STEPHANIE ROVOAL is the French ambassador to Uganda. A former investment banker and photographer, Rovoal shared her life story to Simon Kasyate, the host of Capital FM's Desert Island Discs programme
Pleasure having you here on the program…
Pleasure to meet you.
You have been in Uganda since October last year: what do you feel about Uganda so far?
To be honest, I really love it. Back on France no one knows about Uganda very much. We don’t know where it is, we just know it is part of the African continent but apart from that, we don’t know much.
So, of course when I got nominated to represent my country here, I gathered information. So many people told me I was so lucky to be here. First of all they told me about the beauty of the country.
There is wildlife, there is mountain Rwenzori, you have the source of the Nile and it is green. You will love it. So, I was really looking forward to it. They told me also that Ugandans were very friendly. I had to meet them myself to get to know whether it was true or not. So far, very friendly welcome; you are very welcoming people.
Have you managed to travel the breadth and width of this country so far?
I managed to go and visit the refugee camps in the north. So, I took a plane to Adjumani, drove to Yumbe. Then I had a European Union retreat in Gulu where I spent a few days and then I travelled back to Kampala by car and I like travelling by car to discover the country because I look around, look at what the farmers are doing, the infrastructures, roads as well, the variety of level of development depending on where you are.
I am yet to discover the west and the east. I have scheduled trips.
When, where and to whom were you born?
I am 45 years old. I was born on the outskirts of Paris in a district which is more known for its violence than anything else…My mother is a teacher and my father was a policeman. I went to school in Paris because I had good grades and I was able to join a better school there.
But then I am pretty proud of where I was born… if you were to ask me my tribe, it could be a Ugandan type of question I would say I come from Britney. This is a region west of France which is known for people who like good wine…
How much of interaction did you have with your parents when growing up?
My parents divorced when I was about two years. So, I have no recollection of a family life. My family was two people – my mother and me. No sister and no brothers; I felt quite lonely.
As a girl, I wanted to have a bigger family but it didn’t happen. I would see my dad less than a day. Like from 10am to 5pm or 6pm once every two weeks. So, of course as you can imagine, his influence on me was not by being there, but by not being there. You miss something and then it gets big on your life; so, he had a large influence just by his sole absence out of my life.
So, I wanted to really impress him and that was something that influenced me for decades, not being myself and get fulfilled with things I like, but rather complying with what my father wanted. I came around when I was 30-something. It is a long time. Isn’t it?
I realized that what I was doing was not for myself but to please my absent father.
But growing up as a little girl: how would you have been best described?
I wanted to please everyone; so, collecting good grades. But you know I am pretty tall. So, I stood out. I was this tall girl and I had good grades in my class.
I always felt peculiar. I felt different. People were sometimes picking on me for that reason but I was this perfect girl, pleasing my dad, pleasing my mother who was a teacher so she wanted good grades.
Plays a French song
What did you exactly study?
General studies first and then I specialized myself in Maths and Physics because that was the most difficult path and I like a challenge. At that time I needed to prove that I could do hard things….I missed the highest honours with half a point. I managed to get really good grades and still be disappointed.
You know? It is the story of my life… Now I am happy with what I have. I managed to do that and then I directed my studies towards business. I turned to business school and then again I got the second-best [grade] and I was disappointed because I didn’t get the best one.
Sometimes you need to learn to be happy; you need to realise that when you don’t get exactly what you want, you need to be satisfied with what you have, especially when it is objectively quite good.
And after that I understand you were swept off your feet by Goldman Sachs bank in London. How did it feel to work away from home?
I remember my dad crying. And I was just going to London. You know? London is at the suburbs of Paris. It is as close as Lyon. But at the time there was no tunnel. So, you needed to get there by plane. So, I got there, my first job was on the trading floor.
You can imagine it is a big area of about 2,000 to 3,000 square metres. It is where you have people sitting next to each other, no privacy whatsoever and then you work with all the people. I was working in corporate finance. What is corporate finance? It is a big word. It is when a company needs money and they need it in a special form.
