Changemakers: I Know We Are, What Are You?

Wednesday. It’s 3:42 am in Boise, 12:42 pm in Uganda. I am awake. Though some might chalk that up to jet lag, I frequently wake up in the middle of the night with words, sentences, and titles of stories dancing through my brain. These wee hours of the night are when I am at my most creative. I write, erase, and rewrite entire blog posts in my head. This is one of those.

Lit up in neon for me on Wednesday was the realization that what we do is tied to significant events in the past. Formative events. Simply put, our experiences can embitter us or make us activists for change. Changemakers.

Take Cedric Nwafor (at left), the leader of Roots-Africa, an international NGO with strong connections in Idaho. Roots-Africa is devoted to the principle that Africa doesn’t need charity; it needs changemakers. As a child in Cameroon, Cedric was desperately hungry most of the time. Now a tall, lanky man, in Uganda I watched Cedric consume great quantities of food and then turn around to see what else he could eat. He founded Roots-Africa to address food insecurity. Besides his family, there is nothing he is more passionate about than training farmers to feed hungry people and create a better future. I was blessed to travel to Uganda with Cedric and his team to meet his changemakers and others, to learn why they do what they do.

Like Dr. Margaret Sekaggya. A lawyer, a former judge, and academician, Dr. Margaret has worked extensively and internationally in the field of human rights. She set up the Ugandan Human Rights Commission and was its chair for some years. She lives in Kampala where she is the executive director of the  Human Rights Centre. She is widely known as the Mother of Human Rights in Uganda. Why, I wondered, does she do what she does?

I met her when one of our Roots-Africa teammates, Elly Kasirye, Chairman of the Wakiso District’s Human Rights Committee, launched its 2022 Human Rights Situation Report. She was his keynote speaker. We clicked and she invited me to visit her in her home the next day. I wanted to know her story and to understand how she remains engaged in the face of dangerous times in Uganda, working for change, and hopeful.

In the early sixties in Uganda, she told me, schools were desegregated. After the country declared independence, schools were no longer allowed to segregate between Indian, White, and African students but fourteen-year-old Margaret attended a school where her teacher, an Indian, discriminated against Africans. When an Indian student arrived late for class he or she would be admitted by the teacher. Africans were turned away. One day Margaret (below at right, in her study with her many awards and books) was late and was refused entrance.

“You can’t come in,” her teacher said.

“This was not fair,” she told me. “When Indians came late, they were allowed in. I wanted to protest that.” So, her teacher took her to see the headmaster, a White man. The headmaster listened to both sides.

“All right, Margaret. I’ve listened to you,” he told her after she made a case for why she should be allowed to join her class. He turned to the teacher, “I think it’s ok. Margaret can go back to class.”

When she walked into her classroom she walked with heavy steps and sat down in defiance. She remembers other students clapping. From that day forward, no one was refused entry into the classroom.

“That was my first defiance,” she told me.

Another defining moment came when as a young mother, she had moved out of the country to take a job (for less compensation than a man would receive) as a Magistrate Lecturer in the United Nations Institute for Namibia in Zambia. She came to Zambia ahead of her husband John, a bank manager, and was housed with her two young children in a small hotel room. Men at the Institute were given family housing. It was also unfair. During her time there she changed the compensation and housing policies for women.

Aside from her family, Dr. Margaret’s great passion is advocating for human rights. Among them, Freedom of Expression and Assembly, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Women’s Rights, Arrest and Harassment of Opposition Members and Supporters, Attacks on Civil Society , Forced Evictions , Prosecutions for Serious Crimes , and Children’s Rights. 

She also defends those who work in the constitutionally mandated field of human rights in Uganda. These are people like Elly, whose car was vandalized because of his work on the Human Rights Committee in the Wakiso District.

Elly (at left before the launch of the Wakiso District’s Committee on Human Rights’ 2022 Human Rights Situation Report) also works as a Uganda coordinator for Roots-Africa. His superior organizational and management skills had their genesis in a difficult childhood. Elly’s father was polygamous, and his mother was a 2nd wife. As a result, his father had no time for him. Firstborn, Elly was also rejected and mistreated by his elder siblings. His father didn’t support his education although his grandmother (below, at right), with whom he lived at a young age, insisted he become educated. He worked and slept in a bar to be able to raise school fees for himself and once even trained to work as a security guard in Iraq.

He was willing to do almost anything he could to further his education, becoming a modern-day Joseph in the House of Potiphar: serving his father’s interests to create a place for himself (and escape mistreatment). He became a savvy administrator, anticipating and satisfying his father’s needs and wants. Now he’s also a law student in his final year of study who intends to specialize in human rights.

Elly’s job (along with Denis Tibenkana) was to coordinate our trip, escorting us mzungus (Whites) and other team members. Not only would Elly stop, turn around, and offer me his arm when I had stairs to climb, but one day when I stayed in the hotel, he ordered my breakfast to be delivered and later called hotel staff to find out if I had eaten lunch. He was father-like in his shepherding of our entire group.

