Rights activism and challenges to my altruism in Uganda and beyond 2002-2012

Kampala Street Children

By the year 2002, I had established a comprehensive health, holistic counselling and guidance portfolio with 4 organizations in Kampala Capital City Authority. The organizations were dealing with marginalized communities and this gave me a chance to work among communities where the next piece of bread was a dream and a luxury. These were; save the children, Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), the Bible Society and TASO (Uganda). I want to state that I was only moonlighting with all these organizations. I would drop in and out depending on their tasks (we called them consultancies). I travelled all over Uganda and the islands. In that year alone, I helped mobilise 570 women who were looking after HIV orphans and I helped mobilize 50 Karamajong children (aged 3-19 years) who were called street children then into self help groups. I was working with a team that managed to secure shelter for them in the Uganda Railway yard and we also got space in 3 of the flour milling factories in Kisenyi, Kampala Capital City Authority. We paid for the night lodging, use of toilet, shower rooms and hot meals. We negotiated with cereal exporters and importers to provide the older children with chances to sort cereals and package them for export or distribution. The children were allowed to take all damaged and under size cereals. The children in turn used the beans to barter for food. They sold the corn to brewers of a locally made beer both in Kampala, Kawempe and Nakawa. The brew is called “Malwa” or “Ajon”. By the time I left the programme I had attached 12 children to an evening time basic education schedule and had attached 13 girls to a vocational training institute in Kampala. The rest of the children were taken back to Karamoja during the Government aided resettlement Programme. This experience introduced me to two insights: one was, most politicians and community leaders were reluctant to do something for these children and it was all because there is a tendency to look at interventions from a planned budget. The emergency issues were not planned for. I approached City Councillors, NGOs and Members of Parliament representing the young persons, Karamoja and Kampala encouraging them to look at this issue as a constituency issue. This worked. The other point I realised, was that I had to use my own money to negotiate, run up and down and make sure a synthesized programme eventually emerged. This was the sacrifice I got to live with even in the years to come. While I was working with children on Kampala streets I was called upon to lead a team of community health workers whose mission was to improve on the public health status in Kkoome Islands some 50 nautical miles on Lake Victoria from Kampala.

Kkoome Island Community-Owned Resource Persons Trainer (2003-2004)

