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Unsung Heroes

Laura Byaruhanga: Spicing Up Uganda with the Spoken Word

LAura

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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Collective Good

He Grew Up in Bwaise Slum. Today, Kisirisa has Educated and Empowered Young People like Him

Muhammed most commonly known as Slum Ambassador, was born and raised in Bwaise, the most deprived and perhaps largest slum area in Kampala. At the tender age of 11, he found his first job as a tap water operator. He would also carry water and pick garbage from people’s homes. On some occasions he would sell metal scrap all in an attempt to get an education, put clothes on his back and get something to eat.

“I picked interest in Computers when I was 25 years and began to teach myself at various internet cafes. I focused on creating profiles for HIV orphans and trying to see if I could link them up with potential sponsors for fees and assistance.” Mohammed says

Later, in 2009, together with 3 other young people, he formed Action for Fundamental Change and Development (AFFCAD) a community based organization set out to transform Kampala’s poorest areas by empowering the young people, children and women through health, education and economic empowerment programs like vocational and entrepreneurship training.

A vocational training for youth underway at AFFCAD. (Photo by AFFCAD)

Since its establishment, AFFCAD’s primary focus was supporting orphans and vulnerable children and making awareness on health issues including HIV/AIDS awareness and adolescent sexual reproductive health. In June 2011 they established a community nursery and primary school called Excel Education Center that supports 200 children from Bwaise slums.

Todate, it has graduated 1,047 youth. This equates to a completion rate of 90%. Of those who have graduated 697 are female and 350 are male.

“AFFCAD’s Youth economic empowerment program provides the hands on skills that enable the disadvantaged youth in Kampala’s slums to transit from lives of crime and poverty to lives of productive occupation. “ He explains.

Through AFFCAD’s Bwaise Business and Vocational Institute, the targeted youth between 16-25 years participate in a 6 month vocational training program in applicable skills like Computer Graphics Design, Photography and Videography, Cookery and Bakery, Tailoring and Fashion design, Electronic installation, Hairdressing and Cosmetology, Decoration and Ushering among others.

Women during a graduation after completing the Women Business and Financial Access course (Photo by AFFCAD)

“As part of the program, the Youth are also equipped with entrepreneurial skills, financial literacy, soft and hard skills for career and professional development (How to Make it in the Contemporary Business World) and they Youth take on one month internships at the end of the training to expose them to working environments.” Muhammed explains.

In addition, the project also provides IT Training to the youth on how to strategically use ICT (including internet, social media, Web 2.0 and mobile technology) to market and sustain their business ventures.

Each year AFFCAD runs The Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge and Award, to support the business ideas developed by the youth in the program, a mentoring session and a scholarship to attend a 5-day entrepreneurship foundation course at the innovation entrepreneurship boot camp. Every Friday, AFFCAD invites successful youth and other leaders to motivate and inspire our youth.

Muhammad standing next to one of the entrances at AFFCAD. (Internet photo)

AFFCAD runs the Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge and Award, 15 winners have received micro start up grants between $1500 to $2500 to develop their business ideas, a mentoring session, and a scholarship to attend a 5-day entrepreneurship foundation course at the innovation entrepreneurship Boot Camp.

In August 2017, Muhammad received the 2017 Young Achievers Award for Social Entrepreneurship in recognition for his work with AFFCAD.

Like this story or have something to share? Write to us: info@thisisuganda.org, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Unsung Heroes

Being HIV Positive, Diagnosed with Cancer & Tuberculosis Has not stopped this Superwoman From Looking After 150 Kids in Slums

“A strong woman doesn’t give up even though her heart may feel heavy. She courageously takes one more step, then another and then another.” –Anonymous

Stella Airoldi first met Susan laker in 2009 when she first came to Uganda while doing research about post war victims and witnesses.

“I visited her house, where she was living with her 3 teenage kids. Back then I was 24 years old and Susan 26 years, so just two years older than me.  But her kids were already 9,10 and 13 years old.” Stella says.

Because Susan got pregnant for the first time when she was only 13, her kids didn’t go to school and neither did she. A soldier was responsible for her first pregnancy while she was living in a military barracks which by then, was the only safe place for her to go to escape the insurgency caused by the Lords Resistance Army in Northern Uganda.

“Getting pregnant when I was 13 years old was so traumatizing. I lost my childhood life. I wasn’t able to go to school which made me lost my hope for living a good future. I hated my parents for forcing me in to early marriage, my growth was totally destroyed and I segregated myself from people because I felt inferior.”- Susan notes.

Susan with some of the beneficiaries of 22STARS. (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

When Susan was 15 years old, she conceived again but got a miscarriage when she received a message notifying her that her uncles, nieces, a brother and sister had been mutilated and killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.

“I was shocked and lost the pregnancy. After a few months, I conceived again and gave birth to a second child at the age of 16 and when the baby was 6 months, the father died and since I had nowhere to get financial help from, I was forced to  remarry another soldier from the barracks to get protection and when I was 19 I gave birth to the third child.” Susan says

In 2007, her husband was deployed to Somalia on a peacekeeping and never returned, a thing that left Susan very frustrated. It was shortly after that, that she found out that she was HIV positive, had cancer and Tuberculosis (TB). It was not until an organization called Reach Out Mbuya came to her rescue that she was able to start cancer chemotherapy and TB drugs for six months and now am on ARVs treatment for life.