They need somebody to take a stake in the company and then you design a product called a share and then you sell the shares to a number of people who are willing to take part of the capital. So, I was working in this area. Advising companies how to raise this kind of money.
How long were you at Goldman Sachs?
Only two years and I managed to get fired from my first job.
What did you do?
Something really bad. I rebelled. I told the boss of my boss that what he was saying was wrong and I got off my team to another team…so, I was deadweight to my own team; and these banks from time to time, they fire people, five per cent to 50 per cent of the workforce. So, they had a plan to fire people. They looked at where I was and they say ‘ohh this girl, she is not what she should be, let’s fire her’.
But it was an extreme shock to me but a wake-up call also because for the first time of my life, I thought to myself, what am I doing here, what am I doing in an investment bank in London? Is it something I really want to do?
Is it me or is it something to please my dad or my mom or society? So, I was sort of addicted to recognition from others and to be fired, I sat home for about two days, not getting out, crying myself to sleep because it was such a disappointment to myself. I had failed.
And I was not designed to fail. You know? For a French person to be fired is an extreme shock. You don’t get fired unless you have done something terribly wrong or you are a complete failure. I think if this had not happened, I would not be here. It was one of those moments in life where something is turning around.
So, when you snapped out of that self-pity, where did life take you?
I thought I had two options, either I go back to my country and be close to my family or I leverage on my investment in this banking industry and go banking but with a personal scheme. My scheme was: I am going to stay there for ten years and then have a second life.
But because I was getting paid quite a lot in the banking industry versus any job I could have chosen, I thought okay this is my ticket to freedom. I do this, I save my money and at the end of this ten-year period, I will be able to do what I want….destiny took me back to London, more or less the same place.
It was pretty weird in that sense but I picked a place where I thought it would be easier for me to comply… I lasted two years in JP Morgan until I reached a point and realized it was too much and I had to get out. At that time, I looked at my watch and calendar and it was ten years.
Plays People Have The Power by Patti Smith
Where did the reality of leaving JP take you?
It was not that easy because I went down with some sort of depression. I am not sure whether it was medically such a state but I felt like my life was collapsing at the time.
I had got married and my marriage was not doing well, my mother got healed and is fine now but we were all having bad thoughts about her health and then my working life was not that great because my product was not performing well. So, when these three things are not working at all, you feel really bad.
From one day to the next, I said to my boss that I need to take some holidays and I went to Thailand. In Thailand, I started to meditate with monks and walking at the sea…Going to bed very early and really catching myself in this world that you describe as a bubble. You can’t see yourself for real unless you stretch from it.
So, when there, it took me two weeks, I was cooling down, reflecting, and when I went back, I was very cool. I had made my decision, I was changing my life and I was stopping investment banking and I was going to do something else. I had no idea what it would be but I knew it was not going to be business. I did not want to go in the profit-making industry anymore.
I became a photographer. I went to a photography school and I became a photographer and an author and did photography for a variety of magazines and so on but at the end of the day, I wanted to take pictures of people and tell their story. People I like to photograph are the most vulnerable people.
I photographed children or old people or prisoners. I used my photography to tell a story and also have an underlying message to put people who are in the shadows back in the light. So, I did that and I met my current husband at the time and then he went back home one day complaining that I don’t like my life, I don’t like my work, this is boring.
I said okay fine, now is the time to do something meaningful. Let us go wok for an NGO. Let’s go work in a country far away, which is full of trouble and we can help in one way or another... I was offered to go to Sudan in Darfur. In 2005, I went there and I became the programme coordinator for northern Darfur.
It was my first time in civil war. I used to see it on TV and all of a sudden you are in the TV. It was a life changer. I discovered myself as well. I witnessed children dying from hunger. I saw people come from villages which had been burnt. I talked to women who had been raped. So, I encountered this reality.
That was an experience that will stay with me forever and changed my life because I felt I was at the right place, I was meant to be there. I was beside the Sudanese people in suffering and I felt good. There were marriages I was invited to, there were parties, music in the middle of this.
How did you get out of there?
