Framing Uganda

Framing Uganda

Most of us have some concept of what Africa is, either from aid advertisements or in history class on the transatlantic slave trade.  The Black Panther won at the Oscars, Afro-Beats are making appearances on party playlists worldwide, and West African prints are sold in H&M; Africa is “trendy,” but what does that mean for the poorest region in the world?  This is one of the ways in which we have been framing Uganda.

When they said, “this is an academic program that travels” they were not joking.  In each country, we have three sessions of our four classes in addition to guest lectures and site visits.  The courses are Design Thinking and Development (DTD); Technology, Change, and Innovation (TCI); Anthropology and Social Change (ASC); and Social Entrepreneurship in a Global Comparative Context (SEN). Each course adds another layer to the discourse on social innovation.

In addition to our courses, we have site visits to different social enterprises. Our first visit was Innovation Village, a start-up incubator that develops solutions for tomorrow by providing and enabling an environment where start-ups from the knowledge intensive sectors are fast tracked to compete globally. The merging of business and industry, the public, and academic sectors expand the boundaries of knowledge through social innovation with a focus to deliver inclusion across key sectors.  We met with people representing different member organizations.

Social entrepreneurs working at Innovation Village

Is social entrepreneurship an alternative to neoliberal capitalism or is a continuation of it? What is the difference between science and technology and religious and cultural beliefs if you must believe in both? What does innovation look like when there is no fall back plan/no parents to support you if you fail/when it is innovation through the need to survive?

Golden Bees is a young enterprise engaged in providing a full-scale range of beekeeping products and service. Golden Bees empowers communities by limiting human destruction of flora and fauna and generating a sustainable income, both for the humans and the other species.  Connecting 2,500 small farmers and 2,200 beekeepers to market, Golden Bee trains and collects the honey from across Uganda and processes the honey in Kampala.  They sell their natural, organic, honey in supermarkets.  The enterprise is self-sustaining.  I was particularly interested in the agroforestry and forest restoration of indigenous species training because of the relationship between humans and the environment as it leads to food sovereignty and connection to culture.  Golden Bees also trains people to make beehives out of local found/cheap materials instead of purchasing or receiving from an NGO the $35 wooden hives.  By building and maintaining relationships with the beekeepers, Golden Bees invests in the long-term wellbeing and prosperity of Ugandans.  

A bee hive made of local, cheap materials

How should NGOs respond when local social entrepreneurs address the space? Should the NGO leave? Offer support?  What are the different relationships and stigmas between government, NGOs, and businesses in developing vs. developed economies?

 Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID) is an NGO addressing the needs of urban refugees. Founded by Congolese youth refugees, it aims to bring hope, stability, and self-reliance through local action.  Uganda has a relatively welcoming policy for refugees; it is is the 5th largest hosting country worldwide and provides re-settlement camps in rural areas and access to farming so refugees can begin a new life for themselves here.  Some refugees, however, come from urban areas and, unable to adapt to the agrarian lifestyle, move to the cities. Once in the cities, though, there are no social programs.  It is assumed that urban refugees are able to sustain themselves.  They face distinct challenges, struggling with safety, health, and economic access.  During our visit at YARID, we had small group discussions to better understand their struggles and the impact of YARID.  My group spoke with Maoua Annise, Ememidu, and Diaete.  Maoua Annise remarked that being a refuge “makes her bitter.”  She left a good life in the Congo and now struggles to keep her daughters safe from rape and becoming pregnant.  Diaete explained that being a refugee is “like putting life into brackets because you never know when it will end.” They emphasized that human rights are not extended to refugees but YARID, through community organizing, attempts to meet their needs.  They provide sewing machines and training for women to generate an income.

After asking many questions of them, the women turned to us. “How is your research going to help us or other refugees? What can we expect from you?”

This question left me speechless, for I did not want to lie to them and promise a better future.  As climate change and ensuing conflicts increase, there will probably be more refugees worldwide.  Although I hope for a better world for these people, I do not know if this world will come, especially through me and this trip.  I told them this, and they nodded in solemn agreement.

Presenting what we learned from small discussions with the refugees


*A shared reflection from cohort member, Lizbeth:

What are you doing here, mzungu?

Mzungu: a wanderer // one who wanders aimlessly // foreigner // nonlocal person // an other // one with money // an educated person // one who is not from here

“Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!” the children yell from outside the windows of our bus.

We stand… I stand out like a sore thumb. Are we more than just an invasion in this land? Are we welcomed or is our welcome tainted by a history of colonialism and exploitation?

 Am I mzungu or am I me? How do I define my positionality, power, privilege, background, and objective in this context?

 What are you doing here, mzungu?

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Welcome to Uganda

15 American university students, their professor, and traveling staff arrive at Entebbe Airport.  We lug huge suitcases over the cobbled dirt parking lot towards a small van, dodging cars and other travelers.  The time is roughly 2pm, the sun is hot behind a veil of clouds, a gentle breeze flows through our airplane clothes.  After being greeted warmly by Martha and Amodo, our country coordinators, we head to Kampala.  As we enter the city, I see many kiosks on the side of the road selling food, mobile phones, games, clothes, and anything in between.  The streets are crowded with cars, bodo bodos, street merchants, and children walking to school.  I notice that there are a lot of primary schools.  There are also a lot of white colored mannequins with large booties.

We settle into the Nob hotel, our home for the next two days.  Orientation includes a health and safety briefing, a survival Luganda language class, and a lecture on colonialism and political history in Uganda.

In one orientation activity, we partner with local university students to complete a neighborhood exploration day.  During the activity, our partners Shadiya and Ronnie took us to Makerere University to learn about the education system.  We spoke with a recent graduate who has returned to the university to pick up his transcript 4 months after graduation.  He explained that there are too many students so there is a slow processing speed for transcripts, but he is trying to go to the US for graduate school.  His dream is MIT.  Three education students looked curiously at our group so we asked them if they had some time to answer a few questions.  They want to be schoolteachers for high school students.  They are not in classes right now because the lecturers are striking for higher waging and the students are striking because they are not getting lectures.

We wandered on and bumped into Shadiya’s friends from the law department.  Both student organizers, we learned more about the protests and struggles of being a student at Makerere University.  Although it is the best school in East Africa and the 4th best school in Africa, professors are not getting paid enough.  On-campus living conditions are not great.  The strike has been going on for a month.  It is illegal to protest in Uganda, so they have both been arrested multiple times, once even this week.  They are inspired by Mandela, MLK, and Bobby Wine, the people’s president. They call for unity amongst students to demand change.  We asked one of them what he wanted to do if he was made President of Uganda today and he said he would start by following the laws (unlike the current president).

Kampala does not feel like any place I have ever been before, but at the same time, it feels like any place one may find them self.  There is nothing out of the ordinary.  There are international restaurants, KFC, and Ugandan cafes.  Most Kampalans are from Uganda, but there are also people who have immigrated, seeked asylum, or live as ex-pats.  The weather is warm and the sun shines everyday.  So far, Kampala is treating us well!