The T-shirt Debacle (Alcohol law launch: the messy version)

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 I mean, who doesn’t love a nice over-sized T-shirt printed with an out of date event slogan?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.

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8 Responses to The T-shirt Debacle (Alcohol law launch: the messy version)

  1. Sharyn says:

    Hang in there Tessa. An interesting dilemma and a cultural expectation that won’t disappear overnight I don’t think. You have explained things so well. Just remember how much you have achieved. Enjoy the moment😀

  2. Very thoughtful, insightful, and honest!

  3. Anthony says:

    Very interesting post. Thank you for it. I think you have very good ideas, but I think your post also shows how important it is to listen and learn from the people we are working with, even when we think we know the right things and the best way forward to true development and empowerment. Culture never stays the same, it’s always changing. And now uniforms are an important part of their culture, and you can’t expect that it will be the same as with Ghandi. I feel like the learning you had here, is the same learning I had too. We are very much alike.

    When the pastors I taught graduated from Timothy Leadership Training, they wanted to make a big deal of the graduation. At first, I was really resistant, like you. I said, it’s not about the certificate, not about the honor, not about looking smart, etc. etc. But I listened, and they convinced me to the point that I ran with it with them and it became a very big festive celebration that they will long remember. I realized from talking to them – 1. Some of them had never had any significant graduation in their lives. 2. People denigrated theological education in their communities, so showing the seriousness and joy of the graduation really helped to inspire others to be educated too. 3. They paid for the graduation themselves, and they felt really good about being able to do so.

    In the midst of looking smart, and honoring the graduates, we were able to show a different example at the same time, as me and the other facilitators/teachers washed the feet of the graduates. In the end, it is a graduation that made them feel proud, and they should, as God used them mightily to do great things in their communities, and they paid for all the trainings themselves, without me paying for their manuals, accommodation, or transport. It was the most joyful graduation I’ve ever seen anywhere. We marched around the entire town for 30-45 minutes before the graduation.

    I adjusted my expectations and way I taught to fit their context. For example, the certificate, which didn’t mean much to me, I started emphasizing a lot. And the goal of getting the certificate helped them to be really disciplined, attend all of the trainings, and do good work.

    It’s always tough knowing how to do these things. We want to follow the humble example of Jesus. Yet we also want to give people honor, dignity, and respect, that they are also made in the image of God and they don’t have to feel inferior.

    • ntlaing says:

      Thanks for the reflections Anthony 🙂 To me, the key to the way you handled that situation while ‘listening’ to the cultural values was that they still paid for the graduation themselves…i.e they value it, they want it, they raise the funds and do it. To me thats very different from expecting some one ELSE to pay for something before you take action XYZ to help yourself or your community. If the group had come and said in advance “its important to us to look uniform on the day of this group action we are doing, we want to raise funds to pay for our T-shirts”, then that sounds great to me! But we can’t have people paralysed from acting because they expect NGOs to give them stuff…

      • Anthony says:

        I agree. I was thinking about that after I posted. That was a very key difference. Your group wanted handouts, whereas my group was willing to pay for it mostly themselves. I have to say though, I’d rather deal with dependency issues, than issues of corruption. In Uganda I faced more issues of dependency, here in Kenya, I’m seeing more corruption. Both make me want to cry. Sorry that is a bit random, but just thinking about challenges that we face in doing the work we do

  4. Hey Tessa,

    Lovely written blog on the t-shirt debarkle. You explain so clearly the struggles you have faced and both sides of the argument. Keep going! You and your group have done some incredible things in a relatively short period of time. Together, you are moving mountains!

    Jodes xx

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