Turning Points: Right Honourable Speaker of Parliament – S.O.U.L.’s Guest of Honour

Synchronicity is an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see. ~Carl Jung

Our Guest of Honour for our 9th Bi-Annual General Meeting was the Right Honourable Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kagada.

For those not familiar with the Parliament system, the Speaker is third to the President and Kadaga is the first female Speaker ever. This is an amazing feat and it’s hard not to feel like the stars (or rather sun and moon aligned) for this to happen. To fully explain how this historical event came to fruition, I would have to back track months and perhaps even years but I’ll trace back just a few weeks.

September 26th: Fight Hate with Love

I went to Kampala with three missions:

1. Visit the Parliament to drop an official invitation to the Speaker. This was facilitated by a friend of Pheebs (S.O.U.L. Field Coordinator). I had never met him before, but he briefed me in the morning before heading to Parliament. Calling upon this type of connection or friendship is a strong part of Ugandan culture and is absolutely necessary to get doors opened and get things done.

2. Pick up our long awaited Non-government Organization certificate at the Ministry of Internal Affiars. We are registered in the US but it has taken years to complete and submit the same on this end.

3. Drop off my visa application for India at the High Commission of India.

Gazing at my To Do list, it looked easy enough.

My day in Kampala was an epic fail. I was postponed at Parliament, challenged at the High Commission of India and denied at the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Ok, it wasn’t a total fail. I was escorted to the Speakers office and was able to meet with her Personal Assistant, Ivan. Harnessing my breathe, I word vomited as much about S.O.U.L. as I could. Time is short with these high up guys, but it has become a fun game to attract the attention of people and explain to them how S.O.U.L. is different than many other NGO’s.

At least I think of it as a game so my nerves don’t get the best of me. He seemed genuinally impressed and interested but informed me that the Speaker was out of the country. He said he would pass along the invitation. Not what I wanted to hear and definitely not a sure thing that she would ever get the invitation in her hands.

I was able to stay somewhat grounded throughout the day until a female guard told me matter-of-factly, “we now fear YOU people.” She we referring to the recent attacks in Nairobi, Kenya. With a scarf wrapped around my head, I look like an ethnic mutt (something I take pride in), or rather to her, a possible Islamic militant.

A deep sense of sadness took over me. I told her that I was American and Filipino but regardless, no one should judge another by their appearance or religion. I was taken back by her ignorance, fear and sense of separation she projected. In hindsight, it was naive of me not to remove the scarf from my head immediately once I got off the boda, but the experience made me empathize with what many Islamic people must be feeling right now.

October 16th: Waiting Game 

We begun to use our slew of allies to make a meeting with the Honourable Speaker happen. Jinja LC5 Musika Annet said that the Speaker would be the keynote speaker at a conference at Jinja Nile Resort. Annet said we could meet with her at 10 am that Wednesday.

Geared up in S.O.U.L. shirts, myself, Brooke, Jane (Office Manger), Pheebs (Field Coordinator and Tailoring Instructor) and Oko (Field Coordinator) went to the resort. It was a conference for NAADS (Nationaly Agricultural Advisory Services) whose mission is to modernize agriculture by promoting food security, nutrition and household income through productivity and market oriented farming. Really not far off from what we do with many of our programs.

When we got there they asked if we had been invited and I quickly said yes. I said we were attending the conference and then meeting with the Speaker. It’s amazing what you can get away with here, what loops you can jump through to get what you want. In this way, I love making things happen in Uganda. People and situations are more accessible, especially as a Mzungu.

We waited in the conference hall, four eager women surrounded by local and district officials, 95% of them men. As we were sitting, Brooke had the urge to make some moves. We looked over to an open hallway to the right. She said we should check it out and see if we could wait for the Speaker there.

As we investigated the hallway, a Ugandan walked up to me and shook my hand. He said he had recognized me; it was Ivan, the Speaker’s Personal Assistant I had met at the Parliament a few weeks ago! I told him we wanted to meet with the Speaker and he said we could do so down the hall with some of her other entourage.

