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Laura Byaruhanga: Spicing Up Uganda with the Spoken Word

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Meet the passionate poet Laura Byaruhanga, she loves poetry so much that she treated guests on her wedding day to awesome poetry. she is the brain behind Open mic Uganda.  Open Mic performances will blow you away. Open Mic is a platform that promotes spoken word in Uganda. They hold  monthly poetry night activities and school visits. We caught up with the passionate founder Laura Byaruhanga who shared with us her experience

Who is Laura Byaruhanga?

Laura Byaruhanga Businge is a Christian. She is a writer, producer, voice artist and radio personality. She is a creative mind, a lover of the arts, and a wife. It’s hard to describe her so in a nutshell, she is Laura!

Why Open Mic Uganda?

I chose to be a part of Open Mic Uganda because it was a challenge in the arts scene in Kampala, and I enjoy challenges, especially because there were no regular poetry nights at the time we begun. It’s fun working with a team of passionate young people. In spite of the challenges, we have pushed through with our dream.

What is this spoken word that you and your youthful friends have been so much passionate about?

Well, spoken word is basically self-expression to entertain, educate or inspire an audience. It is primarily through poetry performances. A few of us watched a lot of Def Poetry Jam and thought abbot trying it out. We thought it would be a cool way to move an audience, and so the organizers are mostly poetry performers, and were to begin with. Most of the poetry performances in Kampala, which were seldom held, were theatrical in nature, so we decided to try out something new like we had seen in the videos we had, and a movement was born!

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One of Open Mic’s Finest poets

 

 You have been so passionate about poetry to the extent that you treated the guests at your wedding reception at Serena with bouts of spoken word. Where did all this begin from?

Lol!  Well, you could look at it in different ways. I needed entertainment at my wedding, so being a producer of a company that deals in entertainment, I already had a pool of talent in my grasp! Hahaha! But the real reason? I knew that if I got married, I wanted entertainment that would keep the audience glued, remember it possibly forever, and make everyone have a good time! So poetry performances were the perfect thing to have! Please note I would have probably had a huge poetry production, but my husband knew I would take it too far, and pushed against it. But the live performances, both music and poetry, were phenomenal!

 Where did you get this love for poetry and spoken word?

I think it’s a combination of reasons. Even though I don’t like being to be center of attention, I really enjoy public speaking, acting and performing. I love written poetry, I love word play and I love attending shows. I first fell in love with poetry from a young age, and I believe that a combination of these passions and talents gave birth to my love for poetry, spoken word and poetry performance!

 Has your family been supportive in your pursuit and love for this not so common spoken word?

Hmm. At first my parents thought it was okay, they have always supported my passions. But at the time I used to perform at poetry recitals at the National Theatre under the Lantern Meet of Poets, I was about to finish university and was unemployed. They thought I was wasting my time and told me to stop wasting time with poetry! Then Open Mic Uganda happened, and I was constantly lectured especially for going home late. I was severely told to leave the platform and anything poetry related which got worse when I finished my contract and was jobless again! It was hard but after I explained to them a million times and they saw my resilience in staying in the movement, they softened. I think it helped when they saw several articles of us in the New Vision and Daily Monitor newspapers!

 What are your biggest accomplishments ever since you launched this spoken word platform?

As Open Mic Uganda? We have sold maybe hundreds of our Open Mic Uganda merchandise such as T-shirts, wrist bands and bookmarks thus publicizing ourselves. We have a vibrant social media presence, especially on Facebook and Twitter. We have had I believe just over a hundred shows in and around Kampala. We have had performers on our platform go all over the country and across the borders exporting the talent that was nurtured on our stage. We have worked with organizations of all types dealing in humanitarian issues discussing their issues through spoken word. We have been spoken about on broadcast and print media that has been key in the growth of our movement. A lot of our management team have used the skills they have gained with us in their careers such as presenting on radio and public speaking. But most importantly, we have been the pioneers of a movement that we are working hard at passing down to the generations!

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 You are a producer at Open mic Uganda, how do you get to pull off these hectic monthly shows?

I can honestly not take the credit, I work with an amazing and vibrant team! Every production is due to a team effort! Also the support of the Uganda Museum where we hold the shows, and of course the poets, musicians we show case, and audience make it all happen!

 What was interesting about the “Fusion360”?

Fusion 360 is the monthly show we hold at the museum. It is interesting because from Fusion 360, we have been able to gage what the audience wants, the local talent we are dealing with, how to come up with a production and work on our marketing and publicity.

