“I Have Learned to Embrace My Journey”, Samantha Atukunda on Blooming Where You Are Planted
You never have to stay in one box.
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’s 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 I am 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.
What does your current profession entail?
Within my organisation, I implement projects that influence decision-makers policies to streamline environmental rights.
We work closely with legislators and the judiciary, training their officers to increase their awareness of environmental laws, rights, and obligations.
We work with government ministries, but that won’t mean we won’t come after you when you violate the environment. Today, we may meet at a workshop as comrades, and then tomorrow, we will meet in the courtroom as adversaries. Of course, litigation is always the last resort.
We also institute public interest litigation cases. That is, we bring forth legal claims on behalf of the public. To this end, we sensitise communities on what their environmental rights are. Because people must recognise that they have rights, they must be aware of these rights, know how to claim them and what remedies are available to them when these rights have been violated.
What is your experience practising environmental law as a Ugandan woman?
The way in which I ended up in this space shows you how rare it is for people to choose this type of work, particularly in Africa. We know about the likes of criminal defence lawyers and corporate lawyers. But environmental lawyers? Not so much. My clients are forests, lakes, animals, communities…
The perception of a lawyer is that they make a lot of money, but in terms of monetary compensation, environmental law is not very attractive. And you are always the underdog, fighting on David’s side, never Goliath’s. That’s why this space is thought to be preserved for either the privileged or those who have established themselves, people who can afford to be blacklisted by powerful entities.
In the end, David defeated Goliath. Is that the case with some of your work?
We’ve registered some significant legal successes. The ban against plastic bags, “Kavera”, was one such case. In this case, the court declared that the manufacture, use, distribution, sale, and disposal of plastic containers, plastic food and all forms of plastics violates the right of citizens of Uganda to a clean and healthy environment because of the irreparable damage that these plastic bags have on the environment.
The chimpanzee case was also interesting. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) was going to export chimpanzees from Uganda to the People’s Republic of China. Greenwatch filed an application in court seeking an injunction to stop this. Our argument was the UWA is only a trustee and does not own wildlife in Uganda, and as such, it had no right to export wildlife.
We also fought to stop the government from spraying Lake Victoria with deadly herbicides to get rid of the water hyacinth.
And we’ve made headway in educating local communities about their rights by standing with them against whatever Goliath they face. Because many times, they are sold lies about projects that infringe on their environmental rights. We do this through training and workshops, and when their dispute fits our mandate as an organization, we can provide support for legal claims.
You talked about how WE Africa is helping you get to know yourself better on a personal level. Has this impacted your professional life?
What has become clear is WE Africa is a movement of women in conservation who want to carry it forward. I now believe that my purpose in this space is to mentor younger women coming after me, women who may have a passion for environmental conservation space but decide to go for corporate law because it’s more lucrative, financially speaking.
Through WE Africa, I now have a sisterhood of women who can support me as I build those dreams and hopes and possibilities for others. I also want to help dismantle the notion that this space is the preserve of white people or privileged people.
I hope to be a catalyst for change.
Previously, I never put myself out there as an environmental lawyer because I was struggling with whether this was where I wanted to be. I don’t want to be a fraud, so my lack of visibility was very intentional. But WE Africa has given me clarity, and now I feel ready to be seen. I now have two published articles. I will start lecturing environmental law at my former university and I have completed a number of projects in my position as Director of Greenwatch. I am building my profile with confidence.
Any regrets so far?
No, and yes. I would say no because if I hadn’t ended up where I am now, I am not sure I’d have the flexibility I currently enjoy. As a mum to young children, I need that flexibility. And I get it from running my own law firm. That’s the part I don’t regret.
The part I regret is wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t inherited the Greenwatch from my dad. Would I have risen to the same position? I will never know.
What is your vision for Greenwatch?
I know for a fact that I’m not going to be in an active management position for Greenwatch for much longer. I am intentionally mentoring people to take it on. I see a lot of potential for growth within the organisation.
When my dad was actively involved in running the organisation, it was very active and vibrant, but when he completely stepped away, it was dormant for about four years. I feel like I have revived it since becoming its Director.
I am building a team; we are creating systems within the organisation and developing solid networks and registering small victories. When you register successes in litigation, it puts you on an international platform where others want to learn from you. In that way, we are becoming global, and not necessarily by establishing subsidiaries all over the world. I would like to see Greenwatch thrive as an organisation at the forefront of environmental litigation. With that, I will be able to step into a supervisory role.
Do you still harbour hopes of going to “Broadway”?
I do. The possibility of it is why I want to set up systems and mentor leaders who can keep the torch burning at Greenwatch. My husband works for the UN, so he’s all over the place. I never move, and we’ve had conversations about this. So yes, moving into something and somewhere else is a real possibility. And that is what I am learning about life: You never have to stay in one box.
This interview is part of a series profiling the stories of the 2021 WE Africa leadership programme fellows, African women in the environmental conservation sector who are showing up with a strong back, soft front, and wild heart.