We could feel ourselves inching closer to a private meeting with her. As the hours passed we waited but maintained our enthusiasm…I find whenever I have no idea of what I am getting myself into, it’s easier to sustain enthusiasm.

In the meantime we rubbed elbows with the powerful players of the Ugandan Government. We chatted with Honorable Andrew Allen, a Member of Parliament from another District. He was a fascinating guy, a true independent member who came out of no where having just moved back to Uganda from London and taking his seat in Parliament from long time pervious MP. He had stories upon stories and shared his view of corruption and the future of Uganda.

There is a candidness about the way people speak about politics here. Corruption is real and everyone knows about it. For a long time, Ugandans have been held at bay because corruption was a better option to full blown war. But times are changing and the younger generation particularly is fed up with the stagnation. They are ready for change and revolution. But a constant that I have heard from many is that it will get worse before it gets better.

As the sunset projected a mirror image over the River Nile, Annet arrived, as if having a special sense for when we were actually going to meet with the Speaker.

At around 7 pm, some 9 hours after we had expected to meet with her, we were quickly ushered to a small circle of chairs where we found the Right Honourable Speaker Kadaga. She didn’t shake our hands, something we figured she did for her own safety. We were given no more than 4 minutes with her as words of S.O.U.L.’s history, mission and impact spewed gracefully from Brooke’s mouth. Our hearts pounded; it was fast and furious and over before we knew it. But amongst it all, I took a second to sit back and soak in what was happening it. A moment we had made happen.

She seemed genuinely interested and impressed and said she would look at her diary to see if she could make it happen. After that we met with Ivan, her Personal Assistant one more time. He said we could come to S.O.U.L. the next week to check it out. He handed us some the Speaker’s business cards with some of his own and we were on our way. Suddenly the rush of the past few minutes made the hours of waiting worth it.

November 3rd: Solar Eclipse

On an unrelated yet astrological significant event, I witnessed my first solar eclipse. It was meant to occur at 4:15 pm and was best seen up North in Gulu.

After a lazy Sunday morning, I had a picnic lunch with Laura and Araphat at Mama Ali’s in the garden. After, we decided to check out the infamous rope swing at a nearby camp site.

I’m not sure why I waited so long to go and do this but swinging from the steep banks of the River Nile into the refreshing water is nothing less than brilliant. It’s been a while since adrenaline has pumped through my veins like that but climbing 30 or so feet up the banks and counting down to jumping into the waters was exhilarating. The three us jumped and swam forgetting we had come there to witness the solar eclipse. Even if we missed the eclipse, we were content in spending the afternoon in the River. Just as these words escaped our lips, Araphat announced it had began. The light from the sky began to turn a hazy navy blue.

Araphat with his invincible Ugandan eyes could stare straight at the sun. I did so for a few seconds but was then punished with blurred vision afterwards. It was well worth it though. We rushed from the waters and up to the camp where there were dozens of locals and tourists enjoying this once in a lifetime event. I heard the last time a solar eclipse occurred in this part of the world was 72 years ago.

We were lucky to be find two Europeans with a very dark viewing lens that made it possible for us to clearly view the eclipse. The light remained a mystical blue as shadows and light bounced slowly from the skies onto the river. Time dragged on slowly during that hour and it is an afternoon I will always remember.

November 4th: Hallway Meeting w/ Honourable Dolle

With less than a week before the meeting, everyone went into overdrive and the real madness began. Mobilzation is one of our biggest challenges so following up with everyone from villagers, Head Teachers/Master and local and district officials is priority to make sure they attend. Tuesday morning Pheebs and I hit Jinja Town early with a long list of things to get done.

