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A Ugandan teenager has won the prestigious Shakespeare scholarship in Sydney

Joel Loum Okumu, 17, arrived in Australia from Uganda without one word of English. Now he’s about to perform Shakespeare with one of the biggest theatre companies in the country.

Joel Loum Okumu’s almost 6’3″ stature takes centre stage in the drama room of St Francis Xavier’s College in the NSW port city of Newcastle.

The Year 12 graduate turns his head and surveys the black curtained auditorium.

The tempo of the rise and fall of his chest slows as he prepares to take himself into the dark world of Hamlet, the antihero of the Shakespearean tragedy of the same name.

Joel is about to perform his interpretation of Act 1, Scene 5 – when the spirit of Hamlet’s father appears asking for his murder to be avenged.

It’s a performance national theatre company Bell Shakespeare describes as “unlike anything [they] had ever seen”.

It compelled Bell Shakespeare to award him its inaugural John Bell Scholarship, designed to give young Australian thespians the opportunity to become the luminaries of the future.

Joel will travel to Bell Shakespeare’s headquarters in Sydney this month to spend a week participating in master classes, observing the company’s rehearsals of Richard III and performing in a showcase.

Evelina Singh of Emmanuel College and Nikhil Singh of Bray Park State High School in Queensland will be joining him.

When Joel – who first began acting in Year 11 – was told he had secured the honour, he thought he was being pranked.

“I actually couldn’t believe it, because I was like, ‘hey wait a second, how the hell did I beat people who have done acting way longer than I have?!” he told SBS News.

Joel competed against nearly 200 students from around Australia for the scholarship.

“I really couldn’t believe it when my teacher told me, Kirsten [Beletich], then I’m like, ‘wait a second, I actually won it!'”

Bell Shakespeare head of education Joanna Erskine says Joel had “an incredible connection” to the performance he gave for his audition.

“Traditionally Shakespearean monologues or performances are quite polished, often students perform quite kind of effected or almost British accents, that kind of thing,” Ms Erskine says.

Joel performs the two characters in the scene, Hamlet and the ghost of Hamlet’s father, as one person, incorporating elements of Nigerian witchcraft to accentuate how Hamlet’s father comes to channel his spirit through his son.

“This was raw, it was emotional. It was connected,” Ms Erskine says.

“It was an interpretation we had never seen before, which is what excites us.”

Joel Okuma performs his rendition of 'Hamlet' Act 1, Scene 5.

Joel Okuma performs his rendition of ‘Hamlet’ Act 1, Scene 5.

From Uganda to Australia

It has been no easy feat to take command of Shakespeare’s difficult language.

Joel arrived in Australia at the age of five without knowing one word of English.

He recalls his first days at school in the Newcastle suburb of Waratah where his family settled.

“So when my friends asked me, ‘oh what are you eating?’ – ’cause I’d be eating African food – and they’d be like, ‘can I have some?’ and all I knew was the word, ‘yeah’, but I meant ‘no, I’m hungry too!’

“So I said ‘yeah’, and they just took it!”

It wasn’t until the age of 12 he felt he had developed a strong grasp of English. But once he had it, he says there was no turning back.

“English is a crazy language, when you’re learning it you go, ‘woah, damn they have a lot of words’,” he says.

“When Shakespeare’s writing his plays, I’m really a big fan of the way he writes and uses words that nobody knows, like who knows the words ‘cantankerous’ these days, or ‘superfluous’… who uses that?”

Joel (second from right) with his brother Emmanuel (far right), cousin Patrick (far left), teacher Kirsten Beletich( second left) and classmate Ivanya

Joel (second from right) with his brother Emmanuel (far right), cousin Patrick (far left), teacher Kirsten Beletich( second left) and classmate Ivanya

When Joel arrived in Australia at the age of five, it was a “shock” to see the luxury that characterised his new home of Newcastle. The houses lined spaciously down streets were as novel as his first sip of a soft drink: “Woah are you serious?”

