Now its about Acholi pride: The Show Down

On Saturday morning my phone buzzed, early. “The Ministry of trade are coming on Monday.” Coming to make our councillors halt the alcohol ordinance. The snake show-down. I leapt out of bed with a rush of adrenaline. Good-bye sleep in, good-bye weekend.

“Real” Organizing

For the next 60 hours, I got to feel like a ‘real’ community organizer, constantly on the phone saying things like, “So Pastor, you are Councillor Simon’s friend? Think you can influence his vote on Monday?” and “how many people can you bring with you to the council hall?” The tactic was two fold. 1) Fill the the council hall with as many community members and prominent religious, cultural and political leaders as possible, and 2) create pressure on each of the councillors to use their vote to defend the ordinance. Those councillors got a lot of phone calls in the following 48 hours. Despite all the efforts, on Sunday night we were still nervous. There were still rumors of bribes floating around.

On Monday, Wakonye Kenwa members were the first ones there:


By 10am on Monday morning, the council hall was absolutely packed. The mood was excited and defiant, as the clip on on national TV captured. Every time a prominent Acholi personality entered there were cheers and waving of placards. Our group had made our own signs, messages for the councillors like “Leaders, don’t back down” and messages targeted at NRM (the ruling party) based on their own slogans like”Wealth Creation” and “Productivity and Growth.” Others had written their own edgier ones. My favorite: “Ministry of Trouble, Indecency and Corruption” (instead of trade, industry and cooperatives).


The Debate

I was disappointed Minister Amelia didn’t come in person. Her representative spoke at length, using as many long words as possible. His main point seemed to be “we are sailing in the same direction” but that Gulu needed to wait. He claimed Gulu was breaking Uganda’s agreement with the World Trade Organization (Technical Barriers to Trade, Articles 2 and 3), because Gulu was not giving ‘time’ for companies to adjust their packaging.

One after another, the councilors responded. They spoke about how important the ordinance was to Gulu District. They challenged the Ministry’s motivations for interfering, and why there was no need for Gulu to ‘wait,’ noting all the times the Ministry had blocked national efforts for alcohol law reform. My favorite response was a councilor smoking the Ministry’s WTO defense by pointing out that all of the sachet alcohol trade is within Uganda, not between countries (and therefore has nothing to do WTO agreements).

Acholi pride

A tipping point reached when Norbert Mao showed up, a much loved Acholi (regime opposition) politician of iconic-hero like proportions. Whose name makes him sound like some kind of epic Chinese dragon. A councillor moved a motion that a sample of sachet alcohol be presented to the Ministry’s representative ‘for tasting.’ The speaker emotionally declared that ‘normal procedures’ for a full council meeting would not be followed, and invited all the ‘VIPS’ to speak- Bishops, Shieks, traditional chiefs, and of course, Mao. They spoke about how Acholis had suffered for decades of war. Years of fear, violence and oppression led to heavy drinking patterns. Alcohol companies exploit this. The Ministry wants to protect these companies to maintain their profit at the expense of Acholi people. How dare these people from Kampala tell Gulu to get rid of their law? The debate took on new dimensions. This was a matter of Acholi pride, protection of Acholi people.


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In the aftermath of that Monday, there was a collective sense of triumph and unity. While I’d questioned the Chairman (Owl’s) wisdom in allowing the meeting to take place, I believe it achieved something quite profound.

All the local media stations covered the story, and so did the national paper, The Daily Monitor. Norbert Mao wrote an opinion article featured in the Sunday monitor titled “Gulu trailblazing ordinance should be supported”One online media outlet even ran a piece about how the Speaker turned down millions of shillings of bribe money to protect the Ordinance. I took him a clipping and some photos. He was stoked. When a Ugandan politician is proud of turning down a bribe, that is something to celebrate.

Posted in alcohol, community organizing | 1 Comment

Pole Vaulting into South Sudan

So we thought all we were doing in Elegu (On the border of South Sudan) was starting a new health center. Lydia Muschamp had other ideas. Join her on her quest to pole vault over the river into South Sudan

Don’t worry, we’ll let you know more about the Health Center soon ;).



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Snake, Mouse, Owl and Rhino: resistance begins.

Threatening phone calls
It started with phone calls. Aggressive phone calls. The District Chairperson said he was under “enormous pressure.” The police commander hinted he might loose his post or be ‘transferred’ if he continued operations to impound those cheap, strong alcohol sachets. Who was making these calls?

Meet Amelia Kyambade, Minister of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives.
The snake.


Why does she care about Gulu District’s Ordinance? Word on the street is that the alcohol-sachet companies in Kampala ‘compensate’ her rather generously for her advocacy efforts on their behalf. These companies don’t fancy loosing Gulu’s lucrative market.

How did our leaders respond?

The mouse. Our Police Commander, warm as he was to the law which he thought would reduce crime rates, ran away with his tail between his legs. Since Snake upped the anti, he has delayed, dodged and played down police commitments to future enforcement.

