When Anja de Feijter first set foot in Uganda 17 years ago, she had no idea it would turn out to be her permanent home.
Anja, the executive director of Agribusiness Development Center (ADC) – an initiative of the Robobank Foundation and dfcu bank – is just one of many foreigners that come to Uganda and never leave.
Strange that as millions of Ugandans would give everything to ‘escape’ their country to settle in the Netherlands where Anja was born and raised, there are people in the West whose dream is to hold a Ugandan passport like Anja does.
EXODUS TO AFRICA
When she was told of an opportunity to work in the East African country, she started to do research and the results were not pleasant.
The country was recovering from the deadly Ebola virus that had killed hundreds including championing medical workers such as St Mary’s hospital Lacor’s Dr Matthew Lukwiya.
This, on top of the HIV pandemic that was becoming Uganda’s new normal. Her peers thought she was mad to abandon a well-paying job, good house, car and good life to go to a ‘jungle infested with deadly viruses and backward people’, as many in the West still envisage Africa.
But it was to Africa and Uganda that Anja headed and found happiness. Born in August 1967 in southwestern Netherlands, Anja is the only child of agriculturalists Raines and Jannie de Feijter.
Coming from an agricultural family, Anja says, at a very young age she also developed love for agriculture.
“When I was 12, I told my parents I wanted to be the minister of agriculture. It was a bit strange for a young girl; others my age would want to be hairdressers,” she said in a recent interview. Anja’s father was born just after World War II, which had left a trail of destruction with de Feijter’s farm having no single animal left.
Anja’s father and his siblings could not go back to school. Anja says her father, hurt by not getting full education, worked very hard so his daughter would not suffer the same fate.
“He started his own business selling vegetables using a wheelbarrow; he became a very successful businessman,” Anja says.
Aged 16, Anja left her family home for Amsterdam to pursue education because her home district was not as developed.
She went to a horticulture school for four years. Thereafter she moved to the Royal Tropical Institute in the east of Netherlands and pursued a course in international agricultural marketing for four years.
Finally, Anja proceeded to Wageningen University and Research Centre and pursued a degree in agricultural economics, graduating in 1996.
“I took the longest route to study to become an agricultural engineer; I was 28 when I graduated,” she says.
After graduating, she refused to go back to manage the family business, opting to look for a job in the capital. She says she looked for jobs in vain, triggering anger and frustration especially after many years of studying.
A friend told her of an advertisement for an agricultural IT consultant, but she had no idea about IT; nevertheless, she applied. She excelled during the interview as the most eloquent.
“They said they can teach me how to do programming but they were not sure they could teach the other guys how to communicate. I got the job of consultancy despite the fact that I had just left the university,” Anja says.
She worked with the company for four years until one of her clients challenged her on when she was planning to ever use her agriculture education.
ROYAL VAN ZANTEN
There was an opportunity in Uganda as director of an eight-hectare Dutch flower farm, Royal Van Zanten.
“I said, ‘I haven’t been to Uganda but if you can give me a ticket, I can go check it out’,” she says.
When she arrived in September 2000 she was very excited and felt right at home in Uganda.
“I went to Mukono to see how people would react; they were very friendly; everyone was greeting me like I had been part of them. It was a normal thing to see a mzungu on the street. I said to myself, I think I should try the job,” Anja says.
She says that decision was not hard at all, seeing that she had no partner or children to worry about.
“My only question was whether the people of Uganda were going to accept me as a boss? I was still very young, new in Africa, and majority of the workers at the farm were Muslims; were they really going to accept me?” Anja says.
The farm had had strikes before, with workers complaining about poor working conditions. The other worry was about her parents who possibly would not welcome the idea of their only child moving thousands of miles away.
“My parents knew I really wanted to go and explore new things; I was not happy in the Netherlands,” Anja says.
“My dad always said if he had the opportunity when he was younger, he would have done the same thing. My mum never complained about it but I think she found it very difficult. Although we had weekly phone calls, I think she missed a traditional daughter who gets married and has babies.”
In Mukono she was introduced as the new production manager for three months to gain confidence before she took over as the overall boss.
