Student Life

Black History Month: Walking through life in limbo

Reconciling my identity as a Cameroonian-Canadian in Uganda

It’s 2014. My excitement is so tangible, the man beside me can sense it with every fidget. I haven’t set foot in Cameroon for 15 years; the country from which my parents came of age, the country that holds my earliest memories, the country I’ve been told to refer to as home. In that moment, in the backseat of my uncle’s jeep, for the first time in my life, I felt at home.

Now, it’s 2018 and I am excited to be returning to the motherland for an internship. I’m a bit wary of engaging in a “going abroad” endeavour, but I’m confident that the organization I’ve partnered with is different from your typical non-profit. As the plane descends, my nerves betray me: there’s a dryness in my throat, my body is stiff, and my heart is thumping.

My head is full of thoughts, hopes and expectations. Front and center is the anticipation of that feeling of home filling me once more as it did four years earlier. Although I realized it wasn’t my home country, I was expecting to feel more at home than I did in Canada. Finally, the plane lands, I step out, and as I try to make my way through the crowd, I can feel my body searching for that ‘home’ feeling and failing to grasp it. I push those feelings (or lack thereof) aside and reunite with my fellow Canadians.

My days were spent on a compound with fellow Canadian and Ugandan interns. The work days were packed with various activities; on the weekend, people did their laundry, read a book or hung with the locals. I realized my dark skin allowed me to navigate public spaces in ways some of my fellow interns couldn’t. I could slip out and shop at the market without the boda boda men (those who transport people on motorcycles, referred to as bodas) screaming muzungu (“white” or “foreigner”) my way. I could walk all over town without getting so much as a glance in my direction. This was one of two times in my life I was not a visible minority.

One day, I went out with a friend, a white Canadian girl. We were hungry and wanted to try this cafe, which was filled with white people—foreigners. I noticed eyes on me, but wasn’t fazed. My friend places her order; her friendly disposition leads to a chat with the cashier long after having ordered. I am not greeted with the same energy extended to my friend just seconds before. Though my accent throws the cashier’s guard off, it is not enough to affect him the same way my friend did.

My ability to blend in—if I didn’t speak—was once a blessing, but I realized it was useless if I would still be treated as lesser in the presence of my white friends. I had always known that in Canada, the system favoured white people/white-passing people; but I had underestimated the extent of colonialism in “developing” countries. My time in Uganda showed how so many locals have an automatic association between skin colour and one’s “foreignness.” Even though I, too, was a foreigner, it was never the assumption. When I would speak, my accent would create such a confusion the english-speaking locals would rather speak to fellow locals rather than engage with me.

In Canada, I am a visible minority constantly fighting for the space to be seen, heard and validated unashamedly. I never thought I would have to fight for that same space in a country where most, if not all, of the population looks like me. I felt as if I had to fight even harder than I do back home, because the attention automatically went to my white counterparts.

The struggle on the table is not my desire for attention; on the contrary, it’s a questioning of identity. Where do third culture kids fit when they were born in one place—or their parents come from and identify with one place—but they were raised somewhere else? We spend time this month explicitly to celebrate black history, while so many black people struggle with reconciling their identity.

Should we continue trying to assimilate within the community we most identify with while negating all other parts of ourselves, or should we just create new spaces for people who are in this limbo? This isn’t the first time a black person will have questions about their identity, nor is it the last.

Feature graphic by @spooky_soda

Northern Uganda: A dance scene in the making

Two young choreographers use dance to help change lives in their community

Walking by the Straight Talk Foundation youth centre in Gulu, Uganda, you can hear loud dynamic afrobeats blasting through speakers. As you enter the gate, a group of youngsters drenched in sweat from the northern Ugandan heat are having a breakdance battle while learning new choreographies and teaching newcomers. These dance lessons are free, offered everyday and open to the entire youth community of Gulu. Among this group are the founders of the Watwero Dance Company: Geoffrey Oryema, who is often referred to as “Message,” and Ojom Martin, known as “Beep.”

“Through dance, I got a family,” Oryema said. “My family is the people I dance with everyday. When people come in large groups to dance, I ask them, ‘Do you want to learn?’ And I teach them.”

Oryema’s life as a dancer began in 2007 in Kitgum, Uganda, when a workshop called Breakdance Project Uganda was held to campaign for peace. “In northern Uganda, we experienced war for over two decades. I had never heard of breakdancing before,” he said. “I had never seen it anywhere; I had no access to TV. Since the war started, it was the first time I saw people come in great numbers together.”

From left, Ojom Martin and Geoffrey Oryema. “We are targeting youth and they love entertainment and that is exactly what we are giving them. Through dance we are giving them an understanding that we really need to revise our culture,” said Oryema.

The dance workshop only lasted a day, but it had an everlasting impression on Oryema. “It was the greatest experience and feeling to see people happy because of those dance moves,” he said.

When the workshop was over, there were no longer any dance activities in Kitgum. “I kept pushing myself with those steps I learned … just to keep reminding myself of that day, because I felt peace. That is how I got to understand what peace is.”

When I am dancing, these memories from the war, they go away,”

When Oryema dances, he forgets about the war. “When I am dancing, these memories from the war, they go away,” he said.During the war, Oryema was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) at the age of seven. “I was in the bush for almost two years, and then I found my way back home,” he said. Upon his return, both his parents relocated to Gulu — without him. “None of them came to see me when I returned back home.” Oryema remained in Kitgum where he lived with his aunt. The arrangement was not well received by the community.

