Before I begin with the interview, here are a few highlights from the past ten days:
- Rafting and paddle boating along the serene Nile River with wild Australian ladies yelling “flip, flip” and yes we did flip;
- Watching children catch grasshoppers to fry as a nice afternoon snack;
- Celebrating Thanksgiving with my American housemate and other Americans that are working at an orphanage;
- Buying photos for the girls in Nebbi for $1 a piece in town, feeling proud that I did it alone, coming back to the office to tell the girls and realizing that I was scammed. Monica taking me back to the shop and demanding the money back, and not getting it. Monica pointing at the man and saying “This is the not the end of this!” and leaving with me in a huff;
- Running through bushes and trees during the MTN 10K run and witnessing the Kenyan marathon winner with amazingly small, but sculpted legs;
- Debating solutions to the Congo War with activist bloggers at the FEMRITE office (Uganda Women Writers Association) with a new friend Grace (Nancy, thanks for introducing me to Grace!); and
- Munching on Irish Soda Bread that my housemate Roisin beautifully made.
The Nile River at sunset
I decided to interview my friend Charles for this piece. I met him at the Anti-Corruption demonstration/protest that I attended last week and saw him again in town. This is his story:
What’s your occupation?
I’m an artist by profession though I do some other work when I am free. I get some commissions from a communications company called U-Telecom and I do some data entry.
Can you describe the youth organizing that you are a part of?
I have started a social networking page on Facebook called “Youth in Support of Term Limit Restoration”. I mobilize the youth for this cause. Our leaders have disappointed us. They have abused their mandate of the citizens. They are so corrupt, more than ever before in this country. I thought it would be best to organize ourselves because with combined efforts with other NGOs we can make a difference and champion our cause. Maybe when the time for change comes there will be an organized group. That’s why I created a link to chart our way forward and possibly in the future we will start meeting to share ideas if needs be.
How did you get involved in activism?
During my time at Makerere University I was a leader. In my first year I was elected as a Culture Minister. That post was entirely for mobilization for any event or any social cause, for example to protect the social welfare of students while in university or to organize sports activities. From there, I received the skills and talent to engage with the public.
Did you take part in many protests at Makere?
Yes, we had a protest about the living allowances meant for students on government sponsorship who were not staying on campus. The university officials were taking long to pay the allowances and they wanted to change the policy and invest the money in other areas. But, when we demonstrated and stayed even after getting tear gassed, it made a difference because the students started receiving their money that they were entitled to.
Why do you think the demonstration was successful?
It was a peaceful demonstration during which all students refused to attend classes. We tried to meet with the officials concerned and when they avoided us we made our concerns louder and a bit more aggressive. The officials called us to meet and we discussed a way forward together.
How have you integrated activism into your daily life in Kampala?
Where I live we have a bad road that is so dusty and bumpy and our leaders haven’t done anything to maintain it. I organized the community to hold a peaceful demonstration to awaken the leaders that there is a problem. We met with local leaders and councillors and they promised to work on the road. When they came, they filled the potholes, but the expectation was to tarmac the whole road. They didn’t fix the problem so we demonstrated. Then they promised us that in the next financial year they would finish the road. The nature of our leadership here is that there are those that do certain works on the roads in order to get money from the maintenance works.
How did you mobilize community members to demonstrate?
We have a stage for the boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers so we first mobilized them and then people started paying attention. We communicated along the way with other people who were concerned but didn’t know what to do. We are expecting the new road in the next financial year. When we don’t react and take charge and demand for accountability, leaders don’t listen or do work.
Do you think most Ugandans are apathetic to politics?
Most Ugandans are too scared because of our history. Those that have lived during the past regimes are pessimistic and maybe naïve. They have fear. Whenever they see the guns they think that something worse may happen. But, in today’s world where there is accountability and an international community, some of us feel that we can’t loose our lives just like that. These leaders need to be accountable for lost lives. That is why we try to guarantee that we are safe.
Do you think people are also afraid that Uganda could go back to war?
People are afraid because people don’t know what tomorrow will be like. There is no clear indication that there will be a peaceful transfer of power to a new regime. It is tricky because a change of government is not so certain. The elections are not democratic, instead they are marked with violence and rigging. Like other leaders in Africa, those in leadership use their public office to determine the outcome of elections. The elections are not legitimate; leaders manipulate their way into power. People have lost hope and a sense of direction in terms of where the country will be in the years to come.
Thank you, Charles! For your honesty and courage to speak up when many Ugandans are silenced either due to fear or ignorance. I have had many conversations such as these with other Ugandans and most agree (but not all) that the corruption must stop. The how is another question. A mass protest, called “Walk to Work” (since protests are illegal) were organized last year by the opposition party, but now that the opposition leaders are under illegal house arrest there is not much movement or noise. Even most Ugandans weren’t aware of the Anti-Corruption march and there are many reasons why. I hope that people will wake up, like we all should no matter where we are, and demand government accountability and a form of representation for all people, not just a few.