“I Have Learned to Embrace My Journey”, Samantha Atukunda on Blooming Where You Are Planted
Samantha Atukunda is a lawyer and the Executive Director of Greenwatch. Her journey has motivated her to position herself as a catalyst for change, not just in the environmental conservation space but also in promoting women leadership in her home country, Uganda, and beyond.
She shares her story with Damaris Agweyu.
Samantha, did you choose law, or did law choose you?
I think it chose me. I studied law not because I was passionate about it but because I obtained good grades in high school; law was the only sensible and reasonable thing to do. But I had always imagined a different life for myself.
What life was that?
I thought I would end up somewhere in New York, on Broadway. The reason for this is I always wanted to live outside Uganda. The life lived in a more “civilized and metropolitan society” appealed to me when I was younger. The possibility of becoming who you wanted to be, rather than what society required you to be, was attractive to me. I longed for that freedom. I guess that is why Broadway enticed me.
I had applied for a performing arts degree at Kwa Zulu Natal, but when I presented the application to my dad, he advised me that law was a better course to study because of the various opportunities it would present to me. As it happens, he was also a lawyer.
After completing my bar exams, I worked at my dad’s law firm for a while. Then, I applied for a master’s degree at New York University. But it was expensive. My dad, having founded Greenwatch, had good connections abroad. He asked them about available scholarship opportunities. One was found, a tuition break that was offering non-American students opportunities to study Environmental Law and Natural Resources. That is how I ended up at Oregon University, where I got my master’s degree in Environmental Law and Natural Resources.
Immediately after completing my degree, I got married. My husband was studying in South Africa, so I joined him in Cape Town, where I worked for an environmental conservation organisation for about a year. When my first child was born, I decided to come back to Uganda for a while. I started to practice law with the firm my father established. I worked here as the legal counsel for four years before I was appointed a Director in 2019.
And that is how I ended up in the environmental conservation sector. A series of unplanned events and circumstances led me here.
Are you content with the direction your life has taken?
Yes. I am grounded as a wife, a mother, and a team leader in different spaces. I have embraced my journey.
One of the reasons I joined the WE Africa program was to get to know myself better. It gave me the opportunity to appreciate my position of leadership in the environmental and conservation space. The program deals with topics such as wellness, vulnerability, and courage in leadership – facets of me that I have shied away from because I have always felt that I need to be “strong”. Before doing this program, I didn’t understand what vulnerability meant.
What did you think vulnerability meant then vs now?
I thought it meant weakness. Exposing yourself. We are told once we become vulnerable, we will be destroyed. But I’ve learned from WE Africa that vulnerability is, in fact, courage.
I am discovering who am I without the titles: mother, wife, or lawyer… Yes, I have responsibilities, but that does not mean I should neglect myself. I am working on the side of me that feels the need to please people all the time. I am learning to set boundaries for myself. Am I capable of saying yes or no without the guilt or resentment that comes with that? Not really.
This resonates with very many women.
I think so. WE Africa has enabled me to understand that it’s essential to get to know myself. I know that once I am done with the program, my approach to life will have changed. I am trying to find my footing in the world, but at the same time, I am making the most of where I am.
In terms of my story, you can see that I had a different path in mind. It’s only now that I am settling into myself. The only thing I haven’t figured out is how not to suppress the desire to be myself rather than what is expected of me, in a manner of speaking, my Broadway dreams.
Have you ever been a performing artist?
When I was in school, I was good at reciting African poems. Yeah, I felt alive when I was performing. But I never harnessed that skill.
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