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Winnie Byanyima, executive director, Oxfam InternationalRachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Winnie Byanyima is tired. It's early morning and, suitcase in tow, she is just off an eight-hour flight from Uganda, her native country. The executive director of Oxfam International has met me in the tiny, noisy seating area at the back end of a vaguely French bakery called Bonne Bouche near London's Paddington train station. Her mobile phone is out of battery, she faces a barrage of meetings in Oxford, where Oxfam is based, and announces she has to flee in a mere 45 minutes.

So, I spring into action, plunk the recorder on the table and she goes silent, not willing to share her story with a pack of strangers only centimetres away from us. "Let's get out of here," she says, looking annoyed. Being chivalrous, I grab her suitcase and, five minutes later, we are having breakfast in the Hilton Paddington lobby.

The Hilton lobby is noisy, too, but as she tucks into a bacon sandwich, Ms. Byanyima relaxes and doesn't stop talking for almost two hours – so much for the 45-minute deadline. She warms up, is pleased when I tell her that my teenage daughter is a volunteer worker at an Oxfam used-clothing shop in north London, smiles and laughs as she recounts the remarkable story of her eccentric African youth, her escape from Idi Amin's murderous regime and rise through Uganda's parliament and the international-development and human-rights worlds.

In 2013, she landed at Oxfam, one of the world's biggest agencies for emergency relief, poverty eradication and development, where she has used her position to hound the rich at the World Economic Forum in Davos, to anger Western multinational corporations by calling for a global tax authority, and to fight the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Along the way, she parted company with Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson, who was an Oxfam global ambassador, over Johansson's promotion of SodaStream, the Israeli company whose factory is located in occupied territory in Palestine's West Bank.

"I love my job," says Ms. Byanyima, who considers herself first and foremost a social justice advocate.

Ms. Byanyima has none of the air of a firebrand revolutionary; nor that of an executive who oversees a confederation of 17 Oxfams around the world (including Oxfam Canada and Oxfam Quebec), 10,000 employees and 50,000 interns and volunteers. She is soft spoken, to the point that I strain to hear her, and she dresses simply: jean jacket, colourful, long Indian dress and lots of purple – purple blouse, earrings and head scarf. She is 56 and looks a decade younger.

She can be playful. When I tell her that I am soon going on "holiday," she gives me a funny look and says: "You white people are always going on holiday. We just go home to the village."

Ms. Byanyima was born in the "small dusty town" of Mbarara, a city in southwestern Uganda near the Rwandan and Tanzanian borders. She was one of seven children (one died) to Boniface and Gertrude Byanyima, two headstrong schoolteachers who became social justice crusaders. They had little money, no running water and no electricity. Young Winnie walked five kilometres to school and studied by kerosene lamp.

Her childhood was anything but normal. Boniface, now 95, became a local politician who gained a reputation for fighting injustice and opposing the dictatorship, and was routinely flung into jail. "I remember he was once arrested because he had secretly taken photographs of prisoners who were taken out of jail and being used by some politicians as their personal workers," she says. "He exposed the politicians' abuse of power and the police arrested him. He always said that dying for the cause of justice would be a good thing."

Her mother, an orphan who was raised by French-Canadian nuns from Chicoutimi, Que., was a women's rights activist and supported the family by making clothes on a Singer sewing machine, growing food and running a hardware store. Gertrude was an especially fierce opponent of arranged girlhood marriage, which often happened when the girls reached puberty. "She would fight to keep girls in school," Ms. Byanyima says. "She used to hide young girls in our house to prevent them from getting married."

Ms. Byanyima was not even a teenager yet, but the exposure to activism would set her career path. "Our home really became a centre for opposition," she says. "Anyone who was suffering abuses of power and oppression ran to us. So I grew up seeing that as a normal thing … I grew up thinking the most decent job to do was to fight injustice."

Anyone with ambition, though, had to get around Idi Amin first. The psychotic Ugandan dictator, who rose to power in a 1971 coup d'état, slaughtered his opponents, including intellectuals, expelled the Asian business class, collapsing the economy, and stripped women of what few rights they had, right down to banning lipstick and short skirts.