It was a one-year assignment…
Plays a Cameroonian song
By this time as you leave Darfur, had you had children with your husband?
Well, we decided in Darfur to have children but it was difficult; for medical reasons it was difficult for me. So, when I came back to France, I saw a doctor and he said something quite terrible to us. He said we could not have children ever.
It was a big, big shock for us. He even implied that possibly my stay in Darfur experiencing children in suffering could have been the reason for it not working. So, the feeling you get at such a moment is really mixed.
At one side you have this reality of not having children; for women is very difficult; on the other hand, blaming experience in Darfur had too many emotions. That was the price to pay, it sounded like.
I got back into my regular way of life and all of a sudden it worked again and my doctor said it is miracle, you can do it but you really need to have a relaxed life now. Two weeks later, I was in Lebanon, during the war with Israel!…I was there for three weeks…
Back to private life, there you are expecting children…
I went back to France and managed to get pregnant a few weeks later and I had my first son. His name is Augustine and he is nine years old. I was really excited to have him.
After that I wanted to have other children but it was getting tougher and tougher physically. I had to get medical help and I managed to have twins. I am a nalongo. They are six years old now, a girl and a boy.
How did you handle raising these three children beside your busy schedule of work?
It is a balance. I have my husband and it is a teamwork and before I became an ambassador here, I was working in NGO business but I had my schedule. I could do whatever I wanted, I could care for my children in the day and when I had evening meetings and appointments, my husband would take over.
I don’t think I am tailored to be an at-home mom, I have no patience. I love the quality moment with my children. I want to be with them and play with them. Am I a bad mother? I don’t know. I am that type of mother who provides the quality time but I am not in the kitchen cooking cookies.
How did you get into diplomacy?
When I was president to my NGO, which was working in 47 countries, most of them were in the midst of war or damaged by natural catastrophes, so I was really in close contact with the ministry of foreign affairs.
Because we were working in the same countries; so, I got to know these people quite well, especially the crisis centre and I became friends with the director… My profile was completely different from your usual diplomat.
So, I have a discussion with the director and he says what about becoming an ambassador? I said that is not possible. I mean I come from the outside and I don’t have the qualifications. He said but you know we want some people from the outside to have another perspective. And we also want more women and you know you have this profile about finance, humanitarian work; so, you are interesting in that perspective.
We start putting my CV around and after a while you are contacted, you begin meeting people, pretty informal, it is not an interview but, rather, getting to know you…they asked me what countries I like to go to and Uganda was perfect for me.
What about it?
You have refugees from South Sudan, so there is a humanitarian element. You have the geopolitical environment which is very interesting and Uganda is in the centre of these very many countries.
Uganda has stability and is developing... I will do my best to have French companies invest in this country… When you look at it, it has all the components where I can possibly add value….my children love it, especially the weather.
What is your favorite meal?
Matoke and peanut (ground nut) source, that is for sure. Uganda avocado is the best I ever tasted. I like the tilapia and I think the meat here is extraordinary, you have high-quality beef! I am still getting to know more recipes…
Do you have plans of getting involved in politics?
Yeah, because politics, unlike what most people think, is a very noble type of work, a social commitment to people and the world. I am interested because I want to make an impact as you have heard I am hungry for experience and life in general…
Do you ever get angry?
Yes. The state of the world in terms of the level of intolerance gets me really angry. The bureaucracy also gets me crazy. Sometimes people lose meaning of what they do and they want to have these pieces of paper... But angry mostly at the lies that I hear on television and radios and sometimes I have to say I am angry at journalists for not telling the one telling the lies that they need to denounce the lie.
They need to get their work done. When somebody says something that is not true, you (journalists) must jump to their throat and say you are lying right now. I am hearing things which are not true in France at the moment and I am getting very angry and I want to tell the journalist to tell the people that it is a lie…
What gives you a good laugh?
I like singing and I sing very badly…
If you were marooned on a desert island and were allowed to carry one thing or one person, who or what would you take?
My husband or a book.
Plays a French song
TRANSCRIPT BY JOSEPH KIMBOWA