Esther Nakajjigo

Nakajjigo spoke at European Development Days in Brussels in 2018 [Twitter photo]

An internationally recognized human rights activist from Uganda was killed in a tragic accident at the entrance of Arches National Park on Saturday, June 13.

The vehicle that Esther Nakajjigo was a passenger in collided with the arm of a security gate, reports from the scene indicate. Authorities said that the driver of the vehicle was not injured.

Nakajjigo was named Ambassador to Women and Girls in her home country at 17, rising to fame after using the money intended for her college education to found a nonprofit community health facility.

Shan Hackwell, public information officer for the sheriff’s office, said it took investigators some time to get in touch with Nakajjigo’s family in Uganda. Her brother and her father expressed their grief at Nakajjigo’s sudden death to NTVUganda, a Ugandan station under the Nation Media Group.

“I was rich in my heart because of my daughter Esther,” Nakajjigo’s father told reporters at NTVUganda.

Life and achievements

Esther Nakajjigo, known as “Essie,” was only 23 but had dedicated her life early on to fight for women’s rights. The young woman had already launched and participated in a host of projects and organizations serving vulnerable and oppressed populations.

At 17, she founded a nonprofit called Princess Diana Health Center, which serves teenagers and focuses on reducing teenage pregnancy. She went on to start two reality TV shows, “Saving Innocence” and “Lift: Living in the Face of Trauma.”

“Saving Innocence” connects Ugandan girls from urban backgrounds with Ugandan girls in rural areas who had children when they were teenagers. The goal of the show is to get the young women back in school and support them in projects they undertake after completing their education.

In a 2018 interview with Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she was a Mandela Washington Fellow, Nakajjigo said of the show, “I believe it is very inspiring. Many girls want to be part of this show. I think it's life-changing.”

It was so successful in Uganda that she founded a similar show called “Lift: Living in the Face of Trauma” for women living in refugee camps. Uganda has a huge refugee population, most of them from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Somalia.

“The biggest percentage of this population is women and children. They are the most vulnerable, they are unemployed, they have lost all they have,” Nakajjigo told Drexel University. On the show, she helped refugee women become economically independent.

In a memorial posted on a Drexel University website, some of Nakajjigo’s other many achievements and contributions are listed:

“Essie was also Uganda's Ambassador for Women and Girls and a member of the Women Ambassador's Forum in Dallas, Texas and a Youth Expert at the African Union-European Union Youth Cooperation Hub in Addis Ababa. Esther was also a Commonwealth Youth Trainer. In 2019, she launched the Global Girls Movement in Brussels, Belgium, where women from universities worked together to respond to the most challenging humanitarian concerns affecting the most vulnerable women and girls around the globe.”

Social media posts honoring Nakajjigo’s memory have been made by a wide range of organizations, from the Watson Institute of Boulder Colorado (of which Nakajjigo was an alumna) to the Delegation of the European Union to Uganda.

Tributes from personal friends, colleagues, and admirers all comment on Nakajjigo’s positive personality, kindness, and ready smile.

Returning to Uganda

In a presidential directive on April 19, the Ugandan government forbid the repatriation of the remains of Ugandans who pass away abroad because of fears of the coronavirus.

Family and friends of Nakajjigo in Uganda have started a petition to the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Ministry of Health in Uganda to make an exception to this prohibition for Nakajjigo.

Wilson Jaga, head of communications for the Office of Uganda’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, issued a statement supporting the petition, writing,

“We have also petitioned the Speaker of the Parliament of Uganda requesting that H. E. Esther Nakajjigo’s short lived but very instrumental life be celebrated and Essie accorded a State Funeral as a symbol of recognition of small interventions made by young people to make their country a great nation.”