Milly Businge is 57 years old and is the mother of eight children, seven surviving. She lives in rural Uganda, about 150 miles from Kampala. She was in the USA briefly last week to attend her eldest son’s wedding and generously made time to sit down with a group of global health professionals at the United Nations Foundation in Washington DC.
I have admired Milly Businge after hearing stories about her leadership as the Chairperson of the Local Council 1 and as a Pentecostal Pastor in the small village of Kikuube. Her call to action, “Mothers Are the Agents of Change” spoke deeply to me and I jumped at the chance to learn more about her life.
“My father had three wives and 22 children. He was a medical assistant and believed in education. Most of us received some schooling, and my brothers are all graduates. I got pregnant in high school and had to leave at 16. After a few years, my father suggested to I go back to school, and I chose nursing school, but I got pregnant again and wasn’t able to finish.”
Milly became more religious and met and married a man who shared her new perspective. She moved into his home, in a very remote area, where she lives now. Once they had children, she was set on making sure they received a good education. “After I couldn’t continue my studies, I went through such suffering that I would not want my children to go through. We have worked hard as a family to send them all to school and we sit down with them and talk to them about education all the time.” Four of her children have already graduated from University.
She maintained her own learning as a voracious reader. Milly studies every chance she can and her children help her to stay current. Of his mother, Teddy Ruge remarked, “even though my mother never finished high school, to me she is one of the most educated women I know. She learned from doing and absorbed everything.”
In 2000, Milly was elected to the local council of her village of just over 1000 people. Elections are every five years, and before each election cycle, Milly announces her resignation, only to relent when half the village camps outside of her house to beg her back into public service. “I’m at the grassroots level. We help people with their relationships, breaking up domestic violence, working with parents to get children in school, we settle community disputes and promote local business development.”
“I see my most important role in the village as supporting women’s empowerment. Our women have never known how to communicate with others from outside. Many of our girls never went to school, or stopped along the way, because their families wanted to marry them off in order to receive a dowry. Most women are very poor and some of them are running their families alone, so our girls don’t have a chance to go to school. I want these women to know that even though we’re going through hard times, we can still be the agents of change for our children.”
Under Milly’s leadership, the nine-person Local Council committee has brought clean water to the village (more is needed), led subsistence farmers to commercially farm sugar cane to supply a nearby sugar refinery, and improved the standard of living with more permanent buildings, mobile phone adoption and improved transport options. There are still major gaps – there is no health clinic and it is a walk of many miles over mud and dirt roads the nearest town with a health center. Too many women still don’t make it in time for the births of their babies and are lost.
“Education is the tool to empower our community for better times ahead. Most of the people there have not had a chance to receive a good education, but when they do, we will have better citizens, and we will get the doctors and the nurses and the business people out of our small community that we so desperately need.”
Milly has practiced this counsel. Teddy’s father moved to Texas, and when Teddy was eight, his father asked Milly to send their son to the States. Milly knew Teddy would have better opportunities and so put her boy on a plane, all alone, to America. She wouldn’t see him again for 14 years. Teddy returned to Uganda to surprise his mother as a 22-year-old man just about to graduate from college. When he arrived at Milly’s house, her husband went out to see who was in the street in front of their home. “There is a tall man here who doesn’t understand me,” her husband called to Milly in the kitchen. She came out to see for herself and was immediately engulfed in a bear hug by the strange, tall man. She began to struggle and push him away, until he said, “Mama, it’s me, it’s Teddy. It’s your son. I’ve come home.”
I asked Milly what was her best advice to other mothers. Her reply was quiet and definitive. “Stick to it. It pays off.”
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Milly was the keynote speaker at an initiative called Villages in Action, held in Kikuube to bring voices like hers into the Millennium Development Goals conversation. Her authority and wisdom was a critical part of the event’s success. You can learn more about Villages in Action here.
Portrait of Milly Businge: TMS Ruge
Group: L to R Tina Musoke, Milly Businge, TMS Ruge, Chrysula Winegar | Credit: Negin Janati
With thanks to Chelsea Hedquist for her input.