 Any experiences that have touched you while promoting the spoken word?

Yes, the hunger for talent grooming and mentoring. Whether at Fusion 360 or at schools, many writers and performers have come to us for advice on how to improve their performances or writing. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly!

Also at the close of each and every show, we have had performers thanking us for giving them the opportunity to share their talent with the world! It always touches me and reminds me why we do what we do!

 As a lady, how do you manage to keep on persevering to promote this idea even amidst challenges?

Well, the world knows that women are the backbone to many successful ventures in history. This may be because of our ability to multi-task, not break under pressure and care for those around us. So no matter what storm hits us, as a person and as a woman, I know that we can handle it. I won’t lie, I cry many tears that are unseen to those I work with and those we struggle for, but in those tears I find strength that endures the winds and the pressure trying to knock us down.

 What has been your best memorable touching spoken word show or tour ever since you started and why?

I honestly can’t pick, they were all touching at some point in their own ways! But the ones that stand out are when we held a show with Abavubuka Foundation at Open House, the very first Open Mic Night Kampala show at Sabriinas, the first show we held at Gayaza High School, the first Fusion 360 show we held at the Uganda Museum, the last Fusion 360 show we held supported by Take One Entertainment, when we performed at the Bayimba Festival in 2012 and Engero at the Ugandan Museum.

Well, it seems you are here to stay! Where do you see Open Mic Uganda ten years from now?

Ten years later, I see us in our offices with enough room to hold shows and rehearsal space. I see us exporting our poets around Africa. I see the management team being able to earn salaries on a monthly basis, and our poets getting paid handsomely for each of their performances. I see us performing at state functions and still supporting underground artists. I see us, the current members of the management team being mentors to those in the spoken word movement in Uganda and East Africa.

Start-ups take great courage and commitment. What are some of the challenges you have faced so far?

The challenges are very many! Consistency in passion of each team member has proven to be our hardest challenge! Lack of finances is probably our second biggest challenge. Also most of our target audience is still biased against poetry as a form of entertainment. And support of the government and arts community is greatly lacking!

 Any worst moments or regrets?

Definitely. Trusting some organizations who wanted to selfishly benefit from us caused us to get into a lot of trouble and stress. But we were able to learn from this difficult experience and come out of it better and wiser than before.

 Are you planning to promote and produce spoken word for the rest of your life or time will come and say “Yeah i have played my part”?

I think a time will come when I will note that I have played my part and step off the playing field for others. This movement is bigger than the individual; it is something we want to touch the generations to come even long after we are long gone. Also, there are other passions in my life that I want to dedicate my life to, so as much as I will dedicate a large part of my life in this commitment, I will walk away from actively producing the shows at some point. But I hope to always be a mentor in this, even in my old age!!!

 

Lets talk about the activities you do. From school outreaches to monthly poetry nights (which are awesome by the way), what made you adopt this strategy?

Hmm. Well, like I said it was a team effort! The purpose of the school trips was to first of all show the generation after us what poetry performance is all about. Then encourage them to try it out and start it as a school activity.

Monthly poetry nights are our first, most consistent and best way of achieving our vision! We actually started this and then decided to come up with all the other activities to support the success of our poetry nights. It is our most successful activity!

 

Have you received any rewards or skills or lessons from being associated with this platform?

Rewards? No yet! Skills? Definitely! Organizing events, human resource management, problem solving skills and creatively engaging a consistent audience to mention a few. Lessons? There are many but the one that stands out is to never give up your dream, even when against all the odds. Also, keep praying! When I pray, I mention Open Mic Uganda often because it is very close to my heart and I believe God wanted it to be a part of my destiny!

 

Am sure this started as a passion for poetry. But now that you’re getting recognition, does it still remain driven by passion?

Yes! It is! There are challenges like I mentioned earlier with consistency in passion. But in spite of the challenges, even when our problem of the presence of finances is solved (and I am sure it will be), it will still be driven by passion! We deal with poets, a category of some of the most passionate people on the planet! So I guarantee passion is key!

 

Behind your inspirational leadership and the name of your organisation, there are other people who help you be who you are or have helped you. Do you mind mentioning at least some of them? How big is your team?