First stop was the District to follow up with the Regional District Commisioner, Local Chairperson 5, and the District Speaker, just to name a few. Even though Mzungus are often put on pedastools and highly respected, these government offices can feel impenetrable. Heading into the RDC’s (Regional District Commisioner aka representative for President in Jinja District) office I felt optimistic but the room was full of people waiting to see him and we got as far as the secretary who was less than helpful and vague about when we might be able to see him.

We left the office, not being able to tick that one off the list. I quickly turned around to get the RDC’s phone number. When I got back to the hallway, Pheebs was speaking to three men in the halway. One short lawyer wearing an oversized suit coat, a journalist for the Daily Monitor and a ‘half cast’ Indian  gentleman wearing mix matched flannel hat and shirt. An odd bunch to say the least.

They asked what we needed help with. Pheebs told them about our meeting and how we were mobilizing. The Indian guy was intrigued and began prying more about S.O.U.L. We both delivered our elevator speech which only peaked his interest.

This man was Honourable Dolle, Minsitry of Sports and appointed by the local King. He was also the Director for Jinja Motor Club, and famous race car driver of sorts. He started to appreciate for our work and advise on how to get past the ruckus of the government. He said we had to go back to the RDC’s office, enter with confidence and just walk into his office or else we would end up waiting forever.

He interacted us to follow him and once we are in his office to just to take a seat. So we did just that, we followed behind Honourable Dolle as he walked through the door, into the large RDC’s office and sat directly in front of him in plush red velvet chairs. He then proceeded to mentor us about how to ensure the attendance of these big officials. “You have to get these guys to write the event in their diary, do that and you are in. Also, offer to pay for some transport, you know these guys can be cheap.” The RDC was busy on his phone, seemingly have two meetings at once, with the men sitting with him and on the phone.

As soon as they left, Hon. Dolle jumped up and led us to the chairs at the RDC’s desk. We intruduced ourselves, spieled S.O.U.L. and extended our invitation. He had not received the two different invitations we had previously dropped off. He was hesitant to agree at first but then Hon. Dolle jumped in and as if he had known about S.O.U.L. for years, told him he had to attended because the organization is so great. He persisted until Mr. Fredrick Gulume literally penciled us in. We had made it into the diary!

Having a hard time containing our excitement which manifested into laughter, Pheebs, myself and Hon. Dolle exited the busy office and returned to the hallway. To our surprise, Hon. Dolle asked us who was next.

Without hesitation we went to the LC5, Mr. Gume. At his office, the secretary said he was in a meeting, but just a few seconds later he appeared in the next door and quickly went in to his office. Dolle followed and again we sat directly across from a district official. Mr. Gume was tall with broad shoulders but much more charismatic and engaging than the RDC. He said he knew about the event and wanted to come because our sub-county is where he is from. He is also running for Member of Parliament so coming to the meeting would be good for his campaign. He also said that he had asked his CAO’s (Chief Administer Officers) to fundraise for S.O.U.L.

Next Hon. Dolle took us to the Regional Police Commander, Mr. Twebaze Alex. He said that if we are having the Speaker we would need the best security and they would have to be informed. The RPC is in charge of the all security issues for the entire eastern region of Uganda – might as well get the best of the best. He instructed us to wait in the car and that he would call us in. He wanted to make sure we saw Mr. Twebaze ourselves. Within minutes Ali, the journalist from the Daily Monitor came back and told us to hurry.

A much more reserved man with metals lining his shoulders, Mr. Twebaze said we would come but would need to survey the site first so he could determine how many guards were needed.

At this point, Pheebs and I were besides ourselves. For no reason we could yet understand, Hon. Dolle was bringing us from one person to another. We were accessing people and contacts that we would otherwise never be able to and in time that was contrary to Uganda. All we could do was smile and laugh, often uncontrollably.

But Hon. Dolle was only getting started.

