I meet Stephanie Rivoal, the French Ambassador to Uganda in her office at the edge of the first block, inside the tightly guarded French embassy premises in Nakasero, Kampala. Her choice of black dress with white stripes on the collar and hem blends in perfectly with the office which is beautifully furnished with polished wood panelling.
Having made one year in Uganda on her first posting as an ambassador, Rivoal says she is not a career diplomat at all. Previously, she was a banker for 10 years from 1993 to 2003 and worked with a number of banks in London in different corporate sections.
Thereafter, she went into humanitarian work from 2005 to 2016 where she worked with the international organisation, Action Against Hunger in various capacities including as treasurer, vice president, but also later as president for three years and a member of the board of directors.
Her banking career in London, she reveals, is possibly why, unlike many French people, she speaks “somewhat decent” English with only a hint of the French accent.
She is also passionate about photography and has been a photographer since 2003.
However, now that she is an ambassador, she says it is hard to lead photography projects and also handle diplomacy at once.
“I was a photographer and author after going into photography school. After my banking career, I wanted to get out of the money system and do something very different. I did both commercial and social photography and took photos of mothers, refugees, prisoners, handicapped people and the elderly,” Rivoal says.
Settling in Uganda
When she was leaving humanitarian work, she pondered her next move because there was a term limit for the president of the organisation. In a random conversation with colleagues in diplomatic circles, Rivoal recalls asking them what she could do for her country. Immediately, they thought of her becoming an ambassador.
“It was strange because I was coming from a humanitarian world and was not qualified diplomatically. I was told that to become an ambassador, it took nomination and that it would happen. At that time, there were more male ambassadors and they wanted more women,” Rivoal recalls, having been requested to name countries where she would like to be posted.
Of the countries she proposed, six of those which matched her humanitarian experience were in Africa and four in Asia. Some countries had already been given away and four countries; Uganda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Benin were left for her to choose from.
“Of the four, I was pleased to have Uganda as an English speaking country. It had humanitarian issues with refugees and some military collaboration and that is how I ended up in Uganda. It was also my first time to Uganda,” she says.
What it takes to become an ambassador
Most ambassadors in the French diplomatic missions, Rivoal says, are career diplomats and that this is about 95 per cent, unlike in the US where there is political nomination.
In her case, it was not a political nomination because she does not subscribe to any political party. There was no specific training for people like her to become an ambassador. She says she had to jump in and catch up after a short media and management training and training on how her ministry would work.
“You have to have a very acute sense of belonging to your country and be proud of it. You need to be able to run a team of people because if you are not a good manager, you cannot have your embassy working well. You need to be able to interact at a high level and feel at ease in these interactions. You need to be articulate, very respectful and bear in mind the respect owed to the host country. You need to know a lot about what your home country does in the country where you are posted. In my particular case, I believe I have a lot of energy and I put this energy at work for pushing my country France in Uganda in terms of visibility,” Rivoal explains.
She adds that she is passionate about letting Ugandans know about France and attracting them to her country not only to learn about its culture but also travel there.
Her life and family in Uganda
“How could I live without my husband?” is Rivoal’s response when asked if she left her husband in France. She says she had to come along with her family, reasoning that her posting was and is a family project.
“It was not a surprise or an announcement. He (my husband) was excited to come to Uganda and I did not bother asking the children. If you start asking children whether they want to do anything related to your work, you will end up doing nothing. As long as there are pizzas and pastries as one of the meals, I just move them. They love Uganda and when I ask them whether they want to stay in Africa or France, they say they are happy to stay in Uganda,” Rivoal explains.
Rivoal is a mother of three including seven-year-old twins, Theodore and Raphael and 10-year-old son Augustine. She refers to herself as a Nalongo since she is a mother of twins.
Why they love Uganda
Rivoal says her children love the weather, the kindness of Ugandans and the French school they go to. They also love the fact that they have a swimming pool and gardens at the French residence at Nakasero, a suburb of Kampala.
“They love functions at the residence because they know that each time there are many people at the residence, they will have sodas. When they realise that a party has only water and juice, they will stay inside the house and watch movies,” shares Rivoal.
She says her children get along well with their Ugandan peers and often visit their friends for sleepovers, parties and play dates. They also travel internally to places such as Murchison falls and Lake Mburo national parks and love giraffes, elephants and all the animals they set their eyes on.