But his new life was not as idyllic as he had imagined it would be. He lost his beloved mother when he was just seven years old.

During his process of recovery, his love for the arts developed. He began acting, but also indulging in books and expressing himself through rap music – a poetry he esteems along with the Bard.

Receiving this opportunity with Bell Shakespeare, he says, has been a crowning achievement.

“I feel awesome…just to be part of the scholarship, because I never knew it was going to happen.”

oel was drawn to Shakespeare through Tupac, who praised the playwright

oel was drawn to Shakespeare through Tupac, who praised the playwright

This article was written by Andrea Booth and it first appeared on SBS.

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In Conversation with Mugasha, the Aerial Photographer Showcasing Uganda in New Spectacular Views

Arnold Mugasha, a Ugandan aerial photographer, is one of the very few talented dronists in the country. He’s known on Instagram as shotbymu. His aerial captures are just stunning, and we, like many, remain completely blown away by his unique drone views of Uganda. We spent an evening with him to know more about his passion for aerial photography.

How Arnold started

It started about 3 years ago when Arnold was watching BBC Planet Earth, a nature documentary TV series by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Two episodes specifically inspired him. The first being the one that captured hyenas chasing wildebeests and the second which went globally viral, where newly-hatched marine iguana made its way to the sea, after a gauntlet race with over 20 snakes.

“The way these scenes were being shot, looked movie-like yet they were actually real life scenes. This cinematic shooting of everyday animal life got me thinking and that’s when I decided to go to YouTube and started learning about drones as well as the camera crew photographers of BBC Planet Earth.” Arnold recalls.

Arnold then started saving some money to purchase his first drone a DJI Mavic Pro, one of the first bold moves he made at a young age of 24. This cost him UGX 4.7 million (about USD$ 1300). He bought it in December 2016.

The first challenges he countered

Possession of a drone back in 2016 was not the same as possessing a normal camera to use for photography. It involved a lot of clearing with customs, understanding recognized fly zones and no fly zones which failure to understand, could result into indefinite confiscation of the drone by the Civil Aviation Authority, intelligence and Police for security reasons.

“When I got my first drone, I was very cautious. I did a lot of research that involved moving to police stations and Civil Aviation Authority to understand the fly zones and laws governing drones. Lucky enough as I established later, there are no laws restricting ownership of a drone by a citizen if you are using it in unrestricted fly zones like private establishments.” Arnold explains.

The real trouble he has encountered

It happened at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the only place in Uganda where you can see rhinos in the wild. Arnold had arrived late the previous night and had not gotten acquainted with the rules of the sanctuary. When he started flying the drone early the next morning, all hell broke loose.

“All of a sudden, I saw game rangers come running to me (with guns). I was very scared. At first, they thought I was a poacher ready to take me down since rhinos being listed as among the most threatened species, are highly protected. It took hours of explanations and showing them my identifications proving that am not a poacher that they finally let me go and warned me not to do that again.” He remembers.

His best highlights as an aerial photographer

At first, he fails to pick his best, a thing that proves he puts in a lot everytime he decides to be behind the drone remote. After about 15 seconds of thinking however, he zeroes down to a few.

“I think Kabale is one of my best highlights. When I visited Lake Bunyonyi, it was one of the most breathtaking scenes I have ever seen and taken. The second I can point out is Murchison Falls along River Nile where I also shot Chobe Safari Lodge. These scenes are very magnificent.” Arnold says.

Turning passion into business.

At first, Arnold used to fly drones out of passion. When people started recognizing his amazing aerial shots, they started hiring him to shoot their projects providing rare opportunities to travel across the country.

“My drone is now attached to my company registered as Shot by Mu Ltd. One of my first paid jobs was in June 2017 when a team flew in from India to do a documentary about Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in West Nile. They were looking for a dronist and that is when I met them and tagged along.” Arnold explains.

Arnold now established a website ( where he documents all his works that support him in sharing his work to potential clients. In future, he plans on building a team and move beyond just a one person team.

