Sunday September 3 2017

At work in Liberian cabinet, Kenya but dreaming of home

Eugenie Windt Nsubuga speaks during the

Eugenie Windt Nsubuga speaks during the interview at her home in Kampala. Photo by Edgar R. Batte 


Eugenie Windt Nsubuga first sat on a plane at 13, thanks to her Dutch father and Ugandan mother who were fleeing the Idi Amin regime [in the 1970s].
At a tender age, she was headed to Holland where she got first class schooling and amenities. The western coast of the Netherlands was home, only for a while.
Although initially escaping the tumultuous regime with her family, later, the self-motivated and success-driven Eugenie Nsubuga travelled the world, but her heart would not settle.
She wanted to retrace her steps to motherland Africa. Nonetheless, as she hoped and waited for destiny to throw her back home, she did not compromise on her principles.
“When I decide to do something, I like to see it to the end. I don’t stop halfway. I am very persistent and consistent,” she says. When she got to Holland, it was easy to travel within Europe given the proximity of countries and developed transport network with cheap connecting flights and fast train network.
When she was through with college, Nsubuga felt she had had enough of Europe. However, she could not return to Uganda because it was still undergoing turbulent times.
No matter which corner of the world she found refuge, she hungered for home, and until she returned to Uganda, no place could measure up because home is where the heart was.

Finding placement
The Liberian embassy in Holland advertised, looking for personnel to work in their consular division. She applied and was taken on. She gave the job her best and the ambassador noticed.
“I have always been self-driven and a result-oriented person so from a junior staff position, I became second assistant to the ambassador and was privy to confidential country information and my employers felt that even though I was not Liberian, I was African and loyal. I did my job well and that is why I believe I was promoted to become the PA [personal assistant] to the ambassador,” Nsubuga recounts.

One time, a delegation from Liberia’s Ministry of Finance visited the embassy for a week for a trade mission to discuss business with the Dutch government and she was asked to stand in as secretary for the meeting.
The delegation was impressed with her work and Liberia’s finance minister asked if she would be interested in going to Liberia to join their finance ministry.

Nsubuga excitedly took up the opportunity because even if it did not give her chance to return home, she would be relocating to Africa, at least. “I was ‘dying’ to go back to Africa. That is how I ended up in Liberia as a junior assistant to the minister of finance and I worked there for about four years. By that time, my father had moved from Uganda to Kenya and I went there to visit him whenever I took leave,” she recalls.

While on a break from her job at the Liberian embassy, news came in that her boss, Stephen Tolbert had died in a plane crash. He was brother to then president of Liberia, William Richard Tolbert Jr.
The political situation was fragile in Liberia and her father advised her against returning there because talk of a coup d’etat was starting to make rounds. She listened to her father and took a leave of absence.
Lo and behold, months down the road, a violent coup happened, led by Seargent Samuel Doe’s Armed Forces of Liberia, which toppled and assassinated President Tolbert.

Taking another chance
One morning as ideas of her next career whirled in her mind, she bumped into her father’s friend and lawyer, Christopher Mboijana on the streets of Nairobi.

He asked her what she was doing and on realising that she did not have anything in mind, he told her of an opportunity to work on Africa Safaris Airlines for which he was working in an administrative capacity.
The airline was a tourist charter based in Mombasa and flew to Switzerland, Germany and Austria. “Half of the crew was European and half African and he told me that I should fly with them while I decided what to do next. I went and flew as an air hostess. I did that for about three years and got tired,” recalls Nsubuga.

Her mind was prepared for marriage and starting a family. Her husband-to-be was a friend to her sister’s boyfriend and Walter Obado would frequent her family home in Kenya. Soon, she caught his eye and he was smitten.
When he could not hold it anymore, he told her and the two started dating. They sealed it with a kiss and knot in church and the fruits of the marriage are two sons and a daughter.
When the children were old enough, she got a job at an insurance company called America Life. The job formed her career for a while. She lived in Kenya between 1972 and 1990.