“They were calling me all sorts of names, like a war child, a killer, a rebel. Or sometimes they would say, ‘You need to be careful with this guy, he can kill you because he has been in the bush,’” Oryema recalled. He eventually left his aunt’s home to escape the torment, and ended up living on the streets. “I just started to live this wild life.”

In 2011, Oryema saw kids dancing once again at a playground in Kitgum. He asked them where they got their moves from, and they told him to go to the local Straight Talk Foundation youth centre. Oryema began attending dance classes there and never missed a day of training.

“It was as if I came back to life,” he said. “In a few months, I became a dance leader within the community because I gave it all my time. I wanted to be good so that I can make other people happy through my dance.”

Although Oryema quickly became known as a dance leader in his community, he faced challenges living in the small town of Kitgum. “I couldn’t support myself,” he said. “I couldn’t get 500 shillings in a day to buy myself any food.”

Oryema began searching for opportunities elsewhere. He went to Gulu for his first dance performance event, which was an outreach on malaria sensitization.

“It was a challenge when I was asked, ‘Can you do something that talks about malaria [through dance],’” Oryema said.

As he performed, people from Gulu noticed how good Oryema was. They began giving him more opportunities to host community dance workshops. The Gulu community began calling him “Kwena,” which means “message” in the northern Ugandan dialect of Acholi. When Oryema asked an audience member why they call him Kwena, “the woman said, ‘Because when you are dancing, we get the message. You are the message; you carry it within you,’” Oryema explained. Since then, everyone in the community calls him Kwena or Message.

The founders of Watwero Dance Company, Ojom Martin (left) and Geoffrey Oryema (right) have been dancing together since childhood. They teach dance everyday to the youth in their community.

In 2016, Oryema co-founded a community outreach organization called the Inspire Me Africa Initiative, where he would choreograph, teach and perform dance pieces in communities across northern Uganda. The organization presented dances that targeted the everyday challenges Ugandan youth face, such as malaria, early marriage, domestic violence and drug abuse. The organization was volunteer-based; they often visited local schools, hospitals and refugee camps to perform for the youth without compensation. “As much as we want to do things for free, we need to at least feed ourselves, maintain our health,” Oryema said.

Oryema began to dream about having his own dance company and saw it as an employment opportunity. In 2017, his childhood friend, Ojom, also a dancer from Kitgum, came to Gulu for the same reasons: to dance and make a living. “We want to live a life where you can always afford to pay rent and have a family. If dance can pay for all this, then it will be the best thing for us,” Ojom said.

“If one day I can at least be able to have land and feed myself daily, that would be the best thing I could ever have,” Oryema added. “It might sound crazy to many, but that has been my challenge.”

Ojom also said dance has changed his life. “I lost both of my parents; I lost my dad when I was seven years old and my mom in 2007,” he said. “My brother was the first one who began to dance. He stopped, but I continued. He was my inspiration, and now I inspire him.”

According to Oryema, they both realized they had been running away from challenges since childhood. “A lot of our youth and people in our community have these same challenges today. Why don’t we take a stand and face our challenges?” Oryema asked.

Together, they created Watwero Dance Company, which is the first of its kind in northern Uganda. Watwero is an Acholi name that translates to “We Can.”

“We have seen a lot of people dance, make money, travel. We looked at ourselves and thought, yes we can do this,” Ojom said. The name of the company is in the Acholi dialect because “we must start with our people first,” Oryema explained. “They need to understand that they can [do it]. Then, it will be easier for them to understand the reasons why we are running this company.”

Both Oryema and Ojom are artistic directors and choreographers who teach a wide variety of dance styles, such as the traditional African dances called Zulu, Gwara Gwara, Bakisimba and Durban Bhenga. They also teach afro-house, urban styles and contemporary.

This year, Watwero Dance Company participated at the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts, Krump UG and the Nyege Nyege Festival. They also featured a dance at the Kampala National Theatre. Oryema and Ojom won one of the battles at the Krump UG competition.

“We always had that sensitivity — a bond within us that we always wanted to share,” Ojom said. “Whenever we are together, we have that creativity to make art.”

“I feel that art is a universal language with which you can choose what you want to do and freely express yourself—it doesn’t cost you a thing to learn. All you need is your time and commitment,” said Oryema.

Their focus is to offer an educative platform where they use dance to express the challenges faced in their communities in northern Uganda.

“Everywhere you go, they talk about youth unemployment, drug abuse, early marriage — but nothing is being done about it. We realized that if we create a company, it will be a platform, a more organized form of art where we can work on our challenges,” Oryema said. According to Ojom, it has been difficult for their company to grow because of the community’s lack of support for the arts. Nonetheless, they refuse to give up on their dream to live a life through dance.

As long as you are still alive, it’s not over yet. Giving up should not be something that a living human being should accept,” Oryema said. “You might try hard, but if you don’t win, it’s not a loss. If you don’t win, you learn. So next time you do it better and you don’t get to lose again,” he said.  

Both Oryema and Ojom remain hopeful that they will be changing lives through dance, just as dance has changed theirs. “Dance saved me from the other part of me that has been in the war zone,” Oryema said. “I fought in the war, I’ve killed a number of people. But that was not what I wanted. When I got back home [from the war], I tried to commit suicide twice. But after failing, I realized that there is a reason why I am still breathing now.”