The team was vast, but membership numbers have dwindled. However, key to mention are Ernest Dennis Sesanga who is a director, has been there from the very beginning and has been responsible for the Marketing department. Murray Shiraz sat in the very first Open Mic Night Kampala meeting and has dedicated every bit of his passion in this movement. Mark Gordon Musinguzi was the founder of Open Mic Night Kampala, and some of the members from this thus formed Open Mic Uganda. Winnie Apio, one of our most talented poets has been acting as the administrator and manger of the team. Maritza Byoga was the P.R.O and MC of our shows as was Patrick Maasa Birabi who doubled as our Graphics Designer for most of the posters of our shows and branded material. Steve Gumiriza has been key in dealing with stage management, and Tasha Emily for the welfare of our audience during our shows. Also key members in the past to note are Don Arinaitwe, Hellington Musoke, Susan Tusabe, Priscilla (Chef Illaxino) and Deexon Muhizi.

 

Then outside OMU, which partners have been helpful to you in your spoken word poetry shows?

We have been largely supported by Milege, they have been incredible and we are forever indebted to their assistance with sound equipment during the shows, sometimes availing the Milege Afro Jazz Band! We are also grateful to Take One Entertainment for graduating us to a level we only dreamed of at the time! Bonfire Uganda has helped us with sound equipment at our first Fusion 360 shows, as well as in providing performers. We are eternally grateful to The Lantern Meet of Poets for providing us with incredible talent and poets over the years. Also important to note are One Question Network, Brand 360, Writivism/CACE and others. Also, we are thankful to media houses like The New Vision, The Daily Monitor, NTV and others for covering many of our shows, we are honored!

 

Let’s talk about personal inspiration. Which people inspire you in everything you do?

I honestly never know how to answer this question; I am inspired by many people in different areas in my life! But key is Jesus, He has never let me down and constantly sustains me and uplifts me to greater heights!

Apart from God, I am inspired by my husband who has been there through EVERYTHING! He pushes me on when I feel like everything is a mess, when I want to throw the towel in. My parents and their love always never ceases to amaze me. Nargis Shirazi, my friend and sister from another mother truly amazes me with the fight to achieve her own dreams, some which are similar to mine in nature. My siblings and their individual strengths. And the entire Open Mic Uganda team that works tirelessly to support the dreams of many poets, and upcoming poets and performers.

 

If you had a chance to meet Russell Simmons (Def Jam), what would you tell him?

First I would jump up and down in disbelief! Then I will make him scribble his autograph like a million times! Then I will thank him graciously for coming up with his dream of spoken word because it has set fire to maybe hundreds or even thousands of minds to express themselves through their words and thoughts. He is responsible for many people finding their confidence to step on a stage and open their hearts and minds with others. I would tell him this and more.

 

If you also had a chance to meet policy makers in the Ugandan government for example the president or parliament, what would you tell them?

I think I would lecture them for undermining the performing arts in this country, especially His Excellency! Then I would ask them to find a way to ensure the performing arts are supported by the government. I will probably have a proposal strategy in hand and will do my best to blow their minds! I don’t know if it would work, but I would do my best!

 

At the end of the day, they say judge a person by the works of his or her hands. How do you want to be remembered?

Well, as concerns Open Mic Uganda and the spoken word movement in Uganda, I would hope to be remembered as a person who inspired others to follow their dreams, those who follow us to work tirelessly at progressing the spoken word movement in Uganda, and someone who pushed on against all odds!

 

This Is Uganda wants to tell the world that Uganda is not about Idi Amin or Kony but about beautiful people like you making a difference. Imagine if a white is reading this interview and they are touched, where can they contribute to your cause?

Well, if by a white, you mean someone who has the ability to contribute to our dream financially and is willing to do so, I would tell them to meet up with us and see how best to contribute. It could be with a grant, via sponsorship, or in any other way! They could reach us on our Facebook group or page on Open Mic Uganda, or our Twitter handle @OpenMicUganda, on email openmicuganda@gmail.com, or our blog openmicuganda.blogspot.com.

 What advice would you give to someone who wants to be like you?

Love God with your all, be true to yourself, and work at helping others to the best of your ability. This is the policy I try to live by, and it seems to be working!

 Any remarks you want you make to appeal to the people?

Poetry is the essence of art! It is the backbone of music, the body of visual art, the motion in the tempo of dance. Embrace it!

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Profiles

How This Group of Young Men is Creating Employment Through Art and Craft

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BY MARVIN MUTYABA

A group of 6 youths in Makindye has embarked on a life changing journey, turning their passions and skills into a profitable business.

After attending a crafts exhibition at the National Theatre in 2015, these friends were inspired by the attractive crafts on display to start their own workshop making and selling crafts.

