Hellen Auma Wandera is now the youngest member of Uganda’s new parliament. The student-entrepreneur, who sold fish on campus to her friends to support her upkeep, is now heading to parliament after winning the Woman MP seat for the governing NRM party in Busia District, eastern Uganda.
Born on December 12, 1997, the 23-year-old is the fourth of seven children. Her father, Dickson Richards Wandera, was a headmaster and the breadwinner of the house. Her mother, Betty Nekesa Ofuro, was a popular fish vendor at Banda market and the Buyuya Village chairperson of Masafu Town Council in Busia District.
The Busia native saw the struggle her parents went through monthly to put food on the table and take care of their needs. Thus, she decided to plow people’s gardens to earn extra cash to help pay her school fees.
At the time, she was in high school. She used her earnings from plowing as her seed money to venture into entrepreneurship.
Wandera started trading small items including vegetables for nearly two years and saved enough to venture into importing clothes and bags from Nairobi, Kenya into Uganda without her parents’ knowledge, which was a big risk that paid off at the time.
“I went to Nairobi without the knowledge of my parents. I only called them after I had reached and notified them that I was on my way back. I didn’t want anyone to know about that idea because I knew my parents would stop me from going since I was still young,” Wandera said to The Daily Monitor.
She was able to open a boutique with the support of her mother but that did not come with its challenges. She encountered shady business partners. And when she enrolled at Kyambogo University in 2016 to pursue a bachelor’s in Arts and Social Science, she could not juggle schooling and running her shop. She left the clothing business in the care of her sister but it failed.
That did not stop her from venturing into another business — fish vending. She would buy the fish from her mother, deep-fry the fish and then sell the fish to her classmates. The proceeds went into supporting her accommodation in Uganda’s capital, Kampala.
In 2019, a few months to graduation, Wandera closed shop on her fish vending and relocated to her home district to take on a bigger task that had been her calling since high school. “When I was in Senior Four, I had a dream in which God directed me to be a leader. The same returned in Senior Six and while at Campus. So, I decided to chase this dream,” she said.
She realized that Busia, being a conduit of business products into and outside Uganda, is lacking in many ways apart from residents not benefiting from the gold mines in their backyard. “So as a true daughter of Busia District, I decided to contest as Woman Member of Parliament to make things better for my people,” she said.
After many deliberations with her parents, she got their blessing to launch her campaign. As the underdog, many did not expect her to win the primaries in her party, National Resistance Movement (NRM) but she won with a huge margin, with her closest competitor lagging with a 3000-vote margin.
Friends and family came on board to support Wandera’s campaign the best they could and she, in turn, devoted herself to mobilizing voters through door-to-door campaigns with rented out Boda Bodas to facilitate her movements.
The underdog was suddenly becoming popular among her people and her youthful exuberance won over many voters during the January 14 general elections where she emerged as the winner of the Woman MP seat of Busia District.
At the retreat of the first-time party lawmakers, Wandera earned the title Mama Busia for being the Woman MP-elect of Busia District and for her affable nature. “Because I am a social worker, who relates with many, I interacted with almost everyone at Kyankwanzi. So many knew me by face, but a few knew my name. So, one MP decided to call me ‘Mama Busia’ because he discovered that I was the Woman MP-elect of Busia District,” she said.
She got to meet President Yoweri Museveni when he opened the retreat of the first-time party lawmakers. Museveni, who doubles as the NRM National Chairperson, met Wandera thanks to the party’s National Secretary.
Wandera follows in the footsteps of Proscovia Alengot Oromait, who stood for a local by-election in Uganda and won. In 2012, a 19-year-old Oromait became the youngest ever member of parliament in Africa and the second youngest person in the world to assume that position.