18 November 2012

Uganda: Eperu, Daddy's Girl Aims for the Big Political Stage

Sarah Eperu is the kind of politician that can barely escape the roving eye of the media - not just for her burly size, but her motor-mouth.

A sophist who speaks several mother tongues, Eperu is never afraid to speak her mind, and often rubs people the wrong way. It is one reason critics brand her domineering, adversarial, and even gratuitously uncaring.

But Eperu says her father, under whose tutelage she grew up, taught her to be assertive in life. However, she is quick to challenge what she sees as a stereotypical view of herself.

"I am extremely brilliant and also talented. I speak about 26 [languages]. I always associate with people, I am so sociable and I have versatility in communication," says Eperu.

Eperu grew up in Naguru housing estate. Her father, Michael Eperu, was a director at the ministry of Information, who treated her like a gem in the family.

"In my childhood I was overprotected, I was my father's favourite child; he admired me," she says.

Naguru - today a cradle for opulence - was shabby, mostly bush and forest. Then, Mr Eperu thought his children were seedlings that would grow into pillars of the Catholic church.

"It was always my father's desire that I should become a nun; so, he was so strict about reading the Bible at Naguru St Jude. If I missed church he would tell me to recite the mass. He was so strict that when my brother was young, he turned him into an altar boy he wanted to be a priest," recalls Eperu.

With such lofty expectations, little Sarah was dispatched to the more pious environment of St Elizabeth Kidetok missionary school, in present-day Serere district, for her secondary education.

"My father was so protective of me that my life was dull; I did not go partying like other girls. My life was sandwiched between church and the rosary; I was a very humble girl, up to now people are surprised that I am a politician," says Eperu.

Because of the domineering influence, Eperu would later become a journalist like the father: "My father, later on, wanted me to become a journalist and that is how I entered the profession."

But that rosy life, filled with dad's pampering, started falling apart when the NRM came to power in 1986.

"My father was first transferred to Mbale. Things were still fine then because he had a big farm of cows. But he eventually lost his job, lost his home and cows during the Teso insurgency. He lived through a lot of trauma. He decided to return to Kampala to live with me," laments Eperu with a stoic voice.

It's these life-shattering events that would shape Sarah Eperu's narrative.

"I was apolitical but I decided I had to take action. My father's cows were stolen by marauding NRA soldiers. My father wanted to go back to the village but there was nothing to return to," she recalls.

Eperu's first opportunity at the political pulpit came in 1996 under the Inter-Party Forces for Cooperation (IPFC) led by Paul Ssemogerere. She would later serve as the deputy spokesperson for Dr Kizza Besigye's Reform Agenda presidential campaigns in 2001.

"I was not scared of indulging in opposition politics because my father taught me to be assertive," she says.

In 2011, Eperu stood for the women's seat in Ngora district and she lost to NRM's Jackline Amongin.

"In the last election I should have stood in Nakawa, where I grew up, but there was a disagreement in the party internally, I shifted to Ngora which was a fallback position, it was like learning to be left- handed at an old age, it's a rural constituency but I quickly adjusted, " she revealed.

However another problem emerged. Many colleagues who lost the internal FDC election to Eperu stood again. She believes she is now more experienced and should handle the 2016 campaign better.

"Ngora is strong FDC but we ended up dividing the vote," she says. "We should now be better prepared that when we fight one another we stand out to lose."

However, since joining politics, she has come to pay the price at the political altar.

"I have been arrested on a number of occasions but nobody will break my spirit. I will fight on," says Eperu.

Today Eperu is the spokesperson of the FDC Women's league. If FDC takes power, she will fight to emancipate women beyond the "NRM political tokenism" and manipulation.

"We have been having challenges in regard to mobilization. We have scanty structures and the stereotype that all women belong to the NRM has not gone away. But the women's league of FDC is keeping government on its toes; women in NRM are just listening posts, and appear to benefit from tokenism, we need to change that," she argues.

Eperu's role model is Winnie Byanyima, wife to FDC President Kizza Besigye, who has been in the feminist struggle for decades. Eperu is recuperating after she underwent surgery on her left leg to repair a broken bone. She sprained her left leg after she tripped on her way to the taxi stage along Namugongo-Kireka road.

Although she is still struggling to walk, Eperu has not stayed away from politics. She is the publicist for the Nandala Mafabi campaign team for the party presidency. "Today we need a fighter like Nandala who is ready to roll up his sleeves and engage his army. Muntu is not bad but he can only make a good husband," she says with a wide grin.

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