Barbara Nekesa Oundo burst onto the political scene when her mother called her out of class at Makerere University, strapped her into a gomesi and threw her onto the campaign trail.
She was pregnant and in the middle of her final exams in Human Resources Management.
“She told me, ‘You talk too much. Come and do something for your people’”, Oundo narrates.
That was in 2008, when she was a 24-year-old newlywed, expecting her first child.
“I always joked that I would stand [for Parliament] and my mother always told me to hold on. When she asked me, I was scared. I asked her, ‘Who told you I want to stand?’, but she had already bought the gomesis for my campaign. So, I started campaigning for Busia district woman MP,” she says.
Not only did she beat Rose Munyira in the February 18, 2011 elections, she was also appointed minister of state for Karamoja Affairs, making her the youngest minister at 27 years old. Indeed, at the cabinet swearing-in last month, President Museveni noted that Oundo was only two years old when the NRM came to power in 1986. He said he had appointed some young people to make the cabinet a cross-generational one.
“These are not necessarily the best, but we must balance the cabinet to represent stability, fusion and synthesis,” the President said.
The young woman, who went to Bubulo Girls in Mbale and Mbogo High School in Kawempe for her O and A-levels, respectively, follows in the footsteps of FDC president Dr Kizza Besigye, who was minister of state for Internal Affairs, and UPC’s Patrick Mwondha. The two became ministers at 27 in President Museveni’s first and Obote’s last governments, respectively.
Hearing the news
The day Oundo learnt of her appointment will always remain alive in her mind. She cannot even get over the excitement of the coincidence that the cabinet swearing-in fell on her birthday, June 6. When she joined Parliament, the furthest thought in her mind was landing a ministerial appointment, a privilege she always regarded as a preserve of seasoned politicians, mostly men.
As a newcomer to the august House, she busied herself learning parliamentary rules of procedure and the details of what was to be her new job.Oundo recalls that on the day the cabinet list was released, she had gone to Parliament to lobby the then NRM chief whip, Daudi Migereko, to allocate her an office that she would not have to share with another legislator, since the number of MPs exceeds the available office space.
“I met a few people waiting for the cabinet list at Parliament, looking worried. I jokingly told them to go and wait at State House because, obviously, the list was not going to come from Parliament,” Oundo says.
As she relaxed at home that evening, a friend, Fred Sande, called her, sounding ecstatic.
“He said; ‘Honourable, is it true you have been appointed minister?’”
“I said, ‘whoever has told you such a lie has a serious problem. Then one of my campaign agents called and told me to tune in to UBC radio, which I did, and heard my name!”
She ran to her computer and began looking up Karamoja on the internet to find out more about the region.
“Was it really me?” she recalls thinking. “Impossible!”
“There were a few tears of joy, but I had no one with whom to share the news; my husband was away. I called my mum and she almost ran out of the house half-naked to buy the papers, yet the list wasn’t in the papers yet!” Oundo recalls.
The young minister says her early rise in politics has nothing to do with her political ambitions, but everything to do with having been born in the right family – a wealthy and politically inclined family. Her mother, Mariah Hadudu, owns Mariah & Daughters Ltd, a company that manufactures methylated spirit. She is also councillor for Busia municipality.
Her father, Edward Wabudi, was appointed Bududa resident district commissioner after serving as Tororo district LC-V chairman for many years. Her great-uncle, John Mulimba, is the MP for Samia Bugwe North, and a number of other relatives are LC officials at various levels. Hadudu is a popular NRM mobiliser in Busia and during the campaigns, people kept assuring Oundo that she would win because of her mother’s influence.
Hadudu vigorously campaigned for her daughter and funded 60% of her campaign budget, while the young minister’s husband, Charles Mukanga Oundo, funded the remaining 40%.
“When I would go to pick up his salary in Nairobi, he would tell me that he will collapse if I lose because he had spent all his savings on this campaign. But I was sure I was going to win,” says Oundo.
She first met President Museveni when he made a stop in Busia district during his campaign last year. She was the master of ceremonies at the three rallies and her eloquence and ability to rally the masses must have left the President impressed. In fact, Oundo is credited for mobilising the youth in eastern Uganda to support NRM in the 2011 campaigns.
“I just thank God. Who am I to be with men who have changed Uganda? How did I arrive here? Using what magic?” Oundo says, snapping her finger with so much zest.
“When a matter comes up, I am given audience because they want to know what I have to offer. Everyone stops to listen to what Barbara has to say.”
Her job takes up a lot of her time and takes her away from her family since she often needs to travel upcountry, but she says her husband understands the demands of her position.
Her son now perceives her as a stranger and calls her ‘Barbara’, but Oundo is contented that the boy has an attachment to his nanny, whom he fondly calls ‘mummy’.
Determined to deliver
She may have joined the league of national elders, but that has not taken away the youthful demeanour about her. Sitting in her office at Postel Building on Clement Hill Road, Oundo says, as she watches the parliamentary plenary proceedings from a 24-inch Sony TV screen, that she plans to pimp her office and add some life to the usually boring government offices.
“When was the last time you saw an office with a mirror? Come back in November; you’ll see what we gat here,” she says with such gusto only a young person full of life can afford.
Oundo says most of her work involves helping her boss, First Lady Janet Museveni, who is the minister for Karamoja Affairs, to supervise implementation of development projects in Karamoja.
“I want to see the Karimojong permanently settled, so that we phase out the nomadic practices and turn the people into agro pastoralists,” she says. “Why should they always depend on relief for food? We want them to get involved in production.”
Oundo has dived into the murky waters of politics with high expectations from not only her constituents in Busia and the youth for whom she is an influential voice and role model, but also from a host of other stakeholders, including Karimojong communities, development partners and the general public, who want to see Karamoja transit from a backward to a productive society.
Whether she will deliver is a long way to be determined. For now, Oundo’s remarkable journey has only just begun and she is enjoying every step of her way up.