To the best of his ability, he insisted that everything went well for us. And since Uganda can be a dangerous place for a careless visitor, he was especially attentive to keep us safe. Terrorism, thievery, and auto accidents are at the top of the list of ways one becomes a victim in Uganda. Wildlife, it turned out, is also high on the list.

We were blasting down a dirt road in the middle of the Queen Elizabeth National Park when we came upon a huge, solitary bull elephant standing just off the road. We stopped. We wanted to get closer, so our driver began inching forward.

“No, no, no, please,” Elly said in his thick Ugandan accent. “Don’t go dere! Please no!”

At first, I mistook his urgent pleas for an African’s ancestral fear of elephants – all of us did – and we ribbed him unmercifully. But a few days later, after he told us his story, I realized we had misjudged him. Elly took his responsibility to shepherd us very seriously. He knew that a bull elephant could be dangerous, and he had been assigned responsibility to keep us safe. For our car to be impaled on a tusk (or two) would be a failure of his responsibility. Honor-bound, he was doing what his childhood prepared him to do: take care of things. I have seldom felt so safe as I did in his company. Denis Tibenkana’s too.

Denis (at left with his Tilapia on the shore of Lake Victoria) has a heart for his community. He established the Bandera Farmers Network International to promote value-added agricultural production with the goal of empowering his people to empower themselves. The Network processes peanuts into butter, and bananas, mangoes, and pineapples into juice, also drying pineapple and cabbages using a solar dryer he built. Members process and sell coffee, flour for children,  maize flour, juices,  dried vegetables,  Cassamus herbal water,  organic animal vaccines,  silage,  have begun a one million tree planting project and teenage pregnancy campaigns. He’s working on an app to help the Network better connect with each other and international  markets.

He began the Network in 2019 with 10 farmers, training them in sustainable agricultural practices. Today he and his changemakers have reached and trained over 600 farmers countrywide. Denis works to advance human rights and transform the lives of rural women, children, and farmers. He teaches his network sustainable agriculture practices and climate-smart agriculture. In his final term at Bukalasa Agricultural College, Denis has already accomplished a considerable body of work for a young man. He does whatever it takes – recently even advocating for fixes to the bad road to his village which impeded their ability to conduct trade. But as amazing as that all is, it’s Denis’ heart which is most remarkable.

His passion, like mine, is for children. To give them a future and a hope. We recognized our mutual interest in his village where I  met little Sophie. He watched me gravitate toward the children, his village’s children. He says that his motivation for loving the children is that his childhood was not good. He’s no longer in contact with his mother so I have agreed to stand in for her and he calls me Mama, as do my grandchildren. I feel fortunate to be Denis’ Mama and look forward to years of watching him grow Bandera Farmers Network International.

There are so many other examples of people whose past shaped their present. Of these, I am also one. Some of you are already familiar with my story from The Baby, The Prostitute, and Me: My New Idea of Living. Because of my past, I invariably go toward children that I suspect are similarly challenged. Little Sophie (at right in brown, with other little ones) who lives in Denis’ village is one. I will ignore an adult to see if I can charm a child to smile or laugh, to connect with them. Many, like little Sophie reciprocate. She held my hand, caressing my arm, leaning against my legs. She was content to be near and I must admit I was smitten though I knew ours was only a moment in time.

“We thought you were going to adopt that little girl,” team members marveled later, and I was reminded of another little girl,  Baby Curt, an abandoned baby I met in a Romanian hospital in 2005. Ours was also just a moment, but it was a transformational moment.

Baby Curt was about a year and a half old. She lived (and died a year later of syphilis, I was told) in a ward with over a hundred other babies who had been deserted by their mothers. The hospital ward had rooms full of metal cribs filled with babies – some crying, some silent. The  nurses would come in at feeding time, lift babies by the arm, position a pillow, and shove bottles in their little mouths. I don’t know how often their diapers were changed. But there in that hospital, I connected with Baby Curt. She sought me out with her eyes. She willed me to come close with her cries. I picked her up and she was peaceful. I put her down to pick up another baby, and she cried as though only I could save her. When I picked her up again, she grew quiet and stared into my eyes.

I would have liked to adopt Baby Curt but couldn’t. Americans were not allowed to adopt Romanian children. So, I left her there, praying for better things for her. But the nonprofit that took me there took note of my interest in her. I never saw her again, but they visited her often, taking her to the park and giving her extra affection. And leaving, I knew as surely as I live and breathe that I would someday do something for children like her. For children like Sophie.

Though I’d like to transform Sophie’s life too, I know I can’t. Not directly. But Denis can. Denis and his Bandera Farmers Network. Like Baby Curt, I may never see Sophie again, but my hand (and God’s), working through Denis, will be on her life.

So why do we do what we do? I do what I do because I am a product of my past, just as Cedric, Dr. Margaret, Elly, Denis, and others are. You likely do what you do because of your past, as well. And if you don’t do, why not?

Life is not as simple as it looks. We seldom look any deeper than the surface to understand ourselves or each other. Many are embittered and angry because of their past, while some become changemakers. What are you?

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