Finding a Way Forward for Community Radio in Uganda

Kampala    In our last day of meetings, we wanted to make sure we had a way forward in Uganda, not only for potential organizing, but to begin the work with an initiative in community radio.  The more we puzzled over the paths forward, choosing first one direction, and then another, and then both, we realized that despite believing earlier that the process might be quick, in reality it could take years to achieve, certainly one to three at the least.  Even as we moved in these directions, I wanted to make sure the trip to Kampala had been worth the time and trouble for my colleagues as well as myself and our scarce resources.

            Why not start with an internet radio station?  At the least, a block of programming on, perhaps 10 to 16 hours on a weekend at the beginning to prepare for a launch of uganda acorn radio.

            Looking at the population statistics for Uganda, we could almost see this relatively small country swelling before our eyes.  The estimates showed more than forty-one million people in 2017, an over three million increase in one year, compared to the same amount over the previous five years.  Internet penetration was estimated at over 31%, although these figures are notable for their hard rock boosterism.  Under any terms with the right approaches, we would build listenership, and would do so nationally, even if our primary intentions were in Kampala and Arua in the northwestern part of the country.

            Other research we uncovered, as we met on the patio of the Kampala Kolping Hotel, examined the state of community radio in the country.  The authors argued that there was nominally a half-dozen, but in their report treated the efforts with skepticism.  Most were in rural areas of the country.  One of the larger was organized by women journalists and called MAMA.  We couldn’t find a listing on their website or the governments on the power of their broadcast, but they claimed on their website that their signal could reach thirteen million people in a huge area covering most of the southern part of the country.  Who knows?  But at least we might not be alone.

            Once I broached starting, even with this tentative first step, my colleagues responded enthusiastically.  We made lists and workplans.  We huddled over a computer, when we were able to get on the internet, and looked at equipment price lists and debated local purchase versus shipping overseas.  We talked about the languages and content of programming.  We covered any topic we could think of until the day was fading, buses and work were calling my friends, and my time was running out in Uganda.

            I even found myself crawling around behind the hotel and measuring in my mind’s eye whether an antenna on top of this Catholic NGO’s hotel might be enough with some power to reach the slums spread out all around us.

            From such small beginnings, we will see what we can make happen in the coming months and years.


The Paradox and Plight of the Uganda National Museum

diarama from Uganda National Museum of log musical instrument

            Kampala         Sunday was catchup day in Kampala.  Time to finally answer some emails left hanging, pull the pieces of Social Policy together for another issue, and generally check some boxes off on my daily “to do” list that were getting moldy from constant repetition and no action.  Before coming I had heard that a visit to Jinja, about 80 kilometers away, was a “must,” because of the town’s beautiful setting at the source of the Nile in Lake Victoria.  That was not to be, but I asked my colleagues, how about the Uganda National Museum, would it be open and worthwhile?  Yes, they replied, absolutely open, but it seemed neither had been there. 

            I stepped out onto Bombo Road at mid-afternoon to flag a motorcycle ride to the museum.  Knowing it was near the British Embassy and what is locally called the “new hospital,” gave the driver a frame of reference, and we made it alive, probably because it was a Sunday.

            No one was at the reception desk.  A woman came over from the knickknacks shop promising to take my money and get the change when someone showed up.  It seemed I had the museum to myself, though later three adults came in for a bit, as did a mother with a couple of children.

            Tile was cracking, paint peeling, and layers of dusk sometimes made it difficult to see clearly through the cases, but once I got past the minimal maintenance and pressed my nose to the glass, the ethnological content and basic science in the few main halls of the museum were excellent and consistently informative.  There were some rocks of course and the obligatory few pictures of local animals and one large comparison of apes, but these were cursory.  The main story was the where, why, and how of larger Ugandan tribes with extensive displays of fishing and hunting equipment, lodging arrangements, prehistoric sites, and more. 

I’m a big fan of dioramasin natural history museums, and I was rewarded with several on display, though they may have been fifty years old or more. Not only was there an excellent one on cave dwellers living and production areas, though it was almost impossible to see clearly, but also one featuring a way that music was made by hitting a log.

side blow trumpets

The several display cases detailing how various tribes made music were amazing.  There were huge side blow trumpets and other instruments made from gourds or bows played with teeth.  There were turtle shell tambourines and animal skin drums.  The inventiveness was constant.  As a visitor, I wanted to hear them played right now, since the displays were so compelling.

There were also several brilliant displays that featured bark cloth, which is exactly as it seems, cloth made from the bark of a tree in the ficus family.  The garments were special given the labor involved and the beauty of the final product, used more often for funerals, ceremonies, and royalty displays.

The only somewhat semi-modern displays were promotions for international oil and gas companies and hydroelectric projects.  The whole oil production process from exploration to refinery was laid out, panel after panel, as if the national museum were a higher form of a high school science fair somewhere in Louisiana or Texas where oil is king.  The companies had gotten a donation of an out-of-date gas pump from the French oil giant, Total, and facsimile trucks from the oil services giant, Halliburton, think Dick Cheney, and Baker-Hughes,now a GE-subsidiary.  Somehow the museum had been hijacked, perhaps willingly, from an old commitment to ethnography of the country to the new partnership of exploitation. 

The Uganda National Museum display area is not large.  An hour exhausted the offering fully.  I walked back out to the street looking for another motorcycle ride back to my hotel with a lot more knowledge about Uganda than when I walked in, but a sadness for this treasure’s disarray and the attempts to exploit its mission for corporate promotion, even if somewhat half-heartedly.

I live in a city that touts itself as one that “care forgot,” and this museum carried that same slogan, unwittingly, written in dust and disuse.

corporate propaganda from Halliburton

Please enjoy Summer’s End by John Prine.