She then fled with all her children to Kampala which were (and still remain) her main reason and motivation to keep going in life. Her kids were tested negative and she wanted them to go to school. She started making jewellery, which initially her kids would sell in the streets.

Susan and some of her children (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

“It was then my pastor introduced me to Stella. I was making paper beads jewellery and Stella decided to buy me jewellery on a yearly basis. At the end of 2012 when she came back to Uganda to see how I was doing, she was surprised to learn that I was going back to school by myself and I had improved.” Susan notes.

Susan has been able to buy land and built a bigger house for her family. She completed high school and did a couple of short courses to improve her skills and knowledge for example a  certificate in Clearing, Forwarding and Shipping management, Certificate in Electronics, Certificate in Counseling People Living with HIV/AIDS.

“At first, all my friends and family thought I was completely crazy starting with women who cannot read and write and I cannot even communicate with. So true, things didn’t go that smooth the first 2 years. So end of 2014 I came back to Kampala and since 2015 I am here myself 2 to 3 times a year and things improved a lot.”- Stella says.

Stella (left) and Susan during one of the jewellery making sessions (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

Susan is now managing the whole team of at 22STARS jewellery that comprises of over 20 women and supporting 150 children in slums. Thanks to recurring monthly donations, she (Susan) has been cooking in Acholi Quarter every Sunday since October 2016 ( so more than 14 months!) with the help of other 22STARS group members. The group started back then to cook for 50 kids and that is now 150. They get a hot meal with either fish or meat.

22STARS is a team of artisans made up by strong women living in the slums of Kampala and Jinja in Uganda making jewellery for a living. The platform is giving women in slum areas like Susan to sell their jewellery on the international market and earn a living, and in addition war running small social programs on the ground.

“Our choice for environmentally friendly products is a very conscious one. By using 100% recycled paper, the jewellery you wear does not only look good, but it also feels good. Our beads are hand made from paper and varnished with natural products.  This makes each peace uniquely different, lightweight and waterproof.” Stella says.

Some of the 22STARS women that make jewellery (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

22STARS also uses education and entrepreneurship to empower children and their families to rise above poverty by creating long-term sponsorships for children in Uganda, and also run several community development initiatives including a nutrition program, basic needs program, small business training and micro loans program and our holistic educational program with extra-curricular activities.

“Without the help of Susan this all would not have been possible. As she knows how it feels like to sit in the stone quarry with your kids, crashing stones all day, not being able to send them to school, she is pushing very hard to help all the families over there to send their kids to school. She is so amazing how she is managing everything. Susan is a true superstar and really the strongest woman I ever met.” Stella concludes.

Stella and Susan at the 22STARS office. (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

Like this story or have something to share? Write to us: info@thisisuganda.org, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Uganda Innovates

Athieno Mary Lucinda is changing girls’ lives one sanitary pad at a time

She stood up in class, her classmates laughed at her. The boys said that she had slaughtered a chicken. They made fun of her for a long time. She couldn’t afford sanitary towels, the anxiety of the monthly period coupled with the embarrassment she had faced which would have destroyed her self-esteem as a young girl instead stirred her resolve.

Meet Athieno Mary Lucinda a YALI fellow, the founder of Eco-Pads a social enterprise dedicated to the production and distribution of reusable pads and environmentally friendly to girls in Uganda.

“That experience kept me wondering what I would ever do to save a girl the embarrassment I had gone through. While at university, I went to volunteer with Kadama Widows Association where I am the Executive Director now and as I interacted with the girls, they had similar challenges. I then started saving part of my stipend to make the pads and that was my aha moment.” Lucinda says.

The sanitary pads are distributed to young women in rural Uganda. These Eco-pads are Menstrual Kits that are made from very high performance fabric and provide comfort and supper protection for a period up to 12 months.

“The Eco-pads project started in 2008 as a local thing trying to just help girls in the community. In 2014 we realized we can improve on quality and start selling for sustainability and we have been growing daily from just the local community to many parts of the country with over 20 full time  and 35 part time employees.”

“I am most proud of last year when we reached 50,000 girls with Eco-Pads, the feedback from the girls attending school daily is heart-filling. The involvement of parents and the whole community in the cause is great. We have reached over 75,000 community members on Menstruation being an issue and how they support. Mentored over 10,000 girls” Lucinda says.

There are challenges that are still to be overcome. Being a local product, Lucinda’s biggest challenge has been in marketing and getting the product to be known, convincing the clients that it is a good product since it is new. The very first money that they used was grant money that they used to buy equipment and set up and buy some few materials.

Despite the challenges, she has mentors that encourage her when things are going down hill. my “Atuki Turner the ED of Mifumi, Tracey the founder of glad rags U.S, Mary Mosinghi the ED of KwaAfrica. They remaind me that I need to remain a learner and humble in whatever I do.”

At the heart of this project is the desire by Eco pads that every girl child remains in school. Eco-pads give affordable sanitary pads for girls, because many miss out of school during their menstruation. They are competing against appalling statistics 80% of Girls in Uganda are absent from school during their periods. 70% of female students reported difficulty of attending class attentively due to menstrual related problems. 90% of the poor women and girls do not use (off-the-shelf) sanitary pads, but instead improvise with unsanitary materials. Prior to their first period only 51% of girls had knowledge of menstruation and its management

“We educate girls on MHM, conduct mentorship sessions and educate the parents and teachers on the need to support girl child. We shall continue to do something regardless of the tide. One sanitary pad at a time.” Lucinda says

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