The Owl. The District Chairman, a true politician responded politely and firmly, telling her that Gulu has legitimately passed a local law, but welcoming discussion and accepting to meet her in Kampala.

The Rhino. There is this odd position in Uganda called the ‘Resident District Commissioner’- basically its the eye, the arm and the office of the President in each district. While I’m sure our Commissioner in Gulu fufills all these requirements, he also has a particularly passionate vendetta about alcohol. He stamped his feet and shorted at Snake, challenging her to put anything she has to say in writing… implying she has no grounds to interfere in Gulu.

 I was impressed by the sneakiness of Snakes next move.

Snake Move #1 Instead of writing just to Gulu, she sent a letter to all the Commissioners in Uganda. First, she announced that a national ban on sachet alcohol would be enacted in September 2017, and that Districts shouldn’t do anything in the mean time to ensure companies have time to “adjust” their packaging. “Adjusting packaging” means switching to small (thin) plastic bottles which can be just as cheap and portable as the sachets. Which would achieve nothing. Gulu’s law demands all alcohol to be packaged in glass bottles larger than 250ml. Also, the September ban will never actually happen.

Snake Move #2 Owl and Rhino went to Kampala and met Snake’s team (she didn’t show up in person). I wasn’t privy to the meeting, but they assured us they kicked butt.  A week later, the Owl gets a ‘whatsapp’ message of a photograph of a letter from Snake (sooooo professional), giving a twisted summary of the meeting. The letter celebrated the fact that Gulu and the Ministry are “on the same page”, and emphasizing that all would be fine if Gulu just waited till September. She requested Gulu to call a full Council meeting to discuss the matter further, and asked Gulu District to attach a budget for the meeting.

Upcoming show down.
Owl and I drafted a response to Snakes ‘whatsap’ letter. It was strong. But, being the Owl that he is, he changed the last sentence. Instead of insisting there is no need for Council meeting to review the law, he welcomed the meeting proposal, and his administrators indeed attached a budget. I sneaked a look-  a whopping 9 million Ugandan Shillings. Did I mention that Gulu District is in a lot of debt? And that councillors are livid at having not been paid? Seems like Owl couldn’t turn down such a lucrative opportunity.

It seems like a dodgy game to me, opening us right up to attack. Will Snake use this as an opportunity to buy off our councillors? How loyal are they to this law? When will this meeting take place?

We are preparing for the show down and snake move #3

Heres the Acholi times article on the Snake-Owl clash so far

Posted in alcohol, community organizing, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Five tips for making **it happen in local government offices


What is it that makes local government offices in Uganda come to a grinding halt? Why does it take so long to make anything happen? When Wakonye Kenwa group started fighting for these alcohol laws two years ago, I thought it must be lack of political will, or corruption. While these things certainly exist, I’ve come to believe its frequently a more banal, boring problem.

Why Local government staff and politicians have a tendency to act like tortoises:

  • They are obsessed with following ‘correct procedure,’ yet there are often no logical, functioning procedures to follow
  • Staff in lower positions are unmotivated, dis-empowered. They receive low pay, and no one assigns them meaningful work then follows them up on it. Why wouldn’t you sit there reading the paper waiting for the lunch break?
  • Those in higher positions think they the only ones capable of making decisions, so don’t delegate. Accordingly, they have too much work, and only do what is forced in front of them, or what will accrue them personal benefit/kudos.

Why do I bring all this up now? Despite having a great practical plan for destroying over 300 boxes of illegal alcohol sachets, we were told it can’t happen until the Chief Magistrate has given a court order for their destruction. This means that the Chief Administrative Officer (the CAO, entertainingly pronounced ‘the cow’) has to write a letter requesting the court order. Left alone, these few steps could take months. Let me introduce you to my 5 top tips for making such things happen faster:

  1. Always go yourself. Unless something is done in front of you, it probably will not be done. Go to the office and see them yourself. Take other work to do, you could be waiting for hours. First I went to see the deputy ‘cow,’ then I went to see the chief magistrate.
  2. Be an entertaining diversion Most people in offices are bored most of the time. Make your visit entertaining, and they are more likely to give you what you want, and welcome you back. In Uganda, that’s not too hard. Smile, be confident, expressive, find out their personal interests. The deputy CAO loved talking about food. His secretary likes cats and complaining that I don’t have children. The Chief Magistrate was curious to know if Te Reo Maori has any similarities to Acholi. Run with it.
  3. Do everything for them. Make it easy or they won’t bother. Most people here dislike typing and fiddling with USBs and printers. Come with a draft pre-prepared. If they want more control, offer to type into your laptop as they dictate, then get it put on their letter head, formatted in their usual style. Having you as an additional passing secretary will make them feel important.
  4. Create the impression of procedural legitimacy Go prepared with any documentation under the sun you could possibly need, stamped and letter headed by the most important person you can! Sound so confident that they never doubt that this is the correct next step.
  5. Win over the secretary. A good relationship with the secretary will save you a lot of time. Firstly, you can ring to ascertain the whereabouts of their boss. Second, if they trust you they can give you their letter-head so you can come with fully pre-pared letter. Win.

