Friday, December 31, 2010

Back in Uganda

My wife, son, and I arrived in Uganda last night exhausted from a long, delayed trip. Yes, snow on the U.S. East coast disrupts air travel nearly everywhere. We leave tomorrow to visit Betty and the six orphans (see Christmas story below) in Fort Portal. Then, it's off to wonderful Queen Elizabeth National Park for a couple of days of R and R. Our peace journalism schedule resumes in Tororo and Gulu the week of January 10th.

More random, seemingly unrelated thoughts from this part of the world

From the Parkville Luminary

TORORO, UGANDA—One of the journalists who attended my recent peace journalism seminar relayed a fascinating tale regarding two candidates for political office and their wacky wives. We’ll call them Candidate A, his wife Mrs. A, Candidate B, and Mrs. B. Candidate A is sick. Mrs. A believes that Mr. A’s illness has been caused by “bewitching” that was allegedly done by the wife of Candidate B. So, Mrs. A went to confront Mrs. B, and fisticuffs ensued. The upshot—Mrs. A told Mrs. B that if Mr. A dies, the bewitching will be to blame. As retribution for a dead husband, Mrs. A said that she would steal Mr. B from his wife. After relaying this murky tale, the storyteller then asked me, with a straight face, how I would cover such a story as a journalist. Bewildered, I gave some lame answer about trying to stick to the facts. How can you cover such a story and not sound like the “National Enquirer”?

American election cycles would definitely be enlivened by battling spouses, evil spells, and husband/wife-swapping. I’m thinking that this could be especially entertaining if it were to involve Sarah Palin, since it would set up a no-survivors smackdown between Todd Palin and Michelle Obama. The smart money’s on Michelle, by the way.

ON THE ROAD IN UGANDA—In 2010, we have made 20 car trips to all parts of Uganda, and have covered 4,993 miles. To put this in perspective, that’s more than the distance from Kansas City to London, England (4391 miles), and about the same as KC to Recife, Brazil (5034 miles). There are no rest stops anywhere, and answering the call of nature puts you in close contact with nature. Keep your eyes open for snakes.

Other than two horrible, cratered stretches between Kampala and Fort Portal and Kampala and Masaka, the roads haven’t been too bad. In fact, many have been worked on recently due to the fact that this is an election year and the ruling party wants to pave its path to victory with the claim that the roads have improved.

However, because they’re 99.5% two lane roads, and because Ugandans drive like bewitched demons, the roads are deadly dangerous. Not a week goes by without news of a grizzly, fiery smash up, often featuring packed mini vans and buses and involving multiple casualties. Passing on curves and hills is normal here, and near misses are as common as pimples on a teenager. As we ride along, always seconds away from oblivion, I employ an effective defense mechanism against this mayhem. I simply to stare off into the scenery, away from the road, fixing my gaze on a banana farm, some goats, or youngsters getting intro mischief. So far, this method has proven 100% effective in preventing injury, death, or accidental bowel release.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas 2010

Thanks everyone for your heart-felt comments about my Christmas column. (See previous post below from Dec. 19). Special thanks also to the Cibotaru-Anschutz family in Kansas City, whose generous donation will definitely help Betty and her mom stay afloat. My Christmas in Kansas City with my family (domestic and international) was wonderful. Tomorrow, it's back to Uganda. This time, my wife and son will go along. Wish me luck--not with the Ugandans, but with my wife and son. (Just kidding, honey bun).

Ugandans wish for peaceful 2011

From the Parkville Luminary

KAMPALA, UGANDA—Ugandans are looking forward to 2011 with a mixture of hope, anticipation, fear, and dread. At least, that was the reaction of those who were asked what their New Year’s wish was for Uganda in 2011. Not coincidentally, all of the wishes relate to the presidential election on Feb. 18, 2011.

“My wish is that a lot of Ugandans will go out there and vote in the coming elections. It's my understanding that many Ugandans have become apathetic about the system, so much so that they become silent enablers of an electoral system that is already corrupt. I also think that it's much harder for incumbents to rig elections when voter turnout is high, when people stay out there to watch the outcome of their efforts. They need to get out of their houses.” --Rodney Muhumuza, Ugandan journalist and graduate student, Columbia University, New York.

