Meet the woman who lowered Sudan’s flag to raise South Sudan’s
BY HELLEN MANGINDO
Surrounded by a sea of military men, Bridget Nagomoroclimbed atop a military platform, held onto the rope, lowering the flag of one country. Seconds later, she reached for another rope, pulling it and, hence, raising of a different country went up. She stepped back to allow the soldiers to salute the flag. Women thrilled with joy, men clapped, as the soldiers kissed their guns. “It is a moment to remember,” Nagomoro recalls a decade later. “The moment I lowered the flag for one country, the Republic of Sudan and raised the flag for the Republic of South Sudan is a treasured moment for me.”
As the county chief executive, she was chief in command of the armed forces. The army commander called her at short notice to let her know she would be raising her country’s flag. As the president did so in Juba, the country’s other 79 commissioners, were expected to follow suite in their respective counties.
Yet, her participation in the history-defining event came with some bit of luck. A year earlier, the newly elected governor of Western Equatoria Bangasi Joseph Bakasoro, wanting an inclusive government, had named her county commissioner of Ibba, making her the first and only female to head one of the 79 counties in the country. She had just lost a race to become Member of Parliament. “It was not easy because commissionership is a masculine job,” says Nagomoro. “So when time came for the secession, independence, I was the only female commissioner who stood among the 78 men to lower the flag of the Republic of Sudan and also to raise the flag for this country South Sudan,” she recalls. That was a great moment for me and I live to remember that.”
Nagomoro grew up wanting to be anything but a politician. “My father never wanted any of us to be a politician because to him politics was a dirty job in a way that, however much you may try to perform what you can, not everyone will appreciate it,” she recalls. “Some will criticize negatively and others will say things that are not true about you and that will bring a bad reputation on you that will also extend to the entire family, specifically the father. So he never wanted us to get involved in politics.”
In 2010, as Sudan held its first post-peace agreement polls, people persuaded her, then the Liaison Officer at the Embassy in Uganda, to stand for Member of Parliament. “They told me that; “Nagomoro Bridget please, we need women of your caliber so you need to come and contest.” She refused, recalling the words of her father: ‘My children, there are certain jobs that I wish you would choose and there are others that I wouldn’t want you to do’.”
The father, Philemon Dawa, ruled out politics and soldiering but recommended teaching, nursing, tailoring, music and farming because he was a farmer. The father would often tell them. Teaching was appealing because a pupil could one day become a president or a successful business person. The parents always told her that she could achieve whatever she needed through education, hard work, and discipline.
War made her education hard. Refugee life was particularly tough. “I walked from this country to the Republic of Central Africa for more than fifteen days. My legs got paralyzed. We stopped in a place where most of the people are lepers. I had to eat on their plate. There was nothing I could survive on so I had to share with them.” Leprosy is a contagious disease. “There were some big dogs living there too,” she recalls. “I hate refugee life so much that I wouldn’t want anybody to become a refugee,” she adds. “Refugee life is the worst thing ever in the world.”
Nagomoro studied in three primary schools, Ibba, Itri, and Maridi 2 and two high schools: Mongwa and Gabriel Batuka. “I would do things to help myself such as brewing local alcohol (Waragi) to pay my school fees,” she says. “I had to buy uniforms, pens, pencils and exercise books. I had only two simple dresses, one for staying at home and one for the church on Sundays. My shoes were slippers, but most of the time I would move bare feet. Though I was a big girl by then, I did not mind at all because my intention was to get an education.”
First trying nursing, parents sent her to do horsemanship in a clinic. “I could not dress a big wound or anything else,” she says. “I was scared. So, I told them: No, I can’t please! Get me back in the classroom.”
After a certificate in Infant Education from YMCA Uganda, in 1998, she enrolled for a diploma and then a degree in Education at Nkumba University and, later, a masters at Kyambogo University, in 2013. She also has a second master’s degree in Development Management from the Open University in London. “Chalks, the board and kids make my time. I love teaching and that’s how I chose my profession,” says Nagomoro, now a lecturer at the University of Juba.
Her approach to the classroom is to not shout at her students’ mistakes, but rather turn the mistake into a joke. “After laughing together with them and your temper has come down, then ask them why they laughed,” she says. “Their response will point out the mistake that one of them has done and this will be a polite way of correction without shouting.”
She may be doing the job of her life, but it was politics that gave her the best shot at achieving her dreams. Long before she thought she would ever work in government, she aspired to establish a girl’s school, inspired by the hardships that she had faced while trying to get an education. She sought donor support to establish a cost-sharing school, in which parents would contribute a tiny percentage of the fees. The commissioner’s job made it easier to accelerate her plans. But it also saw other politicians try to expropriate her efforts. “Some felt that, maybe, it was not right for a woman to come up with such an idea,” Nagomoro says. “So it almost got grabbed from me.” She never gave in. “I have a character of being straight forward; you ask me and I will tell you exactly what I feel and what is on my mind.”