Her thoughts about Uganda
Rivoal’s thoughts about Uganda are a two-way lane. First, she says Uganda has great agricultural potential due to the fertile soil and climate and a great potential with the oil prospects and tourism. She also observes that Uganda has great people but that this could be boosted with a great education system, pointing out Universal Primary Education (UPE) which she advises needs to consider quality of education for pupils.
On the other hand, she says the lack of industrialisation where some products are exported and the added value goes with them is a bit of a shame. The climate change is affecting farmers and that this affects agricultural production, not forgetting the internal issues of governance and how the people of Uganda can be at peace with what is being proposed in terms of governance. Generally, her view is that Uganda has all it takes to succeed but is also at risk of not succeeding if it does not face its challenges.
Things she loves about Uganda
In Uganda, Rivoal says socialising is very intense because as an ambassador, she is invited to many functions which she says makes it hard to have a personal social life with friends. At the same time, she feels the whole world is represented in Kampala, a conclusion she came to owing to the many nationalities such as Koreans, Chinese and Egyptians and so many others that she meets at parties and cultural events. Away from office, she goes to the lakeside at the weekend to relax with her family.
Balancing diplomacy and private life
Balancing diplomacy and her private life, Rivoal says is hard because her work is pretty much nonstop. When she is out with family, people walk to her to discuss things to do with work.
“If people approach me to say hello, I respond but I do not engage in professional conversations. I only do this on week days,” she says, adding that she is an ambassador 24/7 including Sundays and holidays.
In her free time, she says she watches television series; reads books such as thrillers, plays games on the iPad with her children and swims with them.
Rivoal’s dad is a retired policeman while her mother is a retired teacher and school headmaster. Her family hails from Brittany in France, a region in the north west with a lot of farmers and sailors. Her grandparents on both sides were from modest origins.
Although none of the people in her family history had ever been in diplomacy or anywhere close, Rivoal says, “I was lucky to have a mother who paid a lot of attention to my studies. She believes that you grow and become successful through education. I do not come from a background with money, where everything is easy. I come from the grassroots of France,” says Rivoal, who is her parents’ only child, concluding that she is passionate about everything including justice and equality among people and diplomacy because it is a great tool she thinks is underestimated and needs to be pushed worldwide.
Things she cannot get used to
The moment she was posted to Uganda, Rivoal realised that people do not come from the same culture. The other thing that is important to note is the notion of time. In France, she says people are on time and deliver on time, which she says is something totally different in Uganda.
“Here people are constantly late. Many times people let time fly and they arrive for meetings 30, 40 minutes or even an hour past the agreed time.
This is completely beyond my understanding. When you work with Ugandan companies such as those in construction, to be on time, organised and stable is not easy. It is very hard to get used to this notion of time because it delays some projects and it is a challenge,” Rivoal observes, adding that postponement is very hard for the western world to internalise because time is money and all this time to them is equivalent to a loss of money, an attitude Ugandans need to take on. On the other hand, she thinks it also means that Ugandans are stress-free. It means everything is very smooth for them unlike people in Paris who look stressed out.
Uganda , the land of promise and plenty of challenges
“Uganda has great potential and many challenges. The potential is because of the agriculture; the soil here, the climate; great potential with agriculture and great potential with the oil project and tourism. These are three major (sectors with) potential here.
The challenges include; lack of industrialisation; all the raw products go outside and all the added value goes with them, which is a bit of a shame.
On the potential of great people, this could be enhanced with a better education system and more schools. I know about the Universal Primary education plan but it needs to be assured of quality. The LC system could be strengthened as well.
(Among) the challenges is also climate change, which is affecting the farmers. I am bit worried sometimes about how this agriculture is going to be developed.
From the speeches and what I read in the papers about heavily intensive (drive) to industrialise and mechanise agriculture. You need to be very careful as to how to develop this agriculture like cutting all the trees to have very large fields and avoid making the same mistakes as my country made.
It is also challenging that the regional situation is tricky. You are surrounded with countries facing severe issues such as South Sudan, Kenya (elections), Congo and the delayed elections so it is tricky in the region and it is still pretty unstable. Of course, also paying attention to the internal issues and how the people of Uganda can be at peace with what is being proposed in terms of governance.
I feel that this country has all it takes to succeed but is also at risk of not succeeding.”