Determined to get an education, Athieno worked to pay her school fees

In 2013, Stella Athieno only dreamt of becoming somebody. However, how she would achieve this was a puzzle even she could not solve. Through her great leadership skills and impeccable grades, she had managed to win a partial scholarship from Great Aubrey Memorial College in Tororo District, western Uganda. However, although Athieno had secured the scholarship, she could not afford the school fees balance.

But as luck would have it, the school’s administration allowed her to continue with her A-level studies free of charge, coupled with other benefits that came with being the school’s head girl. However, poverty once again reared its ugly head when Athieno failed to fill the JAB forms since she could not afford to pay the required fees. With that, even though she had performed exceptionally well, she could not go to university on government sponsorship. Consequently, Athieno did not go to school until a year later.

Finding her footing

The communication consultant with a global communications agency, Hill and Knowlton, figured that if she did not do something about the situation, she would remain stuck in Tororo. This desire to rise above her confines gave her zeal to travel to Kampala on the promise of her brother’s friend that all would be well. Unfortunately, on reaching Kampala, Athieno once again faced disappointment as her would be sponsor had switched off her phone.

“I do not know how or why but her cousin came to my rescue.” Heading to Naguru Barracks, her new home, she learnt that it was just the two of them as the ‘sponsor’ had also abandoned the place. It was then that she learned that the lady had fabricated lies and left her hanging. With harsh reality hitting her, Athieno moved from place to place, often walking to many, in search of a job.

Working as a waitress

Today, she does consultancy work for several companies besides her job. However, nine years ago, she had had to stay true to what she wanted to achieve and avoid temptation from the many men who approached her thinking she was easy prey.

“Growing up in a Christian home, I always found it so hard to give in to temptation even though I was struggling. Although I had finished my A-Level studies in late 2012, it was only in March 2013 that I got a job at a Chinese restaurant at Centenary Park in Kampala. Although thankful for the opportunity to earn some money, the pay was miserable and I put in a lot of hours, sometimes arriving home past midnight.

“Moreover, I not only had to use this little money for my own needs, I also had to send some back home. At one point I lost hope and started thinking of getting married. However, giving up on my larger-than-life dreams was not an option. With that, I kept pushing. Later, I was later transferred to the restaurant’s Nakasero branch and here, the pay was better.”

University scholarship

During that time, her mother learned that Kampala International University (KIU) was offering partial scholarships to students from various districts. Determined to aid her daughter in her search for a better life, she sold a piece of land to get money and help her daughter.

“While the scholarships are free and I met all the qualifications, we paid money despite being needy. At that time, all that mattered was that I got the scholarship. Then another puzzle arose; where would I get the rest of the tuition from? Despite working in a restaurant, my salary, including tips was insufficient.”

Nonetheless, Athieno feels that everything she went through was a lesson to make her a better person. Indeed, it was not long before an opportunity opened up next door (Kampala Club). The beauty here was that she could work in shifts. She therefore engaged management to allow her work the night shift while using the day for school. To cater for her tuition, Athieno always asked for an advance from work then lived off tips for the rest of the period. This was the routine for the next three years.

Joining university

At school, Athieno, a student of journalism involved herself in several activities. Because of this, she was identified and asked to volunteer in the public relations office, a stepping stone to her career.

“My life revolved around the PR office, class and Kampala Club, never having a social life. That was also because I usually finished my shift past midnight. During this time, I rested whenever the opportunity arose and watched movies to relieve stress. I also delegated duties that could be done by others. For example, I paid someone to help me wash my clothes and clean the house. Ultimately, you do not have to do everything by yourself. All this comes with prioritizing what you can do and what you can delegate. Moreover, the cost of the help is less than we envisage.”

Voluntary and paid employment

Upon graduation in 2017, Athieno knew she was worth more than before thus reaching out to the Secretary-General of Red Cross via Twitter. “Detailing what I can do, I asked for a job. He was gracious to give me the contact of their communication boss; Ms Irene Nakasiita. I reached out and she agreed to a meeting, although she later told me that there were no job openings. We left off with a promise that she would reach out when one came through. True to her word, when a volunteering opportunity came up two weeks later, Ms Nakasiita called me up. I did this alongside being a waitress for the next four months earning Shs20,000 per day for my transport and feeding. Although the contract was renewed upon expiration, around that time, I got an offer with my current workplace in November 2018.”

Thereafter, Athieno says things started shifting in her favour and she was able to let go of the club job having got an assurance of a salary. That said, it has been a lot of work. “It has been a journey of dealing with self-doubt because oftentimes, I did not think I was good enough for the opportunities that came my way. That was due to rejection suffered previously coupled with the arrogant remarks from patrons that came to the restaurant and club. These continually made me feel worthless. To overcome that, I have continually reminded myself that I have worked hard and deserve to be where I am. Additionally, I invest in myself to become a better person in various spheres.”


She is thankful that nothing came on a silver platter because she has become resilient. Athieno also came to appreciate that while waiting is hard, patience always pays off.

“I almost gave up, listening to the many offers that came my way from men that promised to take care of me. However, I stood strong and realised how powerful I am and that I can do anything as long as I put my mind to it.” She also learned the value of networks, hence capitalising on gaining social capital. “With the contacts gained over the years, I ca