“Everytime I perform, people say that I’m doing something great,” said Oryema. “I don’t know if that’s the reason why I am still alive, but as long as I live, I will be fighting hard to find out.”


Student Life

Elephanté: Where hospitality meets knowledge

Understanding the potential behind teaching someone something new

Elephanté is no more than a two or three-minute walk away from the compound, down the road and around the corner. This is why I go.

It certainly isn’t because the beer is cheap. In fact, a bottle of Tusker Lager is 4,000 Ugandan shillings, nearly $1.50 CAD, which is about 1,000 shillings more than anywhere else. No, I go there because it’s close—but that’s not the only reason to go. Elephanté makes a great pizza and, in this part of the world, for people like me who are accustomed to certain things in life, that is a big sell.

I am in Gulu, Uganda, for the summer. As a communications intern, I am tasked with creating a radio program using the voices and ideas of local young people to empower and inspire others in the community.

As part of my mandate, I’m encouraged to get comfortable and make myself at home. For the most part, that is precisely what I have done. I wouldn’t say I’m a regular at Elephanté, by any means, but I stop by often enough that the staff feel a need to reassure me there is more Tusker Lager on order when I walk through the door. I’m quite a fan of the beer, and the concern the staff at Elephanté show is an expression of their inherent hospitality.

Life is short, so drink the wine, eat the food and get the dessert. – A quote written on the walls of Elephanté

When I walk through the gate and into the open air of the restaurant’s courtyard, my eyes are immediately drawn to the café counter. This is where the light seems to focus and there are usually three or four employees waving at me and smiling. From what I understand, this is normal and, frankly, rather inviting.

With this distraction, by the time I get to the bar to order a drink or pick up a menu, I have walked past and completely ignored any guests sitting in the row of seats that face the courtyard. To be fair, the people seated there often intend to go unnoticed. They’re usually NGO workers catching up on paperwork or volunteers from overseas Skyping someone back home.

Ronald (left) and Dennis behind the service counter at Elephanté Café on Onono
Road in Gulu, Uganda. Photo by Travis Sanderson

Sometimes, they are people just trying to take shelter from the sun. Occasionally, though, they are staff members keeping a keen yet quiet eye on things. This was where Agong Jesse was sitting the first time I noticed him.

My first impression of Jesse was that he was shy and timid—a wallflower. On the contrary, Jesse likes to be surrounded by people and thrives on hospitality. He admitted he is fond of people and said his job is a great opportunity for him to meet and speak with a wide range of people from all over the world.

On the day we met, it was Jesse who spoke first. He knew I was an intern with CEED and was curious to know what project I was working on. After I explained my goal of finding young voices of strength and inspiration in the community, I asked him if he knew anyone who fit that description who I could talk to. He flatly said that perhaps I already was.

Though his tone was soft and his smile pleasant, there was a determined look in Jesse’s eyes as we spoke. I knew there was something he wanted to say. The graceful way he talked with his hands showed me he was confident about his ideas. This was clearly not the first time he had given thought to empowering youth.

“I want to show young people how to bake,” he said, adding that he was passionate about passing along knowledge to others. When I asked him why he was so adamant about the transfer of skills, he said it was because he feels he is in a privileged position. I was impressed—I mean, you don’t really hear that in northern Uganda.

Photo by Travis Sanderson

I did not have to press him as he explained that this attitude was largely due to the generosity of an American man. When Jesse was young, a man named Brian Davis, who worked with the faith-based charity Samaritan’s Purse, sponsored Jesse’s tuition fees so that he could attend a trade school to learn how to bake. I agreed that that is a fortunate position to find one’s self in, but asked him whether that was the only reason for his attitude. “No,” he replied. “My mother helped with that, too.”

His mother, Veronica, owned a restaurant when he was young. Watching her dole out hospitality to anyone who crossed the threshold, he explained, had a significant impact on him. Jesse was basically born into the hospitality business, and it wasn’t long before he was helping his mother set up her restaurant in the early mornings before school.

In fact, his mother would go so far as to invite hungry neighbourhood children to eat at the restaurant, with no expectation of payment. Jesse said this was mostly because she was someone who would rather find solutions than simply identify problems and hope they go away. At one point, his mother even took it upon herself to feed and house a handful of children from a nearby tribe that had sent them out to fend for themselves.

It was Jesse’s mother who took it upon herself to speak to the director of the local school to convince him to eliminate the school fees for the poorer children who had to leave school if they could not pay. Her persuasion worked, and the fees were waived. Now, the children could complete their secondary education for free.

Under the shade in the daytime or under the stars at night; the courtyard seating
area at Elephanté. Photo by Travis Sanderson

Thanks to his mother and Davis, Jesse became a pragmatic person. He said he feels the most important thing he can do with his life is help change somebody else’s for the better, even if it is just one person. He said it’s the least he can do. This philosophy extends to his work life—he said he would rather train someone to do a job rather than hire someone already qualified for the position.

I like the way Jesse looks at the world. He sees that everyone has potential if exposed to the right opportunities, and he wants those skills to be fostered. He said he also thinks each of us has the power to perform and the ability to learn if given the chance.

This is Jesse’s teach-a-man-to-fish approach to life, and he leaves me with one last remark: “Do something. Pass along your knowledge to others so that they, too, can learn.”


Community, Empowerment, Education, Developmentor CEEDis a non-profit organization based in both Montreal and Gulu, Uganda. It works to empower youth to be agents of change in their communities through cross-cultural skills development and information sharing.