He brought us to Voice of Busoga, a local radio station. Within minutes we were getting a tour of place, meeting the staff and were brought into the live recording studio. On the air, the VJ’s announced they were ‘hanging with some S.O.U.L. girls’ and mentioned our upcoming meeting. Then we were taken outside where Pheebs and I recorded some sound bites in our respective languages about the background of the organization, about the meeting and our requests from the government (a common thing to do). They said they would announce the meeting and play our recordings that night at 5 and 7 pm as well as in the morning. All for free.

Next was Kiira FM. We met one of the voices of the radio station Rocky. Hon. Dolle asked Pheebs to write a short invite for the meeting on a piece of paper and told us to wait in the car. He returned after 5 minutes and turned up 88.6. We heard another VJ read what Pheebs had wrote with some added flair. Just like that things were happening. Rocky was on his way to meet with the Mayor, another person we needed to follow up with. We left the radio station, and went to where Hon. Dolle said the Major likes to hide out. He was humble, insightful, quirky but highly respected. Everyone we saw knew him and it was clear people not only knew him but really liked him. He was a good friend to every person we met.

We waited for the Mayor for sometime but he never showed so we enjoyed chips and fried Tilapia as Hon. Dolle continued to open up, sharing with us other orgnaztion he heads and people he knows. We had met a networking gold mine. I couldn’t help but ask why he was doing all of this for us. With a smile, all he could say was that what were doing was great and that he wanted others to know about it.

It was now past 5 pm so we decided it was time to head back to the District so that we could get our boda and head back to the village. On the way, we ran into Rocky from Kiira Fm who happened to be with the area Member of Parliament, Mr. Mbagadi Nkayi. On the side of the street we chatted for a bit. Mr. Nkayi was excited to hear about our projects since it is where he is from. He is in the same circle as the Speaker so he said he would talk with her the next day and see if she was coming.

When we arrived back to the District, we ran into one more person, Mr. Kagoro, (District Internal Security Officer). I said he wanted to visit S.O.U.L. and introduce us to his sister who would be running for Parliament and was a woman activist.

Feeling completely exhilarated, Pheebs and I thanked Hon. Dolle repeatedly. We had achieved enough for one day. We couldn’t believe what had transpired and who we had met.

There was one constant that day. As soon as we mentioned the Speaker was coming, ears perked and they realized they needed in. We had surpassed all of these guys and gone straight to the top and suddenly everyone below her, everyone besides to President and Vice President wanted in.

Once we got back to S.O.U.L. it was dark but we had a few more officials to get in touch with. I called Hon. Agnes to follow up about her meeting with the Speaker. She said she had just finished meeting with her and that she had agreed to come to our meeting! As if speaking with a close friend, I shared our excitement with Hon. Agnes. After hanging up I looked at Pheebs and we screamed outloud like little girls.

An hour later, I got a call from Ivan, saying ….THE SPEAKER OF PARLIAMENT WAS GOING TO BE OUR GUEST OF HONOR!

The day left us on a high…

November 5th: Day 2 with Honourable Dolle

This carried on to the next day, when we met up with Hon. Dolle again and he help me extend my Ugandan visa (for free), took us straight to the Mayor’s home to invite him to the meeting, we visited a radio station to have an amazing sit down with the manager/performer/celeb who is very passionate about educating the youth and lastly we meet with various media which helped us organize our press conference for the following day.

Things were happening faster than I could tick them off of my To Do list, a rare feeling for life here in Uganda. A felt a slew of emotions, something that has remained constant as my time here draws to a close. The most prominent being gratitude. I can’t explain why or how things are falling into place these days, perhaps the universe’s gift for my year here; an accumulation of one year’s hard work and dedication. Whatever the reason, I am more content not conceptualizing or internalizing it. It feels best to pass it on to others.

November 6th: Honorable Agnes visits S.O.U.L. & press conference

Honourable Agnes, area Member of Parliament with other MP’s and national press visited our projects to see the direct impact happening on the ground first hand. They met the leaders of each project and heard their stories, leaving them with much hope for further partnerships in the future. The group members were so inspired and motivated after having someone they had elected personally come to see their work.