“We talked to Mr. Muwembo, the craftsman who was showcasing his work. He offered to give us training as we worked for him. His workshop was in Kanyanya so we used to come from Makindye every day to Kanyanya. It took us over a year to master how wood craft is done,” said Mark.

While at this apprenticeship, these young men started making their own pieces which they sold, using the profit to purchase their own equipment.

“We had a strategy. Every month we had to buy equipment. After a year, we had developed skills and were able to start our own workshop,” said Malakai, one of the proprietors of the workshop. “To start any business, it needs commitment, passion, and ready to take risks, consistency and involvement.”

In 2016, these committed youth started their workshop on a small piece of land given to them by Malakai’s father at Lukuli, Nanganda.

“After two months, KCCA came and demolished our workshop saying that they wanted only built up structures on the main road. Even all our equipment and materials were taken. We went back to zero and all our savings had been used to buy these things,” narrates Mark. “We visited KCCA offices several times trying to see if we could recover the materials. We had lost wood, vanish, paints and tools like small axes, carving tools, pry bars, clamps, hammers and marking tools. We never got any back so we gave up on them”

As a result, their work was put on a standstill for some time. This was a very big set back to their dream of building a very big craft shop. Their next challenge was getting another location.

“Towards the end of 2016, KCCA advertised a funding opportunity for the youths who had business ideas and also those that had running businesses. We wrote a proposal but this took a while and we never not get any feedback.”

Desperate for capital to start over, they sought loans from their parents to no luck. Only Abdul’s parents supported them with a small loan that wasn’t sufficient to cover the cost of materials and new equipment.

“During that time, there was a road construction project. we asked for jobs and worked there for 6 months. We saved all our money and rented a small piece of land where we put up a workshop. This time it was not on the main road.  We started working again and lucky enough, we had market from our time at Muwembo”s workshop,” narrates Mark.

Malakai working on one of the pieces in the workshop

Due to their hard work, these six young men have managed to create jobs and employ more eleven young people who distribute and take on other tasks like filing, shaping, chiseling, painting among others. The group is constructing a workshop and a showroom on the main road in Lukuli. By next year, they believe, the workshop will be done.

“Basing on the current situation in the country, we are able to earn a living and also employ other people,” says Abdul.

When asked about their goals, this inseparable team wants to have at least 100 employees by the end of next year and also start exporting their craft. They encourage their fellow Ugandans to follow their passion and find a way of earning from it.

*This is a guest post by MARVIN MUTYABA, a student at Makerere University Business School, currently pursuing a Business Administration in his second year. He is passionate about entrepreneurship, skills development and fitness. 

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How Kasule Is Changing The Lives Of Children Of Prisoners One By One

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BY SHANINE AHIMBISIBWE

Jimmy Kasule Chan is a 29-year-old man who has dedicated his life to supporting the children of prisoners in Uganda. With over sixteen children from twelve families in his programme today, he is working towards his vision of a prosperous future for the children of Ugandan prisoners.

Kasule (Right) does homework with one of the children in the programme

His desire to change the lives of prisoner’s children was awakened in 2012 when he was wrongfully detained at the Harare remand centre in Zimbabwe for six months.

My friend had told me to go with him to South Africa for work. When we got there, things were very tight and we decided to come back home after two weeks with some electronics for sale. We thought this could be our business. On our way, we had to go through Harare but we did not have some stamps in our passports. Because Uganda does not have an embassy in Zimbabwe, we had gone through the Tanzanian embassy but the people at the border could not understand this. We were taken to Interpol and on getting there, we were arrested for Border Jump. We were detained in Harare remand centre for 6 months without having any real contact with anyone. There were 12 Ugandans in total” he narrated. “My wife was seven months pregnant at that time and I kept thinking, what if I never go back to Uganda? Who will help my child? I resolved to help children of prisoners if I ever got out of this prison.”

Jimmy described his time as a prisoner in a foreign country as horrific and inhumane, with poor feeding and little to no medical care.

It was terrible. The food was the worst and sometimes not cooked properly in fact, people used to get sick all the time. One Ugandan died from a stomach infection. We used to eat something called “Chingwa”, that tasted like spoilt bread. Winter was the worst because we were given these thin blankets and no mattress.”

With the tireless help of his wife, jimmy was released from Harare remand centre in 2012 and on getting back to Uganda, the first thing he did was to get a job that would give him the funds to support these children.

