way for women to enter politics.

Ambassador Kamau’s path was very different. After graduating with a law degree, she decided to take on injustice head-on by opening a legal aid clinic to help women who were suffering domestic abuse.

“That was groundbreaking and a real challenge to the man-made mechanisms of government,” she said. “Once you decide to take a path that is not common and follow the path of other great women in Kenya you will constantly be challenged about your right to speak on these issues. But I am here for the long haul, I am qualified. I have a passion for my country and I enjoy the same citizenship rights of every man in the country. We always have to affirm as Kenyans and as women that we have as much right to be in the space in this time as men have.”

Asked what the US could do for their respective countries, the Ambassadors called on Americans to help empower all citizens of their countries – men and women – by investing in business, value addition of agricultural commodities, President Obama’s Power Africa initiative, and the transfer of key technologies.

To celebrate the role each of the honorees has played as a mentor of young women, each was presented with an award by young women who are blazing their own trails.

“In Swahili we have a phrase which means the ‘leaders of tomorrow’, but you are leaders now,” said Tanzania’s Ambassador Mulamula in thanks.

The Whitaker Group is the leading global strategic consultancy specializing in trade and investment in Africa. With offices in Washington, DC, and Accra, Ghana, TWG has brought more than $2 billion in investments and capital flows to Africa.

The Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa engages and educates Americans about the countries of Africa to create partnerships that enhance understanding of their peoples, cultures, politics and economies.