Each year, students from Concordia University travel to Uganda and work alongside Ugandan interns on various community projects that aim to benefit the youth of Gulu.

Travis Sanderson spent three months working as a communications intern in Uganda this summer. He has produced both written material and radio documentaries that reflect his experiences with the people of Uganda.

Photos by Travis Sanderson

Student Life

Getting around on two wheels

Bicycles Against Poverty simplifies transportation in Uganda at an affordable cost

Bicycles Against Poverty is only about a 10-minute walk down Eden Road, but as I arrived, I wondered why I did not take a bicycle.

The small handmade sign at the entrance was just a bit off the road —enough that, if you were not looking for it, you might miss it. A yellow dog was lying lazily in the sun next to a sun-faded green gate. Peering through the slats, I could see a modest house and a yard full of tall trees. It reminded me of a farmstead from back home, only filled with mango and palm trees.

Men wearing coveralls were working on a few bicycles at the far end of the yard. Next to me,  the dog yawned, and I assumed he was not their guard dog. Or at least not a very good one.

I let myself in through the gate. In front of the house, I was greeted by a young man standing in the shade. He introduced himself as Nicholas Ogaba, the credit officer for Bicycles Against Poverty, or BAP. He told me he had been working there for almost five years. The first few were spent as a community-based trainer, acting as a liaison with the community, then as an intern. He came aboard full-time three years ago.

Credit Officer at Bicycles Against Poverty, Nicholas Ogaba. Photo by Travis Sanderson

Based in northern Uganda, BAP is a microfinance organization that helps people with modest incomes in need of credit loans. BAP was created in 2009 to assist with the rebuilding of northern Uganda after a brutal, 20-year civil war between Joseph Kony’s militia and government troops. With a significant number of people displaced and many livelihoods drastically altered, the conflict had subsequently left the region struggling to adapt to a whole new way of life.

In the wake of this social disruption, a man named Muyambi Muyambi ventured up to Gulu from the south of the country so that he could better understand what had happened and assess the situation in-person to see what he could do to help.

Since access to reliable and affordable transportation was one of the main concerns in Uganda, both before and after the war, Muyambi explored various ideas that might offer transportation solutions to those who needed it most. Eventually, he thought of the idea that eventually became BAP. It was simple: provide transportation to everyone who needed it by combining modest and reasonable loans with a mode of transportation that would be easy to use and easy to maintain. And so Bicycles Against Poverty (BAP) was born.

According to the numerous people I had spoken with in Uganda, wheeled transportation is not only more convenient than walking, it can also mean access to cleaner water, to improved healthcare and to better education. More importantly, for agriculturally-based communities, it also provides access to better profit margins for produce by allowing small-holdings farmers to access more markets and buyers.

When a simple bicycle is fitted with a sturdy rear rack, it becomes more than just a bicycle. It becomes a sort of truck capable of carrying sacks of grain, bunches of bananas or, in many cases, live chickens. (I even had the opportunity to witness bicycles transporting live pigs and goats.) During my initial meeting at BAP in late June, Ogaba even told me a farmer living outside Gulu had found his wife collapsed and unconscious on the floor of their home, but was able to ferry her to the local healthcare facility on his bicycle. Think about that—a bicycle ambulance.

The Avon Five Star bicycle manufactured in India, but assembled in Gulu. Photo by Travis Sanderson

But why the bicycle? Based on my three months in Uganda, motorcycles, which Ugandans referred to as “bodas,” appeared to be fairly ubiquitous across the country. They filled the streets everywhere I went. However, as many of the boda men told me, these vehicles, which cost more than four million shillings (about $1,400 CAD), are often out of reach for many Ugandans. Not to mention they are expensive to maintain and, of course, the cost of fuel is another expense to factor in. In comparison, a bicycle is affordable, relatively easy to maintain and doesn’t require any fuel.

The total cost of one of these bicycles is 270,000 Ugandan shillings (about $90 CAD). When purchased through BAP, there is no interest charged and, to keep the logistics and associated costs simplified and efficient, groups of 15 people or more are encouraged to apply under a united “village savings and loan association.” Through these associations, individuals agree to a minimum and maximum weekly savings commitment, say between 1,000 and 5,000 shillings. As a group, this fosters a savings pool which can further increase the performance of those savings as well as their purchasing power. Once approved for participation in the program, an initial payment of 40,000 shillings is required to guarantee delivery of a bicycle while the remaining balance is then paid off by the participants at a rate of 24,000 shillings per month for 10 months.

As Ogaba explained to me, the bicycles BAP uses, which are manufactured by an Indian company called Avon, are not only affordable but also noted for their robust construction. This makes them more suited for the rough roads of the Ugandan countryside. The bicycles arrive in Gulu disassembled and in cardboard boxes, but a team of four workmen from BAP can  assemble the bikes at a rate of one every two hours per worker, or a total of 12 per day collectively. The bicycles are then distributed on predetermined days to rural communities by loading all the bikes on a transport truck. Ogaba estimated that more than 1,000 bicycles have been distributed since he’s begun working with the company, and BAP’s bicycles are now distributed anywhere within about 100 kilometres of Gulu to communities such as Amoro and Anaka.

Lead mechanic at BAP, Peko Innocent and operations director, Brian Facet make final adjustments on the delivered bicycles. Photo by Travis Sanderson

Although Muyambi is no longer involved with BAP at the ground level—he’s pursuing his MBA at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business in New Hampshire—he is still an active board member based in the United States.

