Published: 04/05/2019

Rose Clarke Nanyonga, PhD, started her leadership journey by putting one foot in front of the other, literally. As a 17-year-old, she walked for 52 kilometers across central Uganda, fleeing her family where children were harmed (a practice commonly referred to as child sacrifice) in an effort to earn blessings from ancestors or to attract wealth.

Once safely in Kampala, Nanyonga found a job as a nursing assistant. Years later, she would travel to the United States, where she earned degrees from Arkansas Tech, Baylor and ultimately Yale University. With a doctorate in nursing, she chose to return to Uganda and is now vice chancellor at Clarke International University.

At first, the position was challenging, Nanyonga told me in an article about global women leaders for Stanford Medicine magazine.

“I was in leadership, but I was so isolated,” Nanyonga told me. “I didn’t have the connections that I wanted to have. Or the encouragement that I desperately needed.”

Attending the inaugural Women Leaders in Global Health conference at Stanford in 2017 made a difference, she said. “The conference at Stanford felt like an intervention because it plugged me back into a network of like-minded people.” The conference was spearheaded by Michele Barry, MD, director of the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, with help from other leaders in global health.

Rose Clarke Nanyonga poses with a mentee at the Women Leaders in Global Health conference in London in 2018.

For my article, I first interviewed Nanyonga over the phone at the end of her day 10 time zones ahead of California, where my day was just beginning. She told me about her life and her job and her hopes for students at her university. Somehow the connection felt so close that when I met her in London, a month later at the second Women Leaders in Global Health conference, I immediately moved to hug her but stopped myself because maybe that was just a little too Midwestern of me.

“Are you a hugger?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said, “I’m from Africa.”

We talked some more right then. And over the course of the two-day conference, we spoke a few more times about her work with Nursing Now, a global campaign to recognize nurses and to improve gender equality. We talked about a student she mentors at home. And we talked about Rose’s Journey, a 10K walk she organized in Kampala to raise awareness and bring an end to ritualistic child sacrifice.

Nanyonga is still on a leadership journey and she’s bringing others along with her. I feel lucky to be one of them.

Illustration by Sally Deng; Photo by Jody Berger