Voila, a chief magistrates letter assuring district officials that they have full rights to burn illegal products without procuring a court order!

Posted in alcohol, community organizing, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Experiments with fire and spirits

The District store keeper “Titi” and I became instant allies. Several things indicated to me early on that he was different from most of the District’s sleepy, procedure-addicted administrative staff:

  1. The excited glint in his eye when we brought in the boxes of sachets to his store
  2. He calls me (with his own airtime) to give me updates ‘from the street’ on the sachet situation
  3. He helped me buy the small things we needed for our experiments from his own pocket (this is absolutely unheard of in this context)
  4. He is eager to get out of the office, and eager to ‘make things happen’

As soon as the first operation to impound sachet alcohol was completed, the question arose, how to get rid of them?

It would take too long to rip open each of the 44,000 sachets and empty the contents. But what would happen if we set fire to 40% alcohol in plastic? Would it explode in a dangerous whoomph? I had no idea.

First, we consulted some experts in New Zealand:


Then reassured that an explosion seemed unlikely, Titi and I opened the store, and set fire to a small sample. The results were underwhelming:img_0003

The alcohol bubbled briefly, melted a little of the plastic, then extinguished the fire.

More research suggested that the fire had to reach a higher temperature before the alcohol could successfully burn. Bring on experiment #2. Team Titi, Tessa, and Ira Perkins. Titi found an old drum. We were nervous because it appeared to contain the remains of some kind of unknown black sludge, which if you ask me, looked highly flammable. He reassured us, so we lit a wood fire in the drum, and waited for it to heat up:


This time it worked. Charred remains.

Ready to destroy the sachets. Well, almost. It turned out there were some bureaucratic barriers…

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Old cops new tricks: alcohol seizures

I woke up, wired, my head buzzing with questions. Would the police go ahead with the plan? Will the District send a big truck like they promised? Will we find the sachets of alcohol or have retailers hidden them too well? How will the shopkeepers react? If we do find sachets, will the District come through on their promise to give us somewhere to put them? In Gulu, no matter how much you try, a ‘plan’ is never really more than a series of vague uncoordinated questions. Fred, a key ally is already waiting at the police station at 7am, coolly sipping a mug of millet porridge. We are soon joined by Anthony, Boniface and Cristo, all revving to go.

After an hour and a half of milling around we spot the District Police Commander, “there’s an emergency, the operation will be delayed until its dealt with.” We watch as officers are loaded into an open-topped vehicle and speed off. The Police Commander, standing near us, demands updates on his cell phone “Is he dead? Where are the suspects?” A mob were lynching two suspected motorcycle thieves. By the time the police arrived (an hour late), they had been burnt to death. Officers returned and joined our circle, cheerfully one-upping one another on the most horrific lynchings they had seen, the details of which I shall spare you. I politely declined viewing a cell phone snap of this mornings victims. More time passed. 10:00am came and went. With plenty of phone calls from our team, we managed to get the District truck sent with a driver to wait on standby, and made sure the police vehicles had fuel.

Then suddenly, my mouth still full of chapatti, we were all go. Officers piled into police vans, last second confusion and changes of targets. My convey hit up the wholesale street in the center of town. While I’m used to seeing police operations on my teenage favorite “The Bill’ or more recently the infinitely superior “The Wire,” this operation resembled toddlers playing tag in the dark. The District Police Commander soon became completed redundant as operation commander when he got into what turned out to be an hour long dispute with a shopkeeper:disputesMost of the police considered themselves above lifting boxes and loading them into the truck. They had no plan for how the loading should take place. We lifted boxes ourselves, and hired some young guys on the spot:

packingWhile most of the shop keepers responded calmly, one retailer was furious. He had 30 boxes of sachets confiscated, worth millions of Ugandan shillings. He leapt on the truck and tried to throw his boxes back. The drama attracted a crowd:

By 2:30pm, the mission was complete. Between the two sites targeted, 307 boxes of sachets were impounded. That’s around 44,000 sachets. Despite our hassling, a storeroom had still not been identified. I had to check several major hotels to find the District Chairperson at one of two meetings he was supposedly attending, accompany him back to the District Headquarters, find the storekeeper, accompany the storekeeper to find an appropriate store, and ring the truck to come. An hour of lifting heavy smelly boxes in the sun later:haumBoom. First operation, done.

It was reported in the national papers…even if they got the numbers wrong:

Daily monitor report “police confiscate 150 cartons of sachet waragi”

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Army ANTics in Gulu

Why did Lyndon and Innes Abandon their hut? If you fear ants, don’t watch.

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