Many people list United Nations (UN) as their dream employer but for Peter Kamalingin, working with the international body meant having to worry too.
Every day he waited for reports from the war fields, and as he did so, he worried about his safety and that of colleagues. This was at the height of the war in Afghanistan where many lives were lost.
At the tail end of Kamalingin’s study in Austria, where he pursued a Master’s degree in peace and conflict, someone from Geneva came looking for people to work with the UN in Afghanistan. He raised his hand to be listed.
“He was basically mobilising people for United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Afghanistan. I thought Afghanistan was exciting so I expressed interest and went and worked there,” he recounts.
He was first deployed in Kabul and later in Kandahar. “To be honest, it was a frustrating job because we were kept in a bunker and worked with the nationals. For every expat, you were given a national counterpart, someone who goes to the field to communicate in Afghan languages. So you are basically working out of the bunker,” Kamalingin recollects. He was happy with the salary but felt frustrated that he was not in touch with what was on ground.
“They were difficult circumstances because you never knew whether you would see your colleague again or not. There were always ambushes,” he narrates.
Interventions in Afghanistan
Kamalingin thinks the whole philosophy of international interventions in Afghanistan was completely flawed because they were imposed.
“They (UN) were trying to do something that was going to fail and I decided at that point, to cut my engagement barely after eight months and returned home,” he recalls.
He says he did not see himself continue participating in Undp work for the sake of earning money. On his way back, he needed to attend his young sister’s wedding in Nairobi.
With his masters degree done and experience with UN, he had planned to stay in Nairobi for two weeks to take a break and rest as he planned his next career step.
Well, as luck or fate would have it, he received an online invitation to apply for a job as the head of economics rights programme with Care International in Uganda. He applied and went for the wedding that evening.
While at the wedding, he was called and asked if he was available for an interview the following day.
Trailed by luck
“I asked if I could be interviewed on phone. They accepted to do the first interview on phone, but if I were successful, then I would do a follow up interview at their office in Kampala. I hadn’t formally resigned so there was a possibility of going back,” he further narrates.
He was the most successful candidate for the job with Care International. So he called his supervisor and informed him he would not return to Afghanistan.
Even though he was initially shortlisted and recruited for the economic rights programme, he was asked to manage their programmes in northern Uganda.
This was in 2005 as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency subsided. Kamalingin’s work would involve preparation of locals for post conflict through reconstruction of places and communities that had been raked down by the war and its effects.
“We needed to re-build and needed strong leadership for the whole programme which had different elements. I think they saw the energy from my course in Austria, humanitarian work in Afghanistan,” he explained.
One of his strong marks was a village savings and loan association (VSLAs) which constituted a network of people who were displaced and yet ably saving.
He says they carried out a study that confirmed that Gulu was the largest producer of groundnuts and simsim. It was a net exporter of some foods even in the camps. His team encouraged locals to use their savings to acquire seeds to grow more groundnuts and simsim.
In 2006, when he was leaving, he considered taking up a PhD programme and that was when Oxfam advertised a position in Nairobi. They were looking for a representative for humanitarian planning, Horn of Africa.
“I applied. I was in a community meeting in Palenga, in the north when I was called and interviewed on phone,” he recounts.
In order to complete the interview, he was asked to book the next flight to Nairobi to meet the human resource manager. When he got to Nairobi, he met senior managers of Oxfam, and completed the paper work. He negotiated for two months’ notice.
After two months, he moved to Nairobi for the new posting.
His initial impression of the job was that it was more flexible, so he decided to enrol for an masters course in International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Nairobi.
The Somalia insurgency
“In December that year, Ethiopia invaded Somalia to overthrow what they called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which had taken over Somalia and I think Ethiopia thought it was a risk to its own national security,” he recollects.
That meant there was a huge displacement and Somalia was one of the countries Kamalingin was responsible for in his humanitarian planning role. Thousands were displaced and he needed to do something, so he mobilised the key people from Oxfam Nairobi and they went to Hargheisa in Somaliland, in the north, at the border with Djibouti.