Most of Nagomoro’s approach to political office was influenced by her mother, Margaret Maibgako, who would tell her four daughters that women did not sleep in the morning or go to bed early. “A woman must wake up very early in the morning to start doing a lot of work. She should stay up late to complete domestic work.” When she was a county commissioner, Nagomoro would wake up at 5am to garden, head to office, garden at 5pm, and be in bed by 9pm. Many in her community, seeing their leader sweep or cook, were uneasy; they felt that this would shame the community. “One time, they found me doing this and they were embarrassed. [Citing other female leaders who did the contrary], they asked me, ‘Why do you do this?’ They told me that [female leaders] wake up in the morning, shower, get ready, go to the office, come back in the evening, rest, come out for dinner, and then sleep,” she recalls.
In fact, her guards once rejected her food. “The first time they didn’t feel good and did not eat the food, but I told them to relax,” recalls Nagomoro, who after the split in the number of states was named state minister for Maridi. “As a county commissioner or as the minister of health, you rub shoulders with men and as you do so, you face a lot of challenges, a lot of things that you do not like but you have to face because you have a job to do.”
One thing kept her sane. “Leadership means service, it is not sitting and occupying the chair and that is my motto,” she says. “You’ve done your part, you have served, you have left history and legacy and now it is your time to sit and watch others.”
Indeed, she continues to watch.“Ten years of Independence has been chaotic, confused with contrary behavior and very much disappointing,” she says. “[But] as the only female commissioner who stood firm for the separation of this country, it was unique to raise the National flag. That is history for the archives of this country.”
One, when you are in problems kneel down and pray, always draw power from the spirituality and God will give you the wisdom on how to go about it. Never neglect kneeling down when you are a leader, keep calm and vigilant during times of problems and tribulations.
Two, never use emotions but logic, stand firm for what you know is right and just because God is right and just. Do not panic if you know what you are doing and what you are standing for is right go for it.
Finally, always be patient and persevere. Acquiring certificates, diploma, bachelor of degree and masters was not on a silver plate, it was hard and difficult like for any person who went through but I managed successfully. This is a very big achievement for me.
Secondly, to deliver services to the nation is not easy but I tried my level best and that is why on the 8th of July, I was recognized by the South Sudan Women Award for Peace. I was given an Excellency in leadership Award as well as a certificate in that and I was also recognized for the Award in Excellency in general education.”
The initiative of establishing a girls’ boarding school is a big achievement to me and everybody in this country because it is a legacy that exists and that will remain for the future generation. They will know that there lived a woman by the name of Nagomoro Bridget who came with a vision and advocated for it until it was successfully established.
My child is not in that school but for the sake of the community to uplift the standard of girls’ education it happened so that is the biggest achievement and legacy that I am happy to leave behind for South Sudan.”
For the name of the school, I debated when I had to seek for support although the vision and the idea was all mine entirely but I could not do it alone. I had to look for donors, the church, the community and other well-wishers to support it and because of their support, it came to pass into reality.
To me, a leader is somebody who has a heart for the people, a person who forgets himself/herself in order to serve the people. A leader is somebody who thinks through the eyes of the people. But not through my own eyes.
“A leader puts his country first, the people second and himself/herself third because you are there not to warm the chair and get enough wealth but you are there to serve the people.”
“A leader can’t enjoy the pains and sufferings of his/her people when he sees people are dying from hunger, people are suffering, roads and hospitals are not there, that person can’t sleep because you are a leader for them. This is how I define leadership.
You’ve done your part, you have served, you have left history and legacy and now it is your time to sit and watch others. Will they leave a good legacy, what are they going to do? Advise them.”
My strongest message to my fellow countrymen and women is; can we today say we are lucky and very much blessed to have this country South Sudan? This country has everything for every single one of us if we can only get organized, stop a lot of negative feelings and think strategically and positively. We have the best country ever, so let us value and treasure it, let us create a conducive environment for us to live in and for the next generation to enjoy our country and to leave a positive legacy for them to stand on. Let us make sure that you leave something behind for the next generation to build on and a system in the government which will enhance or place this country in the best position among other countries. Let us stop having negative feelings and getting into conflicts. Renewing conflicts will never take us anywhere but thinking positively will take us far beyond our limits.
Let us move on and build this country on a positive and very good attitude because attitude matters for everyone in this country.
That’s what I request every one of us to implement in any little way that you can.