“My wish for Uganda this year is to have a good political climate during the coming elections and also vote good leaders that will fight to improve the welfare of the people rather than their own stomachs. This is very important because very many people are dying of poverty, starvation but the only thing we get from our leaders is corruption and embezzlement of funds aimed at meeting the needs of the dying Ugandans. So my wish is to see that we get good leaders that will transform the lives of the people and the country in general….I am so disappointed with our leaders today…” –Simon Senfuka, Park University student from Uganda.

“My New Year wish for Uganda is "Peaceful, Free and Fair Elections". This is mainly for two reasons. One is that Uganda never seem to get peaceful, not free and fair elections. The first elections under (Current President) Museveni in 1996 were characterized by violence. Before that, Museveni waged a bloody 5 year war because he contested elections. The last two elections (2001, 2006) have ended of in the Supreme Court with indictments about the process, institutions involved. Ugandans deserve better. Secondly, with all my young family back in Uganda and being almost physically removed from them, anything that seems to threaten them disturbs me terribly. I want them to live in an enabling environment, to feel at home in their country.” –JB Mayiga, former head, Uganda Media Development Foundation; current Canadian doctoral student.

“My New Year’s wish is: A new leader, a new beginning. I wish 2011 ushers in a new leader who will work on Uganda's problems starting from corruption, which I believe is responsible for the poor education system, poor road network, poor health system, poor housing, widening income inequality, sectarianism, nepotism, tribalism, unemployment and lack of respect for the constitution. Then Uganda will have a change that she so much deserves and desires.” –Caesar Kyebakola, business owner.

“My wish for New Year is peace during and after the general elections in 2011. This will prevent bloodshed which usually results from post election violence. May the Almighty God let it be, Amen.” –Grace Lekuru, radio journalist.

“My greatest new year’s wish for my country Uganda is peace and stability…Since 2006 neighboring countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe and Rwanda have also held elections. Countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe have had bad days of election violence just because the elections have not been free and fair which has been solved by forming power sharing deals. (During our election), if one side feels cheated they will resort to violence to make sure at least there is power sharing…I wish all Ugandans were seeing further than just being and having their leaders win , and set all eyes and efforts on peace and stability. I call upon all Ugandans to look further and keep in mind that when we have a peaceful nation, we shall enjoy all the fruits of peace which is my wish for all Ugandans come 2011.” --Betty Mujungu, radio journalist.

“I wish that the journalists cover stories in a balanced way and to say no to politician who move to use them to spread their propaganda and rumor. ..I wish we could have free and fair elections without and violence and above all, couples allowing their partners to freely vote for a candidate of their choice regardless of party differences. I also wish all my family and friends health.” --Gloria Laker, peace journalism project assistant.

My New Year’s wish is the same—peace for Uganda; not just for the sake of the wonderful people of Uganda, but for selfish reasons as well. After all, my wife and son will be with me in Uganda in 2011, and nothing is more important to me than their safety.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Angels make Christmas memorable for six orphans

From the Parkville Luminary

FORT PORTAL, UGANDA—Try as they might, Annet, Jannet, Peter, Violet, Patrick, and Adolf are having a hard time forgetting Christmas, 2009.

Newly orphaned, isolated, and alone, the six kids, ages 4-13 at the time, were more worried about surviving than they were about celebrating.

“Christmas (2009) was not good for me, I had no clothes and we did not go to church,” said Violet, 9. Peter, 11, said Christmas “was not different from other ordinary days because even then life did not change because we had no any meals (except for) a neighbor who offered lunch.” “There was nothing special about last Christmas because we did not have any new clothes, no special meals and no parents,” said Janet, 13.

The oldest orphan, Annet, vainly tried to hold back tears as she recalled the 2009 holidays. “Christmas day was worse because it was the first Christmas with out our beloved mother who would try to make sure we have special meals and sodas. In the night it rained heavily and we did not sleep as the rain got to us through the dilapidated roof. Actually, I hate even recalling that Christmas because that is when I realized we were typical parentless because there was no one for us,” she said.

The six were left alone last Christmas after their father abused their mother, eventually killing her. Then, the alcoholic father killed himself, leaving Annet and her five younger brothers and sisters orphaned. None of their relatives would, or could, look after them, so they were absolutely alone in the world.

Enter Betty Mujungu, a journalist at Life FM in Fort Portal. As I first reported last summer, Betty produced a story about the orphans’ plight, featuring the kids telling their pathetic tale. In the radio report, the children talked openly about how they were suffering and didn’t have enough to eat. Annet told Betty about how one of the younger girls injured her leg escaping from a would-be rapist. Upon hearing this tragic story, Life FM’s listeners sprung into action. Ten different donors generously gave food and clothing to the children. Another donor is paying for all the kids to attend school.