The organization is now also working to address the transportation needs of participating groups, especially small-holdings farmers who may be more vulnerable with respect to access to markets, water points, healthcare and schooling because of their increased isolation from these resources.

Ogaba said he is confident in his team’s ability to achieve their new goals, and I given no reason to argue. What BAP is doing appears to me to be a well-run and well-thought-out approach to empowerment.

I noticed Ogaba check his watch, and I realised I had taken enough of his time. After all, there were still many bikes to assemble, and delivery day fast approaching. So, with the local customary handshake—a traditional clasp of hands with an added grasp of each other’s thumbs, then back to the clasp—I bade my new friends farewell and made my way back to the sun-faded green gate. As I closed it behind me, my wave goodbye was reciprocated by all inside but went completely unnoticed by the lazy dog, still basking in the sun.

Community, Empowerment, Education, Development—or CEED—is a non-profit organization based in both Montreal and Gulu, Uganda. It works to empower youth to be agents of change in their communities through cross-cultural skills development and information sharing.

Each year, students from Concordia University travel to Uganda and work alongside Ugandan interns on various community projects that aim to benefit the youth of Gulu.

Travis Sanderson spent three months working as a communications intern in Uganda this summer. He has produced both written material and radio documentaries that reflect his experiences with the people of Uganda.

Student Life

Uncovering privilege in everyday tasks

Why Canadians should be grateful they don’t have to wash their bed sheets every week

“How often would you say you wash your bed sheets?”

The Canadian interns’ answers: once a week, every two weeks, every month.

Ugandans? Every week.

The distinction was brought up during one of the bi-weekly check-ins for interns living on the compound in Gulu, Uganda, where any frustrations with communal living were aired out and discussed.

There were 11 Canadian and four Ugandan interns living on the compound, which also happened to be our workplace. We slept in huts—six women in one, five in another and the four men in a third. With two beds per bunk, we lived in pretty close quarters. Cleanliness and consideration for others’ space was definitely a recurring issue, especially in the shared common room.

Yet, it came as a surprise for many of us Canadian interns that our Ugandan co-workers were concerned about how often—or rather not often—we washed our bed sheets. Some of us argued that washing sheets was time-consuming, considering everything is washed by hand in Uganda. Others argued that their bed was their own personal space and, therefore, when and how often they washed their bed sheets was of no one else’s concern.

Another argument was Uganda’s frequent and sporadic weather changes. It wasn’t uncommon for it to suddenly rain—sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes all night—in which case our bed sheets would take more than a couple of hours to dry outside.

During a subsequent discussion with just the Canadian interns, however, a different perspective occurred to us. Back home, we have washing machines and dryers for laundry. That alone is a privilege, even in Canada. Laundry becomes less time-consuming. These machines allow us to do our washing without having to worry about weather changes. We get to decide when it’s convenient for us to do laundry.

Back home, we have the technology and the financial resources that not only make doing laundry convenient, but that add a level of comfort and ease to our lives many take for granted. We have a consistent supply of electricity. We have data plans when our Wi-Fi goes out. We have cars to shield us from precipitation when we travel.

This is not to say Ugandans don’t have electricity, Wi-Fi, data plans or cars—but what Canadians call everyday goods are luxury items in Uganda. I should add, though, that Ugandans are doing pretty well, even without our “everyday” goods. Solar panels are used to harness energy, bodas (similar to motorcycles) and bicycles allow people to get around and many Ugandans make do at home without Wi-Fi or data.

Another privilege was pointed out during the interns’ discussion: privacy. Canadians often have the privilege of sleeping in their own room. Even in situations of communal living, such as having roommates or living with family, we often have our own space with our own walls, bed and privacy.

Having a private space gives us the flexibility to wash our sheets at our own discretion. In contrast, Ugandans live not just with their immediate families but their extended families as well. They also have more children on average, meaning more people per household. In these cases, individuals live in closer proximity to one another. This means less privacy, not to mention a greater likelihood of smelling each other’s dirty bed sheets.

In Montreal, bed sheets are simply bed sheets. In Uganda, they were an eye-opening indicator of our privilege back home.

Community, Empowerment, Education, Development—or CEED—is a non-profit organization based in both Montreal and Gulu, Uganda. It works to empower youth to be agents of change in their communities through cross-cultural skills development and information sharing.

Each year, students from Concordia University travel to Uganda and work alongside Ugandan interns on various community projects that aim to benefit the youth of Gulu.

Julie Hoang spent the summer working as the head of social media for the Youth Advocacy and Communications project, which aimed to provide youth in Gulu a platform where they could share their stories of struggle and success.

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth

Student Life

The value of a motorbike

Against the odds, Aber Diana is a single mother thriving in a male-dominated industry

We turned right off the main highway that runs through the city of Gulu onto a rough, stony road that jostled the motorcycle enough to remind me to tightly grip the rear of the seat.

After only a few hundred metres, the driver pulled over beside a cluster of seven small, circular huts with thatched straw roofs, typical of northern Uganda. These modest homes, with their short cement walls, measured only a few metres across and two metres tall at the peak of their conical roofs.

As we dismounted the motorcycle—called a “boda”—and I took in my surroundings, the boda driver began to walk amongst the huts towards one at the back, furthest from the road. I was fumbling with my recorder when it occurred to me that I was finally about to meet Aber Diana.