“I realized that 80 per cent of the workers were female; I could relate with them more than any male director.”
She says she improved the welfare of the workers, getting children care facilities, improving wages and within no time she had stolen the hearts of the workers.
After three years at Royal Van Zanten Uganda, she was promoted to regional director overseeing five countries including Brazil and South Africa.
TAKING THE RISK
She spent five years at Royal Van Zanten and in 2006 resigned, tired of working for other people.
“My grandfather asked me when I was 18 whether I wanted to take on the family business. I said no, because I wanted to work for myself.”
So, after working hard and making another person a lot of money, Anja was convinced she could put the same energy and passion into her own businesses.
She ventured into different things, including exporting vegetables to South Sudan and the Netherlands. She also did consultancies for Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, and acted as a sales agent for seed companies in Uganda, among other ventures.
And where was her love life in all these flowers, vegetables and consultancies? Where were the babies and family?
Well, Anja says she almost got married at 23 to her college sweetheart. However, the desire to further her education after college got in the way of marriage to Bas Romkes.
“We had agreed he would give me five years to finish my degree and all those things that I was busy with at that time,” she remembers.
Romkes moved to Zambia where he spent the five years Anja had asked for.
“After five years and three months he came back; I said okay, I’m ready. We had a beautiful time together on the day he arrived, but the following day he said: ‘There is one thing I wanted to tell you; I’m already living four years with another woman in Zambia; so, give me time to go back and sort that out before you can join me’,” Anja says.
A year later, she followed Romke to Zambia, but heartbreakingly, he chose his Africa-based sweetheart over Anja.
“It was very sour; he was the love of my life. We had the same group of friends…but what could I do?” Anja says, now able to smile about the experience.
Down but not out, after some time in Uganda, Anja met another former college mate who was working for another flower farm in Uganda.
They dated for two years, but he too fell in love with another woman whom he married and moved to Tanzania with. She briefly gave up on romance, but then started dating an Indian she refuses to name.
“I wasted another five years of my life with him. He also married another woman; they have two babies now,” Anja says.
Finally, she decided to embrace Uganda fully, even finding a Ugandan man whose identity she fiercely protects.
“I’m very happy with him. He knows that I’m not going to live in any other country but Uganda.”
Anja, who talks to me in her Bugolobi home as she cuddles her two dogs, says she wanted children; they just never came as expected.
UGANDAN HEART AND PASSPORT
If anything makes Anja radiate, it is her Ugandan passport issued more than a month ago.
She says after spending eight years in the country, she applied to get a passport but all her efforts previously bore no fruit. She had to first prove she had contributed to Uganda enormously.
She always wanted to contribute to lifting Ugandans from poverty. She worked with various ministries to try and make a difference for Uganda.
“Now we [ADC] are training farmers, trying to introduce high-quality seeds. In all the years I have been in Uganda, I have never understood why farmers cannot have access to the same quality of seeds like my family always had. Why development partners still promote saving seeds in Uganda when there is no war at all,” Anja says.
It is this contribution that convinced officials at Immigration department that she was fit for Ugandan citizenship.
“I’m very happy that I’m now a Ugandan citizen. Ever since I got my passport, I have been moving with it everywhere. I’m a Mzungu-Ugandan,” Anja says proudly, showing me her gem.
She wants to be buried in Uganda, should her father die before her.
“When I went to bury my mother in August, my father said he had booked his grave on top of my mum’s. I asked him, ‘what about me, where do you want to put me when I die?’ He said, ‘I always assumed you would want to be buried in Uganda, not in the Netherlands’,” Anja quotes her father.
“As long as my dad is alive it wouldn’t be fair for him if I’m buried in Uganda, because I don’t think he would be able to travel to Uganda. So, out of respect for my dad they should send me back to the Netherlands; but if my dad is no longer alive, there is no reason to send me back…bury me in Mukono,” Anja says.
Despite being in Uganda for 17 years, Anja’s Luganda is limited to words such as sebo, nyabo, kale, sente meka, gyangu, tugende.
Much of the English she speaks with a heavy Dutch accent was learnt in Uganda.