Excerpt from UNDER THE SKIN by Nick Hahn
The hall was so quiet, you could have heard a pin drop. She began to speak.
“Your Highnesses, members of the Nobel Committee, and distinguished guests, I am deeply honored to accept this prize and do so with gratitude-not for myself, but for the thirty-five million people of the Republic of Uganda. To be selected by the Nobel Committee one year after the iconic Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia is truly historic; I don’t belong in the company of such women. You have celebrated me as a peacemaker, a title I accept with profound humility.
“Uganda is emerging from the dark shadows of oppression and corruption that have crippled her economy and muted her citizens for decades. The committee has seen fit to distinguish her, and in so doing, casts a ray of hope on a world beset by prejudice and ignorance. Uganda and all of Africa welcomes this spotlight; we welcome the eyes and ears of the world upon us as we take our place with you, our brothers and our sisters living together as one race-the human race.
“This is a new age, an age of instant communication and transparency. This should be an age when the races, faiths, and cultures of the world coexist without bias or prejudice. This should be a world without borders defining us, a world of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. This should be a world where women stand equally with men, where human rights are stronger than property rights, where passive resistance is stronger than armed resistance, and where moral authority is stronger than civil authority. A world where all people know that under the skin their hearts beat the same.”
The audience embraced her words with stunned silence. They wouldn’t let her go. This woman was not preaching or delivering a lecture; she spoke from the heart with eloquence and conviction. Her voice was soft and conversational, as if she were sitting in your living room, not this cavernous hall. She used no notes and looked directly at the audience, sweeping her eyes from left to right and front to back at a practiced pace, her delivery mesmerizing. Her stage presence was commanding; she was a leader, and it showed. This distinguished audience recognized a sovereign when they saw one, and they interrupted her over and over again with applause.
“Many are to be thanked for my presence here this evening. However, none more so than the three who have traveled to Oslo to share this moment with me and the people of Uganda.
“First, from New York, my dearest and closest friend Margaret “Maggie” Kincaid, who supports me with love and respect, not judgment. Second, from Gulu, Uganda, my teacher and mentor Evelyn Simonton. And last, but not least, the man who motivates me every day, who stands by my side through good times and bad, the man I love, from Kitgum, Northern Uganda, my life partner and protector Jude Wambuzi.
“I would be remiss in not mentioning Jolly Bukenya, my election campaign manager, who sadly could not be here with us. I would not be standing here before you today if it hadn’t been for Jolly’s uncompromising vision for a better Uganda and her unending support.
I was seated in the middle of the room between Evelyn and Jude. My thoughts swung between pride and admiration for what this young woman had achieved. No one in this hall, except us, her closet friends and allies, knew what she had gone through to stand on that stage. How I wished Jolly could have been there to see her.
Nabulungi “Nabby” Kibugu had been my friend since childhood; we’d grown up as pen pals. The photos she had sent me showed a gangly black teenager with knotted hair and dusty bare feet kicking a deflated soccer ball near the river and chasing her pet crane. Nothing she’d done as a teenager would portend this moment in Oslo. She had been a miracle waiting to happen, and fortunately for the people of Uganda and all of Africa, miracles do happen. It made me wonder how many other miracles in Africa and the third world were waiting to happen through education and training.
A single voice can be powerful, as Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf taught us. She forged a political career from the ore of ignorance and cultural indifference toward women in a country torn by civil war and a history of despotic leadership. Her journey to the presidency of Liberia in 2005 and her reelection in 2011 were tumultuous, but her strength and resolve would not be denied. She became the first woman to be elected president of an African country. Her speaking style was riveting, attracting invitations to address international forums and attendant recognition as a female head of state in an African country. This status made her the “token black female” on boards of trustees for prominent NGOs and foundations, giving her access to a network of global thought-leaders as she advanced international acceptance of moral authority in a world weakened by corrupt civil authority.
Nabby emulated Johnson-Sirleaf. I had watched her develop over the years as a student leader, a spokesperson for women’s rights, and an advocate for democratic reform in a country mired in autocratic rule and corruption. She had leveraged her tribal roots to political advantage and confronted government leaders who had sucked the lifeblood from the Ugandan economy and compromised the welfare of her people for personal gain. Never could I have imagined that this impoverished teenager from a rural backwater village in war-torn Northern Uganda would be standing before a prominent international audience accepting the world’s most prestigious honor.
I’m not a religious person, but when Nabby finished speaking, at that moment and in that place, I felt that something spiritual was happening. The audience was on its feet, the applause deafening. Tears traced down my cheeks as I clapped my hands until they hurt. Dear God in heaven, what an emotional moment for the Ugandan people, and for me.
As I waited for the Nobel press corps to complete their post-ceremony interview, my mind drifted back to Fifth Avenue and the first time I’d heard the funny-sounding name of Kibugu, a name now resonating with millions. How did an eleven-year-old girl raised in midtown Manhattan, attending exclusive private schools and taking lessons in dance, flute, and gymnastics, manage to connect with a poor, unremarkable child in Northern Uganda attending public missionary schools, where extracurricular activities consisted of tending goats and carrying water from a communal well?
The story begins in 1976 when my mother, Maxine Katherine O’Donnell, first laid eyes on my father, Simon Robert Kincaid.