Three boda drivers, or “boda men,” on their motorbikes while they wait for customers outside the Elephanté Café in Gulu, Uganda. Photo by Travis Sanderson

I first heard about Diana in a 2012 article from a local newspaper called The Daily Monitor. As a communications intern tasked with finding people in the community between the ages of 18 and 35 who have overcome tremendous odds, I knew I needed to find out more about this woman.

Diana is unique, not only because she works in an industry dominated by men, but because she works at night in an industry dominated by men. By day, Gulu, the commercial centre of northern Uganda, is generally a safe and friendly city of about 150,000 people. At night, things change. As interns from Canada, we were discouraged from venturing out at night. It made me curious about what lay beyond the front gate of our compound on Onono Road. The list of reasons we were given varied, but mostly we were warned about running into the mysterious, aggressive “Iron Bar Men.”

In this city, Diana is a boda driver by night. It is important to note that people tend to become boda drivers as a last resort, often because they are uneducated or cannot find another type of work. The job demands long hours for little pay, not to mention the higher-than-usual overhead costs in the form of fuel and boda maintenance. There is also a significant level of stress that comes with navigating the chaotic roads of Uganda where no one really obeys traffic regulations and police are more concerned with taking bribes than enforcing the law. Finally, keep in mind that it is a very male-dominated industry—Diana is one of only three female boda drivers in all of Gulu.

Your security is your brain, and you should not rely on anyone to take care for you during the day or at night.

This is the reason I find Diana so interesting. Why would a 27-year-old single mother of five boys risk working such a dangerous and stressful job, let alone at night? After speaking with what seemed like half of the boda drivers in Gulu—many of whom gave no indication of knowing Diana—I was finally standing at her doorstep thanks to the help of a boda driver I met at the city’s main market.

Diana was outside hanging laundry as we approached her hut. When she noticed us, she was quick to smile, as if she already knew why we were there. Perhaps she did—I had been asking about her for a few days, and it would make sense that the boda driver community talks. Diana is tall and stocky; a solid woman who looks like she can take care of herself. Yet her soft, kind face and gentle smile give her away as a lamb dressed as a lion. Her delicate handshake, light and timid, twined my fingers with hers, and I knew this female boda driver was not being reckless or rebellious. Rather, she was a woman doing what she needed to for her children.

My friend, colleague and translator, Nyeko Geoffrey Augustine, explained the purpose of our visit, and we were immediately ushered into the small hut that was Diana’s home.

The white lace drapery that kept the entrance to her house private got tangled around my arm when I entered. As I tried to sort myself out, a stream of Diana’s family members, including a small child, made their way past me as they exited the hut, barely noticing my graceless entrance.

Typical bodas parked outside the Elephanté Café in Gulu. Photo by Travis Sanderson

Once inside, I realized the space was much larger than it looked from the outside. A pole in the middle of the room appeared to hold up the peak of the roof, and the short cement walls supported its base. The ground was covered with an old, circular sheet of linoleum. The whole space felt like a cozy farm house and instantly made me feel at home. To my right, the blanket that divided the space in half was a bit worn, but clean and in keeping with the atmosphere of  the home—lived-in, but not the least bit run down.

I soon learned that Diana has seldom had the dice roll in her favour. She was born into a poor family in a village called Anaka, in the Alero region of northern Uganda. Her childhood was darkened by a brutal civil war that raged from 1987 to 2007 between President Yoweri Museveni’s government troops and the guerilla group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by  Joseph Kony. At the age of 14, Diana was orphaned when LRA soldiers stormed her village, killing many of the residents, including her parents.

She was afforded a bit of good fortune when an elderly woman from her village took her in. She was able to feed and clothe her, but just barely. The ongoing civil war and the old woman’s financial situation prevented Diana from attending school. When she became pregnant at 14 with twin boys shortly after going to live with the old woman, getting an education was next to impossible. Two years later, pregnant again with another set of twins, Diana said she just decided to accept that she would never receive a proper education.

Now, with a fifth child and the father absent, Diana is left with a lot of responsibility and few options for supporting herself and her children. Yet she refuses to be seen as a victim.

“I do this so that my children forget the meaning of poverty.

The old woman, now 105, still lives in Anaka, and Diana speaks of her as if she were her mother. Diana’s only expressed regret about her upbringing is that she was not able to attend school.

When asked why she chooses to ride at night, Diana got straight to the point. A ride that costs 1000 Ugandan shillings (about 34 cents Canadian) during the day earns twice as much at night. Therefore, she can double her money if she rides at night.

“People often ask me why, being a lady, I would ride at night. And they ask if it is not very dangerous. One thing I tell them is that your security is your brain, and you should not rely on anyone to take care for you during the day or at night,” she said. “You must protect yourself. These words help me to always be careful whenever I ride a boda at night.” After many years of experience, one way she has learned to stay safe is by carrying people she knows whenever possible.

Through Geoffrey, I asked her how she gets along with all the men. I expected her to tell us it is like the Wild West, and that she is ostracised because of her gender. Yet she responded with positivity. “The only way is to live with each other the way you would live with your brothers and sisters at home,” she said.

Diana started riding a boda in 2006, and in her words, learned how to ride a motorcycle “a long time ago … from some men who teach people motorcycle riding at only 200 shillings.” She referred to herself as “a stubborn kid” who would “use part of the money that I got from selling fruits for learning to ride the motorcycle and take the rest back home.”