Touched by the orphans’ story, Betty and her mother Edith Birungi decided to take in all six kids about four months ago. The orphans now call Betty “Dear Aunt” and Edith “Mum”.

Since they now have a home, Betty said the kids’ lives have “completely transformed into average standards of living with the children accessing both the basic and secondary requirements. Exposure to a new friendly environment of desirable dressing, schools, shelter as well as feeding makes the children hopeful of a life they never anticipated.”

The kids seem to be doing fine in school. “I didn`t know I would perform as good as this in class before, because in the previous days my studies were on and off as I would be frequently shut away from school due to failure to pay school fees,” noted Annet, who plans to be a doctor.

--Photo--The six orphans, looking "smart" in their school uniforms.--

The orphans have not only excelled at school, but they are also opening up to the community that embraced them. They participate in a weekly Saturday children’s radio program on Life FM. Betty observed that this show “has enhanced their communication capabilities because they can now talk with out fear… and teach their fellow children.”

Given their new life, it’s no surprise that the children have high hopes for Christmas 2010. This year, they want a celebration complete with new clothes, special meals, and a visit to church. Betty has assured the kids that she will “fulfill all of their demands.” Betty and Edith also plan to make a special Christmas cake to celebrate the holiday. “I am happy and believe we shall make it even when challenges come our way because it is not so easy to take good care of a big family like this…,” Betty said.

I have always loathed sappy sweet, corny holiday movies and TV shows, the kind that always make my wife cry. After learning about what Betty and Edith have done for these orphans, it’s hard for even a curmudgeon like me not to believe in angels and in Christmas miracles.

--To hear a radio report about Betty and the orphans, click here. Scroll down a bit. The story is called, Peace Journalist embraces orphans.--

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Crawling across the finish line

Our peace journalism seminars are done for 2010. We've taught 20 seminars for radio journalists and announcers throughout Uganda. Our message: that they can, through their reporting, create an atmosphere in their communities that encourages peace and reconciliation. I feel good about what we did, and how we did it. However, it's hard to provide much more analysis at this point without the benefit of some time and some perspective. Besides, I'm much too exhausted to do much analysis or thinking of any kind.

Random musings and indecipherable ramblings from the equatorial zone

WESTERN UGANDA—There is a morning radio announcer in a small town in this region who is quite popular despite a relatively small speech impediment. It seems that this young man is unable to pronounce his L’s, pronouncing them instead as R’s. (So, little would become rittle). This is especially noteworthy around this election time in Uganda. One source says his show has become more popular lately thanks to wiseacre listeners who are tuning in just to hear the announcer mispronounce the word election. I must confess myself to wanting to tune in to hear him discuss election malpractices, free and fair elections, and, of course, rigged elections.

KIBALE, UGANDA—Among our projects’ activities is bringing community leaders together to form Peace Clubs to support journalists practicing peace journalism and to lobby for non-violent elections. An outstanding example is a very active Peace Club in Kabale. They recently held a high profile launch ceremony, featuring 80 civic leaders, political leaders, media, academia, religious leaders and leaders of civil society. The day after the launch event, the Peace Club sponsored an elders' round-table forum aimed at conflict prevention for politicians in Kabale before, during, and after the 2011 elections. Facilitators included representatives from the Ugandan Electoral Commission and Human Rights Commission, Inter-religious council of Uganda, and the police. Impressive. If all Ugandans were this committed to peace, there is no doubt that 2011 will indeed be violence-free.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rocks under foot, or rocks in my head?

Recently climbed halfway up the 977-foot Tororo Rock in eastern Uganda. (Click here for photos). I do not recommend doing this on an empty stomach, during the hottest part of the day, and without water. The path was very vertical—45 degrees in some spots. The trip down was just that—a semi-controlled stumble over loose dirt and gravel. I never fell, but did have to use my hand any number of times to keep from landing on my rear. There’s a cool cave on the side of the rock inside of which a local congregation holds church services.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Peace Journalism page updated; Big contest announced

The Peace Journalism Home Page has been updated with photos and our schedule for 2011. Check it out. Also, our project is unveiling a big electoral journalism contest for Ugandan radio reporters. Click here for details, and an entry form. Also, see newly posted photos of our outstanding seminar in Tororo.

