Luther Anukur: From putting on skirts to raising young men


Luther Bois Anukur, Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) during the photo session in Lavington on February 9, 2023. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Luther Bois Anukur always wanted to be a chief magistrate. He wanted to wear crisp white shirts and black spit-shined shoes and drive a white VW Beetle. He wanted a gavel in his hand.

But then he went to university and read [and was lured by the problem of] poverty in Africa while studying social sciences and economics and the allure of white shirts and white Beetles faded.

His career has spanned organisations like Plan International, Panos Eastern Africa, World Vision International, and now the International Union For Conservation of Nature (IUCN) where he is the Regional Director of Eastern and Southern Africa.

At IUCN, he tries to solve the problems of poverty through nature and conservation. He is a winner of the British Council Professional Service Award, 2006 and a senior fellow with Synergos.

He brings together distinguished international civil society and business leaders committed to addressing the causes of poverty and inequality.

Tell me something surprising about yourself

[Pause] I think I get my energy and creativity in a quiet place. And usually, when I go somewhere alone, I find that new ideas just begin to flow and I get connected with myself.

Personal connections generate new thoughts and ideas for me. I get so tired of being in specific places, so moving around gives me fresher energy. It displaces old ideas.

What kind of a child were you?

Normal. I guess. I grew up in Moroto, in north eastern Uganda. My father was a primary school headmaster and my mother was a businesswoman; she ran a small shop. 

I was the fourth child out of eight - but the first boy. I was born at a time when having a son was a big deal so I came in as a good surprise.

[Chuckles] For a long time I grew up following girls, and something interesting was that I used to put on skirts.

Oh. Why?

Because I'd play with my sisters and they were all in skirts so it seemed natural to wear skirts. I admired them and so I wore skirts for a long time until the boys around me started laughing at me.

That’s when it occurred to me that wearing a skirt was not something boys did in that sense and time.

What dreams did you have in Moroto?

[Chuckle] Growing up, my father had a friend who was a chief magistrate. He would come and hang out with my dad then later go to the club. He was always impeccably dressed; very white shirts and nice black trousers and well-polished shoes.

He drove a white, spotless Beatle and I just thought this is the kind of life I need to live. (Chuckles). I admired him greatly and kept asking my sister, ‘what do you need to do to become a chief magistrate?” And she’d say, ‘you've got to read English and History.”

So I grew a liking for English and History. But then I didn’t study law. I ended up studying social sciences and economics. I remember doing a socio-policy paper where we tackled all types of societal problems, one of which was poverty.

Even though I grew up in Africa where I saw poverty, this particular lecturer helped us to uncover what it was and its impact in Africa. I was intrigued and in the end, felt like this is the path I needed to take. Something that would change lives in Africa.

When I left university I got a job as a research assistant with a United Nations Development Programme project that was dealing with the census.

How old are you now?

[Chuckles] Take a guess.

I would say 50 at the very most.

[Chuckles] I'm more than that. I'm 53.

What’s your current struggle as a 53-year-old man?

Interestingly, we always talk about the future as something so distant. I remember I used to laugh at my bosses who were in their 50s when I was still 35 years old.

I’d think of them as so old, that they’d run out of ideas. Now I’m there, in my 50s. [Laughs]. The future that we used to talk about is here, we are living it. I think what concerns me at the moment is really trying to figure out how I create the biggest impact during this phase and I see many avenues to do that.

One is working alongside young people and being an encouragement to them in any way I can. But also to engage differently in society just to see areas that help to make improvements outside of my formal work.

Do you feel it, that you're 53?

No. [Laughter] I don't feel it. It's almost like like they say age is a number, you can really feel it's just a number. I don't feel 53. Mentally, no I don't. Physically not that much, either.

Maybe what has changed, I don't like jogging now, I prefer walking. These knees no longer run as efficiently as they used to.


Luther Bois Anukur says evil never wins permanently, only temporarily during the photo session in Lavington on February 9, 2023. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

The other time I feel my age is when it comes to technology. The younger people are so versatile with technology, so comfortable with it.

You have children?

Yes, I have two sons aged 22 and 20. They're both at university. Fatherhood has been very exciting and also challenging at times. They are innocent and energetic when young.

Teenage comes with hormones and their personalities begin to grow, they start to face new challenges at school, and peer pressure and you try to guide them. When they're teenagers they prefer their peers to their parents. (Chuckles)

What do you fear for your sons?

It's interesting because this morning before I came here I was listening to something on the radio where someone was talking about the same thing. They said many parents are worried about the space in which their children are growing up.

But there is no need to fear for them because they are born at a time like this to handle the challenges of the day like this.

Encourage your children to be the change they want to be for their generation. So maybe that is my task. [Chuckles] Not to fear but to guide them to make a difference.

They're turning out to be good boys?

Yes. So when my eldest went to primary school the teachers said he wouldn't make it to university, that he wasn’t academically inclined. When he joined secondary school, he struggled with tasks. He wasn’t able to pay attention.

They suspected mild Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder [ADHD]. We took him for tests with an education psychologist who said, “there is nothing we can do for him. Think of something else for him to do other than education.”

She delivered this news while my son was seated there, something I thought was very unprofessional. She was in Upper Hill, Nairobi. On our way home I asked him what he thought about his diagnosis and he burst out crying.

I told him he was not going to be defined by what she said, that she cannot define anybody's future. We took him to a specialist in South Africa, and tests concluded that it was ADHD. We didn’t want him to be on medication for life, thankfully the doctor agreed.

She mentioned engineers in motocross with ADHD and countless other successful people. My son wasn’t good at remembering to take his medication but ADHD opened up his world. He started researching by himself this topic.

And then one time he came to me and said, “oh you know, I don't want to take this medicine, I don't want to be dependent.” The interesting part is that he is at university, yet people said he wouldn't make it. He applied for an internship at Morgan Stanley which takes one percent of the applications.

There were 100,000 applications, and he got in. He's finishing university but he's already going to work for Morgan Stanley in August.

That is amazing.

It is. The lesson for me here is that people always size up others and pass judgements on them, often based on their academic performance.

People have challenges but there is no insurmountable challenge. People do make it.

Looking back at your life, when did you experience the greatest storms?

First one. I was going to get married. We were planning an introduction meeting with my family. She called me at the bus station saying she was coming. This was during the time of landlines, before mobile phones. I went to wait for her at the bus station in the evening.

I waited until 10pm but didn't see her. The following day I learned that she had died in a road accident. I was in my early 30s. I got depressed.

It was a very big shake-up because you imagine you're in charge of life then you realise no, you're not in control. You don't know what will happen tomorrow.

The second one?

I went through in a certain agency where after growing in leadership I found myself to be the youngest country director, globally. And a very naive one. [Chuckle] I say this because some people in my office staged or masterminded a mutiny and got me fired.

It was a massive lesson for me because I didn’t see it coming. I learned the hard way, that it’s the people around you who will bring you down, never those far away.

I also learned that it’s never enough to do a great job, organisational politics is a real thing. But in a strange twist of luck, I was sacked on a Friday, I got a call from a former acquaintance on a Saturday, and Monday I started a job at JICA that was paying more than my former job.

The universe corrected itself.

Bad things happen to good people. But I also truly believe that evil never wins permanently, only temporarily.

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