By the time she had her first set of twins, Diana had at least some knowledge about riding motorcycles, but this was not an instant solution. She still needed to earn enough to support her children. “I then prayed to God to at least help me use this little bit of knowledge that I had to feed my children, at the minimum,” she said. “When I realised that this job really fed my children, I give a big thanks to God.”

Diana’s three-year-old son, Pius, and a neighbourhood friend giggle at their reflections in the camera lens. Photo by Travis Sanderson

Although Diana does not have a motorcycle of her own, she is able to borrow one from a fellow driver for a fee, which she pays every morning after work. “The rest of the money, I use it to feed my children and other things,” she said. The extra money she makes riding at night helps her pay the boda owner with enough left to support her children.

However, riding at night while raising a family is not without its challenges. First, she requires the help of a neighbour, who agrees to stay with the children after Diana leaves for work around 6 p.m. Then, Diana must return home in time to get four of her five children ready for school each morning. She said she sleeps from the time the children leave for school until about 11 a.m. when her youngest son wakes up for the day. After that, she has household chores and three-year-old Pius to care for.

“I do all these things so that my children can live like the other children in their school and neighbourhood,” Diana said. “I also do this so that my children forget the meaning of poverty. And there are some times that I don’t have money, but I make sure they don’t know about it because I want my children to always be with a clear mind of having everything they need.”

I didn’t know how to respond, probably because I am fortunate enough to have never been in such circumstances. She continued, “So if [my children] ask me why I ride a boda and being the woman among the men who rides a boda, I always tell them to not worry. All they must think of is that I do all these things for them.”

As I began to wonder if Diana was the kind of person who has the power and potential to inspire the masses, I asked her if she had any advice to give based on her experiences. “To my sisters out there,” she responded, “I say don’t fear to do something that you feel will get you out of the situation that you are in now. Always remember the reason why the idea came to you in the first place.”

Community, Empowerment, Education, Development—or CEED—is a non-profit organization based in both Montreal and Gulu, Uganda. It works to empower youth to be change agents in their communities through cross-cultural skills development and information sharing.

Each year, students from Concordia University travel to Uganda and work alongside Ugandan interns on various community projects that aim to benefit the youth of Gulu.

Travis Sanderson spent three months working as a communications intern in Uganda this summer. He has produced both written material and radio documentaries that reflect his experiences with the people of Uganda.


World Music Review : Africa

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (South Africa) – Arguably one of the most prolific South African bands in existence, this a capella all-male singing troupe has been around for more than 40 years. Their fusion of traditional South African sounds with Christian gospel and even pop has set them apart and brought them to centre stage. Founded by lead singer, director and composer Joseph Shabalala, they’ve collaborated with Paul Simon and Melissa Etheridge, provided soundtrack material for The Lion King II, and have been invited to perform for Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth II and the late Pope John Paul II. Oh, and they don’t mind getting recognition from the Grammys either, having been nominated 13 times since 1988, and winning three of those nominations, including most recently in 2009 in the “Best Traditional World Music Album” category for Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu.
Most recent album: Songs From a Zulu Farm (Razor & Tie; 2011)

Razia Said (Madagascar) – Not just another beautiful, exotic voice, Razia Said combines the traditional sounds of the small, ecologically isolated island of Madagascar with socially, environmentally and spiritually conscious messages. Despite having relocated to New York City to pursue her musical career, her love of Madagascar holds fast and shines through in her music. Zebu Nation, her latest release, is a collection of Malagasy songs with a new-age edge, written about her longing for her country in spite of the poverty, tribal dissonance and environmental suffering experienced there. The album serves as her way of raising awareness of the troubles of her homeland, which is being destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture, climate change and industrial development.
Most recent album: Zebu Nation (Cumbancha; 2009)

Tamikrest (Mali) – After being referred to as “the future of Tuareg music,” Tamikrest has a lot to live up to. But after listening to their psychedelic, desert-inspired synthesis of Tuareg, rock ‘n’ roll, electric blues and pop, you’ll understand why. Singing entirely in Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg people, they use traditional sounds such as youyous, djembés, as well as electric guitar, bass, drums and vocals to bring you on your own personal hallucinogenic desert oasis trip. The nine band members, all in their early ‘20s, received musical training at a small desert oasis school, but didn’t move beyond playing traditional songs until the Internet became available and they were able to discover iconic Western musical heroes Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Bob Marley. Although you might not associate their sound with a heavy message, the Tuareg people have endured great suffering, including a five-year-long civil war in the early ‘90s which shaped the music and philosophies of these young musicians.
Most recent album: Toumastin (Glitterhouse Records; 2011)

Burkina Electric (Burkina Faso) – In a wild cohesion of electronic and African sounds, Burkina Electric pulls out all the right stops to have you moving and grooving. The group is actually led by Lukas Ligeti, an extremely talented, Austrian-born drummer and composer who happens to be the son of the famous film and classical composer Gyorgy Ligeti. Burkina Electric is more than just a band—think The Mighty Mighty Bosstones—they also have two dancers, tying together the long-held tradition of music and dance for the African people. By seeking out rare and unknown African rhythms, this sextet is spearheading electronic world music with ancient rhythms and instruments, such as those of the Sahel, combined with their own original beats and sounds. Lead singer Maï Lingani sings in four languages, including French, and alongside guitarist Wende K. Blass, electronicist/VJ Pyrolator, Ligeti, and dancers/choreographers Vicky and Zoko Zoko, this Burkina Faso band is sure to impress.
Most recent album: Raem Tekra (Listenable Records; 2007)
Upcoming album: Not yet named, no official release date.