A friend introduced me to a gentleman who gave me his car for business. I used to transport people most especially tourists and pay him UGX 300,000 every week. I got a very nice client called Mona, who I found out was the president of Children of prisoners, Sweden. After she left, I sent her an email asking for a meeting and she agreed to meet me. I told her about my vision and she seemed very excited about it. She was happy to meet someone who shared her vision.”

A few months later, Mona asked Jimmy to visit one of the children her organization sponsored, Chrispus, at his school.

When I visited him, he was excited that a stranger could come to see him. I kept visiting him on Visiting Days. He told me about his father who had been serving a long sentence in Luzira. I went to visit him and I asked him to introduce me to other people in the prison who I could talk to. I met people who would directed me to their families now my wife and I go to visit them and take for them some things.”

For four years now, Jimmy has conducted monthly visits to families of prisoners and has taken on the guardianship of Chrispus, who he regards as his first born. He also hosts an annual Christmas party for the children where he invites other children from the neighbourhood to make merry and meet father Christmas.

At one of the children’s Christmas parties Kasule has hosted

Jimmy believes that children, more so whose parents have been imprisoned, need to be loved and cared for so they do not find the need to commit any crimes and end up in prisons as well.

Would you like to support children of prisoners or volunteer on family visits? Please call/text Jimmy on 0774739500 or send him an email at jimmykasule@gmail.com

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Turning Rubbish into Money In The Fight Against Unemployment

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BY: MARVIN MUTYABA

Meet Calvin Matovu, a twenty-five-year old graduate from Makerere University who recycles wastes and rubbish into charcoal.

After attaining a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental science in 2013, Calvin searched for a job in vain. His life started becoming difficult as he had no source of income and he found it senseless to finish university and sit at idly at home.

In the struggle to fight unemployment, Calvin harnessed the idea of collecting wastes and rubbish from the community with his friends, to make some money.

“I asked myself, all this waste we collect and KCCA burns, can’t we reproduce a product out of it?’ Basing on my knowledge from campus, I came up with the idea of recycling wastes into charcoal.” Says Calvin at his factory in Erisa zone, Kyebando.

He set his plan in motion by gathering jobless youths in his community to create employment for themselves. Calvin and his team of seven started reusing wastes, especially organic wastes from agricultural products for example peelings from matooke. These are mixed with ash, clay, carbon and water to make a final product.

“At first we did not have market because people were already using charcoal from firewood with no clue about charcoal from wastes.” He says.

The idea of reusing garbage to make charcoal seems so unrealistic until he breaks down the process through which waste can be made useful and environment friendly.

“The raw materials include banana peelings, paper, clay, cow dung, cassava flour basing on your income level for example one can use clay or cow dung or cassava flour. The machines used are: a charring drum, crushing machine and a stick briquette machine. Peelings are collected and dried then sorted and grinded. Then they are burnt and put into the charring drum. The binder, which can be either  cassava porridge, clay or cow dung is added to the wastes mix and the mixture is then poured into the briquette machine. the last step is to dry the briquettes to produce charcoal. This is done in the drying rack.”

Calvin’s workmate sieving the raw material in the workshop

Calvin and his team have faced a number of challenges but this has not stopped them from going further.

“In the beginning, we used our hands to mould the charcoal which was very tiresome and it left our hands spoilt with dead skin in the palms. Our quality also wasn’t that good. The market too was very low but we never gave up.”

“Use what surrounds you” is a common saying that we often do not give attention too, but instead, we keep asking our leaders for help yet what’s surrounds us can be very useful in our daily life.

Basic principles of Physics state that “Effort + Load  = Work done.” Calvin’s hard work and desire to see his brilliant idea boom led him to overcome all the challenges that he and his team met. After months of several dynamics, critics and mental exhaustion, the season ended and he harvested fruits from his tree. Schools and some small companies started making orders for his charcoal. He has since received support from KCCA in form of a a manual machine that ended the hands era.

The briquettes are laid out to dry in the drying rack

Calvin Matovu now he employs twenty young people from his own community in Kyebando. The charcoal briquettes they manufacture cost UGX 1500 and last for over seven hours, which minimizes the daily costs also reducing demand for firewood.

“Anyone can do this anywhere at any time.” He says in conclusion. “Every person should base on talent at least 50% of their daily economic activities.”

The finished products. Briquettes ready to be sold.

This is a guest post by MARVIN MUTYABA, a student at Makerere University Business School, currently pursuing a Business Administration in his second year. He is passionate about entrepreneurship, skills development and fitness. 

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