Corruption Tarnishes Ugandan Journalists

From the Parkville Luminary

MASINDI, UGANDA—Is it wrong to steal bread to feed your starving family? Sadly, for many Ugandan journalists, this hypothetical conundrum is all too real. If you are not making enough as a radio reporter to feed yourself or your family, is it morally acceptable to receive a bribe from a greasy politician demanding favorable coverage?

Whether it’s morally correct or not, the practice of accepting bribes and taking brown envelopes stuffed with “facilitation” (transportation) money is commonplace among Uganda’s journalists.

I administered an unscientific survey in three different districts of Uganda during the last month, and asked 52 radio announcers and reporters who attended my peace journalism workshops about corruption in the journalism profession. When asked if they’d ever accepted a bribe, 56 percent said yes. The 28 “journalists” who took bribes said they had accepted them five times or less (18 respondents), 6-10 times (5), and more than 10 times (5). Who is bribing Uganda’s journalists? Not surprisingly, political candidates are by far the most common offenders. The survey indicated that businessmen, government officials, and political parties also regularly bribe reporters and announcers either for favorable coverage, or to kill an unflattering story.

Interestingly, the journalists’ response to a question about “facilitation” revealed a great deal about their mind set. “Facilitation” is a word used here to denote money given to journalists by newsmakers so that the journalists can pay to take a taxi or boda boda (motorbike) to cover an event. A disclaimer: radio stations here often don’t give reporters transportation money, leaving the journalists a difficult choice about whether to accept transport cash from news sources. 63% of journalists surveyed believe that facilitation is not bribery. This belief exists despite that fact that, during my workshops, we discuss the definition of bribery—giving/receiving something of value (transport money) in an attempt to curry influence (favorable press coverage).

The reporters and announcers were also asked to evaluate the overall level of corruption on a scale of 1-5 (1=least corrupt; 5=most corrupt) among journalists in their region. The average was in the middle, but the most frequently occurring responses were “not corrupt” (11) and, on the other end of the scale, “completely corrupt” (19). I would rate the corruption among journalists as a 4 or 5.

The survey results are buttressed by regular media reports of journalism corruption cases in Uganda. Two journalists are in jail after attempting to extort 40-million shillings ($17,777) in November from the head of the National Water and Sewerage Corporation. A few days before, officials foiled a 50-million shilling ($22,222) extortion scheme cooked up by two journalists and a lawyer that targeted the Public Works department. (Daily Monitor, 11-10-2010). At a political party meeting in September, brazen journalists “scribbled the names of 47 colleagues” who were demanding money and submitted them to the political party’s secretary. The secretary said the reporters “pursued me to my car, and I gave them 4-million shillings ($1,777) in an envelope because I knew the next thing they were going to do would be to start writing bad stories about me.” (Daily Monitor, 9-13-2010).

Not to make excuses for the journalists, but one could logically argue that rampant corruption among journalists merely reflects epidemic corruption in Ugandan society. Transparency International’s 2010 corruption index rates Uganda 127th out of 178 countries listed. (1 is best; 178th worst).

Regardless of the excuses, corruption among journalists corrodes the already low opinion the public here has of the profession, making it nearly impossible for reporters to be taken seriously. Corruption also complicates my job as a trainer in professional journalism. Can I seriously expect reporters to balance their stories and treat all political parties fairly if the reporters are receiving brown envelopes of money under the table from politicians in exchange for favorable coverage?

The headline of a recent newspaper op-ed piece here in Uganda says it all: “The brown envelope has bastardized journalism”. If Ugandan journalists are serious about professionalism and credibility, the brown envelopes must disappear.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Student sinks her teeth into her studies, among other things

KAMPALA, UGANDA—From the “now I’ve heard everything” department… At final exams last weekend at Ndejje University in Kampala, a teacher/lecturer caught one of his students, a young lady, cheating on the test. The lecturer moved in to confiscate the cheater’s crib notes. As he reached down to snatch them, the girl grabbed his wrist, and bit his hand. Rather than being horrified, the other students in the class broke out into spasms of laughter. Some even took advantage of the mayhem to exchange answers on the exam. One might say things got out of hand. Miss Jaws, by the way, was escorted out of the room. I have never witnessed a student biting a teacher. However, now that I know that this is possible, I will be taking some precautions the next time I proctor an exam, including wearing gloves and perhaps a helmet.