Interview with an Activist

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

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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.

“This being human is a guest house…”

“This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor…Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” – Rumi

Zumba! Zumba! Zumba!

On my to-do list for the past year: “try a Zumba class” and I was able to cross that off last night. It was just what I was expecting, silly dancing while having fun. The teacher, Marjo, was a ball of joy. She is originally from Finland, but lives here now with her Ugandan/Kenyan husband and two children. The class was pretty exhausting, but fun. I also taught my first yoga class at the American Club on Tuesday night and it was wonderful. Yoga outside on the grass as the sun began to fade away into the darkness. I forgot how teaching yoga is just as relaxing as practicing yoga. Leading up to the class, my nerves were starting to enter my mind and body. What if I forgot what to say? What if I couldn’t illustrate the chataranga flow because of my sprained arm? But, then I remembered what one of our teachers Scotty used to say, “just let the yoga do its work. It’s less about the teacher and more about the practice.” That always makes me feel better, and as I started teaching the words began to flow. It also helped that three of my housemates came and offered me support. This morning, I had another class, but it was just me and some spider friends who did good downward dogs. I will have to rethink the days and may even start teaching at the US Embassy.

These days, I am cherishing each moment in this beautiful and lush country. This weekend, I am travelling to Jinja with my Irish housemates and their friends to do some serious water rafting (Level 4).  It will be nice to get away for a bit and see more of the country. Last weekend, I attended the wedding of my co-worker that was about three hours out of town in Masaka. It was the world’s longest church ceremony (3 hours!) and unfortunately in Luganda, not English. I really appreciate the 20-minute Jewish weddings that often include drinking before. The reception was beautiful and reminded me of an American wedding. They even played “Celebrate” and my co-workers and me were dancing the night away.

MEMPROW staff with the beautiful bride Lillian and groom John

Fred, the Prince of Alur Kingdom,, invited me to the Toro Kingdom wedding in Fort Portal for this weekend, which sounded amazing until he told me that we were going to stay overnight in the same room, same bed. As wonderful as it would have been, I could not let this man take advantage of me, so instead to Jinja I go. I also signed up for the MTN 10 km run next weekend and am now realizing that this may actually require some training…. so this week I will work on my running skills, especially uphill. It has been so incredibly hot here these past days that all I want to do is just read my new favourite book “Anatomy of the Spirit” under a shady area, which is exactly what I will do today before I head off to downtown to run some errands. I realized that I don’t need to go into the MEMPROW office everyday, especially because there isn’t much work for me to do right now. I will take this time to read, reflect, and grow as a person.

Also, of note, I attended an event to end corruption in Uganda. It was originally planned for a certain venue but the night before the police shut it down. This did not stop the angry people. They took it to the streets and demanded that politicians be punished for the mismanagement of government funds. Corruption is a trademark of the dictatorship of President Musevini who has been in power for 26 years. Most recently, it was exposed by auditors that billions of shillings of aid from Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Britain, was transferred to unauthorized accounts and spent on travel, houses, cars, and the like for politicians in the Office of the Prime Minister. All these countries have pulled out their aid money and people are angry! They are disappointed! And they want political accountability! As we protested on the streets, the police told us that we must leave. Or else they would bring out the teargas like they do for any protest in the country. When I was walking to the protest with my new activist friends we prepared for the worst. We bought water and took “teargas pills”. Thankfully, we didn’t need any of this and moved instead to a new location. I moved with a lady named Irene who is the Chairperson of Action Aid International. She is a retired lawyer who was also a Parliamentarian in the East African Congress. During the protest, she was the key speaker and impressed everyone with her courage and knowledge. I am not sure what will happen in this country. People are fed up with the government, but others don’t want to cause another war. I just got a call from my new activist friend, Charles, who leads a youth activist organization and we will meet up downtown and discuss future plans for action. I will keep you updated. Well, I should stop; I am trying to keep the posts shorter. Thank you if you read this far 🙂

Stay tuned for the next post. I am going to start conducting interviews of some of the interesting people I am meeting.

Irene talking to the media!

Finding My Firm Feet

Yesterday, the emotional became physical. Feeling intensely sad and torn up inside as I realize that I don’t know the future of my relationships, career, and life. On my way to my colleague’s bachelorette party I fell out of the crowded taxi bus only to find a large trench ahead of me. Underestimating the width of my skirt, I jump excitedly only to fall on my arms and legs. No looking back. I was devastated. Trying to hold back the tears, I lost all control. As Sarah ran to my side, my eyes turned blurry and I felt like a wreck. I had literally lost my grip on this Earth, but I had to keep going. Stay strong and meet the day and the beautiful people at the function. I lasted about an hour before the pain became too overwhelming. First, we went to a doctor and then later I went to another clinic to get an X-ray. Thankfully, I did not break any bones; it was just a sprain. Today I am feeling much better, emotionally and physically. I went for a swim and the muscle is feeling better and I spoke to my loved ones who provided me with encouragement and support. I have never felt so vulnerable and alone in a long time. I have learned that I must enjoy each moment of this beautiful country. Soak it all in and ignore my worries and anxieties about the future. The future will come soon enough. This moment right now is just amazing. Sitting outside in my garden listening to birds and the never-ending church in the neighbourhood. Remembering how lucky I am to have all the material wealth that I have. Today on my boda boda ride the driver asked if I liked Uganda. I said, “Yes. I love the people, the nature, and the food.” He replied, “That is only good if you are middle-income, not for us at the bottom.” How quickly I can forget the struggles of the people around me. While I am feeling pain in the heart, they feel pain in the stomach daily. A little gratitude can go a long way.