King Sunny Adé (Nigeria) –  At 65 years of age, King Sunny Adé is still pumping out the high energy traditional African rhythms that most people would associate with the widely diverse continent. He and his band, the African Beats, deliver Yoruba Nigerian Jùjú music and are widely considered to have popularized the genre in the world music scene. To say he’s accomplished is an understatement—he’s been nominated for two Grammys, collaborated with Stevie Wonder, released well over 100 albums, and he has even graced the silver screen three times. And don’t think that you’ll have to miss out on a wild performance when it comes to this veteran performer. With anywhere from 23 to 50 band members on stage at any given time, a concert by Adé is probably a bigger party than anything you might have seen during frosh week.
Most recent album: Morning Joy (Master Disc; 2010)

Die Antwoord (South Africa) – If Nicki Minaj’s latest schizophrenic Grammy awards show offering has left a stale Lady Gaga-esque taste in your mouth, turn to Die Antwoord for an even filthier take on grunge hip hop. Die Antwoord, “The Answer” in Afrikaans, is weeding Zef style into mainstream rave electronica with the help of the Pitchfork and Coachella obsessed. Its three members, Ninja, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, and DJ Hi -Tek are at the forefront of the South African Zef movement, and boast the dirt-poor yet flashy lifestyle. They fuse fashion with music, drawing on the clash between rich and poor in the wake of South African apartheid. Their music video for “Enter the Ninja” went viral in 2009, leading to a deal with Interscope Records and an international tour. In keeping with the Zef lifestyle, Die Antwoord left their major label and started their own, Zef Records, in 2011.
Most recent album: Ten$ion (Zef Records; 2012)

Michael Kiwanuka (Uganda) – Fresh off backing Adele’s 2011 tour, Michael Kiwanuka is bound to bask in his tour mate’s glorious 2012 Grammy shutdown. The London-born 23-year-old is the offspring of two Ugandan refugees who fled the Amin regime, escaping political repression and mass killings that resulted in the deaths of up to 500,000 people in the 1970s. Kiwanuka lived quietly as a session guitarist until going solo in 2011 with his debut solo EP, Tell Me a Tale. Always with a guitar in hand, Kiwanuka is a wholesome, soulful crooner, reminiscent of Otis Redding and Bill Withers. Though he has yet to release an album, he beat out the much hyped Azealia Banks and Skrillex for the BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll. Past winners of the award include Jessie J, Adele and Ellie Goulding, so Kiwanuka is destined for stardom.
Most recent album: I’m Getting Ready [EP] (Communion Records; 2011)
Upcoming album: Home Again (Polydor; 2012)

The Parlotones (South Africa) – Africa isn’t all drum circles and pan flutes, and even The Parlotones are proof that the continent didn’t escape the britpop epidemic of the ‘90s. Hailing from Johannesburg, The Parlotones is a traditional four-piece rock band known for churning out stadium anthems and harmonious ballads à la Coldplay. The band was signed to Universal Records, the world’s largest record company, but has failed to catch on in North America despite achieving moderate success in Europe. The band members won’t walk the streets of Cape Town or Johannesburg unnoticed, however, for they have achieved multi-platinum status in South Africa. The Parlotones performed alongside Shakira and The Black Eyed Peas at the FIFA World Cup Kick-Off Celebration Concert in 2010, and band members are also spokespersons for Live Earth and Earth Hour.
Most recent album: Eavesdropping on the Songs of Whales (Sovereign Entertainment; 2011)
Upcoming album: Journey Through the Shadows (Sovereign Entertainment; 2012)

Freshlyground (South Africa) – This seven-piece Cape Town outfit has achieved international recognition for its ability to blend traditional African music with social commentary, yet simultaneously attract a mainstream pop appeal that defies demographics. Zolani Mahola, Freshlyground’s lyricist and energetic vocalist, always seems to sing through a smile. Mahola’s silky voice sails through piano, violin, guitar, mbira, saxophone and percussion instrumentals provided by her musical compadres who gather from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa to perform together. The band draws on kwela, the skiffling street dance music of South Africa, as well as African folk music, alternative rock and tin pan alley harmonies. Freshlyground became the first South African group to win the MTV Europe Award for Best African Act in 2006 and performed the official anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup with Shakira.
Most recent album: Radio Africa (Sony BMG Africa; 2010)

D’Banj (Nigeria) – In a world where rap and hip hop is dominated by glock-happy, gold-toothed, ganja-bragging criminals, D’Banj’s harmonica is a full breath of fresh air. After signing with Kanye’s label, G.O.O.D. MUSIC, in 2011, the Nigerian native will bring a slightly less hard face to American R&B. D’Banj was born into a conservative family and was expected to follow his father’s footsteps into the military, but he found himself drawn to drums rather than guns. In tribute to his deceased brother and the harmonica instruction he received from him, D’Banj continues to stick with the instrument, playing it on stage and in studio. His reggae-Afrobeat tales of chasing kokelets (beautiful women) and struggling for acceptance bring youthful humour to hip hop.
Most recent album: The Entertainer (Mo Hits Records; 2008)
Upcoming album: Mr. Endowed (G.O.O.D. Music; 2012)


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