Growing up in Uganda, Maria Nabatanzi became acutely aware of poverty, limited food security, and other resource disparities that plague the youth of East Africa. Passionate, but unsure of how to build a career that would allow her to give underserved populations a voice, Maria traveled to Canada where she finished high school and began taking courses in computer science. It didn’t take long for her to realize that computer science was not for her, so with the encouragement of her mother, Maria moved to London to attend the University of York.
Today, Maria is living in her home country of Uganda where she serves as the senior communications associate consultant for UNICEF Uganda. In this role Maria has found a way to help the youth of her home country, giving them a voice through her various social media channels and field engagements. Maria uses data gathered from these channels to advocate on behalf of the youth of Africa to members of Parliament.
Though Maria didn’t always know exactly what her career would be, she knew that she wanted to help others and her hard work has paid off: It has allowed her to build perhaps the largest youth advocacy platform in Africa. Humble and gracious, Maria is an inspiration to us all, and we hope that you’re as encouraged by her story as we are. “My dream is to create engaging, innovative and unique content through traditional and digital media, which will empower my generation to make better decisions about the well being of themselves, and their families.”
Name: Maria Juliet Nabatanzi
Location: Kampala, Uganda
Current Title: Senior Communications Associate Consultant UNICEF Uganda
Education: Bachelor of Arts in Applied Social Sciences: Children and Young People
Twitter Handle: @UgGirlMaria
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
I had two jobs. I worked as a sales assistant at Clark Ltd store and as care assistant at a care home for senior citizens. As care assistant I learnt to be patient, a much needed quality for an Aries girl like myself. As a sale assistant I learnt the importance of customer service. I always thought the most extroverted personalities made the best sales people, but I surprised myself with how well I could sell. My managers took the time to train me well, something I really appreciated. I like that Clarks Ltd placed emphasis on training their sales staff on step-by-step customer service. I was later promoted to senior sales advisor because of my customer service skills, and I have used those skills in every job I’ve had since.
Take us back to the beginning. Where did you grow up? Why did you decide to move to the UK for school?
I was born in Nairobi, Kenya and my parents are Ugandan. I moved to Canada to start high school, where I graduated and started working towards my diploma in computer sciences. After a year, I realized I was not enjoying my courses, and with my parents experiencing financial constraints, I decided to move to the UK to be with my mom and complete my studies there. I was accepted to the University of York for a B.A. in applied social science with a concentration in children and young people. A month before the semester started, I was still anxious about accepting. Once again, my mother encouraged me to move forward and told me we’d both work very hard to ensure that I finished. And we did! I feel like I graduated with her; it was both our day!
Where does your drive to work for such important causes come from? Has social justice always been important to you?
I grew up in a middle class family and I would have to say I was a little spoiled. At six years old I could not imagine a world where children lacked anything. One day at the super market, I was whining and about to throw a tantrum because my mother refused to buy me a lollipop. We only brought bread and milk and as we walked to car, three children surrounded my mother asking food and money. Usually, she would give them some small change, but this time she took one of the loaves of bread and gave it one of the children. Within seconds more street children appeared; they fought over the loaf until there was nothing but crumbs and the torn plastic bag left. I was too shocked to say anything the entire way home. That day I learned to be grateful.
Every time I think of that moment, I see a different life lesson. My mom felt it was important for us to help people, and it is something I began doing in nursery school simply by looking after the smaller children. At a young age I knew I wanted to work with children, I just did not know what or how to do it. I feel that all children should have access to certain basic rights, regardless of their background.
When did you decide to return to Uganda? What motivated you?
After I finished my degree in the UK, I worked for two years but couldn’t decide what direction to go for my master’s degree. I knew I would eventually return home to Uganda—I felt I needed to go home and find out what kind of life I could create for myself. Most of my family and relatives were against this decision; they felt that without a master’s degree my career options would be limited. In Uganda, youth is 75% of the population and roughly 62% are unemployed—it’s a very competitive environment. This was the first time I made an important decision for myself. I guess life had a bigger plan for me, because I returned home and a year and half later I was working for my dream organization, UNICEF.
It was a difficult time adjusting to being back in Uganda; I had to network with different professionals to find work. I matured a lot in that time and I learned to believe in myself and in my purpose. I also learned to start taking control of my own life. Each year I am a little less anxious and a little less frightened of the future; I learned to deal with each situation as it happens.
Tell us more about what you do now for UNICEF. Walk us through a typical day.
On a quiet morning I search social media platforms (mainly twitter and Facebook) looking for stories that are trending globally and locally in Africa and Uganda. Then I dig deeper, looking at child and youth related stories. From 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. I update our social media platforms, monitor the performance of current campaigns, and answer questions and comments from our fans. Later, under the guidance of the communications specialist, I draft social media plans and our strategy for upcoming events. This usually requires working with the external communications team and specific program teams to established content and key events that need to be covered.
On a busy day we usually have events taking place; I coordinate the social media team sent in by the event’s management agencies, ensuring they stick to key messaging and drive conversation around child-related issues. The last event we had focused on the 25th anniversary of the Conventions on the Rights of the Child. They say if you work in social media you never have time off; that is true! Sometimes I am still responding to our followers well after 11:00 p.m. at night. On the weekend, I am always on my phone especially if we have national campaign going on. Our followers may report information that the program team needs to relay back Ministry of Health so it’s important for me to be consistent.
