Africa's peace seekers: Betty Bigombe
Betty Bigombe spends her days talking to rebels and Army officers in Uganda's bush country. She is one of Africa's peace seekers - individuals willing to leave loved ones behind, shrug off personal threats, and even spend significant amounts of their own money to end some of the continent's most intractable conflicts. Part 2 of three.
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In January 2005, the rebels wanted more food - more than Bigombe could buy herself. She could have turned to one of the donor-nation embassies, which are supporting her - paying her cellphone bills, lending her helicopters, and more. But there's a downside. "I could go to [one embassy] and get the food tomorrow," she says. "But if I did, the others would complain that I hadn't gone to them."Skip to next paragraph
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Despite a desire to help, she says, diplomats often complicate negotiations by jostling for the glory of supporting the peace effort. It's a common problem mediators face.
Sometimes diplomats "are like a bunch of jealous wives," Bigombe says in exasperation. Recalling her own divorce with a laugh, she adds, "I know - I was one."
In the end, she got the food from Museveni. "Everybody agreed it would send a better message if it came from the government," she says. It underlines her approach of putting Ugandans at the center of any solution here.
Yet she now faces the biggest outside intervention yet: The International Criminal Court in the Hague is expected to indict LRA leaders as early as this month.
The ICC's role in Uganda is controversial. Outsiders say Kony must be brought to justice, but locals worry indictments will make him feel cornered and less willing to end the war.
If the ICC indicts, it will end this phase of Bigombe's work, she says, and send her "back to the drawing board." But she won't give up: "I'll keep looking for opportunities for peace."
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When the peace process hit a lull in May 2005, Bigombe made a five-day dash to the US. The last thing she wanted to do was see "Hotel Rwanda," a film about the 1994 genocide. But her daughter insisted. Pauline wanted her mom to see how the film's success in US theaters shows that Americans are capable of caring about Africa - about the kind of work Betty is doing. "It was important for her to see that people are paying attention," Pauline says.
So they went. Pauline watched her mom wince at several scenes. She'd been in Rwanda after the genocide - even to Hotel des Milles Collines, where the movie is set. People "can be so cruel to each other for no reason," Pauline remembers her mom saying, "and not even understand what they're doing." Such brutality "affects her deeply," Pauline says, and keeps her working hard for peace.
Most of the time, Pauline Bigombe lives the normal life of a college junior studying history in Washington, D.C. But when people ask about her mom - where she lives and what she does - it gets a little weird.
"The joke with my friends is that no one knows what my mom does," she says. "I never quite know how to explain it." Her friends know Pauline sees her mom only a few times a year - and that Betty is usually off in Africa. "They just figure she's in the mafia," she laughs.
But there are unexpected moments when someone recognizes her mom's work.
At a Borders bookstore in D.C. recently, Pauline handed the clerk her mom's credit card. He glanced at the name, glared at her, and started yelling: "You're not Betty Bigombe."
He accused her of impersonation and credit-card theft. It turned out he's from Gulu, Uganda - the very town Betty is working in. Pauline finally convinced him that Betty is her mom. She promised to ask Betty to e-mail him. He beamed.
And there was the time she caught a ride with an Ethiopian cab driver. "Oh, you have problems there," he said of her native Uganda. But then he mentioned "the woman they're always talking about" who's making peace there.
"I'm pretty sure that's my mom," Pauline said quietly.
Astounded, he tried to refuse payment for the ride. She smiled, and paid anyway.
"I miss her a lot," Pauline says. "But I'm so proud of her."
1954 Born in northern Uganda
1981-84 Became corporate secretary of the Uganda Mining Corporation
1986 Elected to parliament
1988 Appointed minister of state for pacification of northern Uganda
1993 Named Uganda's 'Woman of the Year' for her peace efforts
1997 Received master's degree from Harvard
1997 Appointed senior social scientist at postconflict department of the World Bank
Children: Pauline and Emmanuel