Irene Atuhairwe, Seed Global Health country director on why she owes her success to her upbringing

Charity begins at home and Irene Atuhairwe,a nurse and public health specialist owes her success to her grooming. She says her mother raised her up with a strong Christian/Catholic foundation and very strict rules to follow. Although originally from Ntungamo District, her father’s death saw her grow up with her mother whose hard-working nature saw her attend some of the best schools at the time.

After her internship at Mulago National Referral Hospital, the country director of Seed Global Health volunteered at Reach Out, Mbuya, a faith-based HIV care programme, providing free care for HIV patients. These services would be offered at a church, since there was no clinic/hospital to offer space.

Since then, Atuhairwe has worked with several organisations serving people living with HIV such as Catholic Relief Services, and Uganda Catholic Medical Bureau before moving into supporting human resource for health and health systems.

In 2013, she acquired a Master’s degree in Public Health from Makerere University. Currently, she serves at Seed Global Health, an international Non-Governmental Organisation working to strengthen the health workforce to deliver quality and dignified emergency and maternal, neonatal and child health services for all Ugandans.

Besides being diligent and hardworking, Atuhairwe strongly values honesty and integrity and will quickly cut ties with anything/anyone who does not share these values. “I am also a problem solver and derive satisfaction in helping others find solutions to challenges they may be facing. Oftentimes, I have shared unsolicited solutions after someone has shared a challenge with me.”

However, joining the medical field was not premeditated as she had fancied being a lawyer from childhood. That was attributed to being very argumentative and performing well in arts. That said, at O-level, she performed better in sciences than arts thus she took sciences at A-level and the performance trend continued. With that, she scooped a government scholarship at Makerere University to study nursing and Atuhairwe would not have been any more thankful.

“It worked well for me considering my humble background. The field was also a right fit since I am compassionate and caring by nature (although sometimes I can be overbearing). Nurses are trained to take on several roles such as providing nursing care for patients, ensuring patient safety, advocating for patients, managing and leading healthcare, quality improvement and implementation science, as well as infection prevention and control.

My personality fits well into these and I believe I made the right decision to heed the call of becoming a nurse.” Flexibility and adaptability are the other virtues needed in the practice and these have enabled her to take on various roles in her career.

Nonetheless, the journey to becoming the Country Director of Seed Global Health is one she had not dreamed of though is immensely pleased with. That is because while she had served in various technical positions, Atuhairwe never thought she was shaped for leadership thus never going for it. However, God had different plans for her, seeing potential even before she could.

It was at the US Peace Corps which she had joined in 2015 working as a programme specialist and later as a program manager for one of the projects that it all happened. “One time, my boss was going on vacation and requested several colleagues to stand in as the Acting Director of Programs and Training (DPT). They turned down the offer because we were just coming out of a hectic period. When the focus was turned to me, I said yes, giving up on a vacation that I was to start in a few days.”

Atuhairwe served as DPT and supported three more programmes besides hers and the compliments from bosses and colleagues were encouraging. “One day, a member of senior management appreciated me for helping them solve an issue the team had grappled with. They further mentioned that I was a great leader, which came as a surprise and motivated me to serve even better.”

That one decision catapulted her onto a leadership path that has led to today as the opportunity gave her the confidence that she could be a great leader.

In 2019, as a Technical Advisor, Atuhairwe joined Seed Global Health and was soon requested to take on additional roles as the Deputy Country Director. Once again, she embraced the responsibility and in this role, Atuhairwe provided program and operational oversight to the country programme.

“I believe owing to my passion, values and hard work, I was later promoted to Country Director in October 2021. I know it is going to be an interesting challenge but one I welcome and believe I will serve to the best of my abilities while aiming for excellence.”

Empowering women

Aware that a woman laboured to elevate her, Atuhairwe strongly values what women bring to the table in the development and prosperity of a nation. “The most valuable empowerment my mother gave me was education and I reciprocate that among others. As such, I have supported several girls to complete their education or to achieve their goals through financial, moral and other forms of support. I believe I am privileged to be where I am today hence, I share whatever I may have from finances, job opportunities to advice with others.”

She is also a strong advocate for gender inclusion at the workplace and does everything possible to have women included and given opportunities to serve. Atuhairwe is never shy to point out inequality when she sees it and that also extends to male counterparts as she also shares opportunities and opening the door for them where she can.

“I am here today because someone saw the potential in me, opened the door and encouraged me to enter. I also try to do this for women that look up to me. Sometimes in life, one may have a lot of potential but never have the opportunity to showcase it. It all changes for the better when someone opens the door for them and I will always strive to do this for as long as I can.”

Additionally, she is a strong advocate for quality maternal care and will use any chance through writings and partner engagements to advocate for this. Subsequently, through Seed Global Health, Atuhairwe supports the training of skilled health professionals to deliver maternal, neonatal and child health. Specifically for Uganda, they are supporting the training of midwives because they believe with a highly skilled midwife who provides care to a large proportion of mothers, maternal mortality will reduce greatly.

“Very few women can afford or even access the services of an obstetrician but can easily get in touch with a midwife. Therefore, it is imperative that we train them well to ably provide quality, dignified, maternal care for all women. For other health professionals, we ensure that their training in handling maternal health conditions is adequate such that they can recognise the danger signs, offer immediate care and refer to a specialist in this field.”

Atuhairwe, who also serves on a board for a faith-based health facility in Wakiso district that ensures the facility recruits highly skilled midwives, says women need to believe in themselves and be open to opportunities that come their way. She also cautions young professionals, against turning down volunteering and additional responsibilities and opportunities to serve in a greater capacity.