Looking ahead

Arnold has over 8 years experience in the creative industry working as a multimedia designer dabbling in graphic design, animation and illustration, so camera work is the latest addition to his skills. He is not about to let this end. 4 years from now, he plans on big things for the Shot by Mu brand.

“3 or 4 years from now I don’t want to have a typical day time job. I want to focus on Shot by Mu and make it a fully fledged production house that will be shooting on movie sets, documentaries and telling nature stories about Uganda that you rarely see on TV. In short, I want to be living life doing what I am passionate about.” Arnold explains.

The photographers he looks up to in Uganda and beyond

To be good at anything, you have to learn what your peers in that field are doing and be inspired. Besides his liking for BBC Planet Earth photographers, Arnold has learnt how to be a better photographer through mastering what his peers are doing in Uganda and East Africa.

“ In Uganda, I look up to William Kane, Aaron Kajumba and Kreativ Adikt. In Africa and beyond, I look up to Truthslinger, Tobi Shinobi and Osborne Macharia. These keep me pushing forward.” He says.

“You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take”- he concludes

Arnold (middle) demonstrating how to fly a drone to the thisisuganda team during the interview

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How this woman is empowering youth in slums to turn their passions into sustainable careers

Unemployment remains one of the most highlighted challenges for young people in Uganda today. The 2014 Uganda Census Report indicates that Uganda’s population between the productive age of 14 and 64 is slightly over 18 million. with 58% of this population group unemployed, it means that Uganda’s total non-utilized labour potential is 10.4m as of 2014.

One woman is trying to change this status quo.

Meet Noeline Kirabo, a change agent and the founder and C.E.O of Kyusa Uganda, a non-profit organization that is empowering out of school youth to become employable by starting their own business or get available jobs.

“Our organization focuses on youth between 15 to 25 years of age to help them discover and harness their passions and make them employable in the fast growing entrepreneurial environment of Uganda.” Says Noeline.

It all started as a dream when Noeline herself was working a full time, well-paying job. She desired to do something that would leave a legacy. Having a background of not being in tertiary education herself, she wanted to offer the same hope to youth who withdraw themselves from endless possibilities because they consider themselves unemployable due to dropping out of school.

The organization has been in existence since 2014 and has grown from its pioneer lot of 10 students to a total of 250 graduates

‘My passion derives from my experience as a former school dropout. I educated myself using online courses. When I got my first job, there was no turning back. At the height of my career, I was challenged to think about the legacy I wanted to build. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my passion was in people developing more so empowering youth to live purposeful and fruitful lives.’ She says.

Kyusa seeks to eradicate the issue of youth unemployment by accelerating youth employability. The organization has been in existence since 2014 and has grown from its pioneer lot of 10 students to a total of 250 graduates with great testimonies about the impact Kyusa had on their lives.

The initiative offers programs that include business startup trainings for potential entrepreneurs, business acceleration for small and micro entrepreneurs, employability class for youth seeking to enter formal employment.

“Support programs are also offered to participants including mentor matching with business icons, exposure filled visits to gather hands on skill, support to attend vocational training, apprenticeship training, apprenticeship placements, business branding and incubation. “ Noeline says.

Kyusa helps youth discover and harness their passions to make them employable in the fast growing entrepreneurial
environment of Uganda

This rich syllabus has seen majority of the Kyusa alumni successfully running small and medium enterprises.

Julius, one of the alumni from Kyusa started a catering business that has grown into a full restaurant operating in Kisenyi. He employs four people and is working with Kyusa to start an apprenticeship program. He also runs an Events Management Company where he offers ushers, public address system and outside catering services and employs 20 youth on part time basis.

Another beneficiary Henry, runs a commercial farm on eight acres of land. He grows fruits and vegetables. Henry employs 15 youth on his farm and he is also working with Kyusa to launch an agribusiness training center for youth on Nakaseke.

Deborah another alumni,  has started a pineapple jam business and is in the process of standardizing the brand so as to sell across the East African market.