One of my highlights of the day was being able to travel with Honourable Agnes and share the progress of the groups. She was very personable, traveling from group to group in her bright blue S.O.U.L. shirt and flip flops. She connected with each group member and showed excitement for what they had achieved.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

November 9th: Annual General Meeting – Right Honorable Speaker S.O.U.L.’s Guest of Honor 

After months of planning, organizing and mobilizing, Saturday, November 9th had arrived. Namzi fish pond and tailoring women arrived at the S.O.U.L. Shack before 7 am to start preparing 150 kilos of rice and 50 kilos of beef for the anticipated 1,000 guests. Local boys and sponsored students helped arrange the tents and chairs and members from the Parent’s Committee cleaned the compound. The synergy of the day is always special to witness.

photo 4-2

Once the music arrived and began blasting, I knew it was really happening. It isn’t an event unless you can hear Celine Dion blaring at least a few kilometers away.

The event was set to kick off at 10 am but in African time this meant around midday. Beneficiaires, well-wishers, villagers, sponsored students, Mama’s, local and district officials began to take their seats. With the growing attendance came the graying skies. Just an hour into the meeting the gentle trickle of rain blessed the red dirt.

1452297_647586898982_1296645706_n

1002001_647587323132_304635546_n

1374734_647586834112_1792253960_n

photo credit: laura gibson

Here is a low down of the day’s events from S.O.U.L.’s new Project Manager Laura Gibson: check out more on her blog!

This past Saturday, we had the annual SOUL Foundation Community Meeting.  This is not really a “meeting;” but more like a community celebration and banquet, with performances, speeches, a preschool graduation ceremony, a DJ, and food home-cooked for 1,000 attendees. My morning was filled with the feathers of 15 freshly slaughtered chickens and orange fingers from hand-grating 27 large carrots.  This year, Steph and Brooke, along with the Ugandan team, worked so hard to get a variety of politicians, leaders and dignitaries (particularly women in powerful roles) to attend so we can get national attention focused on all of the incredible programs SOUL is implementing.  Due to their hard work, we had an entourage of important people in attendance.  Leaders in Uganda have extremely formal titles (similar to India, both being former British colonies).  For example, we had the “Right Honorable Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga”, “Honorable Agnes, M.P.”, “Your Worship” the Mayor of Iganga, as well as the Regional Police Commander Twebaze Alex with 16 of his policemen to stake out a secure border, metal detectors and AK-47’s in tow.

Once everyone showed up, it started to rain and didn’t stop.  Despite the rain, I managed to dance and sing in a performance with 30 women from our tailoring/sewing project.  I also wrote a song in Lasoga for the event, which was quite the hit.  Based on my travels, music has always been the most instantaneous way of connecting with people.  One of the phrases of my song called for everyone to stand up (“Twena twena toostookeh, tweeremoo twembeh!”) and I felt a wave of shivers go up my spine when I sang that line and the whole crowd of 1,000 people stood up, cheering me on!!!

The real point of the meeting was to celebrate the past successes and talk about future goals for SOUL Foundation.  There were many speeches and it was so much fun to watch the many politicians’ awed faces as they watched our pre-primary students “graduate.”  They all seemed very impressed by our model of partnership (rather than charity) and by the passion and pride with which the many beneficiaries and stake-holders spoke about SOUL.

Laura Gibson – daringmysoul.wordpress.com

The day was like one big adrenaline rush. From making last minute preparations, to finalizing speeches, ushering people in and just witnessing the day unfold. It was a day filled with special moments, a collection of hard work and celebration. I found myself looking out in to the crowd and making eye contact with the men, women and children of the village. I couldn’t help but smile back with a deep sense of appreciation for them and their hard work. This was a celebration of them and the trust and relationships that has been built over the four years that S.O.U.L. has been here, growing with each year.

