The night before the big public launch of our alcohol law, I biked down Juba road, ticking off tasks in my head, moving past the road-side dusk activity, maize roasting, weaving motorbikes. Official speakers ready to talk, tick. Donation of bottled water from local company delivered, tick. Ready to meet the tent people at 6:30am tomorrow, tick. Truck envoy passes on route to South Sudan, patient’s relatives scuttle across the busy road to the hospital with flasks of hot tea. Banner ready, tick. Ring the religious leaders, when I get home. Deep breath.
I turn off the main road to meet Wakonye Kenwa members to finalize how to transport our group of 38 to town for the march. Cut through the narrow gap between half a skinned cow hanging outside the butchers and the ‘Somali hotel’, down the dusty path, past the thatched huts and the ducks.
I jump off my bike to face a row of deeply discontented, accusatory faces. “So there will be no T-shirts?” The tone was serious. Not like the light, teasing requests I had brushed off during the last 2 weeks. I deflated like a punctured balloon. This, again. There was even more frustration after the event.
When I first heard people (not just our group members) talking about needing printed T-shirts to be part of a march, I assumed that people just wanted a free clothing item. I mean, who doesn’t love a nice over-sized T-shirt printed with an out of date event slogan? I have several such excellent T-shirts I like to sleep in. Its simply a classic case of hand-out mentality, I thought. I’ve since discovered there is a bit more to it.
Here is my best attempt to outline the conflict:
My thoughts: (You can imagine my frustrated, incredulous tone)
- You need a big NGO to give you free T-shirts to demonstrate and make demands from government, or to celebrate to make-known a new law YOU fought for? You are telling me you don’t want to participate in making change with out the right clothes paid for by overseas donor money?
- As a group, you have just achieved what many have tried and failed- you made a new law!! You are banning sachet alcohol which has been destroying your homes!! This is the climax of 2 years of our group’s hard work, and all you can talk about is that we didn’t get group T-shirts?
- Why do you want to look like some NGO paid you to be here? Don’t you want to look like what you are, citizens demanding change? I mean, come on, check this out: A big NGO on the day of the launch in their T-shirts:
And us, Wakonye Kenwa:
Wakonye Kenwa group members:
- When you march in Uganda to advocate a cause, or celebrate something, you march as a group with a group identity. Group identity is expressed through looking uniform. Uniforms are deeply cherished, a mark of success, legitimacy and unity. Everyone wants a school uniform, a work-place uniform, church choir uniform, sports team uniform. There are always NGOs around to help make this possible by providing T-shirts! Ask them, and they will provide.
- On the day of the launch of our alcohol law, there were many community groups and big NGOs (I guarantee you’ve heard of many of them). These other groups wore printed T-shirts, which let everyone know which group they part of. They were smart! Uniform! Identifiable! And yet Wakonye Kewna, our group who started this whole fight, who worked hard for 2 years for this was invisible, unidentifiable as the group who started it all.
- Does ‘Aber’ Tessa, our organizer think so little of us that we can’t find a way to source some T-shirts to bring recognition and reward to our group after all our hard work?
The bottom line:
Our group marched, without T-shirts. It was a great day. They starred in a drama about alcohol, which everybody agreed was the highlight of the event. We’ve been on local radio many times speaking about this issue, the work we’ve done, putting our group’s name out there. But there are still high levels of discontentment. There are conversations to be had, and it will probably take a while. I want to make sure the group feels valued, and proud of their achievements. Maybe we should just get the group some damn T-shirts.
But there is a bigger, interesting point here. Are NGOs appropriating activism in Gulu, and elsewhere where they work? By ‘facilitating’ the voice of the people, do NGOs make people believe that they can’t be activists without donor money, allowances and handouts? There is a huge gap in Uganda between the kind of public dissent that results in tear gas and arrests, and NGO funded ‘advocacy’ events. Today in Gulu there was a march for road safety. Last week there was a march to celebrate human rights day. Lots of money spent, happy people in T-shirts, but (I suspect) no actual measurable goals, no tangible change. Most marches in Gulu, I’ve learnt, mean nothing.
As far as my historic research reveals, Ghandi’s salt law marchers didn’t need free uniforms. Kiwis protesting apartheid during the Springbok tour…no matching T-shirts. Selma, 1965? Again, no T-shirts.
My prayer is that one day in Gulu, I will actually have to go and buy myself some pajamas, because the time of the giant NGO t-shirt has finally passed.