It was a Friday evening and the last boat living for Kkoome was being filled up with all sorts of goods destined for use by island communities. The setting sun’s hot rays gelded Murchison Bay, the green appearance of the lake left one wondering if it was some malevolent hydra waiting to pull one into the water. I was so excited but at the same time lonesome.  I wondered for the umpteenth time why I chose the Kkoome island task. All my friends were in Kampala City and when I told them about my decision to work with island communities they just laughed at me. Some even remarked I must have a problem with my head! I left a job that promised a car and opportunities for travel to go for one that took me away from what was termed civilization. I had packed my suitcase but I glanced around to trace it. It must have been hidden under the various goods. There is a written code once one goes nautical. All goods however precious must be stowed away by the boatswain. I saw many men and women in gum-boots with straw hats chatting animatedly with the boatswain. They were friends and this was the boat they took to Kkoome Island.  After making sure we had donned our life jackets, the journey began at 4.30 pm. It was dramatic; before setting sail the boatswain got all our fare. I almost asked him to first get us to our destination. But, one does not ask that else you may not appease the water spirits! I got to learn these things after living there for a time.  The boat engine vibrations lulled many into sleep. The waves hit us at an angle and were broken into sprays that made us all wet. The waters were not calm and our boat swayed continuously until we came into a very large channel that connects Entebe to the rest of Lake Victoria. I made friends with a very dignified gentleman who had kept to himself or who was subtly avoided by many. Later on I got to know him. He was the Island’s chief of police. We instantly liked each other and he went on to tell me about so many interesting things. By the time we reached Kkoome I had known what to and who to meet. I had got a glimpse into Kkoome Island’s go to persons. At one point a young man asked to relieve himself, he stood up unzipped and peed in the water in full view of everyone! Obviously he had done this a lot. I later on got to know this young man and he was very influential in mobilizing men, women, young boys and girls who attended a school I had established at the islands! Once one has travelled a lot on the waters of Lake Victoria, which I have, one notices different water characteristics in form of colour change, smells and temperature. I noticed these changes. By 7.30 pm we had arrived at Kkoome Islands and there, under the full moon beam, we were hoisted off the boat and had to part with an equivalent of 25 cents (US) in order not to wet ourselves! It is only then that it dawned on me why the familiar ones had gum-boots! They just got off the boat onto the shore without any help.  For the first two months I never left Kkoome Island. I and our dedicated team of trainers put in so much to convince the fishing communities adopt better public health practices. Our first order was to dig pit latrines. It was not easy both in human and environment sense. The island is a piece of hard rock that sprouted out of Lake Victoria. The people who could not afford paying the daily latrine fee were used to going down the lake shores, defecate there and bathe from the same waters.  The expansive forest cover and abandoned wooden shacks served as toilets too. After living in the boatswain lodges for about 3 months I thought our team had established rapport with the islanders.  With USD 200 I leased a piece of land and remained with enough money to pay lumberjacks to get me timber with which I built structures we used as our camp. We got a place which had a softer rock texture and we were able to dig deeper latrines. It became a model for establishing homesteads at the island. Two members from our team went to Kampala and came back with all the supplies we needed. It was around this time that I stared a school to enable children and young persons continue learning English, Mathematics and Social Sciences. We were supported in this initiative; the school was fully functional and had licensed teachers who would come to teach over weekends. The school never had holiday breaks and by 2005, 75 students were prepared well enough to sit for their primary leaving exams and 13 were able to go on to prepare for the Uganda Certificate of Education. We had dug 25 latrines which served 650 people. We established community agriculture enterprises in which fisher folk, mostly women were able to harvest food crops and cereals which were used both as food and sold to get income. A fisher-folk friendly clinic was established and many were encouraged to treat any illnesses. I want to say this as I end this story: It is at Kkoome Island that I first came across men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM) for money. I had earlier in the year met two lesbian couples at Ggaba beach who went to become my friends. They also operated a stop-over point which had almost all the supplies one needed if they were going to the islands. I made most of my purchases for supplies at their store. We developed a respectable working relation. Up to today they still remain to be my friends.  I admit MSM and sex-work were new to me. I had known of sex-work issues when I was working with street children but I had referred such cases to a community Welfare Services officer. I never was in position then to problematize this kind of practice in 2002! But, this time to put to practice the skills I had in sexuality, gender, orientation, sex and health. Little did I know I would end up doing activism work around sexuality, orientation, gender, sex-work, HIV, child-headed homes, surrogate mothers and community empowerment to address poverty and environment degradation! At the island I got into business partnerships with various fisher-folk and was able to save quite some money and with this I decided to form self help organisations and consultancy firms.

Forming and registering a Not for Profit Organization with the mission of community development for the marginalised (2005-2009)