You attribute your personal tenacity to your father. What did you learn from him that has shaped you into the woman you are today?
My father is a very intuitive person. I struggled in school, especially with my English. I did not consider myself academic, athletic, or pretty. I had a very noticeably lisp and I definitely was not the popular girl. My father never made me feel bad about it, actually quite the opposite. He told me how beautiful and intelligent I was all the time. When my teachers told me that I should consider skipping the common entrance exam to get into secondary school, my father pushed me to take the exam. He told me that he knew I would pass the exam and get into secondary school, and I did. He never made me feel bad about my shortcomings; he knew that life is so much more than exams. He is the reason I am not afraid of obstacles that come my way. If I had believed my teachers, I would not be where I am today. My father always tells us to work hard, no matter what people say. I follow that advice every day.
You developed a passion for story telling early on in your career. Tell us more!
From my experience as a volunteer and youth worker, I realized that I really enjoy creating multimedia content that not only teaches but inspires, empowers, and creates positive change in the youth. Throughout my time with U-report, I traveled to over 15 districts in Uganda to collect stories from over 100 young people. I enjoy reviewing the data of multiple U-report polls sent to over 200,000 young people on a weekly basis and applying the results to human interest advocacy stories. In 2013, I worked with U-report team to produce eight TV shows focusing on topics such as teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, and youth entrepreneurship. When the shows aired, they recruited over 10,000 new young people to the program. These young people can now voice their opinions on issues within their communities that matter to them.
What inspires you? How do you stay motivated?
It’s important for all children to start with a good foundation and to know they are loved and cherished for who they are. My family did this for me, and it keeps me motivated every day. I read a lot when I was a child and as teenager I would get a new book every week. It helped me start to develop the creative skills I use today. Books like Matilda by Roald Dahl, The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, and Dr. Seuss made me believe I could achieve the impossible. I grew up knowing that if I stayed faithful to my goals and worked hard I could achieve anything. Despite everything, I still believe that eventually good triumphs. At 28-years-old, I am still slowly discovering who I am. I don’t get as upset when I make mistakes, and I am less sidetracked by obstacles. I have great family and friends who are very supportive; I now value them even more than I did before.
You are passionate about using traditional and digital media to empower young people. How does your work with UNICEF Uganda and U-report Uganda help empower women and youth?
I used to work with designers to produce a monthly newsletter on behalf of the Uganda Parliamentary Forum for Children (UPFC), focusing on child-related issues. The newsletter provides members of Parliament with real time and current information from the youth, which they can use to lobby and influence social policy in Uganda. The newsletter is delivered to all 375 members of parliament in Uganda.
In my role, I selected questions sent in by young people via SMS through the U-Report system. I work with UPFC to ensure Parliament members answer these questions. Through the monthly newsletter, the program is building positive relationships between the members of Parliament and their young constituents, especially women, and encouraging accountability and ownership of the U-report program.
The work you do is incredibly important for women everywhere! What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I love watching how people react to content! Especially when we talk about subjects such child sacrifice and child abuse; people have heartbreaking stories to share about their experiences. The beauty of the U-report program is that it is a free SMS program working across all mobile networks in Uganda. It allows youth from all over the country to participate in discussions on a local, national, and global level. In the past, most of them would have been left out of these discussions, especially those in rural areas. This disparity has created misunderstandings, misconceptions, and relationship barriers between the youth and the government. Now, key messaging sent through the U-report program allows young people to participate in nationwide campaigns. I hope more programs like this continue to grow to encourage youth participation on all levels of governance and development.
What have you learned about yourself, both personally and professionally, throughout your various work experiences?
I have learned not to worry or panic so much. I used to worry all the time. I am learning to deal with things as they come, and trust that I will figure it out. Professionally, I am learning it’s crucial to give 100% and you never know who might be watching your work; they may be impressed and offer you a job. It also very important to take time to develop your skill set. I like learning and I think it is critical for young professionals to be adaptable so they can survive in any situation.
What advice would you give women who want to make a change in their personal lives and/or in their communities but may not know where to start?
You need to believe in yourself. There will be times when you have to make decisions on your own so you need to be self-motivated. Do your research. If it doesn’t work out, don’t beat yourself up. Learn the lesson and don’t dwell on the mistakes. If you need to grieve, then grieve and move on. Life is full opportunities. Learn to adapt.
What goals are you still working toward?
In the next two years, I want be proactive in my postgraduate studies in marketing management and improve my knowledge and skills in order to become more effective at strategic marketing. I would like to start a multimedia blog called “On Following Your Dreams.” Currently, I am gathering feedback from my career mentors and peers.
What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?
You have some serious hustle, girl. You’ll be surprised! If you are an introvert and that’s OK; believe in yourself. Choose your close friends wisely. Don’t worry so much about being perfect! You will make mistakes but you’ll learn from them. Start creating your own path and take time to assess your progress.
Maria Nabatanzi is The Everygirl…
Favorite twitter accounts to follow?
@TheSingleWomen, @theverygirl, @ariannhuff, @thePearlGuideUg
Best advice you’ve ever received?
“The best thing about you is your strength, that is what going to get your through life.” From my best friend in Canada.
If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?
Italy, Spain, Thailand, Brazil
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook
The People Factor by Van Moody
Morning or night?
Morning, it is the best time meditate and get clarity.
I wish I knew how to _____.
Make infographs and design websites—I am working this!
Live your life!