The Speaker was the highlight among all. Despite the rain, she made it the village. Honorable Agnes, the Speaker’s Private Assiatnat, and myself were in constant contact with Ivan, her Personal Assistant as to her where abouts. As her line of security and police cars pulled into our humble driveway a respectful silence took over crowd. Brooke, Jane and myself rushed to greet here surrounded my media and umbrellas.

I looked up at Jane and then Brooke, fighting back tears. It is hard to explain exactly what I felt but it was a defining moment for the day. The car door opened and she came around the car but not before putting on leopard print gum boots (rain boots). Small things like that bring it all down to earth. We guided her to her seat, this time she shook our hands as we welcomed her.

In previous meetings, our Guest of Honour has been LC5 Musika Annet and MP Honourable Agnes, but now the two of them sat beside the Honourable Speaker, introducing her to the community, a place (sub-county) she had only visited twice before. These relationships, although looking back seem to have happened naturally, still required persistence, one relationship leading to the next. We would never had Agnes attend (Guest of Honour May 2013) without Annet (Guest of Honour 2012) and we would never been able to get the Speaker with the both of them.

Right Hon. Speaker next to Hon. Agnes photo credit: laura gibson
Right Hon. Speaker next to Hon. Agnes

Time sped up from here as we changed our program making sure to get in all necessary speeches before the Speaker needed to depart for another function. She listened attentively and took many notes. She perked up with anything having to do with Women’s Empowerment and Food Security was mentioned, two of S.O.U.L.’s main initiatives.

She also loved being able to meet S.O.U.L.’s first 2 university students: Richard who is our newest full-time employee and Safa who was the MC for the event.

photo credit: laura gibson
Muganda, S.O.U.L. University student w/Safa

The event, ended like all that have come before it: announcing the 84 new students accepted into the S.O.U.L. sponsorship program, including 4 university students. The celebrations finished with dancing until the stars scattered across the new night sky and we all danced until our feet were dirty and beads of sweat kissed our faces.

photo 1-1photo 1-2photo 2-1photo 5-2NGO presentation with Right Hon. Speaker of Parliament

. . .

With only just over three weeks left, I find myself in awe of what is happening these days. I’ve been involved with S.O.U.L. for over a year and a half and things are happening fast these days.

On a personal level, I feel like I am having many out of body experiences each day. It is hard to believe that this is my life. There is beauty all around me. I don’t find myself resisting things as much anymore but rather experiencing and allowing everything that comes my way.

As bittersweet and hard it will be to leave the village I have called home for the last year, I deeply look forward to that first exhale after I leave.  With that, I anticipate the real processing and integration will take place. I have been in this experience for a year and haven’t yet had the chance to let it settle in.

I have experienced my fair share of self-doubt and negative emotions at times, but despite all of this, lately I have felt utterly present. An amazing shift has taken place, I feel so present as emotions arise and therefore I am able to be present with whatever I am doing. All I can focus on is whatever is taking place in that moment. I have never before been able to sustain such a feeling for so long, it has been weeks now.

I am part of something so much bigger than myself and I am reminded of that daily. Despite there being moments of discomfort, as there is with all growth, I truly feel I am where I am meant to be. It can be difficult and yet so sweet. My heart is taking over for where my head cannot understand.

. . .

After departing from Uganda, I have a week in India with Brooke before returning to Denver at the end of December. I am just in time for the holidays and gearing up for S.O.U.L.’s Annual NYE event. I will then have a few weeks to catch up with friends and family and a few much needed drives through the mountains before starting my new position with S.O.U.L. as the Program Coordinator in Denver. I am thrilled to be able to share my passion for the people here with everyone Stateside.

The next chapter awaits….

Sending love and gratitude,

Steph

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Turning Points: Right Honourable Speaker of Parliament – S.O.U.L.’s Guest of Honour

  1. Steph: Your writing continues to be excellent… I hope you plan a book of your adventures.. I’m sure it would sell…Also congratulations on the job in Denver.. we look forward to seeing you on your return…Best, Darrell and Louise/ Steamboat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s