“We went there and called all the Somali national partner organisations we were working with to do ‘contingency planning’. In the discussions, the teams agreed that it was no longer time for planning but humanitarian response because there were needs. We had to design a response with seven national organisations providing food relief and emergency water services and all that,” he shares.
He adds, “When I started out, I had a small team but it grew to 40 members and the budget moved from $500,000 (about Shs1.8b) to more than $15m (almost Shs55b) a year.
At about the same time, there was a slot for country director in Uganda. I took a chance and got it. His role was to look at a new strategy and more advocacy.
Coming back home
That was early 2012. He was proud to be a director of an international organisation in Uganda. Kamalingin’s ambition started way back as a child and has paid off. He says, “as a child, I kept the company of people older than me because I wanted to learn something. A great imagination and self-belief, have also been propelling factors in his life and career.
Journey to the past
He argues that 80 per cent of one’s success depends on how one relates with people, what attitude you carry and the impressions you create on people. At least, that is what he says has enabled him climb to higher levels.
“When you inspire people around you, you learn from them and you build each other through being open and comfortable with them.
As a leader, he says it is important to create an enabling space for people to maximise their potential. These are traits he has picked on after raising through the ranks at the different work places.
In 1998, Kamalingin was a fresh graduate from Makerere University after pursuing a degree in political science. He needed a job and while visiting a relative in Nairobi, he secured a temporary job as an audit trainee with Swiss procurement company (Swipco). The firm was dealing in pre-shipment inspections near Jomo Kenyatta international Airport.
It was there that he learnt the principles of hard work. “I learnt to pay attention to detail because during inspections, a missing a code could lead to loss of money for the company,” he recounts.
Change of the tide
It was at Swipco that an advert by Action Aid International was carried in local press, inviting applications for a field development coordinator. This was his first job s in his home district of Kapchorwa.
He applied for the job and worked there for a year before being promoted to the position of manager.
When an opportunity for regional programme officer for eastern Uganda presented itself, he took it up and relocated to Mbale. He was coordinating the areas from Jinja to Karamoja and his work involved building networks around food rights and supporting local partner organisations.
In 2004, there was an opening at the country office for a secondment to support organisational change process and he was taken on. While there, he decided to enrol for a master’s programme.
“I knew very well that if I needed to go to the next level, I had to deepen my skills. I needed to pursue a masters and I got an opportunity through an Austrian scholarship, to do a masters in conflict and peace studies,” he recollects.
He was admitted at the European Peace University, in southern Austria. He says there were 31 students in the class from 29 different countries.
His inspiration to pursue a course in peace and conflict studies was drawn from conflicts he saw go on during the community work.
“I had grown up in Kapchorwa which experienced conflicts with the Karimojong and Pokot. I lost some of my relatives in the conflicts,” he says.
Kamalingin also felt uncomfortable when fellow students suggested raising funds to help a fellow African student out. He perceived him to be reduced to be a passive receipient of charity.
“It is a very disempowering thing. I think it kills dignity. Empowerment is what you need in order to seize your environment. In my view, the whole issue of aid and how it has been packaged has killed initiative of young people because it makes recepients believe less of themselves,” he argues.
When he told classmates about his 10 or so acres of land in his village, in Kapchorwa, many, particularly those from the West, got surprised that one person would own such a relatively large chunk of land. Kamalingin grows bananas, trees, rears some cattle as well as beekeeping.
“Memoirs of my father”
Growing up, he learnt working hard from his father, a man who never went to formal school but was blessed with a special kind of wisdom.
“My father lived for long. He passed on in 2013 at the age of 108. He sired many of us. He married my mother in 1965 after he had retired so we are many. I was child number 40. We were a large family,” he recalls.
When his father died, there were not tears of sadness but of joy. They celebrated his life by slaughtering eight bulls. “At the funeral, we commissioned a headcount of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and the number came to 1,226.”
“I know all my siblings and most of their children, of course. We grew up together with the whole idea of sharing and being part of the bigger system. I was cultured and picked values at an early age. It was difficult to understand which mother was whose. They were all our mothers,” Kamalingin recounts.