Along Bbunga-Ggaba road just next door to Bbunga Trading Center 6 friends who were also teaching in various Universities in Uganda and I, decided to put offices for our research and later a community development consultancy firm. As young very driven people we set out to research on poverty, gender, enterprising, leadership, governance, planning, proposal writing/making, health, social impact of HIV and competed for tenders to carry out work with various local governments in Uganda from Gulu, Amolata, Mukono, Busia,  Mbale, Kalangala to Kigezi. I spared time for issues: sexuality, orientation, gender, HIV, STIs and health. I met with people living with HIV; I met with reformed in-mates; met drug-users; met long-distance truck drivers and; met with children living with HIV. The time 2007-2009 marked many milestones in my advocacy time: I was accomplished in organization development. I was able to mobilize over 2,000 MSM for the Crane Survey done in Kampala; I used to do night time community health outreach on a motorcycle; I volunteered my time to work with Most at Risk Populations’ Network (MARPs Network); Uganda AIDS Commission, Uganda National AIDS services Organization (UNASO); AIDS Information Centre (AIC) and; Most at Risk Populations’ Initiative (MARPI) of the Ministry of Health (Uganda). I had also registered MOST AT RISK POPULATIONS SOCIETY UGANDA (MARPS UGANDA) where I was dealing with the gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex persons because with all the other organizations it was still uncomfortable for them. With MARPS IN UGANDA I was able to follow up MSM, WSW, TG and sex-workers, especially those living with HIV.  I travelled all over Uganda doing this kind of work. I also had engaged in various dialogue spaces to talk on sexuality, orientation, gender and health. I had talked in 40 spaces where the audiences included parliamentarians, cabinet ministers, University students, informal/formal sector personnel and Non-governmental Organizations. There were exceedingly challenging moments: One was when I was face to face with the wizened religious prelates under their umbrella organization which had just been initiated (2008-2009) and I was talking about sexuality. The name of the organization is Inter-religious Coalition in Uganda (IRCU). It was a very difficult time to speak about what was termed then as ‘homosexuality’. This elicited all sorts of venomous disregard! This was the time when the Anti-Homosexuality campaign began that ended up into a Bill in Uganda. I faced heckles on the streets, verbal attacks including threatening text messages, evictions ( one day I was asked to leave a cinema hall) and was not welcome in certain social gatherings. I lost many friends. I was assaulted two times for my work related to ‘homosexuality’. A senior medical doctor summoned me to his office and asked me to desist any work with sex-workers and ‘those homosexuals’. He told me: “we have enough malaria problems to add on ‘those mentally disturbed cases’”. At one time, a close friend asked me how much I was given by international sponsors! I stared back in disbelief. These are things one remembers. These moments still come back to me at night! I still recall when 3 plain clothes people approached me at the Common Wealth Grounds at Hotel Africana, during the Common-Wealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kampala (2007)    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonwealth_Heads_of_Government_Meeting_2007)  and asked whether I knew where the ‘homosexuals’ booth was! Another incident was when I was part of the team that stormed the hotel venue for the HIV implementers’ Meeting in Kampala (2008) with placards demanding for inclusion of sexual minorities in HIV interventions (http://2006-2009.pepfar.gov/press/2008/105567.htm). The knowledge that my empowerment support work with many organizations, especially Icebreakers Uganda (IBU) (http://icebreakersuganda.blogspot.com/), Freedom and Roam (FARUG), Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), Women’s Organization Network for Human Right Advocacy (WONETHA) (http://www.wonetha.org/),  and Tusitukirewamu Women’s Groups (A post test development Organization) (http://www.twgbwaise.com/success.html) is still bearing fruits makes me fill so fulfilled. I did engage Pastor Scott Lively (http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=scott+lively+uganda+2009&qpvt=scott+lively+uganda+2009&FORM=IGRE) when he came to Uganda and attended his workshop (http://gayuganda.blogspot.com/2009/03/day-3-scott-lively.html) that took us through the gay agenda in Uganda. It helped me find my middle line (http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-files/profiles/scott-lively). Two events: World AIDS Day (WAD) and International Day against Homophobia/Transphobia (IDAHO/T) were first celebrated in Uganda with much of MARPS IN UGANDA input. I was invited by the Uganda Human Rights Commission to present as part of other presenters during a public hearing on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2009, but this turned out to be the start of continuous anonymous phone threats which culminated into my fleeing Uganda.

Commitment to involve marginalized communities in public health initiatives (2010-2012)

This involved using our organization space as a training point in: leadership, team-building, accountability, health seeking/preserving, advocacy, record keeping, research, outreach and community integration skills. Under MARPS IN UGANDA we provided linkage to ARV accredited facilities for 270 people living with HIV and has worked with 14 established anti-HIV NGOS in Uganda. We provided counselling to over 15,000 persons, established 170 safe learning spaces and gave 120 training sessions in various thematic topics. We helped raise USD 800 which was used as credit extension and this benefitted 14 persons. We helped train over 11,300 CBOs in HIV-related planning and vision setting skills (http://www.keycommunitiesafrica.org/home/). Staff of MARPS IN UGANDA have been consulted on public health, community development, security conscietisation, legal awareness, civic duty, parental responsibilities and a series of themes in Uganda and internationally.
In this period, our space was subjected to police searches three times and at one time unknown people wrote abusive graffiti on our perimeter wall. However, the destruction, confiscation of our property by hate vigilantes, attack on my person and our staff and eventual security threats led to my fleeing Uganda.

Commitment to marginalized communities (2012 and beyond)

All senior staff at MARPS IN UGANDA as well as all our mobilizers are still facing hate attacks in Uganda for the work they do. I wish they are provided asylum to USA. Our legal officer has been from one job to another. She lives in fear and if it were not for a very understanding husband her marriage would be on the rocks. Two medical doctors who helped in our clinic have received numerous threatening text messages and because of this they are stressed. Our social workers have never got any job after we closed down. All have been evicted from their houses ever since. As I write this, we are now running counselling and guidance services online and reach out to over 30,000 beneficiaries. I want to use this opportunity to state that I now want to improve on myself and skills-set to further enable me engage in eradicating HIV and poverty at an international level.


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