It is nice to finally settle into a house for longer than a couple of weeks. (Thank you Devi for recommending Claire and her house!) I will be here for the next two and a half months and so far the people have been wonderful. Claire is the owner of the home and her 17 year-old daughter also lives here. Then, there are six other housemates from around the world: Ireland, England, and Germany and they continue to change. Everyone has been so great and I feel that I have been living such a dramatic life since I arrived on Friday. I hope that this ends and it is ultimately my decision to calm down and just breathe. I think I am just surprised by my own weaknesses and vulnerabilities when I thought I was stronger. But, every challenge just makes one stronger and I am working on practicing compassion for myself. It is not easy to leave everyone you love, but there is also an opportunity to meet new people and forge new relationships.

The rest of the trip in Nebbi was really memorable. I felt that we had established a little community there by the time we left, which may also be the reason why this transition back to the city life has been more difficult than expected. The Social Survival Skills Training went so well and the impact of the training on the girls lives was so evident. I hope that the 30 girls continue to be leaders in their schools and communities and prevent early pregnancies and stay in school! One girl named Charity especially enjoyed the yoga classes so I gave her my little booklet of yoga poses from my training that I hope she will use in her practice. They are such intelligent and strong women and inspired me each day.

We also had the chance to meet the King and have a drink with him 🙂 It was the last weekend we were there and the King of Alur Kingdom was in Nebbi for celebrations to commemorate peace with the Alur chiefs in the DRC. We crossed the border into the DRC and didn’t go as far as we hoped, probably only about 5 kilometres or so. The rituals comprised of the King staying in a hut to listen to elders, killing two sheep and spraying a bit of water on the chiefs from Uganda and then the chiefs from the DRC. After the celebration, there was an after party at our hotel since the King and King’s brother were staying there. The King’s brother who by that time had become my new friend invited us and before we knew it we were having drinks with the King and his bodyguards. It was a nice way to leave the city and Dr. Tadria joked that she could have gotten a lot of cows for me.

Back in Kampala, we are working in the office and I got a new gig teaching yoga at the American Recreation Association two days a week. I am also going to teach at MEMPROW offices and possibly other NGOs that are interested so I really hope this arm heals quickly. I am going to focus this week on loving and caring for myself. Sometimes I expect too much from myself and I must accept that I am here. I am in Kampala, Uganda, a new place for me where I must make new friends and keep busy. I will also dedicate time to sitting on my mat and meditating. Recently, every time I sit down to meditate I break down in tears, but I will force myself through it. When I left San Francisco I picked my last Angel card and it was “Strength”. No better word for what I need in my life right now. I send you all my blessings wherever you are. Find your firm feet in these challenging times.

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An inspiring friend, Eric Wallace, shared this Astrology Forecast for November. Even if you don’t believe in astrology the passage is beautiful:

The manner in which Life will be working this month will be by showing us our deepest fears. These will vary from person to person. Some will fear financial loss, some the loss of relationship, some their own loss of control or desire. Others may fear responsibility, commitment, or intimacy and vulnerability. The list is as long as the number of us on the planet, for we each have our own past and our own path. But as sure as the Sun will rise tomorrow, Life will bring us face to face with our fears for our evolution calls for it. Only through seeing and feeling our fears will we come to know that they are not us, they are our teachers, and that through them we come to know ourselves, our worth and our path.

The exposure of these fears brings not only self-knowledge but choice. The choices that we make in the face of fear determine our character. Our character determines our destiny. Part of what makes these decisions difficult is that the number of them within a given amount of time is increasing day by day! It is as if Life is becoming ever more demanding, exacting, and merciless in its intensity, like some kind of movie. Yet this too can be considered “intentional,” as it demands that we draw from ever deeper levels of emotion, instinct, and desire when we simply don’t have the time to “figure it out”.

In addition to the nature of time rapidly increasing, Life is bringing us closer and closer to “home” by affecting our closest relationships. Our most intimate partners will bring us our greatest challenges, as they know us best and mirror our unconscious fears and shadows back to us most clearly. Facing and owning this shadow with all the humility and possible shame that it can raise within us clearly destabilizes our sense of self with far reaching ramifications. We can no longer maintain the false stories we have told ourselves for so long. Stories that have carried us this far but can carry us no longer. We are now on the shore of a new ocean, a new frontier that can only be navigated with the utmost honesty, clarity, and maturity. I suppose this is a complicated way of saying that we just can’t get away with anything anymore!

With the feeling of time speeding up, pressure building, and our closest partners/allies not supporting us the way we think they should or have in the past, we are thrown back upon ourselves. The discomfort of this can lead to every and all forms of denial, avoidance, escapism and addiction. As it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, we just may not want to! We can question why, what it is all for, why bother with it, and fall into states of hopelessness and despair. These times are practically designed to push us into a quest for the deeper meaning, purpose, and intelligence behind the supposed “accidental” life events. Through this questioning, we will come to know Spirit Mind and not before.

Close to the King of Alur

With Fred, the King’s Brother, and Monica (colleague at MEMPROW)

The girls showing me their favorite yoga poses 🙂

At the end of the Social Survival Skills training with MEMPROW Girls