Noeline is a 2013 Kanthari fellow, 2014 Hive San Francisco fellow, 2015 Cherry Blaire Foundation Mentee, 2016 Community Solutions Program fellow, 2017 YALI Regional Leadership Center Fellow.

This rich syllabus has seen majority of the Kyusa alumni successfully running small and medium enterprises.

The journey has not been all rose and no thorn for Kyusa. Noeline started out with very little funding from friends and family. She had to learn to get the job done with the few available resources which is a valuable lesson up to date. But like they say, ‘Where there is a will, there is a way!’ Overtime many people have bought into the vision and partnered with Kyusa to get to this point.

Noeline looks up to her mother who made her believe she could be anything she set her heart to. She is inspired by Pastor Moses Mukisa of Worship Harvest ministries who has taught her a lot about vision, people development, leadership and resourcing for the vision.

Kyusa ultimate vision is to build a replicable model that will empower 10,000 youth annually across the African continent through the collaborative efforts of partners across Africa.

By Victoria Achom. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter.

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Dishing Out Inspiration: How this Man From Nakasongola Became a Globally Celebrated Chef

Joe Semanda is a 24 year old award-winning chef currently making culinary magic at the Kampala Serena Hotel. He’s the first Ugandan to participate in the international young chef Olympiad, an annual competition, twice, and bringing home the prestigious mentor’s medal for the 3rd International Young Chef Olympiad 2017 for mentoring Ugandan contestant Sandra Agasha.

He picked his love for cooking in 2010 after completing senior four. “I always wanted to be a surgeon but after my senior four, I failed to get school fees to push me to A ‘level. When I was asked what technical course I could do, I chose to do catering and I majored in food production” and thus his journey as a chef begun.

He was inspired by an uncle, Ben Musasizi who worked at a top Hotel in Uganda before moving to the United Arab Emirates as a Chef De Partie. Cooking has always been a part of his life. “I always had my holidays in the village with all my cousins. We were many and my grandmother used to make a cooking time table for all of us. We wanted to impress so we cooked our hearts out”.

Joel (middle) at the International Young Chef Olympiad.

A passionate young man, Semanda delights in cooking and expanding his horizons in the field. “My dream was always to work at the Kampala Serena hotel and when I made it there, it opened doors to a world that I knew less about. I learnt more about food and how it moves souls. I traveled to India and met with great chefs from over 67 countries and we all spoke one language which is “food”

Semanda is humble, intelligent and hungry for success. He has always aspired to be the best chef in Uganda. “Thanks to Jimmy Sekasi Business Institute, I was chosen to represent the school and Uganda at large in the 2nd International young chef Olympiad 2016 as student contestant and went back for the 3rd International Young Chef Olympiad 2017 as a mentor”.

He is currently preparing for the African young chef competitions that will be held in May 2018 in Nigeria, thereafter upgrade his diploma to a culinary degree in an international institution for more exposure.

At 24, Joe is one of the most popular chefs at Kampala Serena Hotel

A visionary, he seeks to promote the food industry and boost the culinary profession, “I am trying to reach out to the ministry of tourism to work with me and we promote this fast growing profession by organizing internal cooking competitions among cooking schools, I personally have missed out on a number of opportunities due to lack of funds but I believe with a helping hand, we will raise our flag way high using our talents.”

Semanda has not always been the young award winning chef at a top Hotel in Uganda. “Making it to where I am today has been a battle after all the hardships of raising school fees… At the moment, the greatest challenge I face is passing up opportunities for growth and exposure due to the lack of funding. I urge the tourism and hotel sector to be open to people like me who want to make a difference in this industry for Uganda and come out to promote and support us”.

He implores all young people not to under estimate any job but to use it as stepping stone to their dreams. “Do not allow pride and social status influence your employment decisions” he says.

Joe’s parents wanted him to become a surgeon but he followed his dreams of being a chef, a decision he’s never regretted making.

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