However, before her return, there was a rough patch. She got divorced. “Divorces are never easy but you get over them. At the back of my mind, I had always wanted to return home. I no longer had things to tie me down in Kenya. I decided to come home and luckily for me, there was a job waiting for me. I have always been fortunate. I have never been without a job,” she observes.

A friend who was working in Uganda knew of her wish to return home and she interested her into applying for the managerial position. She went for the interview at Silver Springs Hotel on a Saturday and the proprietor asked her when she would be ready to report for duty.

“When would you like me to start?” she asked Gandesh, the hotel proprietor at the time. “Monday” he said. But Nsubuga wasnot prepared. Her family was still in Kenya. He told her to report on Monday, if she was still interested in the job. Her ex-husband took care of the children for a while.

She started work as a manager at Silver Springs and months into the job, she ended up doing more than she had applied to do. “I went to work for one company and ended up running three companies; Silver Springs, International Computers Limited (ICL) and a real estate company. And the work almost broke me because I would start work at 10am and work through to midnight or beyond. But I am glad because, in a way, it was a good training ground for me,” she recounts.

She is grateful that the children were able to enjoy stability in Kenya so she used the time here alone to work hard. And it was a blessing in disguise that with the accumulated work, she got to learn very fast.
She gave her all and run the companies like they were her own since Gandesh gave her ultimate authority and power to make decisions. In a way, he had given her a training opportunity as an aspiring entrepreneur without having invested in it.

“By the time I started my company, Swanair, I knew what to do,” she recalls. And while she worked with Gandesh, the business interactions got her contacts which came in handy as a client base when she decided to open her company.

She started Swanair Travel and Safari company with a friend who ran Swanair Travel in Kenya. They wanted to branch out in Uganda. Starting out was no cup of tea.
“I needed to use savings because banks were not lending money to anyone. In employment, I was paid enough to be able to make some good savings. As a result, when I started the company, I lived off my savings for about a year. I kept working hard,” explains Nsubuga.

And because she had decided on settling in Uganda, she sold her property in Kenya. She sold her house in Kenya at a good price and used the money to buy premises at which her Swanair office is located, on Luthuli Avenue, in Bugolobi, a Kampala suburb.

“That helped a lot because I didn’t have to pay rent. All I had to do was make sure there was food on the table. One of my sons had finished his O-Level and I got a place for the other one at Kampala Parents School. At the time, I had not yet got my daughter. She came much later. I put a lot of energy into growing Swanair which did well and later gave birth to Lakeside Adventure Park,” she narrates.

What others say about her

“I have known Eugenie as team player on all fronts be it business, family and life as a whole. As soon as you get to know her, you realise the compassion, tolerance, acceptance and inclusivity. She believes everyone has potential regardless of their gender, age, race or religion. For her, watching you succeed and get back on your feet when the storm is high, is super cool. With her liberal-minded approach, she has an overarching vision to promote first class management and leadership practice. She is a great adviser who gets tough when she senses slackness around her team. Eugenie has inspired me on many fronts, family, life business and so much more.”
Andrew Kyamagero, friend, associate

“I came to Lakeside Adventure Park as an intern from Uganda Christian University, Mukono. From the beginning, I noticed that Eugenie never hands any one [favours] -you have to work for them. With my internship papers, she still made me write down what I would bring if I worked with Lakeside Adventure Park. After that, I had to prove myself a worthy employee and this I have done by looking at her life. She is a very hardworking lady; punctual, principled, professional, smart and a perfectionist. She has the ability to realise hidden talents in young people. She has groomed an intern into a guest relations specialist in just eight months. She has helped better so many lives and also develop the community where Lakeside [Adventure Park] is located. I do not regret working with her.” Hamza Mpiima, employee

“Eugenie is loving. I have had a chance to interact with her on a personal level. I have been able to appreciate the motherly love she gives people around her. She is a good mentor who is ready to see you realise the best in you. She emphasises hard work and she has told me that as a woman I do not have to look to my husband for everything. She has motivated me to start some personal initiatives for self-reliance. On a personal level, she loves her wine as she listens to jazz music.”
Jacqueline Nabulime, sister-in-law