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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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Proudly Ugandan

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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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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13 Ugandan artists We Met on #DrawingWhileBlack Who Will Inspire You

If you’ve spent any time on Twitter over the last few days, you might have noticed a lot of really cool art from around the world taking over your feed.

Black artists, graphic designers and illustrators from all over the world are introducing themselves and showcasing their art to the timeline and to the world, using the hashtag.

You can thank Annabelle Hayford (@sparklyfawn), a 19-year-old, a gender artist studying animation and illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) for rallying others in their field to share their work.

Some EXTREMELY TALENTED Ugandans across the globe did not sit down. From New York, to London, Kampala and across the globe, Ugandans took to Twitter to also engage in the challenge and boy oh boy, they are proving that Uganda has got talent.

Let’s not talk too much. Here they are. Enjoy!

1. Here’s Solomon W. Jagwe

2. And then JNK

3. Say hello to Franco Mpagi who-wait-for-it uses black ink to create his murals

4. It seems we won’t get enough of Solomon W. Jagwe

5. Enter the super talented Neema Lyer

6. Here comes Andrew Mamawi. He’s not at all affiliated to Game of Thrones

7. Introducing Elise aka Seiishin who does character design and story-boarding in animation

8. Dorothy had to introduce Xenson because a multi-media artist needs some respect!

9. The only ballpaint artist on the hashtag- so far. Say hi to Michael Dungu

10. Everyone stand up for Jonas Rayme. This guy is a gem!

11. Darsan Aine is a super talented chap!

12. EZI (not Mr. Eazi) the vector artist also came through!

13. Daniel the low key chef made a plot twist!

Absolutely amazing art!

If you’re an artist and want to talk to us about your art, we’re eager to say hello! Send us an email on and let’s talk!



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