Ms. Byaniyma attended Kampala's Makerere University for a year as one of three women in the engineering faculty.

"Then an incident happened that I never talk about," she says. "It made me realize I wouldn't get my degree without making a lot of compromises with this awful regime."

Her plan: To obtain a passport, no easy feat during the crazy Amin years, and flee to Britain.

She went to see a higher education commissioner to obtain permission to study overseas. The commissioner insisted on meeting her at a hotel – a sex attempt set-up. She fled. A week later, another meeting was arranged for her, this time with the country's very top education official, in his office. Of course, it was another harassment attempt. "I walked out and was shaking with fear, and ran down 10 flights of stairs," she says.

She found refuge with an aunt, learned that "some men" were looking for her – they had showed up at her university room – and realized she had to get out of the country in a hurry. Her mother paid a small fortune for a forged Ugandan passport and bought three American $100 bills on the black market. Using a "rat path" at night to avoid border soldiers, she stole across the Kenyan frontier, made it to Nairobi and hopped a flight to London.

Her adventure wasn't over. At Heathrow airport, she tried to exchange her American money for pounds at the foreign exchange counter. One of the three bills was a fake and suddenly she was in trouble again. Trembling with fear and crying as the police arrived, she claimed innocence. The police believed her. She gained refugee status and was on her way to a new life. She was 18.

At the University of Manchester, she received a degree in aeronautical engineering, then indulged her political passions and became a revolutionary. By that time, Idi Amin had been deposed, only to be replaced by the repressive regime of Milton Obote. Ms. Byanyima joined the National Resistance Movement, led by an old family friend, Yoweri Museveni, to bring him down in what became known as the Ugandan Bush War (Mr. Museveni has been Uganda's president since 1986). After receiving a masters' degree from University of Cranfield, she returned to Uganda and was elected to three terms in the Ugandan parliament, where she championed gender equality rights.

Along the way, she married the Ugandan politician Kizza Besigye, the perennial and oft-arrested presidential candidate, and had a son, Anselm, who is now 15 and attending a boarding school in Connecticut. Then, she stepped onto the world stage. She had stints at the African Union Commission and the United Nations Development Program, where she was director of gender and development. She is co-founder of the Global Gender and Climate Alliance.

As Oxfam's boss, she has set a few lofty, seemingly unattainable goals. The biggies are highlighting extreme wealth inequality and the evils of multinational corporations gaming national tax systems. She is lobbying for a global tax body that would close loopholes and clamp down on tax dodging, especially in developing countries. While the idea may seem absurd to Western governments and companies, Ms. Byanyma observes that "we have international organizations for health, trade and football, even for coffee, but not tax. Why not?" (She was referring to the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, FIFA and the International Coffee Organization.)

Ms. Byanymia is getting more traction on the wealth-divide file, where Oxfam-sponsored research show that the richest 1 per cent have seen their share of global wealth rise to 48 per cent in 2014 from 44 per cent in 2009.

Executives such as Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, the world's largest advertising agency, have challenged Oxfam's argument that the growing wealth divide helps to spread poverty. "You have no proof … that equality brings prosperity," he told Ms. Byanyima during a Davos TV panel in January. But research by the International Monetary Fund and other economic think tanks supports Oxfam's that inequality does damage growth.

At the end of our long breakfast, I feel that I have barely scratched the surface of the Byanyima file. She is late and has to get to Oxford. I toss in one more question: What do you want to do when you leave Oxfam (her term goes until 2018)? "Whatever I do, it will be fighting for social justice," she says.


Winnie Byanyima, executive director, Oxfam International

Age: 56

Birthplace: Mbarara, Uganda

Education: MSc, mechanical engineering, energy conservation and environment, University of Cranfield; BSc, aeronautical engineering, University of Manchester

Family: Married to Ugandan politician Kizza Besigye; one child, son Anselm, 15

Favourites …

Author: Nigeria's Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Film: Gone With the Wind

Place: Rwenzori Mountains, on border of Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo

City: Cape Town

Pastime: Gardening

Collection: African paintings

Follow Eric Reguly on Twitter: @eregulyOpens in a new window

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