Anne Abeja: A woman of sport and leadership

Saturday March 27 2021
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Abeja wheels her golf kit at Uganda Golf Club. PHOTOs/Eronie Kamukama

By Eronie Kamukama

At 11:30am, Anne Abeja tees off her ball into the golf course’s green. “I have started the game,” she says. The game is a tournament organised by the Ladies’ section at Uganda Golf Club in commemoration of International Women’s day.

For most of the first hour on the golf course, she speaks of the sport with such passion, in jargon that exhibits knowledge about the game. She plays the handicap 13. That is how good her game is.

It is oddly interesting to see one woman among four men spend the next four and half hours of the day hitting a golf ball. She is not playing against the men, but with them. It is the golf course that she is playing against. The course is complex but the less mistakes she makes, the better and hopefully she walks away with the Women’s Day win later in the evening.

Her sporty life

She saunters from one tee box to another, each shot with purpose and periodically explaining what the game means to her. She spent years playing lawn tennis, badminton and table tennis, but she could not be in a better place now.

“It is peaceful and relaxing. By the time I am done with 18 holes, I will have walked 12,000 steps and that is enough exercise,” says Abeja.

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She has holed her game in the country’s clubs and has since been elected president of the Uganda Ladies’ Golf Union. But, there are not many women playing the sport. With about 35 women at the club that play regularly, it certainly remains a man’s world. But lady president, Abeja intends to change the status quo.

“Ball! Gentlemen,” she calls out. “It is a fair game that recognises our strengths. It is a community and we have women playing up to the age of 75,” she says.

Clad in a black visor that holds up her braids, a pink short sleeved blouse and, a black and white skort, Abeja is not just a golfer on the course but a woman of many hats in her other life.

She loves family. She loves God. She is high on life and has a passion outdoors and work. Her life is peppered with achievements and leadership.

She was placed into the arms of Catherine Ann Ongom at Mulago Hospital more than four decades ago. Most of her childhood memories were created on Luthuli Avenue and Nakasero in Kampala.

Learning the chores

It is there that her childhood became a launchpad for her skills. Growing up, the only girl was very close to her father but understood the role a girl child played in a home.

“I learnt how to cook and do housework at an early age. I was involved in taking care of my two young brothers so my mother made sure I learnt what I needed as a girl,” Abeja says.  She studied at Nakasero Primary School and Mount St  Mary’s College Namagunga in Wakiso District. At the age of eight, all she wanted was to become an air hostess. She had admired how elegant air hostesses were whenever she escorted her father, the Late David Livingstone Ongom, to the airport.

New ambition

Air hostesses were also well-travelled. A few years later, a new ambition sprung from the investigative and courtroom dramas she watched with her father.

“I watched the film  12 Angry Men and saw how a defence lawyer persuaded a whole jury to change a verdict of a young man accused of murder. I thought it was interesting to be a lawyer,” she recalls. Early 1999, Abeja graduated from Makerere University with a Bachelor of Laws. 

During her years at university, she did every job she put her brain to right from Uganda National Examinations Board, Uganda Law Society to Radio One, where she voiced over adverts. The budding lawyer then found work at Byenkya Kihika Company advocates, where she attended court with partners and reviewed files to issue basic opinions ofmore senior lawyers. 

Turning point

Her career breakthrough arrived when she joined Monitor Publications Limited as a legal and administration manager in 2005. By 2007, she had become the company secretary.

“Daily Monitor was my turning point. I rose through the ranks, got exposure through interactions with the group board, harnessed my skills for the job, got visibility as a defence lawyer and opportunity to grow as a leader,” she says.

Abeja made a sharp change in jobs but remains in executive leadership. She still serves as company secretary and chief legal officer but at mortgage lender, Housing Finance Bank.

“It gives me a platform to shape the direction of the bank in terms of developing and implementing strategy. I came from supervising one individual to 14 people. I got the much-needed exposure in areas such as regulatory compliance of the finance industry,” she says. Because of the complexity of banking, Abeja says she has had the opportunity to interact daily with business at a higher level where she supports through advisory on credit decisions to lend to customers.

She has seen a stark difference in women’s executive leadership now and when she started out young. She believes women have earned their place as leaders by demonstrating that they can juggle responsibilities at work with those elsewhere. She also believes that is the reason more boardrooms across the different sectors in the country are engaging women. “Everyone needs to be cared for, understood when they are going through difficult times and a second chance. Now that’s the second nature of majority of women,” Abeja explains.

“If you are going to motivate someone to deliver on their tasks, you need to have soft skills, have very high levels of emotional intelligence so that you are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the people,  be an exemplary leader.”

Her leadership first took shape in secondary school, at university as speaker and she has been leading throughout her career. Two years ago, she served the East Africa Law Society as council member, secretary general and vice president.

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Abejja (C) poses with winners Hon Caroline Kamusiime (L) and Michael Muhangi at her farewell Lady Captain’s Prize tournament recently. PHOTO/Eddie Chicco.

Recognition

Women have to work twice as much to earn respect and recognition for their work compared to their male counterparts. Some feel they work smarter to earn a seat at any table because of the way our societies are cultured.

Luckily, Abeja lives to see her work recognised with awards from Ugandan Law Society, East African law society, Uganda Bankers’ Association where she chaired the legal committee in 2019 and a number of boards including at the Uganda Manufacturers’ Association.

Transform, foster change, inspire are commonplace in her language. She wants to be remembered as a woman who changed the plight of people. In the legal sector, she wants the misconception that lawyers are “risk averse” to fade and usher in a new era of lawyers who offer relevant but business-conscious legal advice. In sports, she wants to bring more women and children into golf and enable women to shine on the course.  “I want to ensure that women have an open tournament for their club. One of the biggest challenges is funds and we are working with unions to raise funds to support these activities.  I also want to solidify the Uganda Ladies Golf national team and we are scheduling a qualifier so that women participate. We have a list of strong lady golfers,” Abeja says.

Role models

She is inspired by the ambition, eloquence, confidence, brilliance calmness and the beauty of Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of UNAIDS. Miles away, it is former US First Lady, Michelle Obama, whose legal intellectual prowess and support for her husband, Barack Obama she finds admirable. Perhaps that is why when it comes to her favourite books, she is torn between memoirs in Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Hillary Clinton’s Living History.

With 14 years as company secretary and 19 years as a legal practitioner, she challenges women to remain ambitious and defy all odds to pursue their goals.  She is a qualified advocate of the High Court of Uganda and other courts of  judicature.

She is a governance professional and fellow at the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators in the UK. She holds a master’s degree in Business Administration from the Eastern and Southern African Management Institute (ESAMI) in Tanzania. Abeja also serves on the governing councils of Mandela National Stadium Limited, Uganda Manufacturers’ Association, East Africa Law Society and Kampala Club. She is the former lady captain of the Uganda Golf Club.

Negotiating her way through hardships, pushing for engagement even in places where she may not achieve is Abeja’s way of life. Despite the many hats she wears, she is not done yet. There is a lot she wants to achieve particularly in leadership, work and social life.

Retirement

She already has an idea of how simple her old age will look like. She loves road trips as well as dancing to Congolese Soukous. She will retire early, have money work for her andspend time with her loved ones.

“The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day was “Choose To Challenge and you can read anything out of it,” Abeja says, “Choose to challenge.” Challenge your status quo, especially in areas where are you stuck.  What can you about those challenges? Uplift women and fix another woman’s crown without letting the world know.”

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